Self-Affirmation Breaks the Cycle of Social Insecurity

“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if they are a little course, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled up in the dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is not uncommon to feel a bit of mild anxiety in social situations.  The trouble arises when that anxiety becomes debilitating or prevents you from having the socially supportive network that you desire.  Sometimes, our own fears of someone not liking us can result in the very thing that we dread coming true… a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Many of us have experienced a situation where we unwittingly get ensnared into the following cycle of social insecurity:

  • Jack likes Jill
  • Jack fears Jill does not like him
  • Jack expects to be disliked by Jill
  • Jack responds to this expectation by behaving coldly toward Jill
  • Jill believes Jack dislikes her
  • Jill behaves coldly in response to Jack
  • Jack’s fear is confirmed

A new study done by Stinson and colleagues at the University of Waterloo has found that engaging in a task called self-affirmation “seems to provide a psychological buffer for insecure people, allowing them to put aside social fears and anxieties and behave in more warm and inviting ways.”  This self-affirmation task involves contemplating personal values that are central to one’s identity.  Anthony found that the positive social effects of this self-affirmation task last as long as two months.

In Stinson’s experiment, 117 participants filled out questionnaires related to their feelings of “relational security” with friends, family and romantic partners.  An example of a statement that participants would rate is: “I have the kinds of qualities that many people desire in a romantic partner.”

The experimental group went on to rank 11 values (e.g., intellect and creativity) in order of personal importance.  Next, they wrote a self-affirmation essay in which they discussed their top-ranked value… why it was important to them, how it influenced their lives, and why it was central to their identity.  The control group wrote about their ninth ranked value and why it was important to someone else.

After participating in the experiment, participants from both groups went about their usual lives, returning to the lab for follow-up sessions two times in the next two months.  When they returned to the lab, they once again reported on their relational security. They also socially interacted with the experimenter, who rated their social tension (evidenced by agitation, appreciativeness, and anxiety).

Researchers found that the participants who were initially insecure and had completed the self-affirmation task grew more secure over those two months and behaved in significantly more positive and relaxed ways with the experimenter.  Stinson explains the long-lasting effects of the self-affirmation task: “You do this self-affirmation task, and then you walk out the door and smile at a stranger and the stranger smiles back.  It’s a recursive process: I feel better, I behave better, I notice others behave better toward me, I feel better.”

Self-Affirmation Task

By choosing to actively engage in self-affirmation tasks on your own you can expect to grow more secure over time in your own social interactions with others.

  • Try writing down your most deeply held values.
  • Reflect upon what it is about that value that is central to your identity.
  • How has this value influenced and affected your life?
  • Why is this value so important to you?
  • In what ways have you chosen to live your life according to this important value?
  • In what ways do important others in your life notice and appreciate your commitment to this value?

Self-affirmation enables you to feel more at ease with yourself and others, which can result in creating a very different type of self-fulfilling prophecy.  This task encourages you to feel more secure with yourself and others through reminding yourself of your positive qualities and commitment to your values.  Imagine how your social interactions will be different if you go into new social situations expecting something positive rather than something negative.  How will other people perceive you differently if you choose to engage with them in a friendly and warm manner?  Try something different and notice the results.

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Association for Psychological Science (2011, August 15). Psychologists interrupt the miserable cycle of social insecurity.ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 24, 2011, from­/releases/2011/08/110815162348.htm

Featured image: Shy little girl by tibchris / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Ross on August 27, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Your Jack and Jill example is very eye-opening! Thank you.

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