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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.”

What starts to happen, Vilhauer has found, is that eventually the brain won’t automatically cling to negative thoughts. People with low self esteem may receive many compliments in a day, but one criticism will be the thing they focus on and believe. With this exercise, because people are attuned to the positive things about themselves, they’ll be more able to accept the compliments. Ultimately, if taken seriously, it can rewire the brain for greater self worth, she said.

Other similar cognitive therapy exercises may ask people to keep tab of the good things about their day to retrain their brains, but what makes this different is that it forces people to be self focused and recognize the good in themselves.

Christine Medina, a strategic life coach in Los Angeles, read about Vilhauer’s exercise in Psychology Today last year and decided to try it. She filmed herself talking about it every day, and posted her “30 Days to Self Love” progress on YouTube. This week, she wrote about her experience for Vilhauer’s Psychology Today author page.

“It can be difficult to think of three brand new things you love about yourself, but doing that exercise got me into a positive mind-set,” Medina said in an interview. “Having a list of what you love about yourself every morning definitely gave me energy.”

While doing the challenge she also faced two major life stressors — a move she didn’t want to make and bad health-related news.

“It forced me to be positive at a time I didn’t want to be. I wanted to throw myself a pity party, but it didn’t let me,” she said.

She described it as very challenging, but said it did reframe her inner dialogue.

She urged me to try it.

With Spring around the corner, a season symbolic with new awakenings, it seems as good a time as ever to take the challenge.  So, I am going to start tonight and I’m inviting everyone to join me. (Who couldn’t benefit from a little self-love?)

If you’d like to join, email me at colby.itkowitz@washpost.com with the subject line: self love. After 30 days we can compare how it went and I’ll share our results here.