Screw-ups happen. Fortunately, a simple strategy called
self-affirmation may help you own up to blunders instead of becoming defensive
about them. And researchers say that may help you learn from your mistakes.
“I Messed Up, but
I’ve Got a Great Personality”
Self-affirmation boils down to reminding yourself what a great
person you are and how successful you’ve been in other situations. For example,
if you lose a sale at work, you might remind yourself that you’re well-liked by
customers, a peacekeeper in the office, and a thoughtful spouse at home. Recent
studies suggest that self-affirmation can help you accept hard truths about
yourself without losing faith in your overall goodness and competence.
Of course, many people go the opposite way, getting
defensive about flubs and flaws. They deny their mistakes, dismiss the harm
they’ve done, or disparage their critics (even the constructive ones). For a
while, this defensiveness may protect people’s sense of self-worth. But in the
long run, it gets in the way of growing from experience. Before improving your
sales pitch, for example, you need to acknowledge that it’s weak.
study in Psychological Science
bears out this benefit of self-affirmation. Volunteers were first asked to rank
six values in order of importance to them. Then half spent five minutes writing
about why their top value matters—a task designed to boost self-affirmation. The
other half spent the time writing about why that value doesn’t actually
matter—a task designed to undermine their sense of self-worth.
Afterward, all the volunteers moved on to another activity—one
that gave them ample opportunity to screw up. Volunteers were asked to press a
button when the letter M appear on a screen, but refrain from pressing it when
the letter W popped up. To make it more nerve-wracking, whenever they made an
error, the message “Wrong!” flashed on the screen.
All the while, the volunteers were hooked up to an EEG
monitor, which measured their brain activity. These measurements showed that
the self-affirmed group reacted more strongly to their mistakes—a sign that
they were quicker to notice errors. But they also made fewer mistakes overall—a
sign that they not only noticed errors, but also learned from them.
How to Do
In everyday life, writing for several minutes isn’t always
practical. So in another study, researchers led by
Christopher Armitage, PhD, at the University of Sheffield in England tested a quicker,
easier method of using self-affirmation.
Study participants made a promise to themselves that started:
“If I feel threatened or anxious, then I will…” They finished the sentence with
the option of their choice:
“…think about the things I value about myself.”
“…remember things that I have succeeded in.”
“…think about what I stand for.”
“…think about things that are important to me.”
Making this pledge to themselves and following through on it
seemed to work for those in the study—and it may work for you as well.
Reminding yourself what makes you so wonderful is soothing salve for a bruised