Created By: MICHAEL W. FORDYCE, Ph.D
Answers the question – What are the top 14 traits of happy people?
The research findings on happiness have shown quite conclusively that happiness and mental health are strongly related and that happy people typically get top ratings in healthy adjustment (132, 202, 201, 59, 63, 117, 104, 108, 123, 55, 147).
Thus, Fundamental Nine 9 is “Work On A Healthy Personality.”
The basic idea behind this Fundamental, naturally enough, is that you enhance your mental health and grow toward better adjustment, your happiness will increase proportionately.
THE HAPPINESS / MENTAL-HEALTH CONNECTION
One of the obvious problems in achieving personal happiness, as we’ve alluded to before, is that happiness (as a goal) is rarely explicit — it is usually implicit. We all pay great lip service to happiness. When pressed, most of us acknowledge that it’s our main goal in life. But, generally, we pay it little mind. We assume, somewhere in the back recesses of our mind, that happiness will come as the result of our successful attention to the ordinary concerns of our lives.
Mental health psychologists have tended to treat happiness in much the same way.
Implicitly, of course, happiness can be assumed to be the eventual result of every psychological intervention. Hardly any psychologist would deny, if asked to consider it, that greater happiness is the ultimate goal of all their research and therapeutic efforts. Yet, in fact, this goal is rarely mentioned explicitly.
Thus, in practice and in theory, psychologists treat happiness much as we all do. We work to develop treatments for emotional disorders, we develop theories on better marital communication, we study the intellectual development of children, we experiment with new therapeutic techniques for substance abuse, and so on — all assuming that greater human happiness will be the result. But this assumption is hardly ever stated specifically — it’s simply just taken for granted!
Particularly when it comes to mental health theory, the mention of “happiness” is conspicuously absent. Theorists in this area have identified dozens of characteristics they consider critical to optimal mental health, but few identify happiness to be among them. Neither do any major theorists specifically suggest that happiness is the main result of achieved mental health. Still, throughout the writings of the major mental health theorists, passing references to happiness often occur in their discussion of the healthy personality, but the connection between happiness and mental health is merely implied; never clearly drawn.
Ironically, it has only been since scientific research into the nature of human happiness has emerged that the connection between happiness and mental health has become clear. As the research amassed, the relationship between a high degree of mental health and a high degree of happiness grew stronger and stronger. So much so, that happiness is beginning to be seen as not just peripheral to mental health, but an integral part of it. Indeed, the research is so strong in this regard, that many psychologists are now coming to see that happiness is one of the most basic of all mental health characteristics. Indeed, it may be the primary characteristic!
And why shouldn’t it be? Happiness, as I view it, is the basic emotional reward for success in living!
One can find success in business, one can find success in love, one can find success in achievements, or one can find success in educational pursuits. But the ultimate success is that of personhood — developing oneself to the highest level of healthiness and self-actualization. Such personal development is the highest of psychological goals — no wonder our research has found it so strongly associated with the finest of life’s rewards.
This mission of this Chapter, therefore, is to help you learn more about mental health so you can become a happier person.
But where to begin?
The study of healthy personality fills volumes of clinical textbooks. Its breath is far to extensive to be completely reviewed in this present Chapter. Especially in the last few decades, clinical research into the healthy personality has mushroomed. The works of Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Arron Beck, Albert Ellis, Fritz Pearls, Eric Fromm, and so many others have brought major theoretical contributions to this field, and the interested reader is directed to the works of these Greats or the numerous, fine textbooks in the field of adjustment psychology used in college classrooms today.
For the sake of our present discussion, however, some distillation of this voluminous field is possible. In our first volume of Human Happiness, the following was offered:
The expert view in this field suggests that mental health is typified by the following traits: (1) an accurate, positive self-understanding, (2) realization of potentialities (what is called “self-actualization”), (3) and integrated personality, (4) autonomous thought and action, (5) accurate perceptions of the world, (6) environmental and social effectiveness, and, of course, (7) an absence of negative symptomology (807, 808). Traditional views of mental health have also strongly emphasized things like the mastery of the environment, good family relationships, meaningful social relationships, a positive self-image, satisfactory job adjustment, and successful role adjustment.
Other qualities mentioned in Volume I were: “self-actualization” (fulfilling one’s highest potential); “time-competence” (living fully in the present and not in the past or future); “inner-directedness” (being independent, autonomous, and self-supportive); “self-regard” (liking oneself because of one’s strengths); “self-acceptance” (accepting one’s shortcomings and weaknesses); and “spontaneity” (freely expressing needs and feelings).
Indeed, most of the Fourteen Fundamentals for happiness that we’ve covered so far are generally accepted as highly typical of healthy, well-adjusted people. An active life-style (Fundamental 1), a rewarding social life (Fundamental 2), meaningful pursuits (Fundamental 3), a well organized, planful life (Fundamental 4), a low level of worry (Fundamental 5), realistic goal-setting (Fundamental 6), a positive outlook (Fundamental 7), and present-orientation (Fundamental 8) are all considered to be “core” traits of the healthy personality, according to experts in the field. Likewise, the Fundamentals covered after this chapter (“Develop an Outgoing, Social Personality;” “Be Yourself;” “Eliminate Negative Feelings;” and “Close Relationships are Number One”) also deal with traits which are widely acknowledged as integral to mental health. In other words, each of the Fundamentals can also be considered to be typical of the characteristics found in healthy, well-adjusted personalities. As a matter of fact, the Fundamentals Program could just as well be considered a practical guide to mental health as it is a guide to happiness.
The fascinating thing, however, is that these findings (quite by coincidence) evolved from two, independent lines of research…
Mental health researchers were only concentrating on those characteristics which they could identify as contributing to healthiness, while happiness researchers were only concerned with isolating those characteristics which they could identify as contributing to happiness. The ultimate result, however, was almost identical. The characteristics found as basic to mental health were the same as were basic to happiness!
As the research has progressed since then, the more we find that mental health and happiness are closely tied to one another. Indeed, it appears that they’re basically, one and the same. As we concluded in Volume I,
Happiness is mental health; and mental health is happiness.
THE WOAHP FIVE
In my initial work with the Fundamentals, it seemed to me that the strong research connection between mental health and happiness deserved to be focal in our training. But it was also part of our research goal to make the program accessible to most anybody, regardless of their academic background in psychology. To do this, we worked to provide a basic formulation of the most rudimentary mental health principles in a simple, rememberable scheme. What we came up with was the “Work On A Healthy Personality Five,” or the WOAHP FIVE.
The WOAHP FIVE are five of the most basic principles of mental health, put in simple phrases, and suitable for the short chapter we have before us. They are easy to keep in mind — and hopefully to memorize for daily reference. They represent, in my opinion, a “nutshell” view of the of the most widely accepted faucets of healthiness. Yet, in no way are they meant to do full justice to the wide scope of research in this area. Still, they are a starting point for the average reader in learning what healthy personality is all about.
The WOAHP FIVE are five, simply-put admonitions:
1. LIKE YOURSELF
2. ACCEPT YOURSELF
3. KNOW YOURSELF
4. HELP YOURSELF
5. BE YOURSELF
WOAHP 1: LIKE YOURSELF
Psychologists have been studying healthy personality for decades, and of all the things they find about healthy people, the one thing that stands out the most is that healthy people feel good about themselves.
So important is this aspect of mental health, psychologists have developed a wide array of technical terms to describe it. Terms like ego-strength, a positive self-concept, self-respect, self-worth, self-regard, a close “real-self” to “ideal-self” correspondence, and many more are currently used in clinical circles. No matter what the clinical description, in the simplest terms: healthy people like themselves.
The person with a healthy self image — the person that “likes one’s self” — has a generally positive view of themselves, on balance. They tend to feel self-confident and self-assured. They see themselves as having numerous skills, abilities, and other positive traits. They consider themselves as having far more good qualities than lacking ones. They view themselves as being likable to others, and typically feel good about their social personality. They are relatively fee of insecurities and self-consciousness. They have a sense of adequacy in dealing with the everyday demands of life, and generally see themselves as worthwhile and attractive as persons.
The unhealthy self-image, at its worse, is riddled with feelings of inferiority and insecurity. Generally, it is a self-image that is more negative than positive. The unhealthy personality usually feels lacking compared to others.
The source of such inadequate feelings vary. They may be based on a negative body-image — the person feeling that they are unattractive and unappealing. They can be based on a history of educational, occupational, or relationship failures. They may be based on deep-seated guilt or losses from the past. They can be based on a life of social rejections and non-acceptance, or they may be based on a childhood scarred by abuse, trauma, or neglect.
Whatever the roots, persons with a negative self-image tend to limit themselves socially. They tend to be shy and uncomfortable in social settings. They are often painfully self-conscious, self-critical, and hyper-sensitive. They doubt love when it comes their way; tending to be overly jealous and possessive with their mates. They overreact to criticism and have difficulty accepting praise. They approach life with caution and fear, feeling little confidence in their ability to deal with life’s challenges.
A poor self-image can be crippling. It can withhold one from living any kind of a full life. It can stunt one’s occupational growth and severely curtail to joys of social pursuits. And the negative feelings which permeate one’s picture of oneself, can easily lead to deep depression or chronic insecurity.
At the extreme, a negative self-image can approach actual self-hatred. In such cases, internal feelings of self-disgust and hostility often explode outwardly — affecting society with crime and families with domestic violence.
Yet even in it’s mildest forms, a low self-image is no fun to live with. Niggling feelings of self-doubt on the job; feelings of nervousness in social settings; feeling inadequate when looking in the mirror; worrying about the impression we make on others; overreacting to the slightest setback or comment; etc.. Certainly, this is far from a comfortable way to live — and even more certainly, it is not a happy way to live!
THE “TIME CLOCK” REVISITED
Previously, we presented “the time clock theory of happiness” for your consideration. There, we suggested that a person’s happiness was directly related to the content of their thoughts over a given period of time. The “theory,” as you probably recall, was based on the psychological fact that positive thoughts tend to produce happy emotion and negative thoughts produce unpleasant emotion. Therefore, the emotional tone of a given period of time is directly proportional to the positively or negativity of one’s thinking during the same period of time.
The “time clock theory” made it clear that your happiness is greatly influenced by thought. The more your mind is occupied with pleasant thought the happier you’ll tend to be — the more you mind is focused on unpleasant thoughts, the unhappier you’ll be.
When we introduced the “time clock theory,” we were talking about worry. For most people, worry alone takes quite a few “ticks” off the clock given to troubled thought. Since then we have examined even more kinds of negative thinking patterns which, “tick” by “tick,” eat away at our precious happiness time. Pessimistic thinking, negative interpretations of events, dwelling on past regrets and hurts, longing for unfulfilled dreams — all have been dealt with. When we add them up, there are few “ticks” left on the clock for happy thoughts for most of us. But bad as all this is, it hardly makes a dent compared to the way self-image effects our time clock!
The basic feelings we have about ourselves — our self- image — are pervasive. They follow us everywhere; they are our constant mental companion. We can’t escape it: our self-image is always with us! Sometimes we are consciously aware of it, but most of the time it resides more on a subconscious level. Yet it is always there, coloring our every thought and every action. Our sense of self follows us through each moment of the day; it is even there in our nightly dreams or waking fantasies. No matter what we think, no matter what we do, no matter where we happen to be — we’re stuck with ourselves and our self-image.
Not only is self-image pervasive — affecting every action and thought — it is also abiding. A person’s self- image tends to be rather stable and unchanging over time. One’s view of oneself appears to be a fairly permanent feature of their personality.
Given all this, it’s easy to see how self-image can have a tremendous effect on one’s happiness when viewed on the “time clock.” Take an individual, for example, who’s self-image is largely negative. No matter how many “ticks” of the day are spent in pleasant situations or focused on positive thoughts, there is always an undercurrent of negative feelings about the self that will inevitably surface from time to time. Day after day, these negative feelings will consume a portion of the “time clock,” no matter how well things in the outside world are going. And because the amount of time consumed by these negative self-feelings will generally remain constant over time, it’s as if a goodly portion of this person’s “time clock” was unalterably and permanently earmarked for negative feeling.
Clearly for the person with a low self-image, day-to-day life has to provide many more positive than negative events to create an overall happy balance on the “time clock,” when so much time is already earmarked for the negative.
But for the fortunate person who has a positive self-image to rely upon, there is already a bastion of pleasant “ticks” on the clock to begin with. Even on a bad day, when few things go right, there is enough positive feelings generated from within to tip the “time clock” to a happy balance.
As the “time clock theory” states: the more time one spends in pleasant thought (as opposed to unpleasant thought) the happier one will be, and since thoughts about ourselves are so much a part of our everyday mental life, there tenor is critical. The person with positive self- feelings is clearly minutes ahead of the game to start with. A substantial portion of their “time clock” is almost guaranteed to be on the plus side, so it doesn’t take much more in their day to create a happy balance, overall.
In this light, consider your own feelings about yourself…
How adequate do you view yourself? How good do you feel about yourself?
As far as happiness is concerned, (and I can’t put this too strongly): it is unlikely that you’ll ever be truly happy until you can honestly feel that you “like yourself.” A good, positive feeling about yourself is the cornerstone of mental health and personal happiness. A self-concept riddled with feelings of insecurity, negativity, and inadequacy greatly depletes ones capacity for happiness.
THE ORIGINS OF SELF CONCEPT
In clinical practice, I often find it valuable to help clients analyze the origins of their self-image. To begin with, most individuals are somewhat surprised to think that their self-image even has an origin. It has been such an omnipresent feature of their personality — as far back as they can remember — it never occurred to them that it had a beginning. But it does…
Self-concept is developed, not inborn — and if a person gives some thought to, they are often able to trace it’s development fairly well.
In my counseling, I try to focus on the major traits my clients believe are true of themselves. Particularly, I tend to focus on the negative items they have incorporated in their self-concept. Taking each item at a time, I guide my client to remember back in time to the age at which they first became aware that they had this trait.
Most clients easily recall times in their childhood or early adolescence when the trait became apparent. But the interesting thing is, how clearly most of them can remember the specific set of circumstances that made them especially aware of the trait in question. Often it involved scolding by a parent, teasing by a brother or sister, being made fun of at school, or the like. Sometimes, only one, especially traumatic event comes to mind; but for most, memory recalls an ongoing series of events where the negative theme was repeated. Yet the critical ingredient of all the stories is the same: it always involves someone else! Someone else pointed the trait out to them.
This “tracing back in time” exercise reveals the two most important cornerstones of modern personality theory. First, self-concept is formed largely in childhood experience. And, second, self-concept is based primarily on what others tell us about ourselves.
Since the original work of Freud, the bulk of theory and research in psychology continues to prove that human personality is formed early in childhood. Indeed, the earlier back in time one goes, the greater the influence tends to be.
The greatest effect on personality is probably in the first few years. There, at a time before a child has even developed the capacity for memory or language, the most basic lessons of life are taking place. Is the world a loving, secure place? Is it an anxious, uncertain place? Is it a place of comforting sensations; or is it a world filled with angry voices, frightening sounds, and unexpected pain? Is it a world of caring; or of neglect? Is it a world of happiness? Or is it a world of sadness? These are the important, preverbal messages which set the foundations of our lifelong view of life and of ourselves.
Upon this early foundation come the experiences of childhood — each year forming, in a global way, our developing self-image. As each year passes, the image is solidified and reinforced. In many ways it is still plastic and open to influence, but as we enter adolescence it seems that only the adult manifestations of our childhood personality tend to be honed.
As life progresses into adulthood, personality and self-image remain remarkably stable. It seems there comes a certain point in life that our personality begins to influence circumstances more than circumstances influence our personality. Of course our view of ourselves undergoes constant refinement and expansion, but barring extreme trauma, we remain pretty much the same as we’ve always been.
Personality development is like a Polaroid photograph. When it emerges from the camera, it takes just seconds for the basic image to appear. But the the process slows as the seconds go by, and even when the photograph seems done, it takes several minutes more for all the color and detail to emerge in the picture.
One’s self-concept, therefore, goes way back in time — back to the childhood years. That’s where it all started. That’s the first cornerstone of modern personality theory.
The second cornerstone of modern personality theory involves how you developed that self-concept. The answer is that you “caught it” from those around you.
Our self-concept comes primarily from others.
Many people I’ve interviewed mistakenly believe that their self-image is something they created. Before they really “trace it back in time,” they tend to think that they, themselves, developed it own their own, through a process of self-reflection and personal evaluation. It’s as if they went through a systematic, soul-searching accounting of themselves and concluded, “Yes, I’ll have to fairly admit that I’m a pretty wonderful (or lousy) person.”
But as you trace it back, one begins to hear the myriad of voices from the past that commented about you…
“He’s always getting in trouble.”
“Look at the way he handles that toy hammer. He’s going to be a carpenter just like his Dad.”
“What a pretty girl she’s going to be.”
“He’s a good boy. So much better than his brother.”
“Her teacher says she’s the brightest student in her class.”
It begins at birth and continues throughout life: an endless stream of comments, observations, praises, and criticisms about ourselves. These, especially in the early years, form the impressions we have of ourselves, and sculpt the basis of our self-image.
It is as if our self-concept is a “story” that was told to us when we were very young — a story we were told by our parents, our brothers and sisters, and others who were around us then. If the story was repeated often enough, we came to believe it. As we came to believe it, we acted upon it accordingly. If we thought we were bad, we acted badly; if we felt we were good, we acted that way. It soon became a basic part of us, and as we went through life, we found — partially because we portrayed it so well — that it was confirmed by others time and time again.
But analyze the content of that story…
Psychologists know that if a person is to develop a healthy, positive self-concept, the story needs to be a relatively good one. Unless a child receives some praise, an ample amount of acceptance and affection, and some positive feedback about its good qualities, self-concept is bound to suffer. Continuous punishment, criticality, and belittlement only confirms the worst image a child can have. Indeed, most experts in the field believe that self-concept is a function of “good” to “bad” messages contained in the story we hear as children. If the “good” messages oughtwiegh the “bad” ones, our adult self-image will tend to be sturdy and positive. If “bad” messages predominate, our self-image will be weak and negative.
So as you travel back in time, what was the “good” to “bad” ratio in your story?
If you have a relative positive view of yourself — in other words, if you “like yourself” — you probably heard many more positive than negative messages about yourself as a child. You also probably came from a nurturing, loving family that cared about you and your development. If this is all true, consider yourself among the lucky, for such is more the exception than the rule in our society.
If you had a more typical childhood, you probably recall many more negative messages than positive ones as you grew up. This, sadly, is the norm. In my view, American society is facing a growing crises in self-concept. It is at the very root of the “mental health crisis” we spoke of before. Millions of Americans feel inadequate and negative about themselves. Very few achieve the high level of self-worth they ought to feel.
The indicators are all around us (many we’ve mentioned in previous parts of these Volumes). America has the highest rate of violent crime and murder of any society. Our divorce rate is soaring. Child abuse, domestic violence, rape, drugs, alcoholism, and other problems hit the news daily. One in six Americans suffer from severe emotional disorders, while millions more suffer from milder anxieties and depressions. More than half of Americans dislike their jobs, are dissatisfied with their relationships, and are unhappy with their physical appearance. The list goes on and on…
Apparently, we don’t like ourselves very much — and if we’re not taking it out on ourselves, we’re taking it out on each other.
Why is all this happening? I, personally, believe it’s due to the inadequate self-image most of us Americans have — a self-image that our society perpetuates.
According to comparative anthropologists, American society is among the most punitively-oriented in the world. Especially when compared to the majority of even primitive societies, Americans tend to be among the most non-acceptant, punitive, and critically-oriented of all cultures. We rely far more on punishment and criticism as a means of social control and child-rearing than other societies do. The result, on an individual level, is the typical American childhood…
Now if you don’t feel all that good about yourself, you’re in good company. Most American children are raised in a highly critical environment. In general, it seems that the social norm for parenting is the motto: “Good behavior is expected and will never be acknowledged. Bad behavior will, on the other hand, will never be acceptable, and will be quickly, sternly, and incessantly trounced upon!”
Think back. In all your early memories, how many times do you recall being praised and acknowledged for your successes and good attributes? Pretty rarely, I’d suspect. You can probably count them on you fingers. Compare these incidents to the hundreds of times you were scolded, punished, corrected, made to feel foolish, etc.. No, for many — if not most — of us, the negative comments directed to us far outweigh the positive. No wonder so few of us end up with an adequate, positive view of ourselves.
It begins with our parents…
“You’re such a bad boy.”
“You kids are driving me crazy!”
“I don’t believe you could be so stupid…”
“Why can’t you be a good girl, like Mary down the street?”
“You’re not going to wear that are you? You look ridiculous.”
“Don’t touch that! You’ll just ruin it!”
“You’re so dumb! Here, watch how your brother does it.”
“I hope you’re as miserable with your children as I am with you.”
If you had brothers and sisters, they didn’t help matters much. Typically, they had a host of negative observations about you — and, better yet, they often had even more detrimental names to call you than your parents ever used (“geek,” “retard,” “scuzz-ball,” “creep,” “rodent breath,” etc.) — none of which were particularly helpful in developing a positive self-image.
But it didn’t stop at home. Soon you’re outside playing with the neighborhood kids. They’re calling you names, ridiculing you, using words you’ve heard “Mommy” and “Daddy” yelling at each other at home, etc.. (And even though you don’t know what the words meant, if “Mommy” and “Daddy” yelled them at each other, they must be appropriate to use with anyone you’re angry with.) Often these early social rebuffs hurt deeply. We adults usually dismiss such episodes with the idea that “kids are often cruel to each other,” but the truth is that they are simply reflecting the hurtful communication we adults use with each other at home.
Then we enter school. And things there aren’t much better. Some kids shun us. Others make fun of us. The teachers reprimand us. Everywhere we turn, the messages we get seem far more negative than positive. As we enter the larger, outside world, we find ourselves graded, evaluated, and placed in a category. Academically, we’re compared to every other child; and rarely do we come out on top. Socially, we find ourselves competing for acceptance, yet only the lucky few end up “popular.” Athletically, we never are quite as strong or as fast as others. Physically, we quickly discover our attractiveness leaves much to be desired. And sadly, we become aware of how our heritage (racial, religious, ethnic, economic, etc.) tends to prejudice others against us.
It doesn’t take long to realize how lacking we are…
By the time we reach adolescence, we’ve started to master the game. We band with groups whose sole purpose seems to be to ridicule and humiliate other groups that are doing the same to us. Dress, appearance, and even the slightest mannerisms become critical. Everything is subject to intense “rating” by our peers, and hardly ever do we get a top “rating” in any category.
By now, we are also learning one of the most fundamental distinctions in American culture: the distinction between “winners” and “losers.” In such a highly competitive society as we live in, we begin to realize that only “winners” are acceptable. Yet in most of the competitions we find ourselves, there only a few winners. Indeed, in many cases, there is only one. Those who don’t win, implicit by definition, are “losers.” Try as we might, unless we end up being “Number 1,” we view ourselves as failures. “Second-best,” to Americans, “just won’t do.” Yet as ideal as such a motto might seem, it leaves most of us feeling pretty poorly about ourselves.
As adults, the negativity continues. On the job, our mistakes are roundly criticized and our abilities are rarely praised. At home, our spouse harps on our failings and our children ignore our advice. In public, people hardly give us notice at all. Rarely does anyone give us much credit. Hardly do we hear a kind remark. The loan officer at the bank treats us like we’re begging for Welfare. Even the clerk at the 7-11 seems bothered that we want to purchase something.
And then, we have to compare ourselves to what we’re “supposed” to be.
Magazines, television, and the movies bombard us with the images of ideal beauty, success, power, and athletic achievement. Everywhere we turn are constant reminders of the perfection and rewards the “winners” of the world attain. Even those who’ve achieved a modest degree of success in life tend to feel inadequate when compared to the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.”
Given all this, is it any wonder so few people end up with a favorable self-image?
Still, there’s a way most of us can break this cycle: consider the source!
Assume, as we have constructed here, that your self- image has been the result of a “story” you were told about yourself in childhood – a “story” told to you mainly by your parents. You bought the “story” they imparted. You believed most every word they said about you. But how accurate and objective was the “story?” Or put more concretely, how accurate and objective were your parents?
Consider the source…
Were your parents equal to an unbiased team of objective psychologists tasked to provide the most accurate assessment of your personality and its potential, and nurture your developing self-concept to its fullest? Or were they simply human beings, filled with their own shortcomings, weaknesses, and frustrations?
As children, we tend to imagine our parents as perfect. But in our adult reflections, we remember how imperfect they actually were. When we consider the source, the imperfections become clear to us. We remember our parents as being not to happy with each other. We recall the fighting and arguments (that for some of us led to their separations or divorce). Our memory still sees clearly our parents’ episodes of anger, abuse, or betrayal of trust. We remember how frustrating and difficult their own life was for them. And sometimes, sadly, we recall how resentful they were to be parents at all.
When we think of the “story” they told us, we can begin to see how biased it was. For many of us, our self-image is based on a story told to us by frustrated, unfulfilled story-tellers. It was a series of negative messages sent from a negative, unhappy source. Indeed, in this light, many of the messages weren’t meant for us at all. Although deeply hurtful to us, they were probably just an incidental way for our parents to release the tensions of their stressful day when they got home.
In fact, most of the negative messages we receive in life are not meant for us at all — we just get what someone else should have gotten…
Dad comes home after a bad day at the office and fusses with Mom. Mom then yells at Johnny for not doing his chores. Johnny, in turn, takes his resentment out by tormenting his little brother. Little brother then vents his frustration by wrestling with the family dog, and the dog gets so worked-up that he attacks Dad’s leg.
So here we are with our self-concept. Apparently it is based on a “story” we heard from other people, mainly our parents. It is a “story” we learned at a very young age, long before we could really analyze it critically. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a “story” that came from sources that were flawed themselves. The question, then, is why should we believe it?
It is with this question, that many of the people I’ve counseled begin their journey to a healthier personality. As they “trace back” the origins of their self-concept and realize the fact that it is, basically, nothing more than a “story” that they were told about themselves, they begin to see how dubious the “story” might be. Indeed, the mere idea that their self-concept is more of a “story” than an inborn trait opens many new doors for them — doors that can lead to change.
The best thing about a story is, precisely, that it can be changed! Even the masters of folk-tales never tell their historic renditions the same way every time no matter how hard they try to remain authentic to the recitation. There is room in every story for a new perspective. There is room in every story for enlightened revision. Historians,
The best thing about a story is, precisely, that it can be changed! Even master story tellers never tell give their historic renditions the same way twice. There is room in every story for a new perspective. There is room in every story for enlightened revision. Even in Science, History, Anthropology, and the Arts the texts are constantly revised. There is no reason at all, therefore, for you not to revise your own view of yourself.
As with many of the Fundamentals, “like yourself” is basically a matter of attitude…
In the final accounting, you are the ultimate judge of yourself. It is simply a matter of deciding how you are going to judge what you are. Will you decide to like yourself or dislike yourself? The choice is up to you. Your view of yourself is not cast in stone. Nor is it determined by the view others have cast upon you over the years. It is, rather, what you decide.
The point is: no one else’s ideas or opinions should determine how you should feel about yourself — only you should! And how you should choose to judge yourself is simply a matter of choice on your part.
And the beauty of it is, that it is a choice! It’s a matter of attitude. You can train yourself to change it if you wish to.
Despite all this, however, such a challenge to change you self-view may seem an insurmountable task. Thus, let me present a few ideas to help smooth the way…
First of all, your self-concept is in your own mind!
Your self-concept is locked within you — deep-seeded in your own mind. It doesn’t float around you somewhere on the outside. No one in the outside world is aware of it — nor is anyone on the outside really making it happen to you. It is truly just a inner battle of you against you. So why not take control and stop it?
After all, your own, private mind ought to have the right to think about yourself anything it decides to think! Why let outside influences make the decision for you? Your own, unique mind is the only true property you possess in this world. Why let it be polluted or mollified by outside opinions, when you can set it’s own course? You, and no one else, has the right to think what you wish to think. And you have the right — and the ability — to think well about yourself.
Secondly, you deserve to feel good about yourself!
Perhaps the greatest mistake evolution has produced in human thinking is the blind dichotomy between goodness and evil which appears natural to our species. Through our primitive eyes, things are viewed simply as either good or bad, black or white, and “yes” or “no.” There is little room for any middle-ground or shades of gray in our rudimentary view of the universe. As Plato put our Western view so simply, “It’s either “A” or it’s not “A”.”
In such a “black or white” universe, it’s hard for any of us to view ourselves positively. We’re either “all worthy” or “all worthless” from this perspective — there appears to be no in-between. Yet, who among us can judge themselves as “all worthy?”
In modern times, the standard for good feelings appears just as stringent. Today, however, the standard has shifted from “all good/all bad” to “Winners and Losers.” The most followed of current events (sports, politics, etc.) seem to stress a new message: either you are Number One, or you’re nothing at all. There is only one “Gold Medal.” There is only one “Super Bowl” or “World Series.” There is only one winner in an election. There is only one who graduates “head of the class.” And although thousands may have entered the fray at the beginning, at the end, only one team or individual wins. The rest of us, almost by definition, are relegated to the classification of “losers.” Second or third best hardly counts anymore…
No matter what the standard, most of us rarely win!
If your self-concept is to be determined by how completely good you are, or what a “winner” you eventually come to be, then your chances of feeling good about yourself are infintesibly slim indeed!
I suggest an alternative standard: one deserves a high level of self-concept as a birthright!
Good self-feelings are something every human being needs and deserves. Such feelings are as basic to healthy existence as food and shelter. As a basic human birthright, everyone deserves a high self-concept.
Look at it this way. You’re unique, you’re special, you’re an individual — you’re a one-of-a-kind human being — and you have a basic Human Right to feel good about the special combination of human qualities that make you what you are.
Thirdly, never feel that a good self-concept need be earned!
The idea of “earning” a good self-image comes from more ancient times. It was based on ancient ideals of merit and valor. The ancient tenet saw that one should only feel good about oneself when one has earned or merited such a feeling through good deeds or accomplishments, and even today there an unspoken allegiance to these ideals of antiquity.
These traditional views remain fixed in the modern mind. Most of us continue to base our self-concept in terms meritoriousness. When asked if we like ourselves, most of us think in terms of whether we deserve it or not. Generally, our answer is based on a listing of our own, self- perceived “good deeds” in comparison to our “bad” ones.
In other words, we tend to look for “good reasons” to justify the possibility of a positive self-image…
The inherent problem with this strategy is that no matter how hard one looks at oneself, there are never enough reasons to justify a positive self-view — particularly, if one is completely honest!
If you have to find enough reasons to like yourself, you’ll never come up with enough! Unless you’re an absolute “saint,” you’ll never find enough good to justify a positive sense of self.
The problem is that nobody’s perfect! Yet, our religious and social teaching suggest we should be…
As we grow-up and are exposed to the barrage of messages rendered to us through the many social, educational, and religious images we are constantly subjected to, it is hard to feel than we come even close to comparison. It is hard enough for the average teenager to match the expected standards of beauty or behavior embodied in the “ideal” images of Rock Stars and Top Models. Much less for we adults to compare ourselves to the “Rich and Famous” personages of past and present ages, or more typically, to those around us who have achieved a great degree of success when we, ourselves, have not. Such images are a constant intrusion into our psyche which inadvertently teach each of us how lacking we are.
It never fails to sadden me as a therapist, how many of my patients profess that they “don’t deserve to be happy.” Perhaps the worst aspect of a low self-concept involves the idea which such individuals hold that a less-than-ideal person should never enjoy feeling happy because they don’t deserve it. So ingrained in our collective conscience is the view that self-worth is a matter of merit, that many people deny themselves any happiness at all because they feel they are undeserving. Others — because they feel so undeserving — experience intense anxiety when the circumstances which might create happiness start appearing in their lives. And still others, actually take effort to sabotage any happy turn-of-events to avoid such “undeserved” happiness.
For many people, feeling happiness is a guilt evoking experience. There is a guilt about feeling happy when one perceives oneself as unworthy or undeserving, and this sense of unworthiness or undeservingness is rooted deep in a person’s self-concept.
If deserve or merit is the only basis of a positive self-concept, then only the Saints have earned the right to be happy on this earth. But I believe every human being has an inalienable right to a sense of self-worth.
A positive self-concept is nothing which needs to be earned or merited. It is something every human being deserves as a birthright. It is not a thing that requires justification. It is folly to base it on deserves, for no matter how deeply you search, if your self-concept is based upon the number of “good reasons” you need to like yourself, you’ll never come up with enough!
How many “good deeds” are necessary? How many stellar qualities are required? How perfect do you need to be? Can there ever be a formula to determine who among us deserves to feel good about themselves and who does not?
Basically, the age-old view that self-esteem must be rooted in actual accomplishment is mistaken. You needn’t a lot of “good reasons” to like yourself. Indeed, unless you’re next to perfect — and nobody is — the more you look for good reasons to like yourself, the worse you’ll probably feel about yourself! Nobody’s perfect, and that’s just the point…
You don’t have to be perfect to like yourself — liking yourself is a basic human right!
BEGINNING TO LIKE YOURSELF
Hopefully these three thoughts can help you decide to like yourself. Perhaps just knowing how healthy it is to feel good about yourself as a person, how you deserve to feel that way, and that you don’t need to be perfect — or even close to perfect — to feel that way, is help enough to set you on the road to liking yourself.
Just being on the road, however, isn’t the same as being there. So allow me to suggest a few, more basic things you can do to more ideas to help you down the road.
The best place to begin is with your assets…
Take some time and write down all the good points you possess. What are your good qualities? What are your abilities? Do you have any special talents? Don’t be modest here, list everything you can think of. Consider your work skills, your social traits, your appearance, your intelligence, your knowledge — whatever occurs to you. Consider also what other have said about you (in fact, even better, ask a few friends what they think).
And don’t try to claim that there’s nothing good about you! After all, if you’ve read this far you can certainly write down that you’ve concerned about improving yourself. That’s one good quality right there! And, if you examine yourself further, you’re bound to find dozens and dozens more.
For example, don’t you care about others? Don’t you like a variety of people? Aren’t you a good friend to someone? Aren’t you a caring parent? Don’t you try to treat other people fairly? Do you have a good sense of humor? Are you a good listener? Do you work hard and honestly? Do you have an area of special expertise? Are you particularly good at something? Aren’t you always trying to better yourself and your family’s situation?
The list is endless if you consider all the possibilities…
Once you have your list, it’s time to use it to help train yourself to think more positively about yourself. And here again, we’re employ the standard “thought modification” technique we’ve used before with other Fundamentals.
To begin with, write each of the items on your list on separate index cards.
(That’s right. We’re back to the index cards again. And if you’ve been trying to incorporate the Fundamentals in your life, you’ve probably got more index cards, already, than you can keep track of. You’ve got cards to help you get organized, cards listing your pleasures, cards to help you “thought check,” etc.. Beyond your cards, you probably have even more lists (lists of your daily worries, lists of optimistic thoughts, and so on). You may be suffering from “list overload” at this juncture. But remember, the best way to work with the Fundamentals is one at a time. Don’t try to juggle them all at once, or you may get “overloaded.” The best strategy is to concentrate on one for a few days, then another, and so on, round and round. So if your already occupied with an earlier Fundamental, just dog-ear these pages and return to them later.)
As before, the technique is the same. Place separate index cards in places around your house or office you’ll notice often (on the T.V., on the dashboard of your car, on your desk, on the bathroom mirror, in your closet, etc.) to remind you to concentrate on “good thoughts about you.” Every time you see one, take a brief “time out” and mentally savor the idea for a bit.
With cards placed in a variety of locations, you day will be filled with frequent little self-affirmations which will start a subtle mental process in which your self-thoughts begin to move to a more positive level.
A variation on this theme is to keep the deck of cards on your person (in a shirt pocket, your purse, etc.) then periodically pull one out and think about it. Even more effective: pull a card every time you do a common task (like every time you sit in a chair or every time walk into an empty room). This latter strategy combines two powerful psychological forces: it couples positive thoughts with common, everyday situations. If consistently practiced, the habitual associations can become ingrained deep in the psyche — and soon, without any cards or reminders at all, your mind automatically falls into a positive thought every time you sit in a chair or walk into a room.
These techniques are nothing new. Such thought shaping is basic to modern behavior and cognitive therapies, as well as “daily affirmations” suggested by many self-help books and recovery organizations. They are simply ways for a person to relearn and reshape their thinking away from negative, self-defeating beliefs about themselves to a more happy and health-producing self-image.
JUST THE BEGINNING
In the long run, a positive self-concept cannot rely entirely on a set of positive thoughts or self-affirmations. Though these are good places to start, a solid self-concept needs continual building — and this entails self-development.
It seems, according to the research, that an abiding and deep sense of self-esteem needs, at least in part, to be based on accomplishments. More simply put: to feel good about yourself you have to do good. To feel worthwhile, you have to do something worthwhile. To have a sense of pride, you have to do something you can take pride in.
These admonitions are not meant to contradict our earlier idea that “you don’t have to earn the right to feel good about yourself.” The idea that people deserve positive self-esteem as a birthright still stands. But that should be seen as just the starting point!
Self-concept can continually be strengthened and enhanced through the development of talents, the further development of positive qualities, and the accomplishment of good and worthwhile works.
It is much like what we said in an earlier Chapter, “Happiness is a way to travel, not a place to arrive.” Here we might paraphrase: “A healthy self-concept is something one should carry throughout one’s lifetime, ever building on its positive foundations — not something which arrives at the end of a lifetime of mistake-free effort.”
From this perspective, one feels good about oneself throughout their life as they continue to grow and develop, rather than postpone such feelings until they reach an accepted pinnacle of personal achievement.
WOAHP 2: ACCEPT YOURSELF
Psychologists generally distinguish between “self-regard” and “self-acceptance.” “Self-regard” is the ability to like yourself because of your good points as a person (as we’ve just discussed) while “self-acceptance” is the ability to like yourself in spite of your weaknesses, shortcomings, and deficiencies. It is generally acknowledged in clinical circles that “self-acceptance” is the harder of the two to achieve.
Everyone has personal shortcomings: things about themselves they feel are defective, inadequate, or fall short of the mark.
For some, it might be their appearance or certain physical features. For others, it may be their lack of ability in sports or certain academic subjects. Some may feel their failings lie in a lackluster “social personality” or the needed “sales presence,” while others constantly struggle against “bad” habits or a lack of personal control. The list of such personal shortcomings is virtually endless.
The problem is: what do you do about them?
You have three choices: You can change it. Or you can just accept it. Or…you can hate yourself for it!
OPTION 1: CHANGE
The first course of action most people take when faced with a personal shortcoming is to “change it.”
Typically, the thinking goes like this…
“I’ve got something about myself that I don’t like, so I’ll work hard to rid myself of it! Soon it will be gone, and then I can finally like myself!”
How can one argue with such an elegant strategy?
In theory, such “change” is the perfect solution to every human failing. In actual practice, however, the strategy is a lot easier to express than to accomplish — and more often than not, the strategy fails.
Try as they might, most people’s attempts to change rarely meet with success!
Although we place a lot of faith in our ability to change, actual change is far more difficult to achieve than we’d like to admit…
It looks all so easy when we read the testimonials in popular magazines or see the commercials promising “instant” success on television. But in reality, change (especially permanent change) is never easy, indeed, in most cases it is sheer agony! Even the most superficial of changes are tough to accomplish. Anyone who has tried to diet, or to quit smoking, or to stop biting their fingernails knows how grueling such attempts can be — and they also know how often the effort ends in failure. Thus, if these minor habits are so resistant to change, it is not hard to see how deeper, more fundamental aspects of the personality would be even more difficult to alter.
Human personality is remarkably durable, and most of us remain pretty much the same throughout our lifetime. Oh certainly, some modification can take place. Habits can be changed, attitudes altered, and minor aspects of our personality can be reshaped. But, all in all, we’re basically stuck with the “same old self,” year after year. Some psychologists even go so far as to say that on a fundamental level, people never change.
Change is possible, and there is no need to completely abandon hope. But we have to be honest; it generally requires extraordinary individual effort, and often extended professional guidance, to ever achieve. Without such tenacious efforts, most attempts at self-change are bound to fail…
Thus, for most of us, that change we’re looking for never quite seems to happen. Oh, we think about it a lot, but rarely to we get down to work at it — and even when we do work at it, our attempts are often sporadic and half-hearted. So try as we might, those old shortcomings are still there, rearing their ugly heads.
So what do we do? Most of us move to Option 2.
OPTION 2: HATE YOURSELF
Faced with shortcomings that just won’t go away, we’re forced to deal with them somehow. Sadly, the most typical method of dealing with them is to make ourselves miserable.
The strategy here is simple: we’ll just hate ourselves for our shortcomings!
There’s a perverse logic at work here; a belief that any personal inadequacy is unacceptable and bad. Because it’s bad, therefore, we should feel bad about it!
The thinking goes much like this:
“Because of my failings, I’m going to hate myself. I pledge to punish myself mentally, because I deserve no better. I’ll be unmerciful on myself – devoting much of my mental attention to agonizing over my imperfections. I’m going to feel crummy, inadequate, and inferior. Why wait for others to notice and criticize me, when I can beat them to it? And, whenever possible, I’m going to let those around me know about my shortcomings, so they can remind me of them periodically, and make me feel even worse!”
Now few people consciously think this way, but somewhere on an unconscious level, we do. Through years of criticism made by our parents, teasing by the other kids at school, chastising from teachers, and the like, we develop a strong unconscious impression that imperfection deserves punishment. If we internalize these lessons well, we begin to do it to ourselves.
Unhealthy people, in particular, have learned these lessons well. A childhood filled with far more criticism than praise leads to an adulthood filled with self-criticism. For the non-acceptant, unhealthy personality the mind is often preoccupied with self-doubt, mental scolding, and self-conscious fixation on their physical or personal inadequacies. The unhealthy personality is often in a tragic bind: their self-regard is low (they have little to take pride in, thus they don’t “like themselves”), and because they see themselves as having so many shortcomings they don’t “accept themselves” either.
But there are other individuals who have relatively high self-regard who are still pretty hard on themselves. These are the perfectionists.
Perfectionists basically “like themselves.” They typically have a positive self-image based on many good qualities. But perfectionists can’t tolerate any weaknesses in their personality. High in self-regard, but low in self-acceptance, these people never give themselves a break. Close is just not good enough for the perfectionist personality; thus stress, striving, and an intolerance of personal failure become their constant mental companions.
The tragedy here is that perfection, almost by definition, is impossible to achieve. Still, some people are unwilling to accept anything less. It is no wonder, then, that perfectionism is clinically viewed as more unhealthy than healthy, and that perfectionist personalities often end up with chronic anxiety disorders or severe depressions chasing the unattainable.
When it comes to our failings: we are our own worst enemies. We are usually harder on ourselves than anyone else in the world could be. We are more intolerant of our shortcomings, more critical of our weaknesses, more self-conscious of our faults, and more unforgiving of our sins, than anyone else is. Because of this human capacity, we have tremendous power to make ourselves quite miserable and unhappy.
But what other option do we have?
OPTION 3: ACCEPTANCE
There is a third option, and it is the option that healthy people take. We can simply choose to accept the negative aspects of our personality, and like ourselves anyway.
Here, the unconscious logic goes more like this:
“I’m going to like myself even with my flaws and imperfections; even if something is lacking in me; even if I have some weaknesses, inadequacies and shortcomings. Nobody’s perfect, and I’m not going to let a few faults get in the way of my choice to like myself — to feel good about the kind of person I am.”
More simply put: it is a belief that you don’t have to be perfect to like yourself!
Now, you might think that would be fairly easy for healthy, happy people to believe in this, mainly because they don’t have much about their personalities that is inadequate in the first place. This is a common misconception that many people hold. My students, for example, as they study the many fine qualities which are characteristic of the happy personality, begin to conjure a picture of a personality that is next to perfection. “No wonder,” they sometimes say, “happy people accept their faults — they don’t have any!” But, interestingly, this is not the case.
Although the research shows that happy people have many positive and highly desirable personality traits, they are far from being perfect. Studies find that happy and unhappy people actually have about the same number of things they find inadequate about their personality. Indeed, happy people often list almost as many things they would like to change about themselves as unhappy people do. The difference seems more a matter of attitude: happy people simply accept these lacks matter of factly, while unhappy people stew and fret over the very same things.
Acceptance is based on a more natural view of being human. It sees human beings as complex, individual, and multifaceted. It believes in growth and the fulfillment of potential, but it stops short of a dream of homogenous perfection. The Garden of Perfection would hold just one, ultimate hybrid throughout. But the Garden of Humanity is beautiful because of its unlimited variety. And the variety comes from an infinite combination of ingredients — some noble, some base; some positive, some negative; some flawless, some blemished.
Acceptance sees beauty, not in perfect proportions, but in human proportions. It sees beauty in the complex interplay of positive as well as negative qualities. It understands and appreciates that our human foibles and failings are just as much a part of being human as are our altruism and idealism.
Acceptance sees that what makes the human world truly beautiful — and each of us so special and interesting — is the differences and individuality among us. In this light, imperfection plays as important a role as perfection, for it is just as much from our human inadequacies than from our proficiencies that human beauty develops. Happiness comes as much from how we handle our faults, as it does in how we maximize our talents.
Healthy people see themselves in this same, accepting way. They believe that it’s perfectly natural and human to have inadequacies. Where possible, they work to overcome them; but where not, they simply accept them and let them be. Healthy people expect some imperfection as part of their human nature. Rather than dwell on such imperfections, they focus on their positive abilities and attributes. They sense what most psychotherapists know: developing positive traits meets with more success than extinguishing negative ones.
But more than this, some healthy individuals appear to actually “like” their shortcomings. Their view of themselves is so accepting, they seem completely comfortable with their weaknesses and shortfalls. Some even view their flaws as assets. In such cases, we find a person who is truly at peace with oneself. In them we find a positive and abiding sense of self; one that has actually embraced all aspects of personality, even the flaws and inadequacies. For these rare persons, happiness is just bound to flow.
In one sense, such self-acceptance appears to be the major result I see in therapy. Most outsiders view psychotherapy as a process in which a person changes quite dramatically. Yet, in actuality, hardly much real change occurs at all — at least in terms of significant personality change. People leave the process pretty much they way they entered it. Their beliefs, their preferences, their mannerisms, their personality characteristics are still the same. The only real change seems to be in the way they view themselves…
In the beginning, clients enter therapy with a host of negative, critical feelings about their personality. Yet, as therapy progresses, these attitudes change to become more accepting and positive. In essence they are the same person they were before. Only now they like and accept themselves, when before, they didn’t! Of course, to outside observers, this subtle change may seem like a miraculous transformation. And indeed, such a subtle attitude change can have enormous effects in every area of a person’s life. Yet essentially they’re the very same person they were — only their attitude about themselves has changed.
The healthy Option, then, is acceptance. The lesson, basically, is: don’t be so hard on yourself! There is no need to be completely perfect. Stop criticizing yourself and give yourself a break. Life is punitive enough without your adding to it. Be more like healthy people naturally are: be as tolerant, forgiving, and understanding with yourself as you would be a close friend.
A MATTER OF CHOICE
When it comes to self-acceptance, it’s simply a matter of choice…
You could choose to change…
Ideally, this would be the perfect choice. If you could only change yourself, that undesirable flaw might be gone forever!
Yet, as we’ve said, in actual clinical experience, even minor changes in behavior require a great deal more time and effort to accomplish than most people are willing to commit themselves to — and many of those who meet the task with the best motivations eventually fail.
You could choose to hate yourself…
Make the more popular choice and make yourself completely miserable — scolding yourself for your failings and immersing yourself in self-deprecation for your inadequacies.
Or you could make the healthy choice: accept yourself for what you are — faults and shortcomings included — and like yourself anyway!
Its your choice. But the research shows that happy people are the ones who’ve chosen the route of “self- acceptance.”
The ultimate quality of healthy individuals is that of “self-knowledge”.
“Self-knowledge,” or “self-insight” as it has been sometimes termed, could be more simply defined as knowledge about oneself — or more basically, how well one knows oneself.
In this regard, perhaps more than in any area of personality psychology, researchers have found that healthy people know themselves very well!
Past research has shown that healthy people have a much greater insight into themselves than do unhealthy individuals. They know their values, they’re more sure of their attitudes, they know their abilities and limitations, they’re better aware of their own inner needs and feelings, they know their affect on others, they know their own inner needs, they’re better directed toward their goals, they understand their motivations, they know what they want from life, and they understand their personalities — all to a degree that is significantly keener than that of unhealthy people.
Simply put, healthy people know themselves extraordinarily well!
But, the most important thing about this self-knowledge is how accurate and objective it is!
One might think that healthy people, because they “like themselves” so much, might develop an overly flattering view of themselves. To the contrary, however, happy, healthy people seem to have a much more honest and accurate view of themselves than do unhealthy people. Indeed, they tend to be more keenly aware of their inadequacies, shortcomings, and inabilities. Perhaps, because they are so “self-accepting,” healthy people are more willing to admit to and be aware of the more negative things about their personality.
Unhealthy people, on the other hand, typically lack self-knowledge, and are particularly lacking in personal insight into their behavior. Their view of self-reality is typically in error. They tend to blot things out, distort them, overlook them, deny them, over-exaggerate them, or underestimate them. Whichever, the net result is the same: unhealthy people end up with an inaccurate and ill-defined self-image. Sometimes this image is inflated in the positive direction marked by an exaggerated view of self-importance, but most often the case is an image which is tragically negative and grossly depreciated.
But why does it matter? If one’s self-view is accurate or way off the mark, Life goes on, doesn’t it? Does it matter whether I see myself accurately or see myself inaccurately?
It matters in many ways! To begin with, there is the matter of how self-knowledge effects personal decisions…
GOOD DECISION MAKING IS THE NAME
OF THE MENTAL HEALTH GAME
Good decision-making is truly the name of the mental health game!
The ability to make good, wise, and successful decisions for your life is the main way you have any control over it…
Ancient philosophical concepts offer two views of personal destiny. One, the more ancient, sees our lives as essentially predetermined (a life in which personal decision is moot against the preordained) — the other, the more modern, sees our lives as a matter of choice (a life which has many possibilities based on the decisions we make). This more modern view sees that our destiny in not predetermined, but is rather open to many possible avenues. Some avenues might lead to earthly success and heavenly acceptance — others to earthly failure and eternal damnation.
Most modern religions have adopted this new view of personal responsibility which allows a strong degree of individual freedom in the conduct of one’s life. And, indeed, modern psychology has adopted the same…
In essence, the theory is simple: each of us is free to determine our own path in life. The path is not pre-determined or “written in stone.”
The path our life takes, therefore, is filled with many potential directions, much like the alternative paths new limbs emerge from a growing tree. In one sense we are truly limited by the particular tree we are born of, yet even then we have our choices of limbs or branches to pursue.
The path we take are determined is the decisions we make, for in every day we live, our decisions inexorably lead us down a particular path in life. And once a path is followed, the alternative routes we might have taken in life are lost un-retrievably in the past.
Of course, our decisions are not the only things which shape our destiny. In most cases, events beyond our control are the main sculptor. In fact, our life is largely determined by events of fate. Indeed, the analogy is much like driving down a major highway. For the most part, we are forced to drive where the highway takes us. There is rarely much a choice for miles. We are helpless against the forces that placed the highway were it is. But occasionally an intersection occurs in the highway, and here is where we have an opportunity to take control of the direction our life is taking.
It is only at such intersections, or choice-points, that we can begin to take the reigns of our future. Which route we take can make a tremendous difference in the eventual outcome of our life. But when we come to the actual intersection, which is the best way to turn?
Here is where good decision-making comes into play. Clearly, those who make the best decisions at the proverbial intersections in the highway will be the ones who enjoy a more successful and happy life.
But what is involved in making good decisions? Good information…
The more good information one has about an impending situation, the better a decision one can make regarding it. This is the basic foundation of all scientific research. With no information at all, the best one can do in any situation is a “wild,” “hit-or-miss” gamble. With a great deal of carefully gleaned, accurate information most situations are amenable to quite precise control and consistent predictability.
All kinds of information come to bear when it come to good decision making. In the broader areas of life — business, science, government, education, etc. — most of this information comes from outside, objective observations of the world. This is also true of personal decisions. Yet in the case of personal decisions there is one more source of information not normally necessary in other cases: information about oneself — “self-knowledge.”
I often use beakers of chemicals to demonstrate this idea to my students.
One of the beakers is used to represent the outside world. It contains all the known and commonly understood factors that outside world contains.
I begin with the premise that most people are fairly savvy (at least in “street smarts”) regarding how the chemicals in that beaker react. In other words, all of us (except for the most disturbed) have a pretty accurate view of the outside world. Indeed, it’s rather remarkable how much we all tend to agree in our assessment of it! For example, if you jump out of a third-story window you’ll probably kill or injure yourself severely. If you don’t study for an examination, you’ll probably fail it. If you slug someone in the face, you’ll likely start a fight. If you stand out in rain, you’ll probably soak your clothes. If you don’t pay on your car, it will eventually be repossessed. And so on…
Most people are fairly good at accurately appraising how the outside world works. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that what goes up must come down!
But the problem is that the beaker which represents the outside world is only half the combination. There is a remaining beaker which represents you and the particular factors you bring to any given situation. Thus, not only the relatively well-understood chemicals in the “outside world” beaker are factors, but the chemicals in your own beaker are added to the situation as well. In this new combination all bets are off! Who can predict how these two factors will combine?
To predict the outcomes of any decision in life you need to have two sources of information. Information about the outside world and information about yourself. The two interact in ways that can only be predicted when you know the contents of both. Since most people have a pretty good idea of the contents of the “outside beaker,” the critical ingredient in the prediction depends on how well one knows oneself.
In the classroom it’s a simple demonstration. For the most part I use colored water. I have a beaker of yellow water to represent the outside world…
I first represent a person who knows oneself well (a beaker of red water), and ask what color the class predicts the combination will be when I combine them. The orange-colored result pleases every predictor in the audience! The class is equally pleased with themselves when I pour a blue colored liquid from another person who purportedly “knows him or herself very well” into the yellow “outside world” and the color turns a predictable green.
For my “grand finale,” however, the person I represent with a cloth-covered beaker doesn’t know himself or herself at all. The beaker’s contents are a mystery — no one can predict the outcome! If all works well (and in a lot of classes it doesn’t), when I would pour the contents of the shrouded beaker into the yellow, it would chemically fizzle-up and evaporate into nothing!
In my successful demonstrations the point was clear: if you don’t know yourself, there’s no way you can predict how things will turn out. (But, actually, even in my unsuccessful demonstrations the same point was made — perhaps even better!)
Knowing yourself is critical to making good decisions! With adequate personal information and self-insight, you can better predict how the “chemicals” of your outside world and personal factors will intermix. But without much knowledge about yourself, the reactions will always remain unpredictable and surprising. In fact, surprise is a major nemesis of unhealthy people! They are constantly surprised at the way their life turns…
“Why did she leave me?” “Why is my boss so irritated with me?” “Why did I flunk that course?” “Why don’t I have any good friends?” “Why didn’t I get that job?” “Why do I get so angry?” “Why do bad things happen to me so often?”
The questions go on and on…
LIFE IS FULL OF SURPRISES?
For the person lacking in self-insight, life tends to appear inexplicable and mysterious. As I’ve said over the years,
Life is full of surprises for unhealthy people… mostly unpleasant ones! (tapes?)
The degree to which life surprises you is to some extent the degree to which you lack adequate self-knowledge. People who know themselves are better much able to predict what’s going to happen. When you know yourself, life works out much better, and much more like you hoped and expected it would.
Knowledge is power, and knowledge about yourself is the ultimate power in self destiny.
Gaining better self-knowledge is one of the aspects of the Fundamentals about which there are no simple techniques. Self-knowledge is something that takes a lifetime to develop and cannot be gained overnight. However, to grow in self-understanding is basically a matter of taking time for introspection, and it is hoped that as part of your work with the Fundamentals you will take some regular time to spend in such self examination.
All the Fundamentals enumerated in this book suggest some degree of of such self examination. We have already suggested such things as a “worry journal,” a listing of fun activities, and an analysis of daily activities in previous Chapters. Clearly, one of the central messages of the Program we’ve been outlining is the importance of self-analysis.
But here the self-analysis is more delicate. It is not as easy as itemizing pleasures or detailing ones daily schedule. It necessitates a deeper soul searching…
First of all, gather some tools. There are many valuable self-help books and basic texts in psychology that can aid in your search. Many colleges and schools offer aptitude, ability, and personality testing services to the public at no cost. Self-exploration workshops and seminars, offered by highly respected professionals, are continuously available in every community (your local hospital or community college can be a great resource). Most colleges offer a “open-to-the-public” course in Personal Adjustment (like the one I have taught for years).
The list is endless, if you choose to pursue it.
And not necessarily at the bottom of the list is therapy itself….
Perhaps one of the best kept secrets in civilized society today is how many very healthy people seek regular psychotherapy for their own, private benefit!
As a youthful therapist, myself, I was frequently struck by how many of my patients came for regular visits who, apparently, had no psychological problems whatsoever. Probe and test as I might, no psychopathology would presented itself. I came, eventually, to realize that many of these patients weren’t sick at all, but rather were seeking self-exploration.
Since that time, I have come to understand something about my profession that goes far beyond the healing of mental infirmities. It is the professions role in the counseling of the well…
My optimal recommendation for self understanding is to innate psychological counseling with a licensed therapist or clinic. Tell your counselor that you goal is greater self-understanding and then see how insightfully your sessions progress. Of course this option is a luxury not all can afford, but if you can, it might provide a lifetime of value for you.
Ultimately, however, self-understanding is a matter of deep, and often painful, self-study. One might wonder why it is worth it.
The answer only lies in destiny…
If we believe that personal destiny is not prescribed, if we believe we can alter destiny, if we believe that each and every decision we make shapes our future, then every decision we make is important.
This is why self-knowledge is so critical. Decisions made on a lack of self-knowledge often lead to failure and pain. Decisions based on accurate self-knowledge, however, are much more likely to eventuate in success and happiness.
In all mental health studies, one of the most pronounced qualities of healthiness has consistently shown to be that of personal self-sufficiency.
The research finds that healthy people are autonomous, independent, self-reliant, and inner-directed, and that unhappy people tend to be more insecure, are more dependent upon social demands and pressures, and tend to rely more on guidance from outside sources.
In essence, it is simply a matter of control. Healthy persons control their lives in an independent fashion — unhealthy people, having not been allowed to learn such personal independence, live their lives controlled by others.
WHO DO YOU TRUST?
When it comes to the big decisions in your life, “Who do you trust?”
When it comes to the little, everyday decisions that regulate your day to day existence, “Who do you trust?”
How many of the big decisions in your life have been self-made versus how many have been made by parents, your spouse, or others?
Carl Rogers, one of the more famous health psychologists of recent time, suggested a faucet of healthy personality which has been affirmed by modern mental health psychology: “self-trust.”
“Self-trust” was seen by Rodgers as a characteristic of high self-development. It is a level of healthy development where one places more value on one’s own ideas and instincts than the influences of ones own society or the pressures of ones own immediate friends and family.
So how much do you trust yourself? Or put another way, who really calls the shots in your life?
Do you rely on your own best judgement and set your own, individual course in life, or does life always seem to be a juggling act where your decisions are constantly being shaped and modified by the needs and demands of those around you? Are you more likely to “stand-up for yourself” or more likely to just “go along?” Are you more likely to make a decision based on what would make you happy, or are you more concerned in making everyone else happy?
Healthy, happy individuals, of course, call their own shots! The trust their own judgement as to what’s best for them. And, they have the inner strength to set their own course in life, even if those around them are pressuring them to do otherwise.
Unhealthier individuals, on the other hand lack this “self trust” and strength of conviction. In many ways they tend to be more dependent than independent. Indeed, the term “dependent” is frequently used to clinically describe the unhealthy personality. Essentially, it describes the individual who lacks self-direction, assertiveness, and self-confidence.
Dependent personalities are, perhaps, “the meek of the earth.” They are referred to as “dependent” essentially because they are overly dependent on others to survive in life. Of course, to some extent, we are all dependent on others in order to live and thrive at all in this world, but in other ways, initiative and independence are required as well. “Dependent personalities” are those who lack the latter and are thus forced to rely to an unhealthy degree on the former.
At the inner core of the dependent personality lies fear, insecurity, and a lack of self confidence. The dependent person is riddled with self-doubt and self-depreciation. Dependent personalities, therefore, find themselves like a puppet in life. Because they doubt their ability to make good decisions, they often leave their personal decisions in the hands of others. Because they lack certitude, they constantly seek assurance and guidance from others. Because they lack inner strength, they often fall victim to influence and pressure. Because they are unsure, they do only what everyone else thinks is right. Because they are insecure, they seek the approval of others by conforming, placating, and pleasing. And, because they lack independent skills, they fall into dependence on others to supply their needs.
In short, the dependent person let’s other people call most of the shots.
So what’s the problem? Why is it so bad to let others run the show?
After all, if their wiser, more decisive, or stronger, why not let them take the reigns? It’s certainly less hassle in most situations. And, it’s certainly a lot easier than taking on all that responsibility yourself!
It’s a legitimate argument…
Making decisions and taking control is stressful! It leads to responsibility, accountability, and sometimes ulcers. Letting decisions slide and leaving control to others is easy. No pressure. No expectations. No problems! Why not let those who want to run the show for us?
The only good answer to the argument: when others make decisions for you, your own needs are rarely met!
When others influence your choices in life (or if you allow others to make such choices for you), your own needs and desires are often left by the wayside. By relinquishing your own decisions to others, your own wishes may never be carried out. By basing your conduct on their standards, your standards may never be met. By living your life by their dictates, your life will never be fulfilled…
It’s tough to take control over one’s life. It requires a building of self-trust and self-confidence where neither has been abundant before. It necessitates a replacement of self-depreciation with self-affirmation. But most of all, it needs a bit of conviction… Conviction that you can make the right decisions for your life. Conviction that you have good judgement and wisdom. Conviction that you can regulate you own life in a successful direction.
But where does such conviction come from?
It comes from a basic appreciation of your own, personal knowledge about yourself. It is based upon one certitude about yourself that no one else can claim: that you know yourself better than anyone!
THE WORLD’S LEADING EXPERT
You should feel a great deal of pride in knowing that – at least in one area – you are “the world’s leading expert” in the area of you!
In a world of incredible expertise, this is hard to believe. Internationally recognized authorities on economics, science, and medicine astound us daily with new discoveries in the media. Knowledge is mushrooming so fast (doubling itself every decade from the entire previous achievements of human history) that only the very best in each field are considered expert. And even in our own, everyday occupation — things are moving so fast that few of us are identified as being truly expert in it.
We’ve sent humans to the moon, unraveled the human genome, explored the deepest recesses of our oceans — all thanks to expertise only a few of us possess. It would seem that true expertise in any area of endeavor of life is rare, and something that happens to only the luckiest few.
Yet, there one area of true and complete expertise that only you possess: no one on this planet knows more about you than you!
You happen to be the world’s leading expert on you! No one knows you better than you do. No matter what they might claim to know, you have more information at about yourself, your personal history, and your personality than anyone else could ever be privy to. You know, more than anyone else what you need, what you want, what your feelings are, what you’d be good for, what you’d be poor at, what would make you feel comfortable, what would make you feel badly, and a hundred thousand other things. Even those lacking in “self- knowledge,” as we spoke of previously, can still claim better expertise into their own personality than any outsider.
You are the authority! Thus, only you should make the decision.
Consider your friends’ advice carefully…
The classic phrase most people use when giving advice begins with the words, “If I were you…”
“If I were you, I’d file for divorce!”
“If I were you, I’d quit!”
“If I were you, I’d sue!”
“If I were you, I’d buy all the gold chains on Television Shopping Network while they’re still so low-priced!”
“If I were you:” that’s the operative phrase.
If they were truly you, then their advice might be well founded! If you were in their situation and you did what they recommended, then things might work out beautifully — for them.
But they’re not you! What may be an ideal solution in their situation may be horrific in yours.
From here on, any sentence which begins with “If I were you” should signal a red flag.
All this is not to say that expert advice should not be sought, particularly in business or technical areas. It is not to say that even in the more personal areas of ones life, expertise (in terms of personal counseling or psychological and medical consultation) is not desirable.
It is to say, however, that ultimately one must learn to rely on oneself, particularly when it comes to personal decisions and directions in life.
Ultimately, you are the expert when it comes to you. You should be the final authority in how your life should be directed.
THE BASIS OF WISE DECISIONS
Here again, we see the critical importance in wise decision making in constructing a happy life for oneself…
Yet we are only half the way there. It’s not just that we make our own decisions in life — it’s the basis upon which we make those decisions that counts.
Making choices for yourself has little value unless such choices serve your better interests. According to the accumulated wisdom of mental health studies, the healthiest individuals base their decisions on what they want and what they need.
Thus, the dictum for the person wishing to become a healthier person seems clear: make your own choices and base those choices on what YOU really want and what YOU really need!
This dictum often strikes many as having a rather selfish ring to it. Indeed, to some, it is quite surprising that the research in mental health has found this seemingly “self-centered” characteristic so basic to healthy adjustment. Given much of what we are taught, it is hard to believe that healthiness is more aligned with pleasing oneself rather than pleasing others. For many, the specter such findings suggest is a world of selfish, self-indulgent people — where no one cares for others and where no one is concerned with social constraints, group expectations, or cultural mores. It conjures a frightening picture! A world of hedonists, no longer bound by law or social responsibilities — free to indulge their every whim without a whit of guilt regarding the burdens they may be placing on others.
Actually, this is not the case at all. The research clearly shows an intreguiging dichotomy. On one hand it shows that healthy people do base their decisions on selfish criteria (what they really want to do), yet on the other hand, what they really want to do is do right by others!
We’ve discussed this theme before in these Volumes. We’ve noted that happy people are particularly self-directed, independent, and given to autonomous control of their lives. Yet we’ve also seen that happy people are remarkably caring, giving, and concerned individuals. The research shows such a picture of both healthy and happy people time and time again.
What we are left with is the simple view that healthy, happy people independently (and, indeed we can stipulate, selfishly) choose to do the right thing! It may seem to be a contradiction, but, in fact, it is the case.
This seeming contradiction goes right to the heart of mental health theory, particularly when it comes to the whole idea of what we might term “good and caring acts.”
By “good and caring acts” we are describing the whole gamut of proper, altruistic, and socially positive behaviors a society or community might hope of its ideal members. Such behaviors are the crux of what it means to be a decent, loving, and law abiding person.
When it comes to such “good and caring acts” the bulk of mental health studies point to three important conclusions.
First, self-regard leads to regard for others.
One of the most consistent and remarkable findings in psychology is the fact of how our self-view is reflected in out treatment of those around us. If we like ourselves, we generally like others. If we trust ourselves, we usually trust others. If we respect ourselves, we tend to treat others with respect.
The opposite is equally true. If we dislike ourselves, we generally dislike others. If we are untrustworthy, we are usually suspicious of others. If we are full of self-criticism, we tend to find fault with others.
As healthy people tend to like, trust, and respect themselves this is typically the same way they tend to deal with others. But, sadly, as unhealthy people tend to hold themselves in dislike, distrust, and disrespect they generally hold others in similar disregard.
The bulk of research in criminal behavior reflects this finding. The vast majority of violent offenders do not feel good about themselves in the least! A negative self-concept is the fundamental characteristic of virtually all criminal personality. If there is “a problem” with people these days, it is not, as some social critics maintain, that they feel too good about themselves — it is, rather, that they have been made to feel too bad about themselves.
It is not those who feel good about themselves society has to worry about — it is those who feel so badly about themselves that they could care less about other peoples’ feelings.
Second, concern for others has a lot to do with how happy you are as a person.
Consider this: your potential for “goodness” is directly proportional to how happy you feel!
Take this little “True or False” quiz, for example:
1. I am more likely to treat my spouse lovingly when I come home from a successful day a work than I do from a bad day at work.
2. When I’m in a good mood, I’m more likely to do favors for others than I am when I’m grouchy.
3. When I’m in a down mood, I’d rather not be bothered with the problems my friends are having in their lives.
There’s no need to score this quiz, is there? Hopefully the point is transparent. Kindness and happiness go hand in hand. No wonder those tales from ancient folk-stories about “the kind and happy person” have lasted for centuries — they’re true! And these legendary views have found their reflection in modern psychological research…
There is a strong research correlation between how happy one is and how nicely they treat others.
The research shows what our little quiz above demonstrates: the happier you are, the better you treat others.
Again we see that the crimes of the world are not the result of people being too happy with themselves — it is just the opposite! It is the unhappy people — lacking in hope, opportunity, and self-esteem — that inflict the greatest harm on others.
You needn’t be a professional psychologist to determine this. Isn’t it true that the kindest people you know appear to be the happiest? And isn’t it also true that the people who hurt or take advantage of others most are the ones who aren’t very happy themselves?
Third, the motivation for generosity seriously differs for healthy and unhealthy persons.
Normally, unhealthy persons do “good acts” out of motivations of fear or self-gain. For the unhealthy personality, the fear of rejection or non-acceptance is often the motivation for good behavior. “Good acts” are usually done out of a fear that others will not see them positively if they don’t. “Good acts” are done mostly so that those around them will continue to like them. “Good acts” are done mainly to avoid their fear of rejection. It is not so much that they “want” to do good, it’s a fear that they “have” to do good.
Coupled with this, for many unhealthy people, is a view that “good acts” should be reciprocated. It is a sort-of “strings attached” view of doing right — a view which sees “the world owes me a living” in reverse! It is an implied philosophy that if I do right by you now, you will do right by me in the future. It is spontaneous, unasked-for kindness with a price-tag attached.
Initially, such kindness appears genuine (“the especially helpful neighbor” — “the especially generous new friend”). It is only later, when such persons begin to impose constant return favors, that one realizes their original “good acts” came with an “I.O.U.” attached. Apparently, their “kindness” was really a way of building a balance sheet of debt against future favors you never bargained for.
Healthy individuals, on the other hand, don’t do “good acts” out of a fear of rejection — or for personal gain. They do them simply because they want to!
It appears, according to the research, that healthy persons actually enjoy being good!
The motivation for their “good acts” is internal — going straight to the heart of their own self-image. Their desire to do right is almost selfish. It is not determined by how others see them — or even how others might respond — it is only determined by the enjoyment and happiness they gain in the doing of “good acts” in and of themselves.
For healthy people, “goodness is its own reward.”
“Helping yourself,” then, is not the entirely selfish thing it might appear to be. As strange as it may sound, the stronger, more competent, and independent you become as a person, the kinder and more supportive of those around you will be as well.
So, the directive here is simple: be like the happy people and help yourself. Make your own choices and base those choices on what you really want and what you really need. Take command of the only input you have in life — your own decisions and choices — and make them work for you.
The last of the WOAHP Five is “Be Yourself.”
It is based on the longstanding research observation that healthy, happy individuals are comfortable with themselves; natural, relaxed, and straightforward with others; expressive and outgoing; and generally, “just themselves.” They are not shy or self-conscious. They are not insecure, or afraid to express themselves honestly. They tend, rather, to be authentic in their dealings with others and genuine in their everyday behavior. In short, healthy people are “real” people!
Years ago, in my initial formulation of the Fundamentals, I presented “Be Yourself” as just one of the five WOAHP principles. But as the research progressed, it became clear that the ideas involved in “Be Yourself” seemed to be so significant to our early participants in helping them toward happiness, that our attention to the principle was refocused. “Be Yourself” appeared so important we eventually decided to treat it as a separate Fundamental. Because of this, I only introduce you to the idea here. In the Chapter after this (appropriately entitled “Be Yourself”) you will learn more about this happiness principal. For now, however, consider this final piece of the puzzle as part of what psychologists know about healthy personality.
The development of a healthy personality is a life-long pursuit. It is a process of becoming — of developing oneself to one’s highest human potential. It is a process that begins in the earliest years of life and continues at every developmental stage as life progresses. It’s successful fruition requires loving support from the environment, as well as fortitude and effort from within.
For some, the process is effortless and natural because of fortunate circumstances in life and a warm and caring childhood. For others the journey is more arduous, with many circumstantial and psychological hurdles along the way. Yet however easy or difficult the route, the rewards are waiting. And the primary reward is happiness…
Happiness is the emotional reward of mental health. Thus the development of a healthy personality is basic to a more permanent and sturdy level of personal happiness. Unlike many of the other Fundamentals, however, there are so many aspects to healthiness, “Work On A Healthy Personality” is among the more difficult to achieve. Healthiness involves a complex set or interdependent personality characteristics, none of which can be developed overnight. Here in this Chapter we have briefly outlined some of the most basic ingredients as guidelines to your future efforts in this area. But there is so much more to learn. If you would like to read more about healthy personality, there are many fine books you can turn to. Some of the more readable “classics” would include Abraham Maslow’s “Toward a Psychology of Being” (xxx), Carl Rogers’ “On Becoming a Person” (mmm), or Jourard and Landsman’s “Healthy Personality” (xxx); or you might want to pick up any of the good, college-level texts on personal adjustment used at universities today.
This Chapter was simply intended to get you started in the right direction. The WOAHP Five can begin your personal journey toward the goal of mental health. In the most simple presentation, you can eventually be a much happier person if you learn to:
1. Like yourself.
2. Accept yourself.
3. Know yourself.
4. Help yourself.
5. Be yourself.
The first four of these five mental health basics we’ve covered here. The last, “Be Yourself,” will be detailed in the Chapter after the next…