Do you think you have an inflated sense of self?
Do you have positive illusions about the way you compare with others, make decisions, control your circumstances?
While this enhanced self-perception may not, particularly in the extreme, cause you to win friends and influence people – it may actually serve you well in buffering stress and coping with adversity.
A recent study by Gupta and Bonanno gathered longitudinal data to examine the relationship between self-enhancement and adjustment of college students to potentially traumatic events over their four years. It is the only study to date using on-going reactions instead of post trauma retrospective reports.
- The researchers used Paulhus’ “Self-Deceptive Enhancement Scale” to measure self-enhancement. As such, the issue of whether biased perceptions of self could promote mental health coping was put in the forefront because this scale measured unrealistic or overly positive self-perceptions in 20 self-descriptive statements like, I am very confident in my judgments,” “I always know why I like things,” “My first impressions of people usually turn out to be right.”
- The 101 student participants completed the “Self-Deceptive Enhancement Scale” as well as other self-report measures of distress and social desirability a month after they began college and four years later.
- Every week over the course of the four years, with the exception of a retrospective view of the summer, participants filled in an on-line questionnaire to report if they had experienced a potentially traumatic event (i.e. death of someone close, divorce of parents, serious illness etc.) and if so, the degree of distress it caused from 0 to 4.
The findings are interesting and significant.
- Most student participants experienced a mean of 4.4 potentially traumatic events over the course of the four years.
- For those students with low self-enhancement scores, the increase from low to high potentially traumatic events resulted in a significant positive increase in fourth-year distress.
- For those students who scored high on self-enhancement scores, there was no significant increase in distress in the fourth year, even when they also experienced an increase from low to high potentially traumatic events – and even in face of the events they reported to be most stressful – suicide, serious injury or illness.
- The evidence demonstrates that self-enhancement serves as a buffer against the harmful impact and distress of trauma.
Why Does A Self-Enhanced View of Self Serve As A Buffer In The Face Of Traumatic Events?
As the researchers suggest, when someone has experienced highly aversive and threatening events, their sense of self, judgment, mastery and control has been assaulted. As Boulanger suggests, they have been “ wounded by reality.” Coping and recovery necessitate dealing with a sense of helplessness to recover a more positive view of self.
It would seem that a positive, self-enhanced view of self, while biased and not strictly defined by reality, may make it easier to re-frame, re-define and re-instate a self who can manage and cope despite obstacles or changes in life’s parameters.
The Power of Positive Thinking and Illusions After Trauma
- On a personal note, what this study offers us is further validation of the power of the positive in healing in the aftermath of trauma. It underscores the merit of believing in ourselves to make possible what seems impossible to bear.
- The Taylor Brown Positive Illusions Formulation – This is a workable formulation for applying a positive perspective to life’s uncharted paths. Taylor and Brown propose and find in their research that when not reflecting a maladaptive extreme- Positive Illusions About Self, Illusions of Control and Unrealistic Optimism are associated with mental health and coping in the face of trauma and aversive events.
Positive Illusions: Most of us have them. For example, studies show that most people rate themselves “better than average” in driving, leadership, and athletic abilities, teaching ability etc. Such illusions carry with them a sense of psychological well-being. They help us find a way not to sweat the small stuff and to find a way to manage the big stuff.
It is to the advantage of the accident patient to feel “I am healing better than most.” “I will be back to driving quicker than the doctor expected.” “I am a smart patient – I understand what I have to do.”
Illusions of Control: Most people believe that they can control more than they actually can in life. What is important and relevant to improved coping is that people do switch their control related beliefs as life and the unexpected intrude. For example, the cancer patient switches from survival or complete cure to control of symptoms and life tasks.
It the belief that you can still make a difference – still exert control that is positive and health promoting. Whether it is to re-define a way to work or to plan to race with a prosthesis – in new domains control continues and is associated with good adjustment.
Unrealistic Optimism: Perhaps what makes optimism such a gift is that it is not grounded in reality. Studies suggest that most people anticipate that their future will be brighter than can be reasonably justified statistically. That’s the importance of optimism – it is about hope and possibilities.
Traumatologist and Advocate for International Victim’s Rights, Yael Daneli described that when she worked with survivors in Rwanda, the adults could not look past the reality of death and destruction to hope but when she told the children that no one could take away their dreams – they got it – they had hope.
Think Big, Feel Big, Dream Big, Live with Hope.
Woman and her reflection photo available from Shutterstock.