Last updated on 2nd September 2008
In yesterday's post I discussed interesting research (Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007) on boosting self-esteem by helping people allow appreciation in rather than dismissing it. In these studies, the typical experimental instructions were: "Think of a time when your partner told you how much he/she liked something about you. For example a personal quality or ability you have that he/she thinks very highly of, or something you did that really impressed him/her." In the concrete condition, participants were then asked to "Describe exactly what your partner said to you. Include any details you can recall about where you two were at the time, what you were doing, what you were wearing, etc". In the abstract condition, participants were asked to "Explain why your partner admired you. Describe what it meant to you and its significance for your relationship."
Participants were then asked a series of questions about the compliment and how happy they felt recalling it, and also how they felt about relationship and about themselves. Two weeks later the participants were recontacted, reminded of the compliment, and asked to "Briefly describe the event as you recall it now." They were also asked four questions at this two week follow-up about how happy, secure, valuable, and proud the compliment now made them feel. The findings were very encouraging. Getting LSE's to describe compliments in abstract, general ways led them to feel happier about the compliment, boosted their state self-esteem, and led them to both feel more secure in and more valuing of their romantic relationship. These findings held for all three experiments the research group performed. In general, considering compliments in this abstract way seemed to help LSE's feel that the compliments had implications for themselves and their relationships in a more ongoing, persisting sense - rather than just being some kind of once-off episode.
There's good reason to expect that these findings apply not just to LSE's romantic relationships, but also to other areas of their lives as well - for example, relationships with family and friends, work, study, recreation, and so on. So this research has implications for anyone who has low self-esteem themselves, or who cares about someone else with low self-esteem. To check, try completing the Rosenberg Self-Esteem scale (see below). If a lower score on the Rosenberg scale suggests it would be sensible - or simply if you're interested to try it - think back over the last week or two (or further back than that if you want). Pick a time when somebody compli-mented or appreciated you for a personal quality or ability you have that they thought highly of, or something you did that impressed them. Remember we are extending the exercise to any area of your life that you want to feel better and more confident about, Now describe - on paper or speaking out loud to someone else (not just thinking it in your head) - why the other person admired or appreciated you, what this meant to you, and its significance for your relationship with the other person and for the future. If this exercise seems useful, it would make sense to repeat it every week or two to try to train a more positive, high self-esteem way of looking at things. For further suggestions see the handout "Nourishing self-esteem" and the associated "Allowing compliments in".
Marigold, D. C., J. G. Holmes, et al. (2007). "More than words: reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals." J Pers Soc Psychol 92(2): 232-48. [PubMed]
Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale - rated on a 9 point scale (from 1, strongly disagree, to 9, strongly agree). To download a copy of this questionnaire, click here