Our Brains & Self-Esteem

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 You make your brain, and then your brain makes you!

When people think about brain health, they usually think of cognitive or thinking skills such as memory, ability to pay attention and ability to learn. However, brain health includes mental health, involving stress, anxiety and depression. It is also mood health — happiness, confidence and self-esteem.

From a brain and brain health perspective, our brains are physically changing as a result of every experience, every conversation, every movement, and every time we learn something new. The brain is a dynamic, constantly changing organ, and even the thoughts we think can change our brains. Since we can control our thoughts, we can rewire our own brains. This rewiring of the brain is called neuroplasticity.

The fact that our brain is constantly rewiring itself can be used to our advantage. Donald Hebb, a Canadian brain researcher, came up with the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” This means we can set up patterns of thought that become habitual and automatic patterns of thinking. These habitual patterns of thought will then become our way of thinking for the future. We can become aware of these habitual thought patterns and consciously change them to serve us better.

The conscious manipulation of these habitual thought patterns is termed self-directed neuroplasticity. This process is particularly applicable to the area of self-esteem. Three steps are involved in changing our habitual thought patterns and thus improving our self-esteem.

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The first step is to simply be aware. We already have automatic patterns of thought and before we can consciously change anything, we must first be aware of what we are thinking and what we are saying to ourselves. Often, what we tell ourselves is self-deprecating and demeaning.

Once we are aware of what we say to ourselves, the next step is to consciously think thoughts that will be beneficial, especially in the area of self-esteem. Purposely choosing thoughts to build up our self-esteem include reminding ourselves of what we presently already do well, remembering times when someone has paid us a compliment and finally, catching ourselves doing something right. Examples include: “I did a good job of making that pie,” or “I really am a good mechanic” or “I am a good mom or dad (grandma or grandpa) to my kids.”

The third aspect to building our self-esteem using Self-Directed Neuroplasticity is to reinforce the positive thoughts. Consciously repeating that thought in our minds strengthens that particular brain path. When we let the positive thoughts linger, we are actually reinforcing those beneficial mental patterns. When we go over and over a certain habit of thought, we are making the path stronger and will more likely be the thought path taken in the future.

Initially, this may seem to be hard mental work, but it will become easier over time. Like training for a marathon, it takes time, patience, repetition and consistent training. This training and the resulting increase in self-esteem is well worth the work. Train hard and be consistent mentally.

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There are three other influences that can affect self-esteem. Firstly, it is not so much what happens to us that matters; it is what we tell ourselves about what happens that makes all the difference. When events happen or someone says something to us or about us, we can take a moment to decide what that experience will mean to us. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

This quote leads to the next influence, which is that people are social animals. We do better in a community and in relationship with each other. When it comes to self-esteem, we are wise to purposely choose to associate with positive people and those who are going to build us up and support us. We become like the people we are with, and we want our neuroplasticity to become more and more positive to reflect an optimistic outlook and positive attitude.

The final influence on the brain is physical exercise. We know that physical exercise releases “feel good chemicals” and increases our endorphins. This makes us feel happier and reduces anxiety and depression. In fact, research has shown there is no anti-depressive medication as good for our brains as physical exercise! Exercise also makes us feel more self-confident and gives us the “I can do this!” motivation and attitude.

We all have varying levels of self-esteem which can vary depending on our situation and circumstance. When we become aware of our thoughts and deliberately choose thoughts that empower us, when we carefully choose the people we associate with, and when we exercise, much of our self-esteem is under our own control. And that is exciting!