Getting Advice? Here's how to make it work

What to do when even the best advice falls short.

Posted May 25, 2010

Are you unhappy? Want to be thinner? Stop smoking? Be more assertive? Have better self-esteem?...Want to finally make that change, now?

Well, I can't tell you exactly how to do it (as so many people and programs claim to do), but maybe I can help you to make better use of the advice that's already out there... perhaps even advice that's previously failed to work for you.

First, a little background...

We know instinctively that happiness in life must include a long-term sense of stability and consistent well-being (not just some laughs here and there). And we know this without needing to refer to supporting psychological literature (of which there are volumes). We also know instinctively when we are out of balance, even if we are not sure how or why. At the very least, we feel a bit off; and at worst, we become absolutely anxiety-ridden or deeply depressed.

Sometimes we respond well to all of the good advice that's out there. We are able to feel happier by focusing more on the positive, or get in shape by setting goals and using an exercise buddy. But frequently, the simple advice doesn't work. And that's when you need to do something different.

Here's what I've found works, when people get stuck trying to change their lives:

Given that the obstacle is within you, you need to look inside rather than just look to rote techniques for change. This means learning more about yourself and how you work. To attain the ‘happiness' you want, you must work toward what I call compassionate self-awareness. Let's start with the second part.

When I use the term ‘self-awareness,' I am referring to having an awareness of your emotions and an intellectual understanding of what makes you tick. It means fully acknowledging all of yourself, including difficult or conflicting aspects. This kind of self-knowledge on its own is often enough to create that sense of well-being and to help you make personal changes.

The emotional half of self-awareness connects us to our experiences and tells us about the quality of those experiences (i.e. distressing, hurtful, exciting, engaging). When your life is going well, you simply enjoy positive feelings. When you experience difficulties, you struggle with negative feelings. Sometimes you can feel problems before you "know" that they are there. Distressing emotions are like red flags that something is wrong and needs attention - a bit like how a burning sensation tells you to remove your hand from the hot pan before you actually see that you've touched it.

Often, just identifying your distressed emotions (and their associated thoughts) is enough to quell anxiety. This is especially true when you accept those emotions and soothe yourself as much as possible - as people often do with grief. At other times, experiencing and acknowledging emotions tells you that you need to change something in your life. For instance, as you become aware that you frequently feel angry with your spouse, you are likely to think about what exactly is angering you and try to fix it. Of course, to do this, you must reflect on your experiences.

That's where the intellectual aspect of self-awareness comes in. It allows you to think about yourself much like an outside observer. By labeling and understanding your emotions, you dissipate their intensity. And, by thinking about your thoughts, you realize that they represent your way of seeing things-not necessarily reality. With this kind of distance, you are freer to assume healthier ways to cope with your life.

Bringing the intellectual and emotional aspects of self-awareness together can be extremely powerful. For example, smokers are more motivated to quit (and are more successful) when they understand the benefits of it; and feel emotionally connected to those benefits. When smokers recognize the irrationality of thinking that they won't get cancer, they might be more inclined to look for other ways to manage stress. However, their motivation increases a lot when they really feel this - which, for instance, can happen after a heart attack. Their motivation can also get a strong boost by becoming aware of just how short of breath they often are, and how much they'd like to feel healthier.

The intellectual and emotional aspects of self-awareness together enable us to know and fully experience ourselves. They also provide an opportunity for us to be responsive and flexible in coping with various life circumstances. Sometimes people use this opportunity to lead a happy, engaged life. And so, connecting with themselves is one way that people achieve difficult change.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way. People are sometimes overwhelmed by emotions or use self-awareness to criticize themselves - making them unhappy and blocking them from making healthy changes. So, how people relate to themselves is as equally important as self-awareness; and it is the compassionate part of compassionate self-awareness. I will discuss it in my next blog entry.


Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She is also the ‘Relationship' expert on WebMD's Sex and Relationships Health Exchange.

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