Admittedly, the various paths described below for achieving optimal mental and emotional health aren’t that simple. They involve a significant amount of time and effort. Plus, transforming deeply rooted internal programming is hardly for the timid, for most of your maladaptive, outdated mechanisms of survival were formulated back in childhood. And as uninformed or unsophisticated as these self-protective programs are, they can yet be highly resistant to change. After all, by the time you reached adulthood, they’d become firmly entrenched—seemingly almost intrinsic to who you are.
Nonetheless, as I’ve emphasized over and over in my practice, inasmuch as your brain is a bio-computer, as with any other type of computer, it can be both de-programmed and re-programmed. So consider that almost everything you do that ends up hurting you begins with your self-talk—more specifically, your negative self-talk. And the main reason your current problems have been so difficult to surmount is that, if you’re like most people, you’re only vaguely aware of what, moment to moment, you’re saying to yourself. If you continue to think yourself into defeatist behaviors, you’re pro-actively sabotaging yourself from what you really want in life.
1. Stop assuming that past dysfunctional programming represents your (unalterable) personal gravity.
If you’re to modify the counter-productive assumptions that may have kept you from moving forward in life, the first thing to do is re-examine the rationality of what by now you’ve told yourself so often it’s come to feel irrefutable. What, given your immaturity as a child, made perfect sense to you, may now demand reappraisal. And with further introspection, many of your “can’t do” inferences can gradually transition into a “can do” attitude, greatly enhancing your behavioral repertoire.
You need to start convincing yourself that as an adult you’ve grown substantially—physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s foolish to continue living your life based on conclusions you arrived at based on your so-restricted childhood environment. As the adult you are today, you no longer need to constrain yourself for fear of family or peer disapproval or rejection. It’s time now to become true to who you are—to become your own person—and attribute to yourself the authority you couldn’t possibly grant yourself as a child.
2. Break free of your belittling habit of self-criticism.
How often do you put yourself down, focus on your failings and flaws, or back off from challenges for fear you might not succeed at them? Instead, can you start telling yourself that if you cease trying to succeed, such inaction will surely guarantee failure, and that, as the expression goes, “practice makes perfect,” or that life is (or, realistically, should be) more about progress than perfection.
Ultimately, your inner work needs to center on being kinder to yourself. And until now your inner critic has disallowed this, fearing that either such self-support would impel you to slack off completely or, should you give your all to an endeavor that’s vital to you, you’ll only fail miserably at it. Even as you acknowledge your critic’s (wrong-headed) efforts to protect you from failure, could you “dare” to accept yourself right now just as you are, knowing you are on a path to self-evolution and growth. If you continue to be governed by your self-disapproving arbitrator, you’ll maintain a status quo that prevents you from pursuing what’s most meaningful and rewarding to you.
It’s long overdue to separate yourself from this oppressive, non-compassionate inner critic, and tell it that you’re an adult now (whereas it remains fixated somewhere in childhood, where it originated) and that you have far more resources than it recognizes. Inform it—with as much evidence as you can summon—that you can do a lot better than it imagines you can. In a sense, it’s made it impossible for you to be fully grown up, and you need to persuade it of your current capabilities.
3. Reassess your assumptions about how the world operates, and consequently how you need to function in it.
As already noted, the problem with the inferences you make about people while you’re young is that they’re based on a very limited experiential framework. Still, when your juvenile deductions are unthinkingly maintained versus are subject to periodic review, they automatically “morph” into conclusions—hard and fast rules on how you must be to fit in with others and with society generally. And such inner edicts ensnare you, needlessly restricting your potential. But if you’re to live a fulfilling life, it’s essential to reconsider what once felt threatening, fearsome, or overwhelming. For what earlier you didn’t have the resources to effectively cope with, you either now possess or can begin to develop. In short, don’t let your past dictate your future.
4. Stop putting yourself under constant pressure to perform.
Might you be so driven to prove yourself that you’ve engendered an amount of self-discipline that makes kicking back and genuinely enjoying life nearly impossible? Have you made your life into a “business” in the endless effort to feel a competence you could never experience in growing up? Are you your own super-harsh taskmaster? Drill sergeant?
If you received the message from your family that your essential worth depended exclusively on what you could get done, your grades, or how much money you could earn, you may almost literally have been shackled by this onerous programming. And remember that this could be the case independent of how much your parents pressured you. If that is, (1) you interpreted their behavior toward you as at least implying that this was how you should be, and (2) you internalized this message so that your self-esteem hinged on such driven behavior, you’re now imprisoned by it.
5. Give up extravagant longings and grandiose aspirations that cannot do anything but ensure defeat.
A common expression suggests that you can do anything you set your mind to—a clearly aspirational slogan. And yes, it does make some sense to test yourself, to see whether you can transcend certain limitations by doggedly persevering in your efforts to accomplish something you hold dear. Still, we’re all beset with certain absolute limits in what we’re able to achieve. So it’s crucial that you learn to accept them.
So if you’re a poorly coordinated 5’4” person, you’re simply setting yourself up for failure if you practice unrelentingly to make it into the NBA. Of if you’re genetically endowed with a physique that’s short and squat, it doesn’t matter how buff you make yourself—being a high fashion model isn’t going to happen. And so on, and so on.
6. Contest the non-deserving beliefs that have prompted you to sabotage yourself—to repeatedly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
If you received, or at least thought you received, messages of unworthiness from your family, deep down you may not believe you deserve to succeed. If success, whether personal or professional, doesn’t feel like anything you merit, you’ll subconsciously undermine yourself. There’s a little-known conceptualization of personality called self-confirmation theory which postulates that beneath conscious awareness you’ll feel compelled to act in ways that validate already held notions of yourself. To avoid anxiety and stay well within your comfort zone, you’ll behave so as to “prove” you were right all along about your limited potential. And such behavior can also be understood as a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” depriving you of the opportunity to attain the personal growth and contentment you would otherwise achieve.
7. Put a halt to your worrying, ruminating, or catastrophizing.
By now it’s a cliché that almost nothing you worry about ever actually occurs—and even in the very few instances that it does, there really wasn’t anything you could do to avoid it anyway.
It’s crucial to note that not only is worrying a waste of precious time and energy, but it can significantly heighten your stress level and compromise your peace of mind. See whether you can engage in a rational dialogue with that obsessively ruminating part of you, in order to convince it to loosen its disquieting grip on you. Tell it that you appreciate its apprehensive concern, but that once you’ve done everything you can reasonably do to prevent something bad from happening, it’s time for it to let you refocus your attention on what you can control.
8. At every opportunity, seek to prove to yourself that you’re safer than you feel.
If you grew up constantly anxious because you couldn’t predict when or why one of your caretakers might condemn you for something, then even in your own home you could never feel safe. And that’s tragic since your home should have been a place of solace, especially in a world that would (quite “normally”) feel confusing to you—at times, even overwhelming. So, if you’re still prone to feeling uneasy or uptight in the company of others, can you—in your mind’s eye—visualize your still scared inner child, return to it and, as much as required, keep reminding it that what happened in the past is now just a memory? And that the person you grew into can now protect it from any would-be aggressor.
You may not be able to feel socially secure until you’re able to revivify, and then heal that earlier part of you that came to fear or distrust others’ motives or intentions. Remember, if your feelings of vulnerability don’t really match present-day reality, it’s because your present is unconsciously reminding you of your past. And that’s why old, unresolved feelings of risk or precariousness can temporarily take custody of you—both in your mind and body.
9. Recognize your residual regrets for what they are—mental exercises in futility.
Such regretful self-talk fits into the woeful category of woulda-coulda-shoulda. And all that needs to be said here is that if you could have done something more or different in the situation you continue to experience remorse over, then you would have. It’s nothing but wishful thinking to torture yourself with the belief that given your state of mind and feeling back then, as well as your psychological resources, you could have acted in any way different from how you actually did. So when your regrets resurface and you again lament your past behavior, it’s essential to remind yourself that you did the best you could at the time. And, yet again, let it go.
10. Forgive yourself for past misdeeds.
Closely related to the above, once you recognize the futility of your regret, can you also forgive yourself for past insensitivities, deficits in compassion, angry explosions, erroneous judgments, destructive impulses, etc.? It’s really your choice as to whether you persist in beating yourself up (as your inner critic would have you do) or simply make certain you’ve learned whatever you could from past misbehaviors or mistakes, so they no longer get repeated.
11. Reassess your (likely exaggerated) feelings of guilt.
How much might you still harbor guilt for times when you violated the ethical standards you now adhere to—whether that guilt pertains to failing to identify with another’s (vulnerable) feelings, predicting the adverse outcome of your behavior, not doing as good as you could have on a task, goal or school, or bowing to external pressures to do something that now causes you remorse.
Quite similar to regret, most guilt ignores crucial factors which at that time compelled your culpable behavior. Typically, it’s only later that you come to realize your action reflected poorly on your core values. Although guilt signifies that you do indeed have a conscience (obviously a good thing), still be aware of whether you may also possess a so-called “tyrannical superego,” which could make you feel much worse about behaving badly than really warranted.
12. Let go of any longstanding anger and resentment.
Given the psychological defenses all of us develop to safeguard ourselves from outward threats (real or imagined), even the most nefarious among us may, ironically, be doing the best they can. What’s crucial here is for you to try to understand sympathetically the hurt or fear underlying another’s blameworthy behavior. Doubtless, this isn’t to excuse such behavior, everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions. But to remain angry with such individuals is counter-productive. It costs you vital energy that could be more beneficially employed for other purposes. You’re better off simply affirming your moral principles in the face of that which affronts them than expending effort to denigrate others ignorant, inconsiderate behavior. And that proposed “remedy” applies especially to your parents, and their various inadequacies in nurturing you the way you needed them to.
13. Examine the rationality of your issues relating to trust.
In this imperfect planet of ours, a certain amount of cautious skepticism is only prudent. But if you go beyond such “measured” doubtfulness, falling into a dark pit of cynicism, you’re well on the road to lifelong discontent and bitterness. So it could be advantageous to explore what in your past created this mistrust in others or more importantly, in yourself. Odds are your parents weren’t very trustworthy, so they may inadvertently have taught you to adopt a distrustful (if not disdainful) attitude toward people in general. And ultimately yourself.
But have you possibly overgeneralized your suspiciousness—and to the point of being, if not misanthropic, still excessively dubious of others’ motives? If that’s the case, it’s time to consider taking a more objective, even-handed approach to evaluating others’ integrity. If in fact you have this problem, begin to let yourself experiment with putting more faith in others—but only to a limited degree. And based on how honorably they react to your giving them the benefit of the doubt, you can bit-by-bit extend (or reduce) this trust. Consider that you really can’t have an emotionally intimate relationship with anyone if you can’t allow yourself to be vulnerable in it. And that vulnerability depends on your willingness (at least tentatively) to trust them.
14. Don’t blame or shame yourself for your (not-yet-overcome) addictive habits.
Realize that without a fairly elaborate, well-designed plan to eliminate them, compulsive/addictive behaviors are (almost by definition) beyond most people’s control. I am not referring to alcohol or drug abuse here. Although some of them may have evolved as (maladaptive) ways of coping with stress, most often they derive from an urgent need to avoid or assuage scary or shameful thoughts and feelings. But paradoxically, castigating yourself for your inability to control what, admittedly, you may realize is harmful to you can all too easily drive you to repeat these self-defeating behaviors. For your stressing over them can itself become emotionally unbearable, further fueling this so vicious cycle.
15. Stop taking things so personally, take it in, but don’t take in on!
As long as you’re dependent on the validation of others, you’ll never come into your own adult authority. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take seriously what others say to you about you. For you can learn valuable things about yourself—particularly your only half-recognized foibles—by being open and undefended to whatever feedback others might share with you (assuming, of course, that it’s constructive). But realize, too, that what they’re telling you might have much less to do with you personally than what, protectively, they may need to keep covered up about themselves.
16. Stop comparing yourself to others.
It’s sensible to strive to become your personal best, to (within limits) push yourself to develop your strengths, even as you find ways to circumvent your inborn limitations. But it’s foolish to compare yourself to those whose minds or bodies enable them to achieve things beyond your capability. You probably don’t have it within you to write the great American novel, be the next billionaire or home run king. So instead, learn to make the most of the gifts you do have—and be proud of them, too. Compete only with yourself and do so only to the extent that you don’t throw your life so out of balance that you can’t really enjoy it.
17. Stop sacrificing your integrity, dignity, or pride just to ensure that people will like you.
If you suffer from a people pleasing syndrome probably left over from your struggles to please your only conditionally accepting parents, you may have become programmed to attempt to ingratiate yourself with others also, to optimize the chances they’ll see you as deserving of their friendship. But ask yourself how it’s affected your self-regard to sacrifice—or “offer”—yourself to others this way. For, however implicitly, each time you accommodate others’ preferences at your own expense, you’re giving yourself the message that their wants and needs are more important than yours, that you’re not on their same level. And whatever self-esteem difficulties you have will never improve so long as you maintain such a self-disparaging attitude in relation to others.
18. Stop depending on others to calm you down or validate you.
There’s virtually nothing more important than to learn how to both self-validate and self-soothe. This is an inside job. If you rely on others to do this confirmation for you, you’ll never live free, always requiring others not only to reassure you but also to certify the legitimacy of your viewpoints. To accomplish this vital task, you’ll need to recognize that it’s the insecure child inside you that still doubts itself. But you’re its parent now, so it’s time to learn how to pacify it, get it to settle down, and tell it what it never heard (or was able to take in) from its original caretakers.
19. Learn to accept every part of you, unflattering parts and all.
List everything about you that’s special or (for that matter) just adequate to get into the habit of becoming your own best friend—which, finally, ought to be your paramount goal. Remember that of anyone you’ll ever meet, you’re the only one who’ll never leave. So consider that when you’re excessively hard on yourself, you’ve perversely opted to become your own worst enemy. Nonetheless, at any moment, you can make the conscious decision—or re-decide—to become your dearest, closest friend and companion.
True, all this is much easier said than done. But it’s hardly beneficial to be conditionally self-accepting because of your different flaws or shortcomings. Certainly, if something is important to you and you’re able to improve on it, feel perfectly free to do so. You need to tell yourself that your whole-hearted self-love of the non-narcissistic kind is the single, worthiest goal to pursue. That means no longer taunting yourself with the words, “I’ll accept myself when. . .” For if you’re to embark on a journey enabling you to reach your highest potential, it’s best to start by accepting yourself without any conditions. After all, you are the only you that ever existed. So even if you’ve made a mess of things up until now (which you have not), consider that your mistakes represent, more than anything else, poor programming. Consequently, with whatever energy is now at your disposal, can you begin to re-program your mind-brain connection.
And, yet again, be aware that once you change your self-talk—and believe what positive things you’re now telling yourself—you can and it will, change your life.