A Neuroscience Based Technique to Boost Self-Esteem—that Works! | by Dr. Irena O'Brien

Confident Client with Laptop

One thing that clients often need help with when they come for coaching is boosting their self-esteem.

A common way to try to achieve this is by repeating positive affirmations such as, "I am resilient and can get through anything."

But this common technique could make things worse...

If you're asking your clients to repeat positive affirmations as a way to increase self-esteem, you could unintentionally be doing them a disservice.

That's because affirmations don't work for the people they were designed for—people who, like many of us, need help with their self-esteem.

So if telling yourself that you're lovable, successful, or whatever it is you want to be hasn't worked, it's not your fault.

Positive affirmations can actually lower self-esteem

Positive affirmations can actually make you feel worse. And it can be a double whammy: not only does it not work, but you beat yourself up over the fact that it doesn't work for you when you believe it works for everyone else.

The thing is, positive affirmations will never help if your brain doesn't believe it.

But there is a way you can get affirmations to work: it's called the directed abstraction technique.

This technique involves using a specific personal success to support a more positive, general—"abstract"—view of yourself.

The directed abstraction technique builds self-esteem quickly

In the directed abstraction technique you complete the following statement: "This went well today, because I am _____."

It works because the first part of the statement is proof for the second part. So this time your brain will believe it.

For example:

  • "My talk went well today because I'm a good speaker." You don't think of yourself as a good speaker, but your talk went well so now you have proof that you are. And your brain accepts it.
  • "The coaching session went well today because I'm a skilled coach." Your coaching session went well, so you have proof that you're a skilled coach. And your brain accepts it.
  • "My stressed-out client was able to relax today because I'm calm and objective." Your client relaxed, so you have proof that your calm and objective approach de-stresses your clients.

This technique starts building self-esteem quickly.

Here's a specific example from one of my clients:

This client, let's call her Susan, was highly accomplished but didn't see herself that way. Her self-esteem was through the floor.

So I had Susan use the directed abstraction technique at the end of each day. She chose 3 things that had gone well that day and, for each one, she completed the directed abstraction statement:

  • "This went well today because I am _____."

Susan had never thought of herself as accomplished, but after just a few days, she was amazed by how accomplished she really was! She also loved doing the task and her self-esteem quickly started to climb.

One word of caution about this technique:

It's important that we complete the "I am" part of the statement as something that we are (our qualities) rather than something we can do. This is because we want to change how we think about who we are.

How to use the directed abstraction technique with your clients

  1. Ask your client to sit down at the end of each day and choose 3 things that went well that day.
  2. Tell them to choose the best three things, even if they initially think they weren't involved in something going well—because they were.
  3. Then for each thing they choose, ask them to complete the directed abstraction statement:
    • "This went well today because I am_____"

Here are a couple more examples:

  • "My kids didn't fight today because I'm a good mother."
  • "My team met the deadline because I'm a good leader."

Ask your clients to do this for as long as it takes to boost their self-esteem—they should feel a difference within a few days.

But it's such a simple, practical exercise they can even do it indefinitely to keep their self-esteem up!

Why not try it on yourself too?

If you liked this article from Dr. Irena about building confidence, you may also like:


  • Wood JV, Elaine Perunovic WQ, Lee JW. Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science. 2009;20(7):860-866.
  • Zunick PV, Fazio RH, Vasey MW. Directed abstraction: Encouraging broad, personal generalizations following a success experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2015;109(1):1-19.
Dr. Irena O'Brien

Contributing Author:

Dr. Irena O'Brien, PhD, is a neuroscientist and neuroscience educator. She has been studying neuroscience and psychology for over 20 years following a successful career as a chartered accountant. She is passionate about neuroscience and sharing it with others. She reads and writes about the latest research in neuroscience and psychology in a way that is designed to offer us practical tools and strategies to better our own lives and the lives of our clients. 

She founded The Neuroscience School in 2017. Her mission is to create self-awareness on the planet and she does that by teaching coaches and helping professionals learn about neuroscience and how they can apply what they learn to help their clients. She is known for her ability to simplify neuroscience research into what's essential and practical for coaches to use in their work with clients. Her neuroscience program for coaches is currently certified by the ICF for continuing coach education units. You can find her at neuroscienceschool.com.

Learn more about Irena & see all their articles here >>

Image of Confident Client with Laptop by krakenimages via Kraken Images


  1. Wendy Smith

    Hi there, I'd love to share the directed abstraction technique on instagram and credit Dr Irena - how do I do that? I can't find a way of contacting her on her website? Thanks Wendy


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