I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Unrealistic expectations of holiday gatherings can deepen self-esteem wounds.

One of my favorite Christmas cards was given to me by a client. On the front of the card, there is a photo of a beautiful snow-covered farm scene. The farm house is beautifully decorated for Christmas. The caption at the top says, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” When you open the card, the words read, “And in therapy for the next year.”


The card is funny, but expresses an unfortunate truth. I talk to so many people who grew up in dysfunctional families. They recall a parent’s substance abuse, an abandoning or critical parent, or constant drama and infighting through childhood. Like all children, they carried this overriding hope that the parents would change and they would at last feel the love they had longed for. Like all children, those family experiences created self-esteem wounds, where they believed that they were at fault. They mistakenly believed that they were defective, unlovable or inadequate.


Many of those children carry this hope of family change into adulthood. As adults, they still long for that negative, critical parent to finally be proud of them. They hope to see expressions of love, or attention from that distant or abandoning parent. Their hope is fueled by the mistaken belief that their worth is measured by the parent’s behaviors toward them. They believe that loving or accepting behaviors from the parent will mean that the defective child has finally grown into a competent and lovable adult.


Now, here’s where the Christmas card comes in. These people carry the hope that this time or this visit, things will be different. They hope that this Christmas, they will see the change. They may not be conscious of this hope. They may consciously realize that the negative parent won’t change until they decide to change. But, subconsciously they carry hope.


The person who returns home for a visit, carrying this unrealistic hope, is primed for disappointment. When the family member once again behaves critically, is rejecting, or gets drunk, that hope is shattered. The result can be anger, depression, or a deepening of an old self-esteem wound.


Of course, the truth is that the parent’s critical or rejecting behaviors reflect a problem with the parent, not an inadequacy in the child. And, the parent won’t change until he or she realizes the problem and has a desire to change.


The holidays can be a very special time of year. Enjoy the good parts. Establish your own traditions, but remember that people basically act like themselves. Try to be realistic about your expectations when you make that Christmas visit. It might save you some of the cost of therapy.


The Responsibility of Being an American

Abraham_LincolnI like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.  I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.  ~Abraham Lincoln

Each person plays many roles. We have many aspects to our identity; parent, spouse, child, family member, friend, co-worker, and more. Today, we celebrate one additional part of our identity; that of being an American.

Today, July 4th, we recognize and celebrate our nation and our independence. In doing so, we remind ourselves of this part of our identity. We enjoy the gift of being a part of this great nation. This is part of who we are.

Regardless of our political disagreements and despite our current difficulties, it is still a great nation. We are free to express those disagreements. We are free to choose our path and work to follow it. This is part of who we are.

You don’t have to travel to many other countries to realize how much we take for granted each day. We have so much. We often have too much. Having been so blessed, we have a responsibility to seek ways to give to others. This is part of who we are.

We have the opportunity to grow as individuals, and in doing so, follow any path we choose. As my father used to say, “You can do anything you want to do, if you set your mind to it.” As a young boy, I’d roll my eyes and dismiss the statement, but it must have sunk in, because I came to believe it. Fortunately, in this country we call home, it is true. This is part of who we are.

Enjoy celebrating our country this July 4th, and then every other day, live up to the inheritance. As Lincoln said, live so that your place will be proud of you.

Self-Esteem Versus Self-Compassion

Developing self-compassion can help anyone deal with self-esteem wounds.

For years now, I have been working on helping people identify and correct negative self-beliefs that were formed byself-esteem harsh criticism, rejection or abuse. I knew that these beliefs triggered negative thinking, depression, anxiety, damaged relationships and sometimes even suicide. I referred to these negative self-beliefs as self-esteem wounds. I said that my work focused on the self-esteem, but I never liked the term.

The term self-esteem is very overused, and has several negative connotations. Some earlier self-esteem programs focused on positive affirmations, such as “I’m very smart” “I can do anything I want” or “I’m a great athlete.” Several self-esteem programs were introduced into the schools in the 80’s and 90’s, but were later found to be fairly ineffective. Some went so far as to say that you shouldn’t point out a student’s mistakes, as that might hurt their self-esteem. Some programs were said to even foster narcissistic tendencies. The negative side of self-esteem work was epitomized by Saturday Night Live’s character, Stuart Smiley, who stared into a mirror, while reciting, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

Many self-esteem programs seemed to foster feelings of superiority, or seeing oneself as above average. The reality is that everyone cannot be above average. Except, of course, in Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.”

My work focused on helping those who saw themselves as inferior to everyone else. I wanted to help them recognize that they were human, with positive and negative traits, successes and failures like everyone else. I tried to help people see themselves as equal with others. I’ve tried to help them have compassion for themselves, while taking full responsibility for their behaviors.

Then I discovered the term self-compassion. Self-compassion can be defined as extending compassion to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure or general suffering. In other words, you recognize your difficulty, but show kindness to yourself, as you deal with that difficulty. Kristin Neff, Ph.D. has led the study of this concept. Research has shown that self-compassion helps us deal with the inevitable difficulties and failures of life. We bounce back more quickly, remain stronger under adversity, and show more compassion toward others, when we practice self-compassion. We see ourselves, and treat ourselves as being equal to other human beings. And after all, aren’t we?

On Being Judgmental

Judging others can make us feel superior, but we need to wait until we're ready.

I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait. I imagine that it will be so satisfying. I’ve been trying to be patient, but it is difficult. I’ve seen others do it, and they certainly seem to enjoy it.judging

So, what am I talking about? I’m looking forward to being judgmental. I’m looking forward to judging everyone around me. First, I’ll turn up my nose to those who have messed up. Then, with my head pointed upward, I’ll be able to look down on those who have faltered. Finally, I’ll sneer at those who have stumbled.

The self-satisfaction will be sweet. The arrogance will be awesome. Like the kid, who is assigned the job of taking names while the teacher is out of the room, I will be sitting tall. My head will be scanning the crowd, searching for any infraction. My pencil and paper will be ready.

The advantages of being judgmental will be abundant. I will be able to feel superior. Looking down on someone will remind me that I am above them. I won’t have to examine myself, of course. I will be much too busy for that.

Unfortunately, for now, I’ll have to wait. I’m not quite qualified to be the name-taker. I fall short of the requirements to be judgmental.  But when I become perfect, I will jump at the job. That’s right, when I become perfect, I plan to become judgmental, and I can’t wait.

Hmmm, I guess I really can’t wait. You see, if I’m totally honest, I must admit that I’ve tried it out a few times. I’ve sampled that feeling of superiority that comes from judging others. I tried to resist, but the temptation was just too strong.

The bad thing is that practicing judgment prematurely isn’t completely satisfying unless I pretend. To make it work, I have to pretend that I’m already perfect. Acknowledging my own faults ruins the taste. Like the green apple, judging another before I reach perfection can be a bitter fruit.

So, I guess I need to wait to be judgmental. Until I reach perfection, I’ll have to remember that I’m in the same boat as everyone else.

No Man is an Island

We owe a debt to so many. Consider the many ways you have benefited from others.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent, 

A part of the main.    John Donne


When we think of gratitude, we consider the many ways we have been blessed by God, and this is appropriate and good. But we also have reasons to be grateful to other people. Several years ago, I attended a workshop on Positive Psychology, which is the study of factors that make some people exceptionally positive. The workshop leader has us do a little exercise and I want to share it.

Sit down with a piece of paper and pen or pencil. You can try to do it in your head, but it won’t be as effective. Take the time to put thought into your response to each question. Try to stretch your brain a bit.

First, write down the names of people who have helped or added to your life in some way. You don’t need to write their full name, just what you would call them. This could include your parents, grandparents or other relatives, your friends or teachers. Try to include everyone you can think of who has helped you or benefited you, big or small. This list will be fairly long. Consider that you would not be who you are or where you are if these people had not been in your life.

When you’ve exhausted this list, write a list of people you’ve never met who have added to the quality of your life. This list could include inventors of things you use every day, like electric lights, cars, heating and cooling systems, television and radio, etc. It could also include the founders of our country and our democratic system of government, as well as the soldiers who have defended it. This list could go on forever, so just include the people or categories of people that come to mind in a few minutes.

Finally, make a list of those people who may have hurt you, but who did also contribute to your life in some positive way. This might include that abandoning parent, who did at least give you life. Or it could include an unkind teacher, who did teach you something of value. This may be the most difficult list, but it is important. Like it or not, we sometimes owe a debt of gratitude to even those we don’t like.

When I finished this exercise, I felt a renewed sense of connection to mankind. I am who I am because of so many. I owe so many a debt of gratitude. I think you will as well. You may relate to the words of Walt Whitman, who said, “I am large – I contain multitudes.”


The Impact of Should Thinking on Self-Esteem

Should statements add an element of self-criticism and guilt to your self-esteem.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Sometimes the difference between healthy and unhealthy thinking is simply a matter of tone. The difference may be subtle. For example, the statement, “I want to lose some weight” expresses a healthy desire, but the statement, “I’m so fat” damages the self-esteem.

You may think the difference between the two statement to be inconsequential, because you know what you mean, but it’s not. The human brain processes self-talk literally. Much like a computer, it processes exactly what you put into it.

Research has clearly demonstrated the importance of the actual words used in our thinking. You may rationally know better when you say, “I can’t do anything right.” You may know that you can do some things right. After all, you got dressed this morning, and you did that right. But your self-esteem hears the actual words, and you feel as if you can’t do anything right. The damage is done.

So now, let’s consider a situation where you want to make some change or take some future action. It could be anything. You want to spend more time with your children or with your aging parents. You want to clean your house, or get more involved in a worthwhile organization. The motivation may be admirable.

You might think, “I want to …” do some action. You’re expressing a healthy desire, and hopefully, you will follow-up with actions to make it happen. It’s all good. Or you might think, “I should …” do the action. In this case, you’re still expressing the desire, but you add a little jab. The “should” statement suggests guilt, shame or inadequacy, and provides a bit of chastisement.

The “I want to…” statement leaves the self-esteem intact. It may even engender a little excitement as you visualize accomplishing the action. The “I should…” statement tends to lower your mood, leaving you feeling inadequate. The damage of each statement may be minor, but the repetition of such statements can be devastating.

“Should” statements remind me of a little known religious group of the 14th century called the Flagellants. They believed they should punish themselves because of their sins, so they marched through the streets whipping themselves on the back with leather whips. Frequently using “should” statements is little like whipping yourself throughout your day. Like the whip, each “should” creates a little more damage.

Pay attention to the words you use in your self-talk. They really are important. Try substituting “I want to…” or “I would like to….” for the more negative, “I should…” See how it works.

Mind Reading

Assuming that you can know others' thoughts and feelings can damage your self-esteem and your relationships.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

You do it all the time. So do I. We all do mind reading. We read other’s expressions or their tone of voice. We try to read between the lines. What did that person really mean? How do they really feel? What were they thinking?mind reading

We ask these questions, then we go on to answer them. We make assumptions about others thoughts, feelings, or intentions. Unfortunately, we believe our assumptions.

Mind reading is a cognitive distortion where we believe that we can read other’s minds. Of course, we can, and we intellectually know that. Yet, in the moment, we assume that we can. We react to our assumptions.

There is a cost to mind reading. First, mind reading thoughts maintain wounds to the self-esteem. They reinforce any negative belief we hold about ourselves.

For example, Justin was criticized harshly by his mother throughout his childhood. Because of this, he concluded that he was not good enough. He believed he was not smart enough, that he would fail at most things, and that others would be critical of him as well.

When Justin does mind reading, do you think he assumes others to be affirming or judgmental? Of course, he assumes that others see him as a failure, and his efforts as inadequate. He would never assume that others thought that he was brilliant. Even when someone compliments his work, he assumes that they are just “being nice.”

Because of his mind reading, Justin sees his life as a series of failures. A self-esteem wound, first created by his mother’s criticism, is deepened by his later perceptions.

Second, mind reading damages relationships. Emily’s father left the family when she was eight years old. He moved across country with his new girlfriend. She didn’t see him at all for several years. She watched other fathers with their daughters, and silently grieved. She concluded that she wasn’t as valuable or loveable as other girls. Her self-esteem wound was formed.

When Emily did mind reading, she concluded that others didn’t like her, or didn’t want to spend time with her. She believed herself to be boring. To avoid rejection, she withdrew from others. She never initiated social relationships, and even turned down invitations, because she assumed she would eventually be rejected. When others reached out to her, and asked her out, she said no, as she assumed they were just being nice, or felt sorry for her.

Because of her mind reading, Emily saw herself as unlovable and felt alone. The self-esteem wound first created by her father’s distance, was worsened by her later perceptions.

Truth is, you can’t read minds. You may assume how others feel, or what they think, but you will often be wrong. You won’t believe that you are wrong, but you often are.

You can reduce the mind reading tendency by introducing a bit of skepticism. Entertain the thought that your assumptions are wrong. If possible, check it out. Ask the other person what they are thinking or how they feel. Try to believe them. Watch your thinking.

Learning to Let Go

We can experience serenity when we learn to let go of the things we can't change.

“Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.” 
Ann Landers


I once heard the saying that a baby is born with its fists clinched tight, holding on to everything in life. When we die, we’re laid in the casket with our hands outstretched, letting go of everything in life. And, life is the process ofLetting go can give us serenity. learning how to let go. I think this rings true.

We have such an aversion to letting things go. Even when we rationally know that we can’t change a situation, we hold on to it. Even when we know that ruminating, analyzing, replaying, or gnashing our teeth about a thing won’t change it, we refuse to let it go. Even when others tell us that it’s killing us, we hold on.

We seem to have the belief that continuing to think about a past negative event, a mistake, a slight or a wrong treatment, will somehow make it go away. We hold on to our anger, as if being angry will magically fix the problem. Or, when dealing with our own mistakes, we seem to believe that holding on to our guilt or shame is going to help. We continue to replay the unfortunate action, as if one more review will change the outcome. It never does.

It all comes down to the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”


Letting go and accepting is a choice, but it has to be a daily choice. We first make the rational decision to let a situation go. We recognize that our only pathway to peace is to let go. We realize that holding on is not helping the situation, but only hurting us. We then have to remind ourselves of our decision, whenever we find ourselves obsessing about the event again.


Again, it is difficult to let go, but well worth the effort. A variation of Neibuhr’s prayer might be, “Lord grant me the ability to accept the things I cannot change, so that I can finally experience serenity.”

When You Can’t See the Way

Here are several points to remember when you find yourself in a painful situation.

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

              Winston Churchill


Sometimes life is hard. At some time, you will find yourself in a place where you can’t see a way out. You may feel feeling hopelessconfused, lost and helpless. You may feel stuck and hopeless.

Your situation may have been caused by a bad decision, or a failure. It may have not been your fault at all. Because we live in a fallen world, bad things do happen. We experience the pain of a lost job, lost health, or a lost loved one.

When such things occur, our knee-jerk response may be to hide and lick our wounds. We may just sit and ruminate about our situation. We may want to stay in bed all day. We may feel emotionally paralyzed.

Instead, we may react with anger and frenetic activity. We may blame others or ourselves. We may instinctively jump into high gear, with the idea that it’s better to do something, even if it’s the wrong thing.

So what do we do when we experience the valleys of life? Here are a few point to remember when you feel you can’t find a way out of your situation.

  1. You’re not the first one to experience this. Of course, we know that everyone experiences pain in this life. We know it, but we tend to forget it when our pain is particularly strong. Recalling that others have experienced similar situations, or worse, and that they have made it through it, can help us gain perspective.
  2. You’re not alone. Even though we can’t see Him, we are promised that our Heavenly Father will “never leave us or forsake us.” In our pain, we may not feel His presence, but we are promised that He is always beside us, and carries us when we can’t carry ourselves. I love the line, “If we knew who was walking beside us, every step of our day, we would never be afraid of anything.”
  3. Let others support you. When bad things happen, we need to lean on other people. Talk to those who you know would want to be there for you. Don’t be afraid of bothering or burdening them. If they were experiencing a similar situation, would you want them to come to you? Would you be upset if they didn’t? Let them help you in the same way.
  4. Do one step at a time. We have a strong tendency to ruminate about the past or anticipate the future, and such ruminations create much of our pain. In reality, the past does not exist except in our memories, and the future does not exist except in our imaginations. We will never have the resources to deal with the past, because it doesn’t exist any longer. We will never have the resources to deal with the future, because it doesn’t exist yet. We will always have the resources to deal with the present moment. We are told: Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34)
  5. Be kind to yourself. Even when the valley is due to your own mistake or failure, it doesn’t help to beat yourself up. Beyond a healthy self-discipline, be kind to yourself. Try to show yourself the same compassion that you would show to a loved one who made the same mistake. If they would deserve such compassion, you do too.
  6. You don’t have to see the whole path. In the midst of our valley, we often can’t see the whole way out, but we don’t have to. We only have to see our next step. You can drive across the United States at night, even though your headlights only show you the next one hundred feet. You don’t have to see the whole route, only the next little bit. But by continuing to drive the path we are shown, we will eventually get to our destination.

Hopefully, these points will help you in your difficult situation. Just remember to keep moving.


How Your Posture Can Change Your Mood

Your body position and facial expression can have a powerful impact on your mood.

We can tell a lot about another person’s mood without them saying a word. Facial expressions, body position and theYour body can change your mind. way they move can let us know how they are feeling. We pay attention to the smile, frown or furrowed brow to let us know their reactions in a conversation.

We also read other’s moods by the way they walk or the way they sit. Sitting slumped over with legs and arms crossed conveys a more subdued or depressed mood. Sitting upright, with arms extended usually denotes a more positive or empowered mood.

We generally think that our bodies respond to our minds. If we feel a certain way, the body reacts. When we’re happy, we smile. When we’re sad, we frown. When we’re down, we slump and walk more slowly.

Certainly, it is true that the body reacts to the mind, but recent research has clearly shown that the opposite also occurs. The mind reacts to the body. Standing or sitting in certain positions, or holding a particular facial expression, actually changes the mood.

The researchers found several ingenious ways to get subjects to hold positions normally associated with depressed, happy, angry, powerless or empowered moods. The subjects were given a false explanation for these poses, so they didn’t realize they were mimicking a mood. The researchers then gave the subjects questionnaires to measure mood, and blood tests to measure hormones.

When subjects held depressed or powerless poses or facial expressions, they later reported negative, depressed moods. More importantly, their blood work showed hormonal changes associated with more negative or powerless moods. When they held empowered or positive poses or facial expressions, they later reported happy or confident emotions, and their blood work reflected the same.

Some studies had subjects engage in a stressful event (like a job interview) after holding empowered or powerless poses. They had independent raters observe the subjects’ performance in those situations. Results indicated that the subjects who held the empowered poses actually performed significantly better in the stressful activity.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, Amy Cuddy, Ph.D. gave a very popular presentation on www.Ted.com. You can also read her recent book on the subject, “Presence.”

So, you might want to try this easy mood altering technique. Change your posture or your facial expression, whether you feel like it or not. Make yourself smile. Stand up straight with your hands on your hips, and your head tilted slightly upward. Hold that stance for about two minutes. Remember the Wonder Woman pose? By the way, you don’t have to do this in front of anyone.

As silly as this may sound, research shows it makes a difference in mood, body chemistry and performance. Fake it til you make it. You might just change your mind!