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When Needs Come Into Conflict

When Anger Hurts Those You Love

A Brief Primer On the Biology of Stress and How CBT Can Help

50 Tools for Panic and Anxiety

Coping With Change: Psychological Flexibility

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Ending a Bad Relationship

I'm Depressed. I'm Overwhelmed. Where Do I Start?

Struggling to Forgive: An Inability to Grieve

Co-Dependency: An Issue of Control

The Pillars of the Self-Concept: Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy



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PsychNotes

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical and Sport Psychologist
Index

Previous

August 7, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 9. Make eye contact and smile.

Many people with low self-esteem try not to make eye contact and smile at others they pass in the hall at work or at the grocery store or out for a walk. One of the reasons people avoid eye contact is fear of rejection. Making eye contact, and especially smiling, feels vulnerable because the other person can respond with negative non-verbals or ignore you. For people with low self-esteem such a reaction can feel like rejection.

However, similar to the previous step of holding your head up, making eye contact is a critical part of human interaction. It expresses self-confidence and interest in others. It allows other people to connect with you and to approach you. Certainly, sometimes we avoid eye contact deliberately so as not to be approached by strangers. But it is not beneficial to always avoid eye contact and ignore others especially those you see on a regular basis such as at work or school or in the neighborhood.

Even though it may feel emotionally safer to avoid eye contact, you will have more acceptance and positive responses from others when you make eye contact and smile. Such responses will lead to a more positive cycle and help you feel more confident and better about yourself.

However, it is possible that someone might ignore you or respond negatively so you also need to reframe in your mind the meaning of their reaction. For instance, you can refrain from personalizing others' reactions to you by recognizing that most of the time other people's reactions are not about you. Especially if all you are doing is smiling at them! If they ignore you it could be due to not noticing you because they are caught up in their own thoughts or they are paying attention to something else or a number of other reasons. If they respond in some negative way it could be because they are having a bad day or some other reason that has nothing to do with you. Therefore, do not take it personally.

Make eye contact with others and smile even if it doesn't feel natural for you. Eventually it will become more comfortable. And you will learn that much of the time you will get a smile in return.

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



August 5, 2015

New Audio! Autogenic Relaxation Training

This audio teaches autogenic relaxation which is a focus on the pleasant sensations of warmth and heaviness coming into your body. Practicing this method will help you become more skilled at being aware of your body, where you feel tension, and replacing the tension with pleasant warmth and soothing heaviness. About 9 minutes.

When doing any mindful or relaxation exercise, it is important to very gently bring your focus back to your experience if distracting thoughts occur. Do not try to get rid of the thoughts because that interferes with the relaxation process. Instead, just gently refocus back to the exercise.

Once you have learned this technique, you can use it to help whenever you feel stressed. You won't need to listen to the entire audio but will be able to focus on the sensations of your body, being aware of the tension, and releasing the tension by replacing with the relaxing sensations of warmth and heaviness.

TAP HERE FOR AUDIO



August 4, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 9. Make eye contact and smile.

Many people with low self-esteem try not to make eye contact and smile at others they pass in the hall at work or at the grocery store or out for a walk. One of the reasons people avoid eye contact is fear of rejection. Making eye contact, and especially smiling, feels vulnerable because the other person can respond with negative non-verbals or ignore you. For people with low self-esteem such a reaction can feel like rejection.

However, similar to the previous step of holding your head up, making eye contact is a critical part of human interaction. It expresses self-confidence and interest in others. It allows other people to connect with you and to approach you. Certainly, sometimes we avoid eye contact deliberately so as not to be approached by strangers. But it is not beneficial to always avoid eye contact and ignore others especially those you see on a regular basis such as at work or school or in the neighborhood.

Even though it may feel emotionally safer to avoid eye contact, you will have more acceptance and positive responses from others when you make eye contact and smile. Such responses will lead to a more positive cycle and help you feel more confident and better about yourself.

However, it is possible that someone might ignore you or respond negatively so you also need to reframe in your mind the meaning of their reaction. For instance, you can refrain from personalizing others' reactions to you by recognizing that most of the time other people's reactions are not about you. Especially if all you are doing is smiling at them! If they ignore you it could be due to not noticing you because they are caught up in their own thoughts or they are paying attention to something else or a number of other reasons. If they respond in some negative way it could be because they are having a bad day or some other reason that has nothing to do with you. Therefore, do not take it personally.

Make eye contact with others and smile even if it doesn't feel natural for you. Eventually it will become more comfortable. And you will learn that much of the time you will get a smile in return.

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



July 31, 2015

New Audio! Rainbow Sandbox Mindfulness

sand castle This relaxation for children (and the young at heart) describes experiencing a gigantic colorful sandbox. It teaches children to be mindful of the sights and sounds of their experience. Mindfulness is often natural for children and this audio helps to enhance their ability to focus in a mindful way. About 15 minutes.

May be used while sitting or lying down in a quiet, comfortable place. Just close your eyes and listen without trying to force yourself to relax. If your mind wanders, gently bring yourself back to focus on the words.

This audio may be used for sleep. Just allow yourself to gently drift off. You may awaken whenever you are ready. Relaxation at bedtime allows for a more restful sleep.

WITH GREAT THANKS!
My special 7-year-old twitter friend, Darwin @darwinkochis (name used with permission) came up with the idea for this audio and helped by reviewing the script as I developed it.

TAP HERE FOR AUDIO



July 29, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 8. Hold your head up.

This step is a simple to describe step but can be difficult for some people with low self-esteem. Many people with low self-esteem try to be unobtrusive so as not to be noticed by others (and thereby, criticized). One way they do this is by not looking at others, tending to keep their head down and even trying to take up as little space as possible such as by hunching their shoulders and staying out of other people's paths.

However, these behaviors don't make you invisible. Instead, such behaviors are more like a neon sign. People can still see you but what they will see is someone who is unapproachable, who lacks confidence and who is not friendly. In addition, some people are predators who take advantage of those with low self-esteem. When such people see these non-verbal signs they know they can manipulate you. So the unfortunate consequence of this non-verbal behavior is to keep the good people away and to allow the bad people to know they can take advantage of you.

Instead, even if you don't feel good about yourself, you can still project the image that you desire much as an actor does in a movie. This step is the first step in changing your non-verbal message about yourself. Simply hold your head up and notice what is around you. Don't try to be invisible because that doesn't work. Instead, lift your chin up and put your shoulders back as you walk through the world.

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



July 23, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 7. Accept Compliments and Stop Apologizing.

Accepting compliments is difficult for many people with low self-esteem. However, apologizing is too simple for them and often excessive. Even though both of these behaviors come from negative feelings towards the self (undeserving and guilty), changing the behavior helps to change the feeling. Sometimes people believe they have to change the underlying emotion for a behavior to change: “If I felt deserving of compliments, then I would accept them” or “If I didn't feel bad about something, I wouldn't apologize." However, these are interesting examples of how that is not true. By changing the behavior that results from the emotion you begin to carve away the power from that emotion. I think of this as cognitive therapy in reverse: changing the behavior changes the way you think of yourself. Let's examine each of these issues separately.

1. Accept Compliments. Notice how you respond to compliments. Do you tend to dismiss or downplay them? Do you tend to think people “are just being nice”? Well, of course, they are being nice! What is wrong with that? Let yourself, both internally and externally, accept the compliment. Externally, you can respond with a simple “Thank you” or a “Thank you, I really like this outfit, too.” Don't evaluate compliments. Don't try to determine whether they are genuine or accurate. Just accept them. When you don't accept compliments people often stop giving you compliments because it is not very rewarding to them to have their overture denied.

guilty dog Internally accepting the compliment may be a little more difficult. What this means is to incorporate the compliment into your self-concept by repeating it to yourself, “Yes, that's true, I am attractive” or “I am a very helpful person.” If it is too difficult at first to fully agree, at least tell yourself “That person believes that I am attractive (or helpful).” You can use the compliments you receive to assist with your affirmation work.

2. Stop Apologizing. Many people with low self-esteem apologize for very minor behaviors; often, behaviors that aren't even a mistake or causing problems for others. Such apologizing causes two outcomes. One, it reinforces within you that you are to blame and the cause of problems for other people. Two, it is uncomfortable and annoying for others to have to constantly reassure “That's okay. Don't worry about it.” As such, it causes others to be more likely to think of you in a negative way or even withdraw. This is an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You believe you are bad or wrong > you apologize excessively > others start responding in a negative manner towards you > you take their response as confirmation of your initial belief.

Stop apologizing is similar to the earlier step of reducing your negative self-labeling. Initially, you need to become more aware of your apologizing. Then, try to reduce it over time. “I'm sorry” should only be for serious infractions against other people. For simple things, such as bumping into someone in a crowded place, just say something like “Excuse me” because it's less likely to have the negative effect on you and others.

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



July 22, 2015

Passive-Aggressive Example: Confronting Step-son About Not Visiting

Question: I believe that my 41-year old step-son is being passive aggressive in refusing to visit us, alone or with his wife and two children. He knows that his mother had an affair (to whom she is now married) then divorced his father. I met his father a few years later, eventually moved in with him and his then 25-year old son, and we married two years later. His son deeply resented this as he thought he and his girl-friend would live with his father until he eventually inherited the property. He had resented other females with whom his father had had relationships after his divorce so it's not that he just didn't like me, he just didn't want his father to re-marry. My step-son doesn't openly refuse to visit us but gives inane excuses why he can't (such as my car is broken, I'm too busy, etc.) that insult our intelligence. My husband won't challenge him as he's his only child because my husband's daughter died tragically, aged 11, many years ago. He has visited us three times in the last 4 years, the first time coming to our new house out of curiosity but he refused to come to the house on the two subsequent visits and insisted we meet for lunch at a local restaurant at our expense. My step-son and his family did come to my husband's 70th birthday party 6 months ago but only, I feel, as he knew the rest of the family would be here and he didn't want to look bad in front of them by not attending. My step-son doesn't invite me or his father to visit them. If my husband asks when he can visit, his son tells him he's welcome any time and won't set a date but he lives 90 miles away so we can hardly call to see them. This behaviour has become worse over the last 10 years but when asked what is the problem my step-son expresses surprise and says there's nothing wrong with them, the problem must lie with us. He and his wife often see her family and his mother and her new husband. If he were my son I would challenge him openly and ask for an explanation but my husband is reluctant to do this for fear of making the situation worse. I can no longer take the inane excuses for not visiting so it's inevitable that I will challenge my step-son on this soon. My husband loves children but, sadly, doesn't see his grand-children very often. I'm not allowed to consider them to be my grand-children, this is made very clear by my step-son and his wife referring to me by my first name when they mention me to the children in my presence. It's designed to be hurtful and it is hurtful but nothing we do changes the situation leading me to think that it is passive-aggressive behaviour on my step-son's part.

TAP HERE FOR RESPONSE



July 17, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 6. Be Courteous in Your Self-talk.

Many times when I catch people engaging in negative self-talk they will say, “But it's the truth!” However, truth can be cloaked in many ways depending upon what we want to accomplish. How often when confronting others do you describe them or their behavior as negatively as your own? You may change the wording when talking to someone else. Where you might call your idea “stupid” you may tell your co-worker “That idea has merit but we need something that will make an impact more quickly.” You don't say "That dress makes you look fat" to a friend but "That color flatters you." This step does not mean that you should ignore flaws but that you don't need to be so negative in your focus and self-talk.

This step is choosing to talk to yourself with the same courtesy you give to others. To begin to do so, write down a negative self-statement and see if you can look at it in a more positive (or, at least, neutral) way. Change the wording so it is not so pejorative. “I'm stupid because I didn't know what they were talking about” can become “I can't know everything. That doesn't mean I am stupid. In fact, I could ask questions because people like talking about what they are interested in. They don't expect me to know everything.” Or, “I'm ugly because I'm fat” can be “I may be overweight but that doesn't mean I'm unattractive. There's plenty of people who are overweight who attract others. I just need to focus on my attractive features.” Notice how this statement doesn't even use the more negative label of “ugly” when refuting it.

I find this step can be difficult for people because they have repeated these beliefs for so long they can't see another way to rephrase the statement. If this is true for you, imagine that you are describing someone else. How would you say it to another person without necessarily changing the content but changing the wording? Another way to think about changing wording is how people describe themselves on a resume. For instance, “perfectionistic” can become “detail oriented” and “controlling” can become “leadership ability.”

Sometimes people are overwhelmed by the sheer number of negative self-statements but you don't need to change everything at once. Try to change one self-statement a day. You can use the life script you wrote and examine it for negative self-statements. When you find one, re-write it so that it is more courteous to you. Then cross out the previous statement and insert the new one into your life script. In this way, you can re-write your life script to be a more positively focused reflection of you.

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



July 16, 2015

50 Rules of Life

Rule 15: Don't Compare Your Insides to Others' Outsides.

Often, when I'm working with people who have low self-esteem, they base their opinion of themselves on what they observe of other people:

"They seem to be able to cope better than me."

"She has it all together. Why can't I be like her?"

"He is so talented. I'm not good at anything."

"Their marriage is perfect. I bet he never cheated on her."

"Why can't I be like them?"

Rule 15: Don't Compare Your Insides to Others' Outsides Being a psychologist, I have a different perspective of other people's lives. And I don't mean just my clients. A lot of people tend to share more of their personal problems with me even in social settings. Or they clam up when they find out I'm a psychologist which tells me a lot as well! Anyway, I see more of the inside of people's lives than most people do. No one has a perfect life no matter how much it may appear that way. People struggle with mental health issues, physical problems, stress, children and family problems, marital concerns, work-related issues.

I try to remind my clients who make these comparisons that they are only seeing what other people want them to see. Even very close friends or family members may not share all of their struggles or problems. As a result, they are comparing their insides to other people's outsides.

Such a comparison is not a fair way of evaluating yourself. You know everything about yourself. You know every thought and every behavior, every attempt and every failure, every self-doubt and every hurt. You don't know all that about someone else. You only know what they choose to show you. As you develop a closer relationship you may be privy to more but you still don't know everything. Therefore, comparing yourself to what others allow you to see is not a fair comparison.

Don't treat yourself unfairly. Don't compare your insides to others' outsides.

Index to 50 Rules of Life



July 14, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 5. Create Daily Affirmations

I know it seems somewhat cliché today to create affirmations but sometimes things are cliché because they work. Start your day with an affirmation. Then focus on that affirmation throughout the day. Help yourself own it by looking for additional evidence that validates the affirmation. For instance, if your affirmation is “I try to improve myself and do the best I can” observe ways that you do that throughout the day and write them down. Obviously, even creating the affirmation and focusing on it could be one piece of evidence for this affirmation.

Affirmations aren't huge accomplishments. Instead, look for the positive things in yourself no matter how small. Often, low self-esteem is based on many small negatives. For instance, a person might focus on a small negative and blow it out of proportion. “My nose is too big!” And think that is all other people notice. Instead, “I have a nice smile which is more noticeable than my nose.” Look for positive attributes. “I am persistent.” Write these affirmations down and review them frequently. It is too easy to focus on the negative and ignore the positive.

The mistake many people make is to use general affirmations such as “I am wonderful in every way.” However, we tend to dismiss general affirmations as unbelievable. Instead, when you create an affirmation, be specific and base it on evidence. Often, even with new clients I don't know very well, I can create such affirmations. For example, “You have shown that you are persistent and hopeful because even though other therapy has failed, you keep searching for an answer. That is the evidence for your persistence.” They usually brighten up and say, “Oh! I hadn't thought of it that way!”

Self-Esteem Blackboard app Excel At Life's Self-Esteem Blackboard app provides general affirmations only because it is addressing many different people. The idea is to take a relevant general affirmation such as “I am worthwhile. I have a lot to offer” and personalize it with specific evidence about yourself such as a list of positive qualities. The app is a nice way to do this because you are given suggestions to help you get started. In addition, you then have a record that you can easily review. However, you can do the same thing by keeping an affirmation journal.

This is a step that you can continue indefinitely. If you have a problem with low self-esteem, it is a good idea to make affirmations a part of your daily life. Sometimes people will do this for awhile but when they start to feel better they stop giving themselves affirmations. Believe me, successful people may not be using such a structured technique but they ARE giving themselves affirmations all the time! So don't stop this step just because you feel better or because it is not working quick enough. You are creating a competing pathway in the brain that is focused on the positive rather than the automatic negative pathway. Think about how much the negative pathway has been reinforced. You need to consciously and continually reinforce the positive pathway so that it becomes stronger than the negative.

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



July 13, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 4. Start Reducing Your Negative Self-labeling

Once you have become more aware of your self-labeling and have a baseline to measure your progress, the next step is to start reducing your self-labeling. Notice that I'm saying “reduce,” not “stop.” Don't put the demand on yourself that you will stop completely because you will fail at such an “all or nothing” task. And then “I couldn't even stop labeling myself!” becomes part of your self-labeling rather than feeling better about yourself.

Instead, try to reduce the labeling over time. You can continue to keep a count as you did in step 3 and just record each day how many times you labeled yourself. Often, just the act of tracking a behavior makes you more aware and will cause you catch yourself when engaging in it. Don't worry if some days are higher than average because when we are changing behavior there are a lot of ups and downs. Progress isn't a simple straight line. It is similar to losing weight—if you weigh yourself every day you are likely to be discouraged because of the fluctuations from day to day, but if you weigh once a week you get a more accurate picture. So it is better to find your weekly average and see if it is reducing over time.

Again, if you have trouble with this step you can elicit help from those close to you. Of course, they are not able to hear the internal self-talk but by bringing your attention to the external self-talk you will also attend more to the internal negative labeling.

At this point you are not trying to change your thinking about yourself but only reducing the negative self-labels. Stay with this step until your self-labeling is to a minimum. This doesn't mean you won't engage in any self-labeling because most of us do so at times. It just means to reduce it so that it is not a significant or noticeable part of your self-talk. Once you have done that then you can take the next step of creating more positive self-talk.

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



July 11, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 3. Examine Your Self-labels

How often do you call yourself names or label yourself in a negative way? Many times in the first session with someone when I notice their excessive negative self-labeling I will say, “Do you realize you have called yourself names or put yourself down in some way at least a half dozen times in the last 10 minutes?” Often, I find they aren't even aware of their self-talk.

golf counter Awareness is an important part of change. Start noticing when you label yourself. Pay attention to the words you use in your self-talk such as “That was stupid” or “I can't do anything right.” Keep a log of how many times you use negative labels over several days and find your average. All you need to do is keep a count such as making a little mark on a piece of paper (something you can carry with you). Golf counters are a nice tool to keep track of a count because you can keep them in your pocket and just click them whenever the behavior occurs.

At this point you are not trying to change the labels. It is first necessary to develop greater awareness of the labeling. In addition, obtaining a baseline which is the average number of times you apply a negative label to yourself will make it easier to determine progress.

Often people will want to skip this step, “I know I'm using negative labels so I'll just focus on stopping.” However, change is not that simple and taking such an approach can lead to not fully recognizing the self-talk, forgetting to pay attention to the self-talk, and frustration about lack of change. I know it can be annoying to have to carry a piece of paper or a golf counter but by getting in the habit of recording your negative labels you will be more effective at reducing them.

In addition, progress isn't all-or-nothing which is discouraging for many people. However, seeing the numbers decrease over time can encourage you to keep trying. Once you have your average, write that number down so you can keep it in mind as you work to change.

If you have trouble with awareness of your self-labels, you can solicit help from people close to you. Have them give you a sign when you engage in negative labeling. It is important that the helper do this in a non-judgmental way. “There you go again!” is not helpful. You could have them just use a word or a signal that the two of you agree upon.

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



July 10, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 2. Write your life script.

What is a life script? Each of us has a set of beliefs about ourselves. Initially, these beliefs develop in childhood based upon how others view us and treat us. Some people view their life script as unchangeable: “I can't help it! It's who I am.” However, other people edit their life scripts. Sometimes they need to learn how to edit it (such as what you are doing now) and sometimes they edit it naturally. I remember as a child that I kept a list titled, “Never say or do this to your child.” I didn't realize at the time but I was creating a life script. I was making decisions about the type of parent I wanted to be. You are more likely to achieve what you want in your life by taking an active role in editing your life script rather than accepting without evaluation what you were taught about yourself.

writing Developing better self-esteem requires editing. However, to edit a life script, it is necessary to first write the life script. This step will be difficult because it means writing down your current view of yourself. If your self-esteem is low, then this script may be quite negative. Many people will be tempted to skip this step as it can be very painful to see in black and white our view of ourselves. Others might want to not write it down thinking that they are quite aware of it. But writing it is necessary because there is something very powerful about an actual edit—crossing out and replacing words or adding different beliefs. If you do this on a computer, I would suggest you use the strikethrough feature when changing something and highlighting any additions. Later on, you can create a clean copy. But initially, the visual impact of the changes can be helpful in reinforcing those changes.

Also, keep in mind no matter how difficult or painful this step may be you will be editing this life script as you complete all of the steps. The discomfort you feel right now in writing it will change as you take the following steps. But it is necessary to write it down so that you can clearly see the beliefs you have about yourself and identify the areas of focus.

At the same time you may be pleasantly surprised to learn you also have positive beliefs about yourself included in your life script. Self-esteem is not a solitary attribute. Instead, it consists of many different aspects of our self-concept. Therefore, writing your life script can also be used to reinforce in your mind your positive qualities and beliefs about yourself.

Writing a life script means to consider all aspects of yourself. The following are some areas to examine and some questions to ask of yourself. There are no right or wrong answers. These questions are just to help you honestly examine your self-concept. This list of questions is not an exhaustive list but is to help you get started with writing your life script.

Competence.
How do you feel about your ability at work or in school?
Do you have talents? What are they?
Do you believe you can be successful in a work or academic environment?
Do you believe you have something to offer an employer?
How much effort do you put into the things you want to achieve?
How persistent are you?
Can you learn from mistakes?

Intimate Relationships.
Are you satisfied with your choices in relationships? Why or why not?
Do you feel that you contribute to the success of your relationship? How?
Do you feel able to attract a suitable partner? Why or why not?
Are you able to accept not having a love relationship? Or do you need a relationship to define yourself?
How do you feel about yourself as a sexual being?

Social.
Do you think other people like you? Why or why not?
How do you treat others?
Do you believe that you have something of value to offer friendships? What is it?
Do you require others' approval? If so, when?

Appearance.
Are you satisfied with your personal appearance? Why or why not?
Do you try to look your best?
Do you try to take care of your physical self? If not, why?
What are your attractive qualities?
How do you think others view your appearance?

Competitive.
Are you overly demanding of yourself?
Do you compare yourself to others? In what ways?
How do you view success? Failure?
How do you treat yourself when you fail? What do you say to yourself?
Do you have dreams? How capable do you believe you are to achieve those dreams?
What do you need to achieve your dreams?

Spiritual.
Do you have a sense of purpose that guides your life? What is it?
How do you believe you fit in the whole scheme of things?
What are your spiritual beliefs? Are you satisfied with those beliefs?
Do you own your beliefs or do you believe what you were told to believe?
Do you feel guided by your beliefs? Or do you feel burdened by your beliefs?

Creative.
Are you able to develop and pursue interests that are meaningful to you?
Are you swayed by others' opinions about your pursuits?
Do you try to discover the possibilities within you? If not, why? If you do, what are those possibilities?
Do you share your thoughts and ideas with others? If not, why?

General.
How do you feel about yourself overall?
Do you use negative labels to describe yourself? What are they?
Do you use positive labels to describe yourself? What are they?
What do you have trouble accepting about yourself?
What do you particularly like about yourself?

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



July 9, 2015

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

Step 1. Recognize that self-esteem is self-imposed.

Self-esteem isn't something that exists independently--you either have it or you don't. No, self-esteem changes based upon how you think of yourself. Self-esteem is not a reaction to what others think of you but how you think of you. Yet, too frequently, we give this power to others and use them as the yardstick to measure ourselves. Even when we don't know what they are truly thinking of us.

For example, I read about a woman who described how her co-workers treated her differently when she lost weight. She said they acknowledged her and chatted with her. But when she gained the weight back they returned to ignoring her. She interpreted their behavior to indicate they thought she was worthwhile when she was thin but not when she was fat. She complained that others should change their behavior and treat obese people better. However, I propose their reactions had to do with how she felt about herself and was not based on a judgment of her. People take their cues about us from us. Most likely, when she was thin she probably held her head a little higher, looked people in the eye and smiled more. In other words, she was more approachable. In her description she even said she tried to not be noticed when she was fat. That tells me she most likely looked down, ignored others more, didn't smile at people or initiate conversations. People treated her in the way they thought she wanted to be treated—she wanted to be ignored so that is what they did.

As I said, people respond to our cues. This means if we think others don't believe we are worthwhile it is only because we are projecting that onto them. They are treating us based upon how we think of ourselves and what we expect from them. If we project “ignore me” that is usually what they will do because how can they know we want the opposite? People can't read our minds. But they do read our non-verbal messages. Try an experiment: act as if you feel good about yourself, smile, approach others, say “hi”, speak up so they can hear, look them in the eye, walk with your shoulders up and your head held high. See if people treat you differently. Many people with low self-esteem will say “I can't” to this suggestion which shows how much self-esteem is self-imposed.

By recognizing that self-esteem is your choice and not based upon how others treat you, you can change your self-esteem. I will be sharing 20 steps to better self-esteem. Don't try to do all the steps at one time. Try focusing on one at a time until it becomes automatic or natural for you. The steps are somewhat in order in the sense that it is better to build on skills from easier to harder, but some may not be relevant for you or you might find a different order is better for you. As long as you recognize your ability to change your self-esteem and follow a plan to do so, you can feel better about yourself and interact more effectively with others.

Index to 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem



July 1, 2015

Secure Attachment to Parents Improves College Adjustment

A teenager's ability to adjust to college may begin in early childhood and is moderately influenced by the relationship with the parent. An analysis of over 150 research studies shows that college students who have a secure attachment style with parents have a greater level of adjustment to being away at college (Mattanah, et al., 2011).

Secure attachment refers to the ability to trust that caregivers are available to them and they can depend upon them when needed. Keep in mind, however, that dependency of children is often confused with attachment. Dependency refers to an excessive need for parental involvement and is considered insecure attachment due to the unhealthy nature of the relationship.

college student Developmental theory indicates two points in life where children work on the issue of separation for the parents. The first point is around age two and the other is the late teens when children are leaving home for college. The success of separation during the college years is often dependent upon what children have learned previously in the earlier stage of development.

At age two children are beginning to explore the world. However, their success is based upon secure attachment to the parent. If the child has learned that the parent is emotionally and physically available, they use the parent as a home base. For example, if a child is placed in a room full of toys with the parent sitting in a corner of that room, the child with a secure attachment will explore the room but will keep an eye on the parent and occasionally return to the parent. A child with insecure attachment may instead fearfully cling to the parent.

Some of the causes of insecure attachment include physical or emotional neglect, inconsistency of primary caregivers (numerous babysitters), separation from primary caregiver, or traumatic experiences.

The college student with a secure attachment is able be independent while knowing the parent is available, if needed. Such a college student is less likely to be involved in destructive activities while away, is more likely to be engaged socially, and is able to maintain good study habits and grades.

Mattanah, J.F., Lopez, F.G., Govern, J.M. (2011). The Contributions of Parental Attachment Bonds to College Student Development and Adjustment: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58, 565–596. DOI: 10.1037/a0024635



June 21, 2015

Is Your Boss Unfair? What You Can Do About It

Frequently, when employees learn to act assertively they are rewarded. I've had numerous clients who swore to me they would be fired if they approached their boss assertively. Instead, when I finally convinced them to act assertively and they learned the techniques of assertion, they were promoted or received other positive responses.

Research has found that the likelihood of a manager treating an employee fairly is based upon the expectation the manager has of how the employee will react. Generally, the more assertive the employee, the more likely the manager will treat the employee fairly (Korsgaard et al., 1998).

However, before confronting your boss be sure to learn the proper techniques of assertion. Assertive behavior is not merely stating your opinion or request directly. It is also about knowing your audience and learning to identify your goal, attend to tone of voice and nonverbal behavior such as eye contact and expressions, and choosing your words carefully. Practicing these techniques will make you more effective in getting your needs met in the workplace.

Korsgaard, M.A., Roberson, L. and Rymph, R.D. (1998). What Motivates Fairness? The Role of Subordinate Assertive Behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 731-744.



June 18, 2015

Toxic Parents: Mean or Emotionally Distressed?

People are often confused by toxic parents who are also very loving and will do anything for their children. Such a duality is often due to emotional problems that are acted out in a toxic manner to the children. For example, a controlling OCD parent who is anxious about germs and spends hours a day cleaning may believe they are protecting their children. However, when the child breaks a rule such as coming into the house without showering the parent becomes angry and berates the child.

Sometimes the parents have self-esteem issues that cause them to want to be the perfect parent or social anxiety which causes them to be concerned about how they appear to others. Either of these is often reflected through attempts to have perfect children. The result, however, since children are not perfect is for these parents to be critical and demanding of the children. This can sometimes cause the opposite effect that they desire and the child may have behavioral problems or it may exacerbate the child's anxiety and cause the child to be more people-pleasing and passive.

In all these examples the parent might otherwise be loving and involved in healthy ways with the children. The confusion experienced by the children of such parents usually indicates the parent is not a mean person but that the behavior is due to these types of emotional problems. The parent feels the stress of the self-inflicted demands which is transferred to the children.

No matter the reason, however, it is still toxic behavior and can be quite disturbing for the child. Many of my clients with anxiety disorders recognize this and go to extreme lengths to not allow their anxiety to affect their children (or sometimes even be observed by the children). Usually the people who engage in these toxic behaviors aren't aware of their behavior and are unlikely to be receiving therapy.

The good thing about this type of toxic parent, at least for adult children, is they are often responsive to assertive limit setting. Because they don't want to be rejected which will cause them to appear to be bad parents to themselves and others, letting them know their behavior is unacceptable and that you might be forced to reject them sometimes changes the behavior. For example, “If you continue to criticize me, I will end the visit” said at the time of the behavior can make them more aware of their behavior and attempt to control it.

Therefore, before continuing to endure such behavior or ending all contact with a parent it may be beneficial to determine if the toxic behavior is due to these types of emotional problems. If so, it may be worthwhile to set limits with the parent. This does not mean saying something one time because most of us are not one-time learners especially when it comes to changing our behavior. Instead, it means saying something every time and following through on the consequence (such as ending the visit). After a few consequences, these types of parents are likely to realize you are serious and change their behavior. If they don't, there may be nothing you can do but protect yourself from the toxicity in anyway you can.



June 17, 2015

Cognitive Diary Training Example: Toxic Family and Holiday Visits

EVENT: Don't Want to Visit Family on Father's Day

EMOTIONS: anxious, discouraged, hopeless

DISTRESS RATING: 8--High level of distress

THOUGHTS: “My family is always mean to me. I can't stand going to family events. They put me down and ignore my children. They're probably right about me. I am a loser. My friend says I don't need to go and put up with such treatment. But if I don't go, it will make things even worse. They will talk about me and my parents will be angry with me. They are my family. I should love and respect them. I should go to keep the peace. It's only one day. I'll just take extra medication and I'll get through it.”

CAN YOU IDENTIFY THE IRRATIONAL THINKING IN THIS EXAMPLE? There are at least 4 irrational beliefs.

HOW CAN YOU CHANGE THE THINKING? What is another way of thinking about the situation that won't cause the feelings of anxiety, discouragement, and hopelessness?

TAP HERE FOR ANSWER



June 13, 2015

“I'm Old, Not Stupid!” Patronizing Speech and the Elderly

In recent years my husband, a senior citizen who uses a cane, complains how restaurant staff talk to him. At first I thought he was being overly sensitive and would tell him that's just how they talk. However, one particular time it was noticeable even to me. The server used a high pitched patronizing voice when she talked to him and when she turned to me (I'm much younger than him) she used a normal tone. Then she turned to him and changed voices again. I could barely restrain myself from bursting out in laughter because it was so comically obvious.

Apparently, this is a significant problem for older adults (as well as those with mental illness) especially when hospitalized or in a nursing home. My husband, being a very assertive person, will ask the wait staff to speak to him in a normal tone, but usually, they don't even recognize what they are doing. As a result, he comes across as a cantankerous old man.

Patronizing speech includes high pitched tone of voice, slower and/or louder speech, simplified vocabulary and grammar, repetition, overly personal, praise for minor accomplishments, terms of endearment, and third person reference (“What do WE want?”). It has been found to be demoralizing and leads to withdrawal, lowered self-esteem, and feeling loss of control. Such speech has not been shown to have an effective purpose.

A research study by Ryan and colleagues (2000) examined the dynamic of patronizing speech by nursing home staff and predictably found that residents rated patronizing nurses more negatively although they had also come to expect and tolerate such treatment. However, this research further examined residents responses to patronizing speech and found residents who were more assertive were viewed as less competent. However, when they used humor as a response they were rated more favorably and still appeared assertive.

These results show that how an older adult responds to patronizing speech can impact the overall quality of the interactions with the staff. It is unfortunate, however, that those who are most vulnerable must alter their approach rather than the staff refraining from being patronizing.

Ryan, E.B., Kennaley, D.E., Pratt, M.W. and Shumovich, M.A. (2000). Evaluations by Staff, Residents, and Community Seniors of Patronizing Speech in the Nursing Home: Impact of Passive, Assertive, or Humorous Responses. Psychology and Aging, 15, 272-285. DOI: 10.1037//0882-7974.15.2.272



June 8, 2015

“Which Coping Strategy Should I Use?”

Sometimes when people visit Excel At Life's website they are overwhelmed with the variety of coping techniques and are unsure where to start. “Should I use an audio?” “Which audio is best for me?” “Or, should I use the cognitive diary?” “Which kind of cognitive diary should I use?” “Or, should I use a reward system?” “Should I take a tai chi class?” They want a step-by-step manual to tell them what to do.

Unfortunately, such a manual is impractical because different people may be responsive to different methods. And different situations may be handled best by different methods. My experience has been that clients will tend to find the methods that work best for them and rely on those. However, coping flexibility, the ability to use a variety of strategies, appears to be most related to psychological health when coping with stress.

Researchers Cheng and colleagues (2014) examined 90 studies looking at coping flexibility and found the most beneficial approach was fitting the coping strategy to the situation and engaging in an ongoing process to evaluate and adjust the strategies as necessary. What this means is that different situations may respond better to different coping strategies. And it depends upon the individual, their personality and skill level for the technique.

This approach is similar to what a cognitive-behavioral therapist does. When a client tells me “that didn't work” we evaluate the strategy, why it didn't work, and make adjustments or try a different strategy. What this means for you is to develop a wide variety of skills and experiment with using them for different types of stressful situations.

Tips for Using Coping Strategies

1) Learn many strategies. Those who cope well with stress have developed a wide variety of skills. Choose skills that appeal to you. Certain skills will be more effective depending upon the personality of the individual. For instance, I find that most people respond well to the relaxation imagery audios but some people need more active relaxation methods such as qi gong.

2) Try anything. If unsure which method to use, try anything. Be sure to make a reasonable effort with using the skill. If it doesn't work you can try something else.

3) Evaluate. If your first efforts aren't successful, evaluate the strategy. Were your skills strong enough? Do you need to practice more first? Would a different strategy be more effective with the situation?

4) Flexibility. As you evaluate skills over time, you will find particular methods that work for different purposes. You will also find that you are more skilled with certain techniques. However, even if you rely on certain strategies, continue to develop your abilities with other methods. Having multiple coping strategies and being flexible in choosing strategies will allow for greater success in coping with stress, anxiety, and depression.

Cheng, C., Lau, H.B., and Chen, M.S. (2014). Coping Flexibility and Psychological Adjustment to Stressful Life Changes: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin,140, 1582–1607. DOI: 10.1037/a0037913



June 4, 2015

Listening to the Message of Anxiety

Recently, an acquaintance described feeling anxious and stated she needed to get some anxiety medication from her doctor. She said, "My family treats me so bad whenever I visit them that when I even think of visiting I get heart palpitations. My husband hates seeing them, too, and its affecting my marriage."

Mr. Zip This example illustrates not listening to anxiety. Normal anxiety has a purpose. The intention of anxiety is to inform us of a problem that needs to be resolved. However, sometimes people don't want to address a problem because it might be uncomfortable. In this situation, simply telling her family "It is unacceptable for you to talk to me this way and if you continue I will leave" places the responsibility for the problem on them. Sure, such a stance may be unpleasant initially especially when she has to follow through with the consequence and walk out. For this woman, she did not want to give her family reason to treat her worse. Even though it may be uncomfortable standing up to such people, by resolving the problem she doesn't have to take medication for the anxiety nor put her husband in a situation that creates problems in her marriage. Eventually, if she consistently gives her family this message they may begin to treat her better. And if they don't, she can give them another message: "I don't want to be around you because I don't like how you treat me."

However, when the problem isn't solved such situations can even be the beginning of developing an anxiety disorder. I have seen many clients over the years who have described their first panic attack as being related to a distressing situation they believed they couldn't control or resolve. Later, however, their anxiety became focused on the panic itself creating the panic cycle. In such situations I've always found it interesting that the panic attacks often solve the original problem in a roundabout manner: "I have a panic attack every time I try to drive long distances--I haven't been able to visit my family in years." In this way the panic is blamed rather than solving the problem in more direct ways: "I really want to come for a visit but I'm having uncontrollable panic attacks."

We may not always like the message anxiety is attempting to deliver. However, listening to the message and resolving the problem can prevent worsening of the anxiety. If the message is ignored, anxiety only becomes more insistent about delivering it. Once the message has been addressed, the anxiety has completed its job until another problem arises.



June 1, 2015

The Costs of “Get Over It”

Frequently, when distressed, people receive the message from others to just “get over it.” In other words, they are being told to ignore the distress, let go, and move on. Even though this message may be valid when considered in a long-term context, it can be harmful as a strategy for dealing with problems. People who are more emotionally sensitive will especially be harmed by this message by concluding that they need to suppress their emotions.

Many times people give advice from the advantageous perspective of the final outcome of their own experience. They tend to forget the process they went through to obtain that outcome. Therefore, advice to “let go” or “get over it” often ignores the messy process of feeling the distress, grieving, and the emotional expression/release prior to the outcome of resolving the distress.

Those who hear this advice as “ignore your emotions” are likely to experience negative consequences. Repression is a style of coping in which people ignore their emotions. However, even when reporting a lack of emotions, those who are repressing emotions show an even greater physiological reaction (heart rate, perspiration, etc.) than those who experience emotions. Thus, they are only suppressing awareness and expression of the emotion, not the physical sensation of the emotion itself.

Therefore, when the emotion is not fully expressed, negative health outcomes are more likely due to the stress on the body of trying to control the emotion. Researchers Mund and Mitte (2012) analyzed 22 studies examining repression and physical health. They found that those who repress emotion are more likely to have cardiovascular disease or hypertension.

Yet, even though it may be unhealthy to hold emotions in, this research should not be taken to mean that excessive emotional expression is healthy. As in most things, balance is important. We need to be able to release emotions appropriately, but not dwell on emotions excessively.

Mund, M. and Mitte, K. (2012). The Costs of Repression: A Meta-Analysis on the Relation Between Repressive Coping and Somatic Diseases. Health Psychology, 31, 640–649. DOI: 10.1037/a0026257





Excellence vs Perfection Some people may be curious as to why this website is dedicated to the "pursuit of excellence" when I am constantly warning about the dangers of perfectionism.  To address this question we must differentiate between the pursuit of excellence and the need to be perfect.  These concepts are not only different but can be considered antagonistic to one another. In fact these concepts are so opposed to one another that  excellence can best be attained by giving up the demands of perfection.

What is Perfectionism?  Perfectionism is the individual's belief that he or she must be perfect to be acceptable. Perfectionism is black and white with no gray area. Anything other than perfect is failure. Perfectionism is an attitude, not necessarily a behavior. In other words, two people can engage in the same behavior such as trying to win an Olympic gold medal but one can be pursuing excellence and the other is demanding perfection. The difference lies in the thought process about the goal or behavior, not in the goal or behavior itself.  READ MORE...



Catastrophe? Or Inconvenience? Listening to the weather forecast one frigid day, I realized how much we are influenced by the catastrophic thinking of the media.  The weatherman reported, "The weather has brought more misery to the St. Louis area."  Certainly, the weather was causing problems that day.  An ice storm caused car doors and locks to be frozen so that people had a great deal of trouble getting into their cars.  However, I thought, unless someone was in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone and they were unable to open their car door because of the ice, this was not "misery."  Instead, I would call it an "inconvenience."  Most of us walked out to our cars to find that we couldn't open the door, went back inside a warm house or office, and found some solution to our problem.  READ MORE...



Happiness is an Attitude For many years when my husband and I were first together I would ask him "When are things going to get better?"  We were dealing with the usual stressors that couples face: not enough time, not enough money, and the inevitable random events such as family conflict, deaths of loved ones, illnesses and injuries.  In addition, for most of our early years together I was in school and struggling with the balancing of demands of advanced education, part-time work, and a family.  But I had the belief that we were working towards this perfect life that one day would emerge shining a rainbow of happiness forever over us. My husband, inclined more toward the practical, just answered my question of "When are things going to get better?," with "Another six months."  That answer typically pacified me for awhile because I thought I could handle any amount of stress for six months.  However, a point would occur when I once again I asked my husband "When are things going to get better?"  Once again, he would answer "Another six months."  This scenario occurred fairly routinely for many years.

However, fortunately during this time I had experiences that began to teach me about my expectations of life.  In particular, when I was completing my internship at the Veterans Administration Medical Center I had the opportunity to work on the spinal cord injury unit.  That experience forever changed my thinking.  In particular, I was struck by the differences in attitude among the patients.  READ MORE...



Thinking Your Way to a Healthy Weight"I don't have any willpower."

"I'm weak."

"I'm lazy."

"I can't do it."

Do these statements sound familiar? Too often, our self-statements about weight management interfere with our efforts and lead to failure. By changing how we think about developing a healthy weight we are able to change the behaviors that can lead to success.

Not long ago I conducted a little experiment with my cardio-kickboxing class. After an intense class I told them to get the heaviest weights they could curl 8-10 times. I spent a minute telling them to focus on feeling tired, that they had just worked out hard and they couldn't do anymore. Then, they were to curl the weights to exhaustion. Once they finished, I spent another minute telling them to focus on having energy, feeling good, feeling refreshed, and knowing they could do more. Once again, they lifted the weights to exhaustion. The results were that out of nine people, only one did fewer lifts the second time! And typically, when someone lifts weights to exhaustion they should not be able to lift as much the second time when it is only a minute later. Although this was not a controlled scientific experiment, it was a demonstration to my class to show how powerful our thinking can be. What this exercise showed was how positive thinking overcame the natural exhaustion of the body and created a self-fulfilling prophecy of lifting more weight because the participants believed that they could. READ MORE...