Jennice Vilhauer, a therapist in Atlanta, says her patients over 15 years share one commonality: They struggle with low self-esteem.
Regardless of what life situation brought them to her, it’s at the core of every problem. They fixate on what they perceive as their unfavorable traits and the false narrative seeps into every aspect of their lives. It’s an actual bias in their brains that bypasses the positive and highlights the negative.
“Once you train your bias, it becomes more of an automatic process,” Vilhauer said. “When you constantly think about what you don’t like about yourself that becomes most active in your brain and is the most accessible.”
Much has been written about how persistent negative thinking carves itself a pathway in the brain, like a well-tread hiking trail. But research has also shown that it can it be paved over, redirecting thoughts down a friendlier path.
Vilhauer, who is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Program at the Emory Clinic, has given her patients a small homework assignment for years that she says has successfully improved their self esteem. She claims this one exercise, when completed every night for one month, can actually retrain the brain to focus on personal positive attributes.
This is what she asks them to do:
- Keep a pad of paper next to your bed and every night before you go to sleep, write down three things you liked about yourself that day.
- In the morning, read the list before you get out of bed.
- Keep adding 3 new things to your list every day to keep the list growing.
- Do this every day for 30 days.
The science behind the exercise is that over time people will begin seeking out good things about themselves throughout the day. After the first couple of days of doing the exercise they’ll run out of broad superlatives like, “I’m nice” or “I’m generous,” and have to identify more specific positive attributes like, “I cooked my family a great dinner” or “I listened to a friend in need.”