Be Your Own Shrink

Ten simple steps to recognizing yourproblems--and solving them own your own

A look at TV talk shows and newspaper advice columns reveals that a lot of people out there have serious psychological problems. They suffer from intense depression, suicidal thoughts, paralyzing anxiety or uncontrollable urges, and they need immediate professional help. Chances are, though, that you're not one of them.

Let's face it: You may be insecure, lonely, stressed or anxious. You may have trouble meeting people or keeping your marriage together. But these garden-variety problems are not life-threatening, nor are they defects whose roots require a therapist's weeding.

As two award-winning clinical psychologists, we see mental health quite differently. We believe that many emotional problems are learned, mainly from parents, teachers, peers and the media, and that people can unlearn these patterns on their own. In many cases, professional help can become redundant or even counterproductive. Once people realize that they play a crucial role in overcoming their problems, self-help becomes a highly effective option.

Most people with mental aliments are making one of 10 common errors that result in needless emotional distress. Recognizing these mistakes makes it easier for these people to solve their own problems. Learn to avoid them, and you're well on your way to becoming your own shrink!

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You are too demanding and perfectionistic.

1 The problem: Sheila L., 30, was extremely insecure because she focused far too much on her flaws. During the holidays, for example, she pressured herself to spend lots of money on the perfect presents for people, despite her' modest teacher's salary. She also berated family and friends for their shortcomings. Eventually, people started avoiding her, leading her to feel isolated and depressed.

The solution: Sheila had fallen prey to what famed psychiatrist Karen Horney, M.D., termed "the tyranny of the 'should.'" Focusing too much on what you and others "should" do causes guilt on your part, and anger and frustration on the part of your victims. There are many valid ways to act in any given situation. You're only human, so it is imperative to avoid having superhuman expectations! Try replacing "should" and "must" with "wish" or "prefer"--for example, trade "You shouldn't smoke in the house" with "I'd prefer that you smoke outside." If you become less demanding, life can be much more fulfilling and relaxing.

You don't say what you mean or mean what you say.

2 The problem: Tony R., 39, dreaded his family s yearly Thanksgiving dinner. Each November, the same scene played out: Tony would get irritated with his family's nagging, but would bottle up his retorts until he exploded with rage. His sister, Mildred R., 30, took the opposite approach: She agreed with everyone, afraid to speak her own mind. Both, however, felt tense, awkward, resentful and unappreciated. Tony seemed immature to his family. Mildred came across as distant and infantile.

The solution: Tony, Mildred and others like them need to remember several key instructions: Say what you feel as soon as you feel it. Do not wait for pressure to build, and do not recoil from speaking up. Speak calmly, respectfully and directly. When people know you're giving them your honest opinion, they're more likely to treat you with respect than if you kowtow to them. By being assertive--but not aggressive-people are more likely to listen to you. The style you adopt when dealing with others is crucial. It determines who loves you, hates you, seeks you out or avoids you more than your beliefs, ideas or opinions.

You tend to be judgmental.

3 The problem: Jim H., 47, came from a small, conservative town and was highly judgmental. When his younger brother brought an African-American girlfriend to a family gathering, Jim couldn't help predicting the worst for the weekend--and saying so. His brother was hurt and angry at Jim's racist remarks. Jim's parents felt uncomfortable and left early. The girlfriend burst into tears. Not surprisingly, Jim was disliked both inside and outside his family.

The solution: Everyone makes judgments and form opinions: "He's overweight." "He talks slowly." But add a negative "therefore" to the end of these statements and immediately you are making uninformed inferences. "He talks slowly, therefore he must be stupid." "My family isn't used to African-Americans, therefore an African-American will not fit in." No one likes being unfairly judged. You are more likely to get along with others if you don't rush to stereotype them. Besides, when you sit in judgment of others, you're likely to be wrong about them.

You are afraid of making mistakes.

4 The problem: Jean W., 29, was terrified of doing something-anything--wrong. She thought people would think less of her if she made a mistake. For example, when her boyfriend invited her to meet his family--an intellectual group of people--she worried about saying something dumb and felt tense and defensive all week beforehand. Ironically, she then found it hard to concentrate at work, resulting in the silly slipups she'd feared making. Her anxiety also led her to stammer and stutter her way through the gathering at her boyfriend's house.

The solution: One of the best ways of learning is through mistakes--they provide valuable feedback and highlight areas for growth. Most people prefer others who have faults; they're what make you human and appealing. Sharing your shortcomings creates intimacy and fosters close relationships. For that reason, it can be better for your mental health to draw attention to--and laugh at--some of your mistakes, rather than hide them. Accepting your shortcomings and being open about them frees you from the pressure of being "found out."

There is very little fun in your life.

5 The problem: Robert H., 54, was raised to work hard, get ahead and, above all, win. Fun was regarded as a waste of time. When amusing events at the office had everyone else in stitches, Robert would shake his head disapprovingly. Since he eschewed going to movies, concerts, plays or sports events--frivolous pursuits, in his mind--he had the social skills of an alien from outer space. He felt lonely and isolated.

The solution: Many authorities have extolled the benefits of humor as a physical and psychic tonic. In our practices we have found that recreation and downtime are vital human needs which, like sleep, restore your equilibrium. Realizing that relaxation doesn't mean laziness can add years to your life. Laughter stimulates various brain centers that can raise your pain tolerance and strengthen the immune system. Go out of your way to seek amusing incidents and take note of them. This serves as an antidote to stress as well as a buoy for your feelings.

You do not take responsibility for your actions.

6 The problem: Doris K., 44, played the "blame game": Whenever something went wrong, she pointed the finger at someone else. By refusing to take responsibility for her own actions, she antagonized those around her. Ultimately, she lost her job (having been fired from six previous ones), alienated her husband and lost most of her friends.

The solution: You may refuse to accept the onus for situations you have yourself caused because you are afraid it will make you look weak or imperfect. When you accept responsibility for your choices and actions, however, you empower yourself. When you realize that the decisions you "make have a concrete impact, you become the engineer of your future. Instead of feeling like a victim of circumstances, taking responsibility lets you make better choices. If you understand that you are responsible for your own life, you are in the driver's seat.

You set unrealistic goals.

7 The problem: Dennis T., 35, lived by the adage, "Reach for the stars." An aspiring singer, he was so passionate about his art that he didn't stop to consider that he had had little success finding professional work. His aspirations were beyond his true capabilities, and he was often disappointed because he could not understand why all his efforts hadn't yet yielded rewards. He felt depressed, hopeless and worthless.

The solution: Harsh as it may sound, it is unrealistic to say that you can achieve anything you desire. Everyone has limitations. Can every high school basketball player grow up to be Michael Jordan? Genes, social circumstances and other factors place a cap on how far you can go in certain endeavors. Take stock of your talents and examine your weaker areas. You know something is unrealistic when, despite your sincere persistence, the outcome is mediocre at best. It's helpful to have high hopes, when they're realistic. Tell yourself: "If a goal lies within my reach, I will go all out for it. But if the strain is too much, I may need to lower the bar a few notches." Unrealistic expectations usually spell disaster!

You cannot let go of grudges.

8 The problem: Betty E., 55, spent her days rehashing grievances dating back from childhood. She had become a bitter person with much resentment. Her constant grousing was an enormous turnoff: She had no good friends, and even her children avoided her company.

The solution: It is a serious mistake to harp on negative events from the past. Studies show that depression is usually associated with dwelling on negative past experiences and thoughts. When you regret something you've done, express it, resolve it, and drop it. This way, it won't come back to haunt you.

You are unable to tolerate the inevitable frustrations of life.

9 The problem: Fred A., 38, became too impatient when faced with life's unavoidable annoyances, like being kept on hold or waiting in line. He was easily ruffled, which led to tension headaches and high blood pressure.

The solution: Fred suffered from what renowned psychologist Albert Ellis, Ph.D., calls LFT--Low Frustration Tolerance. Everyone inevitably has to deal with frustrations. When you do not arm yourself with the mental equipment to handle glitches in your daily plans, you set yourself up for needless disappointment and misery. Repeat to yourself, "You win some and you lose some." Accept that life is not fair. Everyone has to tolerate things and people they would prefer not to deal with. Focusing on what you have instead of dwelling on what you want is one of the roads to happiness and contentment.

You think pessimistically or embrace a pep-psychology form of optimism.

10 The problem: Isaac K., 59, firmly believed in thinking positively. But that belief was beginning to throw him off-guard. For example, when having chest pains, he dismissed them as "nothing to worry about" until he wound up in the hospital from a heart attack.

The solution: Negative thinking often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy-expect bad things to happen, and you may make them happen. But false optimism can be just as harmful. Everyone can appreciate the benefits of positive thinking, but few seem to realize that rose-colored glasses can be blinding. An example of false optimism: "Everything always works out in the end." Contrast that with realistic optimism: "We've got a real mess on our hands, but if we tackle it step by step, we can probably do something about it."

The next time you notice yourself feeling emotionally distressed--be it angry, anxious, sad, frustrated, guilty or ashamed--review these points and see if any apply to your situation. Being aware of these 10 common mental obstacles will allow you to take immediate, practical actions.

Simply knowing how to go about solving your problems will make you feel in control of your life--putting you on the path to restoring your own emotional health.

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Adapted by Ph.D., ABPP and Ph.D.

Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D., ABPP, and Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D., each an award-winning psychologist in his own right, are father and son, respectively. Arnold is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Rutgers University and has written 16 books and more than 200 articles. Clifford is the director of Comprehensive Psychological Services in Princeton, New Jersey.

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