Self-esteem Under The Microscope (Build & Improve)

The term brings to mind positive-thinking memes with sunset backdrops and swirly lettering. But could you sum up self-esteem when asked as part of a pub quiz? Didn’t think so. And there’s more at stake here than winning the points and Wetherspoons credit

It was August 2016, and while you were probably frolicking on an inflatable flamingo, 26 women and 14 men were lying in MRI scanners in a University College London lab. Earlier that month, researchers had used questionnaires to create Bumble-style profiles for each of the 20-something participants, including details of their worst qualities, biggest fears and greatest bugbears (those who eat Big Macs on commuter trains, that kind of thing). Now, lying on their backs, stock-still to give the machines the best chance of capturing brain activity, and peering up at a computer screen, they were to go through an experiment that makes Love Island seem as supportive as Queer Eye.

Each, in turn, would discover if 184 strangers had given them a thumbs up or thumbs down when shown their profile and asked: do you think you could be friends with this person?

The goal was a lofty one: computational neuroscientists Geert-Jan Will and Robb Rutledge were aiming to pin down, in scientific terms, a concept that has both CEOs and teenage girls in its grip. Anyone who was ever picked last in PE class, has had an existential crisis in a changing room or replayed a messed-up job interview on loop like a boomerang in their brain will know all too well the feeling the researchers were trying to replicate that day – the notion is low self-esteem, and the equation to explain what it is and how it works is a work in progress.

Often used interchangeably with terms like ‘self- worth’ and ‘self-confidence’, self-esteem feels like a riddle – what’s invisible and weightless, but gets larger the more of it you have? According to Dr. Nathaniel Branden, author of The Power Of Self-Esteem, have it and you’ll enjoy happier relationships, resilience and the self-belief to do anything, from starting a business to refusing to take on a thankless task.

Indeed, studies have confirmed that self-reported self-esteem has a direct positive correlation with emotional wellbeing. But be lacking in it – of all the countries in Dove’s most recent Global Beauty and Confidence Report, the UK ranked second last in self-esteem relating to body image – and the fallout can be profound. The key is to gain more of this empowering yet elusive thing (which is what our Project Body Love campaign is all about). Problem is, you’re probably not sure what it is.


Step forward self-esteem machine Mark Leary. A professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, he spends his time researching why high self-esteem feels so far out of reach for some. ‘More than 30,000 scholarly articles and chapters have been published on self-esteem, so we know a great deal about what low and high self-esteem relate to,’ he confirms.

‘Today, we define self-esteem as how you evaluate yourself. It’s the degree to which you view yourself positively versus negatively, and thus feel good or bad about yourself.’ It’s as simple as leaving a TripAdvisor rating – only looking inwards, rather than judging whether those prawns were really worth 20 quid.

In the mid-90s, Professor Leary began formulating a concept called the sociometer to explain why a person’s self-esteem ebbs and flows. He proposed that the degree to which you judge yourself positively is influenced by the approval of others and that it works like a petrol gauge. Instead of telling you your fuel levels, the sociometer tracks something called relational value. This is a measure of how valuable or important other people rate you as being.

It explains why it stings to be the only one of your friends not to be invited to a group dinner – these events potentially lower how others see you, which drags your self-esteem down with it. Decades later, the sociometer remains the gold standard of self-esteem explanations, backed by a small-but-growing body of neural activity studies that confirm that the brain regions associated with changes in self-esteem are those involved in reactions to social acceptance and rejection.

That’s where those 40 UCL research participants engaged in the lab-based equivalent of friendship Tinder come in. The scientists’ attempts to lower their self-esteem were successful, with the biggest dip in self-reported self-esteem Observed on the occasions when participants received a thumbs down from a person who they had previously singled out as someone who would like them.

Meanwhile, inside their ventromedial prefrontal cortex – a brain region important for valuation – brain activity was going wild. It confirms that self-esteem is shaped by how others perceive you. FYI – no one was harmed during this study; scientists both lowered and boosted participants’ self-esteem and, at the end of the experiment, they felt just as good about themselves as they did beforehand.
A similar study, published in the Journal Of Cognitive Neuroscience, found that the brain is particularly frantic when you’re waiting to find out if you’re liked or not. During this anticipatory period, researchers saw a lot of activity in the ventral striatum – a component of the brain’s reward circuitry – and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex – the area that tries to deduce what other people are thinking. The more sensitive people were to potential rejection, the greater the brain’s responses in both regions. It explains why your self-esteem might dip when you’re awaiting feedback – be it likes on an Insta post or a critique from your boss on a big piece of work.

Studies have confirmed that self-esteem has a direct positive correlation with emotional wellbeing

That’s not all that studies can tell us. We also know that self-esteem operates on two levels: a base grade called ‘trait self-esteem’ is how positively you generally feel about yourself overall, and ‘state self-esteem’ refers to how positively you feel about yourself at a particular moment (after being snubbed as part of a lab study, for example). ‘We’ve always known that self-esteem fluctuates across people (trait) and across situations (state), but these studies can help us to better understand the factors that inform a person’s base self-esteem,’ says Professor Leary. Genes play a part; for example, glass-half-full types are more likely to evaluate everything – including themselves – more positively.

But your environment is important, too. ‘Many different studies have shown us that self- esteem is affected by events that happen to you throughout life,’ adds Professor Leary. ‘Childhood experiences are particularly important.’ Those who have consistently felt validated via school achievements, rewarding jobs, and loyal friendships have higher trait self-esteem than those who have felt socially isolated. On the flipside, rejection or failure can lower both your state self-esteem temporarily and your trait self-esteem in the long run, especially if you experience a series of setbacks. Fluctuating levels have also been linked with lower trait self-esteem overall, as well as symptoms of common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

It seems the science of self- esteem can help explain why it’s elusive for some, while others have the equivalent of a bulletproof bodysuit, but not how you go from the former to the latter. It’s talking – both the ‘self ’ and ‘social’ kind.

‘All words are associated with feelings you automatically know whether flowers, puppies, and war are good or bad, explains Kristen Lindquist. An associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, she researches the brain activity behind emotions and explains that just thinking of a word is enough to activate the feelings you associate with it; say the word ‘flower’ and your brain will dive into your neurological data, replaying all the sensory, motor and emotional sensations that have occurred when processing that word in the past. Take a word pertaining to the self (stupid, fat, ugly; as well as intelligent, slim, pretty) and your brain does an even deeper dive – and the same effect occurs, whether it’s self-talk or real-talk. As for how much a negative word stings? That comes down to something called your ‘self-concept’.

‘As a professor, if someone criticises my intellect, it will sting,’ says Professor Lindquist. ‘Whereas if someone told me I’m terrible at basketball, it wouldn’t hurt so much, because I don’t consider being good at basketball central to who I am.’ It means your – and others’– ability to influence your self- esteem depends on the qualities you value in yourself.

And while your basketball skills might rank low on your list of personal priorities, we suspect that other qualities, like how well you do your job, how much your friends like you and those relating to your appearance, rank higher. The latter is the subject of Fat Talk: A Feminist Perspective by clinical psychologist Denise Martz. While researching her book, she found that women are more likely than men to initiate appearance-based exchanges (‘I’m having such a fat day’) as a way of bonding. ‘This seems innocent and harmless,’ she says. ‘But scientific literature suggests that repeated self-criticism is associated with poor body image, lower self-esteem, and disordered eating.’ If it sounds a bit too familiar, know that you can learn to speak self-esteem – and, unlike learning French, it has nothing to do with conjugating verbs.
To start with, switch your motivation from aesthetics and on to performance-based goals. In fitness, that means setting targets that focus on strength or flexibility. Then make a habit of telling yourself what you can do: use the present tense (I am, I can, I make) and lots of positive vocabulary (strong, powerful, hitting my personal best). Your goal is to be able to look in a mirror and, instead of critiquing a certain body part, focus on a feature and pay yourself a compliment about it. ‘This isn’t a quick fix,’ warns Dr Martz. ‘But becoming more aware of the kind of language you use

to talk about yourself and your goals is a really useful way of discovering what you value about yourself, so you can begin to prioritise other things.’

Repeated self-criticism is associated with poor body image and lower self-esteem

As for telling your neggy neurological Nora to do one, Professor Leary has some advice that you probably never thought you’d hear from someone with a PhD: be self-compassionate. Those who are, he explains, are less likely to take their shortcomings personally.

‘They don’t tend to add another layer of self-criticism when they’re faced with a problem – so the problem is just about the problem, and not about them, too,’ he explains. ‘Although self-esteem [how you evaluate yourself ] is different from self-compassion [how you treat yourself ], people who are more self- compassionate are less likely to talk to themselves in ways that lower their self- esteem.

It means that changing the way you talk to yourself really can change the way you feel about yourself.’ The really good news about self-esteem? You probably already have more of it than you think. ‘When asked in what percentile they would fall on almost any dimension – friendliness, morality, driving ability, whatever – the average person overestimates their position,’ explains Professor Leary. It means that even if your self- esteem in relation to your appearance is low, your trait self-esteem – the confidence you have in your abilities and personality traits – is probably higher.

Team self-compassion with a focus on what you know makes you feel valued by others – loyalty, a taste for dirty jokes, an insatiable appetite for dessert – and you can strengthen your self-esteem just as you can strengthen your triceps. Grasp the science of self-esteem and next time a research team comes knocking, it’ll take more than a thumbs down to dent yours.

Bonus: How to raise your E-Game


Become aware of how certain words make you feel. Notice the difference between saying ‘I’m brilliant’ and ‘I’m disgusting’, for example. Make a pact with yourself to cut out the snarky, appearance- based vocabulary that drags you down.


Treat your life like the red carpet and phase out the ‘what are you wearing?’ chat. Compliment someone on their actions rather than their looks and you’ll shift self-esteem beyond something rooted in image.


Every time you have a positive thought about yourself, imagine cranking up the volume as if there were a loudspeaker in your neurons. Every time you have a negative thought, visualise a big cerebral delete button that erases it.


Basically, a funny, ballsy inner life coach who will look for the gift in bad situations. ‘I really effed up’ becomes, ‘Okay, that didn’t go well, but I’ve learned and will do better.’ Sadly, we can’t promise a John Legend lyrical pick-me-up.

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