Category Archives: Self-Development

Just move on already!

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Don’t dwell! Don’t think about it so much!

When you’re dealing with past traumas, you’ll likely come across people who say things like this. Sometimes, they even mean it kindly.

Underneath it all, there’s a tremendous discomfort. They may not want to see you in pain. They may not want to be bothered with your hurt or confusion. They need to ignore you. Your anger might unsettle them. They might not like what you uncover when you consider your past too closely. You might change as a result, and you suit them just fine as you are.

So they tell you to move on, as if the past is something you can jettison. For instance, your childhood shaped you, but suddenly as an adult, you’re supposed to leave it behind and move on, as if the years in which your character was formed, mental habits and reflexes developed, mean little and don’t have a grip on you now.

As if the underlying rage, fear, and confusion will go away because you simply move on. (Or pretend to, turning that frown upside down.)

Do you want to understand yourself and how you came to be the way you are? This isn’t a pointless exercise in brooding or dwelling. This isn’t about wallowing in self-pity or seeking revenge. By understanding yourself and confronting what you find painful, you gain insights into yourself and other people. You understand your own self-defeating impulses and can better check them. You know your strengths and vulnerabilities. And your understanding of yourself can always further develop as you mature.

Forgive and move on!

Many people will urge you to forgive. Otherwise, they tell you, you can’t move on.

When they tell you this, they’re usually seeking comfort for themselves. They’re asking you to make your needs secondary to theirs. You have practice in this, don’t you? You might have done this for years and years: played the role of scapegoat, toy, nursemaid, surrogate parent, whatever use another person (or other people) had for you.

Now you must dispense forgiveness, like an angel. People need their happy ending. They need proof of your wholeness and that you’re “above it all.”

Is forgiveness possible? Of course. Naturally, unforced, perhaps a long time in coming… or not at all. It’s not a hoop to jump through in order to live well.

You can’t really feel this way!

Many people will tell you what to think and feel. This is supposed to make you more agreeable to them, and if you’re more agreeable to them it automatically means that you’re a healthy, wise and lovely person. Or if not, at least you won’t bother them as much.

Preferably, any powerful emotions that overtake you will be discreet and dealt with behind closed doors, via self-medication, various numbing activities, or the selection of inappropriate targets for your rage. Those emotional needs that remain unaddressed will propel you in ways you can’t imagine and don’t care to think about, but move on already! If you need to be dysfunctional about it, well, there are many socially-sanctioned ways of being dysfunctional and cruel. Just don’t stand out too much.

Or how about this – you can try to live, try to figure out how to live well, doing worthwhile things and feeling what you feel, thinking what you think, exploring who you are and who you can be and what life means to you, and not pretending that you’re all polished through and through, and that even your pain is tidy, like an elegant black handkerchief that flutters in your hand from time to time before you fold it neatly and tuck it away.

7 ways to build self-worth and confidence in kids

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1) See them as their own people

Much as you might want them to live out your own unfulfilled dreams or become a smaller, more agreeable version of yourself, kids are going to have their own personalities, interests, and abilities. You could try to bend them to your will in every little way, but they’ll either distance themselves from you entirely or break inside.

If you’re in the habit of comparing them to other kids, please stop. There will always be some other kid who has better grades, goes to better schools, can hit a ball farther, plays the piano better, looks more conventionally attractive, and seems well-behaved at all times. That shouldn’t matter (and besides, those other seemingly perfect children are human and have their own faults and problems, which you aren’t privy to). Help your kids develop into their strongest, most decent selves, rather than wish for them to be someone else. Accept that they’re human and will never meet some ridiculous standard of perfection. Love them as they are. If you keep comparing them to others, they’ll pick up on that, on how they seem to always fall short in your eyes, never good enough in their own right.

And please, please, don’t use them as a surrogate for someone else. They aren’t your therapist. They aren’t the best friend you never had. They aren’t meant to step into the shoes of a spouse. They’re your kids.

2) Talk to them as if they’re people

We get into the habit of cooing at children when they’re very young and brushing off their observations, triumphs, tears and fits of anger as so much lovable nonsense or irritating noise. The thing is, even very young children have serious concerns about the world. It’s easy to dismiss them or talk over them – especially when we don’t have good answers to their questions – but if you keep doing this, you’re basically telling them that their thoughts aren’t worth listening to and that they’re better off keeping quiet about what’s most important to them.

Hear them out, with sincere interest. Try to understand how they’re communicating. A two-year-old, for instance, doesn’t have the same verbal and cognitive ability as an older kid, but in many cases may still be trying to tell you something important – something they discovered or are delighted in, or something that annoys or frightens them.

Even if what they say sounds silly, remember that they’re new to the world and can’t possibly know everything that you know. Not that you know everything. Make a habit of exploring things together and not being afraid of questions that can’t easily be answered. Don’t be afraid of silliness either. And just as you wouldn’t want to be regularly shouted down, interrupted, or belittled, please extend them the same decent treatment.

3) Help them develop competency

You’re there to give your kid support. What that means changes as they develop and grow older. Basically, if you do everything for them, they’ll doubt whether they can ever stand on their own two feet. If you need to be heavily involved in every decision, great or small, you don’t give them a chance to breathe and try things out. You’re basically telling them that you don’t think they can manage on their own. This could result in a lack of confidence across different areas of life, or maybe one particular area (e.g. schoolwork).

4) Be dependably loving

One day you’re warm and loving. The next day you’re cold and distant. On a given day, your kid’s laughter might make you smile. An hour later, you tell them their laughter is grating on your nerves. On some occasions, you give them thoughtful advice and comfort them if they’ve failed at something; on other occasions, you react with impatience and derision. You make earnest promises to them, which you break half the time. They don’t quite know what to make of you. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, they think. They start regularly second-guessing themselves.

5) Hold them accountable for the right things

Kids need to learn to be responsible for their actions – not to bully other kids, not to steal, not to destroy their siblings’ toys, not to smear the contents of their noses on library books.

However, they’re not to be held responsible for your bad day at work, your rocky marriage, the argument you had with your own parents, the delivery guy showing up an hour late with dinner, or your personal insecurities.

6) Give them room and time to play

Play is pleasure and growth. It’s a time for flights of imagination, for exploration and development. Kids ideally try out different things when they play, build their skills, and have fun. When they play with others, they learn to socialize and work out conflicts. They learn to take risks, in a relatively safe environment. Please don’t hover over them all the time as they play, dictating what they should or shouldn’t do and making a fuss if they don’t spend all their free time exactly the way you want them to. Give them the confidence to chart their own path. Make free play (and free time more generally) an important part of their childhood, instead of something wedged into the twenty minutes between piano lessons/chess club/swim team/computer class/household chores. Participating in scheduled activities can be fun and beneficial, and helping out with housework at an age-appropriate level can be fulfilling for them, but if their schedule is so overbooked that they don’t have time to just play or relax, ask yourself why they need to be so busy. Talk to them about it, too – about what they want and need.

7) Model self-worth and confidence for them

I’m not talking about false bravado here, or the attitude of “suck it up/don’t cry/never show weakness, imperfections or vulnerability because no one will like or respect you.” I’m talking about genuine self-worth and confidence. Basically, you like yourself; at the very least, you’re regularly kind to yourself. You’re pleased when you do well, and you don’t beat yourself up endlessly when you make a mistake and constantly tell yourself that you’ll never get things right. You practice self-compassion and forgiveness, and have a basic faith in yourself as a human being who is capable of leading a worthwhile life and accomplishing things. You enjoy feeling good but also understand that sometimes you’ll feel down in the dumps. You’re human and imperfect, and you’re ok with that. You can still work towards your dreams, cope with mistakes along the way, take risks, love other people, receive love in return, behave decently, and enjoy life.

Kids pick up on your attitudes. They see what your attitude is towards failure and imperfection, towards embarrassment and shame. If you regularly act as if messing up makes a person unlovable or unworthy, your kids absorb that idea too, and it could batter away at them. So work on yourself. Examine your beliefs. Do you compare yourself to other people all the time? Do you tear yourself down and tear other people down? Are you basically comfortable in your own skin? Do you consider yourself a perpetual failure in life, or – even if you want some things to improve or change – are you basically ok with you who are?

Work on becoming a healthier person, mentally and emotionally. Do it for your own sake, but also know that your kids will be much more likely to develop healthy self-worth and confidence too.

Your socially awkward Edgar suit

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If you’ve watched Men in Black you might remember the scene where the vicious alien kills a farmer and starts wearing his body like a suit (and if you haven’t watched Men in Black then I just spoiled part of the movie for you, sorry).

Anyway, the farmer’s name is (was) Edgar, and when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) figures out what the alien’s done he says, “Imagine a giant cockroach, with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper, is tear-assing around Manhattan Island in a brand-new Edgar suit.

Photo by Sarah Gordon of one of the Bloomington, Indiana brains

When you’re socially awkward and having a really bad time of it you can feel like your body is an Edgar suit. Your skin doesn’t fit right over your bones. Your smile is a grimace. Maybe your stomach’s coming out of your mouth. People might ask you if you’re ok, and you know they’re quietly wondering if you’re an alien. And you are an alien; that’s how you feel. You don’t have to be a vicious alien – you could be E.T. or Alf – but you’re still an alien, and you’ve landed among people you don’t get and who don’t get you. You try to speak to them but your voice comes out garbled.

That’s what you feel, anyway – that the Edgar suit is coming apart at the seams and sooner or later everyone’s going to see the giant sticky insect within.

You think that everyone else is like Agent J or K, down to the Rayban sunglasses and the fact that if they mess up at something people forget two minutes later. But when you mess up – say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing – stop the presses! The whole world watches and remembers for eternity.

But the reality is, many other people, more people than you think, are staggering around in their own Edgar suits.

Have some sympathy for their Edgar-suited predicaments. People are skin and bone and mortal flesh. Most of them don’t know what the heck is going on most of the time. If they’re loud and seem confident they could be making noise to mask a small panicked voice in their head. You never know. And even if they’re not, remember, they’re skin and bones. Like everyone else they’ll die some day, as will you. I don’t mean to be morbid, but it’s true – there are no gods among us. There are brilliant people, talented people, bright kind people who shine a light wherever they go, and we can admire them and love them, but let’s not worship them. Many of them wrestle daily with insecurity and doubt. (Those who don’t are suspect.)

Seriously, indifference towards what other people may think of you combined with sympathy for their alien humanness, so different from yours in some ways and so similar in others, is the way to go. Unless they’re a vicious sort of bug, to be avoided lest they eat you up like a plate of pierogi, don’t worry so much about them.

Easier said than done, I know. That’s where you have to start living the words. Show up, be one with your awkwardness, and do what you love. Slowly you’ll get the hang of it and not worry so much about the insect mandibles protruding from your mouth.

(The Edgar suit image links back to its source, Men in Black Wikia.)

Toss your negative thoughts in the trash

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Negative thoughts image from Pfit blog

I apologize for the three week absence from this blog. Among other things, I was completing some last minute edits, formatting and re-writing on the e-book I just co-authored: A Smoker’s Guide to Health and Fitness, which is now available at Amazon.

When you work on any major project, negative thoughts can intrude: doubts about your abilities and the worth of what you’re doing. Beyond that, negative thoughts can take over any area of life, as you trash your appearance and belittle your intelligence and competence.

Maybe this can help: writing your thoughts down on a piece of paper, then tearing it up and throwing it away.

A recent set of experiments has shown that people who literally throw away their negative thoughts (either by tossing away a paper on which they wrote it or dragging a word document into the trash on a computer) blunted the impact of those thoughts.

However, hanging onto the negative thought intensifies its impact. If you write the thought down and put it in your pocket or save it on your computer (or even keep it on your desk), you’re more likely to be influenced by it; the closer you keep it to yourself (putting it in your pocket next to your body vs. placing it on a desk, the stronger the impact).

What’s interesting is how closely physical actions are tied to opinions and beliefs; if you literally act a certain way towards something – even if it’s an ephemeral thought – you’ll influence your thinking and emotions. We’re cerebral creatures but so physical too.

Why not try it? If you’re overwhelmed by negative thoughts, jot them down and bin them. Then write down some positive thoughts and keep them close.

(Image credit: Pfit blog)

Synaptic Sunday #12 – Developing resilience in the face of stressful circumstances

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Evacuation of patients from NYU Langone Medical Center during Hurricane Sandy

Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.

1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).

2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).

While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.

“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.

3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.

Why is it so hard to walk away?

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Last week one of my nephews was amusing himself by jumping up and down on his dog’s squeaky chew toy. *Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak…*

His mother asked him to stop.

He did, for a few seconds, and then started again. *Squeak, squeak, squeak…*

Again, his mother asked him to stop.

He stepped off the toy, but then touched it with his toes.

“Just walk away from it!” his mother snapped. “Just turn around and walk away!”

He turned away from the chew toy, then back to it, then away again, the struggle visible. Finally he laughed a little and walked away. His mother nudged the chew toy to the other side of the room.

Watching this, I thought, Why is it so hard to walk away? Children on average have poorer impulse control than adults, but I’m also thinking of how many Serious Adult Problems can be avoided or at least mitigated if we were better able to literally walk away from something that’s bad for us or for other people. Turn around and walk away from the dessert table at the buffet, from the convenience store where we buy cigarettes, from the person who’s spoiling for a fight, from the person who lied to us and defrauded us before, from the long T.V. lineup or unending stream of websites that we’ve been hooked on for long sedentary hours, etc. etc.

Make it a habit, as hard as it is initially, to turn around and walk away. Easier said than done, I know. That first moment is the hardest – the moment you have to first stop, get up or turn around; it’s so hard that most of the time we don’t attempt it, even if we know it’s good for us to walk away, whether to take a necessary break or to avoid something or someone completely. But once the action is initiated, it becomes easier to follow through. And with enough repetition maybe that first moment, in which we catch ourselves and change direction, gets easier.

Keeping resolutions

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Keeping a resolution is difficult in part because the act of making a resolution gives you the false sense that you’ve accomplished something meaningful. You’ve stated what you want to do, you’ve shown some degree of self-awareness, dedication to improvement, and strength… and I think this gives you a false sense of security. You can do whatever it is you’ve set out to do because you’ve said as much – you’ve written it down on paper or whispered it to yourself at midnight. You’re set, you think. You’re going to do it.

Only you don’t. Sometimes you don’t do anything beyond making the resolution; you forget about it completely or you put it off for too long, and then it starts to seem too troublesome, stupid or hopeless. Other times you get to work on it but slump back into your old ways before long and give up.

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I’ve set down resolutions before, and given up on them. Other times I kept to them and succeeded (or more accurately I am succeeding, because success has been a matter of changing various habits, and it’s an ongoing process and struggle instead of a fixed end-state). For me the successes are marked with these qualities:

I have a stake in the outcome
Giving up needs to matter. Maybe I’ll lose dignity, self-respect, money, esteem in the eyes of other people. Maybe I made a promise that would hurt to go back on. Something needs to be at stake. Beyond that, I need the will and conviction to follow through on the resolution. I need to feel that what I’m doing is right and necessary. Is it important to me? Really, truly?

I keep it realistic, concrete and specific
The resolution can’t be far-fetched and impossible to undertake. It can’t be couched as something like “I will adopt a healthier lifestyle” or “I will be a better person.” Those are admirable goals but they’re too abstract to work with on a practical level. So I need to get down to the practical details: list a few ways in which I can be better, and what’s required to accomplish those.

I don’t try to make too many changes all at once
Too much all at once might be overwhelming. Making change gradually also helps me evaluate my progress and adjust expectations or goals.

I make it a habit
Changes to thoughts and behavior are lasting when they become habitual. They replace older more detrimental habits that take time, persistence and vigilance to undo.

I’m aware of potential self-sabotage
As damaging as old habits may be, they’re tempting to fall back on. There can be something strangely comforting about misery if it’s familiar. And change is difficult and scary. So I might try to trip myself up by setting unrealistic goals and expectations that I’ll fall short of. I let the smallest setback make me skittish. I assume an all-or-nothing attitude that demands perfect progress and a 100% success rate and otherwise condemns my efforts as hopeless and worth giving up on. Success doesn’t mean perfection (repeat to self, ad infinitum: success isn’t the same as perfection). Failures and setbacks along the way are ripe opportunities for excuses – excuses to give up and sink back into the familiar unfulfilled and unfulfilling life, narrow and comforting as it is. I can backslide completely, wallow for a while, and then make new resolutions that I won’t follow up on. I don’t reach out to other people when I need to. All of this is self-sabotage.

UPDATE: Ongoing resolutions that I’m dedicated to (written here in a general way, and not with the concrete actions/steps associated with each).