Live with someone long enough, and you get a pretty good sense of what kind of person they are. What kind of movies they like. Whether or not they take out the trash. How respectful they are of your stuff in the fridge.

We live with ourselves for our entire lives, so sooner or later, we come to form a pretty clear idea about the kind of person we are too. How introverted/extroverted we are, what we’re good or bad at, and other important things like what kind of jeans we look best in.

Psychologists call this a self-concept, and though our sense of self is somewhat fluid1, we are motivated to confirm our sense of self, whether it’s negative or positive. As such, the events of our life tend to get interpreted through the filter of our self-image.

Have you ever known someone who was super talented, bright, capable, or otherwise awesome, but consistently underachieved because of their inner Eeyore ? Where no matter how many successes they had, they just couldn’t see or believe what others saw in them? Where they couldn’t accept those successes, and paradoxically, may have experienced even more self-doubt after successful experiences?

Maybe you are that person?

What makes it so difficult to accept our successes at face value, while we seem to have no trouble at all taking in and dwelling on all our faults, shortcomings, mistakes, and other signs that we are a total failure?

When success doesn’t sink in

Self-esteem is a tricky thing, and we’re probably all a little guilty of emphasizing it a bit too much over the last few decades2 3, but being too dismissive of our successes and achievements isn’t helping anybody either.

The problem, when we adopt a negative – and inaccurate – self-concept of ourselves, is that we tend to get stuck there. Partly because when an individual with a negative self-image has a successful experience, they respond to it very differently than someone with a more positive self-image. Specifically, they have difficulty taking in the success and using that new data to revise their self-image upwards. Instead, they tend to reject the feedback, chalking it up to a fluke, or people just being nice, and so on.

So our self-concept stays skewed in the negative direction. And when we believe that we’re not good at something (even when the truth is that we do have the requisite ability), we’re likely to experience more anxiety, and make attempts to avoid the thing we think we’re bad at (which gives us fewer opportunities to practice and get better at it, which means we stay bad and create a self-fulfilling prophecy).

We might also engage in self-handicapping (like not really studying diligently for a test because we think we’re not going to do well anyway – another self-fulfilling cycle). We are likely to give up sooner too when we face the inevitable speed bump.

So at the end of the day, our negative self-concept gets in the way of us becoming who we really are. Of doing more public speaking. Or running a marathon. Or starting an ice cream cronut4 sandwich business. Or taking on more performance opportunities and going into them with more confidence.

Generalizing from success is important

Meanwhile, folks with a more positive self-concept are better able to take in their success, leading to more positive expectations for successful performances in the future, and often, more actual successful performances in the future, whether it’s grades in school5 or athletics6.

So if we are the kind of person who sees only our shortcomings, and struggles to accept successes and build trust and faith in our abilities, what are we to do? How can we get better at seeing the potential that everyone else seems to see in us?

Words do matter

A trio of researchers at The Ohio State University7 conducted a series of experiments to test a technique designed to help people with negative self-concepts more effectively accept and benefit from success experiences.

Borrowing from research in the area of “linguistic framing”, they theorized that by tweaking the language we use in processing our successes, we can make a difference in whether the experience ends up helping us or not.

Because despite what your kindergarten teacher said about sticks and stones vs. words, language does matter. Saying “I cracked a note”, for instance, impacts us very differently than saying “I’m a terrible horn player.”

The full paper is worth a read, but essentially what they did, was (1) have each participant experience some success on a performance task, (2) complete either the experimental technique or a control task, and (3) see what sort of impact this had on their expectations of future success.

The experimental technique was called “directed abstraction,” and looked something like this:

“Explain WHY you were able to achieve such a successful performance. Begin by completing the sentence stem below. ‘I was able to achieve a successful performance because I am…’”

The control group on the other hand, responded to a slightly different prompt:

“Describe HOW you performed as you did in this situation. What did you do?”

It’s subtle at first glance, but the two are quite different, no? The first implies a successful performance, presupposes that this had something to do with who they are, and requires a more abstract, generalized answer. The second, does not imply success, nor does it prompt them to link task success with their identity, and asks for a more concrete answer.

The effect of directed abstraction

The experiments confirmed that following a successful performance, individuals who see themselves negatively do indeed have more difficulty accepting success and generalizing this to the future.

However, the directed abstraction exercise changed things. Apparently, thinking through their experience in this way led the negative folks to be more optimistic about future performances (unlike their fellow Eeyores in the control group who did not experience any change in their sense of competence).

And even more intriguingly, this technique also contributed to greater persistence in the face of difficult challenges – an important ingredient in experiencing more successes in the future.

Take action

Directed abstraction looks like a promising technique, but a word of caution, especially if you are doing this with a student!

The effectiveness of the exercise depends on whether your student genuinely thinks their performance was successful or not. No performance is a total success or failure, but if they are totally convinced that they’ve just laid an egg, this is not going to work. If anything, it could be counterproductive.

Likewise, if they think they’ve had a successful performance, but in fact, it was a complete disaster. After all, there’s no benefit in creating an inflated sense of self that has no basis in reality.

Quiz time!

Want to take the self-competence assessment used in the study? The researcher only used 8 of the questions here, so it won’t be exactly the same, but it’ll give you an idea. Besides, who doesn’t like self-quizzes?

Self-Competence Scale-Revised

Footnotes

  1. For instance, I used to consider myself a pretty diehard PC guy, but am now most decidedly a Mac convert
  2. You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?
  3. Could Your Child Have Too Much Self-Esteem?
  4. What’s a cronut?
  5. The structure of academic self-concept: The Marsh/Shavelson model
  6. Self-belief does make a difference: a reciprocal effects model of the causal ordering of physical self-concept and gymnastics performance
  7. Which also has a pretty insane marching band