6 Mental Habits That Will Wear You Down
People-pleasing and feeling guilty won't get you where you want to go.
Posted Sep 28, 2015
Do you struggle with self-doubt and self-defeating habits?
Do you want to feel more confident about yourself and what you have to offer?
Do you focus on pleasing others, rather than following your dreams and living your best life?
The best way to start feeling better about yourself is to notice the automatic mental and emotional habits that don’t serve you well and find more self-compassionate, life-affirming ways to think and behave. With conscious awareness and a daily focus on changing old habits, you can begin to build new, positive emotional pathways in your brain. Our brains possess the capacity for neuroplasticity, which means that practicing new ways of thinking and behaving can actually change your brain neurons and the pathways between them.
If you are willing to face your negative habits, you can learn to be more cognitively flexible and to set healthier boundaries, thereby building a brain that is better wired for happiness and success. Read on to discover how to overcome 6 important barriers to feeling confident, happy, and successful:
1. Feeling Guilty
Guilt is an emotion we often learn in childhood: “Eat all your food; there are people starving in India,” or, "I’ve been working my fingers to the bone to take care of you and all you do is complain?” As adults, we internalize these messages and feel like we’re never enough or can never do enough. Guilt can be helpful when it keeps you from intentionally harming others or violating deeply-held values. Excessive guilt, however, can cripple us and take the joy out of life—not letting you enjoy the fruits of your hard work. There are many types of guilt and research shows only one is good—guilt about something harmful that you did. If you lied to someone you care about, or acted in a selfish and hurtful way, then feeling guilt can motivate you to stop the hurtful behavior and make amends. This will likely improve your relationships and self-esteem. Most other types of guilt are counterproductive:
- Guilt about not doing enough to help someone else, when you’ve already done a lot, or the other person is not taking responsibility;
- Guilt about having more money or better relationships than friends or family members;
- Guilt about thoughts that you don’t actually act on, like feeling jealous of a friend who just had a baby.
To combat unhelpful guilt, realize that your thoughts don’t hurt others—only your actions can do that. Learn from past mistakes and try to feel worthy of the gifts and good fortune life has given you.
2. Thinking You’re a Failure
Many of us have a sense of failure that colors our perception of ourselves and our achievements. If you look at your life through the lens of failure, you will fail to pay attention to or minimize your achievements. A mindset of failure also doesn’t take into account the difficult circumstances you may have faced, or how hard you tried. This mindset may have its roots in growing up with critical parents, not being as smart or athletic as siblings or close friends, or even having undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. It may be the result of disappointment in a key life area, like getting divorced, being single, having too much debt, or not getting a college degree or dream job. Once this mindset develops, you carry it with you into every new situation, believing that you lack what it takes to succeed.
Having a failure mindset can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading you to get in your own way. You may procrastinate and not get the work done on time, or become overly perfectionistic and focused on details, rather than the big picture. You may act in an insecure manner that doesn’t inspire the confidence of potential bosses or customers, or do a careless job because you just know your work isn’t good anyway. The first step in overcoming a mindset of failure is to realize it is there and that you don’t have to believe it. Each new opportunity is a fresh start and a chance to learn from previous mistakes and act differently.
3. Being a Perfectionist
Are you your own biggest critic? Is nothing you do ever good enough to meet your own standards? Perfectionism can result from a rigid mindset in which you don’t change your expectations based on the situation. It can lead to second-guessing, procrastinating, feeling constantly overwhelmed, or giving up and not trying. Perfectionism can be dangerous to your mind and body: An article in the Review of General Psychology found that perfectionists are more likely to struggle with depression or anxiety and more likely to commit suicide. Perfectionists are also more likely to be diagnosed with conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. Perfectionists have conditional self-esteem, and can only like themselves when they do well. But nobody can do well all of the time. Perfectionists often feel like impostors or frauds and live in constant fear of being exposed. To combat perfectionism:
- Get rid of the “shoulds” and black-and-white thinking.
- Give yourself credit for trying.
- Stop seeing mistakes as a disaster.
- Give yourself time limits for getting the job done.
- Don’t allow yourself to check and re-check your work.
- Try to focus on the bigger picture and find more compassionate ways to view a situation.
4. Living with Regret
Regret is a negative cognitive/emotional state that involves blaming yourself for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing you could undo a previous choice that you made. If there is an opportunity to change the situation, regret—while painful to experience—can sometimes be a helpful emotion. The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path. If you have an addiction, regret can be a motivator to give up a harmful substance and live healthier.
The less agency you have to change a situation, however, the more likely it is that regret can turn into chronic rumination and mentally beating yourself up. Those experiencing regret replay a stressful or humiliating situation repeatedly in their heads, causing the constant release of stress chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol. This can take a toll on your body and mind. To combat regret, use mindfulness strategies to keep your attention focused on the present moment. As meditation teacher Jack Kornfield said, "Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
5. Comparing Yourself Negatively With Others
“Comparison is the thief of joy.” — Theodore Roosevelt
We compare ourselves with others and then make judgments about how successful we are based on these comparisons. There are upward comparisons (with people who seem to have it better than us) and downward comparisons (with those who seem to have it worse than we do.) We often feel better about our lives and accomplishments when making downward comparisons and feel bad about ourselves when making upward comparisons. The problem is that we never really know what is going on beneath the surface of other people’s lives. So when you compare, you are comparing your insides to everybody else’s outsides, as the saying goes.
A paper in the journal Science reported that activation in brain areas related to reward respond to relative differences in wealth even more than absolute amounts. Evidently, many Silicon Valley millionaires feel deprived because they can’t keep up with the billionaires in their neighborhood. We can always find an area in which we’re not as good as others, such as appearance, athletic skill, or career achievement. Comparison puts a lot of pressure on you because we all have different circumstances. If you could afford a daily chef, life coach, and personal trainer, you would likely also be movie-star fit. Unfortunately, parents often compare kids to their siblings and those labels can become our self-image: “You’re the athletic one while your sister has the brains.” Comparisons are oversimplifications of the complexity and gifts we all possess as human beings. The best comparison to make is what you know and are doing today, compared to last month or last year. This type of comparison takes your individual circumstances and ability into account.
People-pleasing behavior stems from wanting everybody to like you and overvaluing others' opinions at the cost of your own time, energy, and self-esteem. You may have had narcissistic or emotionally abusive parents and learned to focus on pleasing them to survive psychologically in the family. Research shows that abused kids are more able to correctly identify angry facial expressions than non-abused kids are. At a very deep level, your brain may have gotten wired to please and appease others so they don’t get angry and hurt you, physically or emotionally. People-pleasing may also result from being sensitive to rejection and trying to avoid it. You may have grown up with a depressed or addicted parent and learned that the only time you got attention was when you were taking care of the parent or meeting their emotional needs.
People-pleasing is a misuse of empathy. Just because you may "know" what others are feeling doesn’t mean it is your responsibility to make them feel better. You always have a choice. Think about what people-pleasing behavior costs you, such as increasing your stress and taking you away from pursuing your own goals. People-pleasing can backfire and lead you to resent others for mistreating you. Practice setting boundaries and saying “no” to requests. Learn to accept some immediate discomfort in exchange for longer-term stress relief. Learn to prioritize and balance other people’s needs with your own. Stop surrounding yourself with needy, demanding “energy vampires” and learn to be pickier about whom you allow to get close.
- Fischer, K. W., Shaver, P. R., & Carnochan, P. (1990). How emotions develop and how they organise development. Cognition And Emotion, 4, 81-127.
- Pollak, S. D., & Tolley-Schell, S. A. (2003). Selective attention to facial emotion in physically abused children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 112, 323–338.
- Flett, G. L, Hewitt, P. L, Heisel, M. J. (2014). The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology, 18, 156-172.
- Collins, R. L. For Better or Worse: The Impact of Upward Social Comparison on Self-Evaluations. Psychological Bulletin 119 (1995).
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Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a practicing psychologist and life coach in Mill Valley, California, and expert on using mindfulness and neuroscience to manage stress and improve your life and relationship skills. She provides workshops, speaking engagements and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows, and as an expert in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet.