Generating self-esteem, positive thinking, and other improvements

Struggling? Be your own BFF.

Posted Jun 17, 2010

Has previous advice on how to improve yourself failed? Repeatedly? While this can be discouraging, it does not mean you are doomed to your present situation. You really can thin more positively, feel calmer, lose weight, be more assertive, and whatever else it is that you want to do to be happier.

The first step is locating a map for how to get there. Fortunately, that map to improvement is already inside of you. Awareness of your thoughts and emotions (even the painful ones) can serve as a "You are Here" sign. Often, this kind of self-knowledge creates a comforting sense of being "at home." And, sometimes that comfort and knowledge together are enough to help you make those long sought-after personal changes. In my last blog entry, Getting Advice? Here's how to make it work, I outlined more fully how this self-awareness is essential in finding your way to a better you.

However, self-awareness alone is not enough. In fact, it's not really self-awareness that is helpful, but rather how it is used. As many people can attest, you can know yourself well and use that knowledge to chastise yourself. For instance, a depressed person might berate himself for his dismal outlook; and, an overweight person might criticize herself for repeatedly binging on sweets when she gets upset. Of course, such a negative view of oneself only makes matters worse. It's harder to find inner motivation and support to change when you feel down on yourself. So, along with self-awareness, it is equally important to relate to yourself positively.

People do best when they accept themselves as they are in the moment - even if they'd like to be different in the future. All too often, however, people are critical of themselves. And, when people are attacked (even by themselves), they go into a defensive mode. For example, if you call yourself a "pig" for indulging in a buffet lunch, you might respond by giving up and accepting failure (defense by surrender); or by blaming the problem on a bad choice of weight loss plan and switching to a new one (which might also fail for the same reason). The result of these defensive maneuvers is that you just continue to feel defeated or set yourself up to repeat your failure.

In contrast, when you accept a problem and are not so defensive about the distress that goes with it, then they you are open to responding in a helpful and compassionate way. So, whether you are an overeater, chronically depressed, or an unhappily entrenched pessimist, you must comfort yourself, much as you'd comfort a friend. Soothe your emotional distress and encourage yourself to return to striving for your goal. Then you can think objectively about what really went wrong; are you trying to comfort yourself in misguided ways? Or are you acting out of a need to protect yourself from something? As the answer becomes clear, you will have the emotional strength and motivation to find out and make the necessary changes to really lose weight.

Of course, this is easier said than done - being compassionate to yourself is often difficult. Many people find it much more natural to be kind to friends and even strangers than to themselves. Too often I hear patients say that being understanding of themselves just lets them off the hook. For instance, those who failed to get a promotion might give themselves a tongue-lashing for their incompetence. However, these same people are often quick to acknowledge that they would never be so harsh with others.

So, to become the person you want to be, you must work toward being self-aware and having self-compassion; what I call being compassionately self-aware. When self-awareness brings up painful feelings and distressing thoughts, self-compassion can help you respond with acceptance and caring, encouraging you to move forward in a healthy manner. Of course, developing compassionate self-awareness does take work - work that you might not know how to do.

But there are many paths to it. So, once you understand these elements, you can learn more about how to develop them in the writings and teachings of many people - such as therapists, self-help gurus, mentors, and spiritual advisors (although they will all use different words). In addition, I will continue to blog about compassionate self-awareness and how to develop it.


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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