I bet you believe things about yourself that are not based in fact.
And, I bet you tend to be pretty hard on yourself.
Want to find out if this is true?
Get something to write with, so you can complete a short exercise.
Once you have a pen and paper ready, quickly write down a list of adjectives that describe you.
Don’t overthink it – hurry! Just write down the first 10 to 20 words that come to mind.
Now, look over your list.
Write an F next to the words that are factual – meaning they are objectively true descriptors of you.
Then, write an O next to the words that are opinions you have of yourself.
Your self-concept started forming when you were very young. Your parents, peers, and authority figures largely influenced its development. All of the information and suggestions you gathered from those sources was stored in your subconscious mind – and you accepted them as true, even if they weren’t.
What you believe about yourself is largely the culmination of all those years of external influence…other people’s opinions about you (more on that later).
Yes, you have flaws – you are human. None of us are perfect (and life would be boring if we were).
Maybe you’ve made big mistakes. Maybe you’ve gained a lot of weight over the last few years and don’t exercise as much as you should. Maybe you stopped doing things to take care of yourself, and your health and self-esteem are suffering as a result.
Or, maybe something happened to you that was beyond your control, and you are struggling to feel good about yourself again.
But here’s something to think about.
Are your opinions about those perceived failures doing you any good?
Even if you are overweight, out of shape, and have neglected your health, is beating yourself up over it helping you at all?
If you still aren’t sure which of your ideas about yourself are facts and which are opinions, consider this example.
It might be a FACT that you are overweight.
But it is your OPINION that you are a failure because of it.
Do you see why it is important to separate fact from fiction when defining yourself?
Your opinions about your flaws, failures, and strokes of bad luck can magnify obstacles to the point where you become stuck in a vicious cycle of inaction, anxiety, and unhappiness.
Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen. – Epictetus
Have you ever found yourself thinking, “I’ll be happy when ____ happens?”
If so, that’s a shame, isn’t it? Often, we think we are not worthy of happiness because of our shortcomings. But life is always going to be a work in progress. Learn to enjoy the process, and you will discover a lot about yourself along the way.
Try living life in the moment. Give all of your attention to what is happening NOW, rather than what has happened in the past, or what could happen in the future. This does NOT mean that you should not set goals and strive to achieve them. It means accepting where you are NOW, and not allowing stress and anxiety over past mistakes or mistakes you will make in the future stop you from enjoying the present.
You can change your perceptions, and a good place to start is by examining any inaccurate opinions you have of yourself.
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
And because most of your behaviors, feelings, and responses to experiences are habits, you can change those too. It takes consistent, conscious awareness, but is easier than you might think.
Instead of letting your emotions about your circumstances get the best of you, you can learn to objectively evaluate your challenges and take action to make improvements and live a happier life.
Here are five tools you can use to change your perspective and increase your chances of reaching your goals.
A major concept in Stoic philosophy and in Buddhism, equanimity is mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in difficult situations. It refers to the mind being at peace even in the face of stressful and unpleasant experiences.
Consider these wise words the late Dr. Maxwell Maltz wrote in Psycho-Cybernetics,
Even in regard to tragic conditions and the most adverse environment, we can usually manage to be happier by NOT adding to the misfortune our own feelings of self-pity, resentment, and our own adverse opinions.
There may be circumstances in your life that are within your control, but will take time and effort to improve.
And, there may be circumstances that are NOT within your control, and never will be.
Either way, meeting those circumstances with equanimity can make your life a whole lot more peaceful – and happy.
Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity. – C.G. Jung
Instead of fixating on your current situation and letting it get you down, start where you are.
In the book Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl wrote,
Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.
If anyone would know about experiencing serious adversity, it would be the late Dr. Frankl. He was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps. Even after his his wife and parents were murdered by the Nazis, Frankl was able to control his perception. He was able to find solace in the fact that his loved ones were spared the pain that he felt, and that they did not have to live through the horrors he faced.
Frankl’s experiences led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living. He went on to continue writing, lecturing, and conducting research after he was rescued from Türkheim in 1945.
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible. – Epictetus
What happened, happened. Now the question is, what are you going to do about it? The great astronaut Chris Hadfield would say, “I know that this is dangerous, but there are six things that I could do right now, all of which will help make things better. And it’s worth remembering, too, there’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse also.”
The Greeks had a word for this: apatheia. It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind. Don’t let the negativity in, don’t let those emotions even get started. Just say: No, thank you. I can’t afford to panic. I can’t afford to make it worse.
For more on Stoicism, see Stoicism: How This Ancient Philosophy Can Empower You to Improve Your Health and Your Life.
Embrace Amor Fati
Amor fati (“love of fate”) is a Latin phrase that may be translated as “love of fate” or “love of one’s fate”. It is used to describe an attitude in which one sees everything that happens in one’s life, including suffering and loss, as good or, at the very least, necessary, in that they are among the facts of one’s life and existence, so they are always necessarily there whether one likes them or not. Amor fati is characterized by an acceptance of the events or situations that occur in one’s life.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to amor fati in his writings. In Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, he wrote,
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.
At the height of the mood of amor fati, we recognise that things really could not have been otherwise, because everything we are and have done is bound closely together in a web of consequences that began with our birth – and which we are powerless to alter at will. We see that what went right and what went horribly wrong are as one, and we commit ourselves to accepting both, to no longer destructively hoping that things could have been otherwise. We were headed to a degree of catastrophe from the start. We know why we are the desperately imperfect beings we are; and why we had to mess things up as badly as we did. We end up saying, with tears in which there mingle grief and a sort of ecstasy, a large yes to the whole of life, in its absolute horror and occasional moments of awesome beauty.
Everything we experience – no matter how tragic or challenging – can serve a purpose. It is up to us to figure out what that purpose is, as Dr. Frankl did.
Yes, things can (and at times, will) go wrong. While many self-help gurus advise visualizing positive things to improve your mindset, visualizing possible negative outcomes also has value. The Stoics suggest mentally practicing for future disasters and then preparing for them or doing things to prevent them.
Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock. – Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
When you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk (negative opinions about yourself), catch yourself…then cancel the thought.
Here’s a technique you can try: Visualize yourself writing down the negative opinion or thought, then crumpling up the paper and throwing it in the trash. If you prefer, go beyond just visualizing this and actually DO it. Write the negative opinion or thought down, crumple up (or tear up) the paper, and toss it in the garbage.
Determining how you respond to stimuli can also help you control your thoughts. Do you over-respond to events in your environment?
For example, when your phone rings, do you jump to respond? If you have a smartphone, do you have notifications set for calls, texts, email, and social media platforms? Do you stop whatever you are doing to check those notifications? Or, are you okay with waiting?
Teaching yourself to delay responding to non-emergency stimuli can help you greatly reduce stress and control other habits (like overeating).
Technological innovation is both a blessing and a curse. You have information at your fingertips and can often get almost whatever you want with a few clicks. In some circumstances, that’s a good thing – if you need to find a plumber because you’ve got a leak, you can locate one within minutes using the internet.
But rapid access to information has caused us to become quite an impatient society, unwilling to wait for things that we desire. There’s a widespread need for instant gratification.
A neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses. It enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.
As Dr. Susan Weinschenk explains in the article Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google:
According to researcher Kent Berridge, these two systems, the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opioid) are complementary. The wanting system propels you to action and the liking system makes you feel satisfied and therefore pause your seeking. If your seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then you start to run in an endless loop. The dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. You tend to seek more than you are satisfied.
This gets us caught in a “dopamine loop,” she explains:
With the internet, twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into google. Want to see what your colleagues are up to? Go to Linked In. It’s easy to get in a dopamine induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text.
Then we want even more, Dr. Weinschenk writes:
Interestingly brain scan research shows that the brain has more activity when people are ANTICIPATING a reward than getting one. Research on rats shows that if you destroy dopamine neurons, rats can walk, chew, and swallow, but will starve to death even when food is right next to them. They have lost the anticipation and desire to go get the food. Although wanting and liking are related, research also shows that the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in. It is possible for the dopamine system to keep saying “more more more”, causing you to keep seeking even when you have found the information. How many times have you searched for something on google, found the answer, and yet realize a half hour later that you are still online looking for more information?
All those notifications you have set up on your smartphones and other devices?
They serve as cues that a reward is coming. So when there is a sound or a visual cue that lets you know when a text message or email has arrived, that cue enhances the addictive effect.
This constant stimulation of the dopamine system can be exhausting. You are constantly switching your attention, which makes it hard to get anything accomplished.
Chamath Palihapitiya, who was the vice-president for user growth at Facebook before he left in 2011, recently spoke out publicly about the harm social media is doing to society. Here’s what he said:
I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth.
Palihapitiya is not the only former Facebook executive to speak out about the dangers of social media, as the tech website The Verge reported in December:
In November, early investor Sean Parker said he has become a “conscientious objector” to social media, and that Facebook and others had succeeded by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” A former product manager at the company, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, has said Facebook lies about its ability to influence individuals based on the data it collects on them, and wrote a book, Chaos Monkeys, about his work at the firm.
How to prevent getting trapped in dopamine loops? Turn off all auditory and visual cues. I deleted Facebook and the associated Messenger application from my phone several weeks ago and have never had notifications switched ON on my devices because they are so distracting (and I happen to find notifications annoying, but everyone’s tolerance varies).
By the way, this concept absolutely applies to goal achievement, in case you are wondering why it is mentioned here. Because humans are prone to crave immediate gratification, working towards goals (weight loss in particular) can be very challenging. Good things rarely happen immediately, and usually take significant time to achieve.
Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes or figs need time to ripen. If you say that you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe. So if the fruit of a fig tree is not brought to maturity instantly or in an hour, how do you expect the human mind to come to fruition, so quickly and easily? – Epictetus
Do you want to become more self-controlled? Then exercise your self-control.
Accepting that you are human and that life is always going to have ups and downs, successes and failures, victories and disappointments, will help you gain perspective and self-acceptance.
If you find yourself constantly disappointed and discouraged, it may be time to examine your goals. Are they practical, or are you being unrealistic? Are you expecting too much drastic change too fast?
Even the most successful people didn’t get that way overnight. Most likely, they were met with obstacles and interruptions along their journey (and probably still have challenges).
Success is rarely linear – it is almost always erratic.
Almost every success story has in its shadow a long list of disappointments, frustrations, and humiliations. Why should you expect your story to be different?
No true success or genuine happiness is possible until you gain some degree of self-acceptance.
Evaluate other people’s opinions
At the beginning of this article, we discussed identifying opinions you have about yourself, and why it is important to learn to recognize when something you believe about yourself is not based in fact.
Now it is time to talk about other people’s opinions and how they can impact your life.
Unless you are a hermit and avoid social media entirely, you will have to deal with other people, and that means you will often be exposed to their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about you.
Considering the opinions of others can be valuable if those opinions are in the form of honest and productive feedback.
If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. – Marcus Aurelius
Sometimes we can be a bit oblivious to our own faults and it takes receiving some “tough love” from someone helpful to inspire us to improve. This kind of feedback can help us become more self-aware.
But concerning yourself with the opinions of others too much can be detrimental to your well-being, and can interfere with your pursuit of happiness, fulfillment, and inner peace.
The trick is training yourself to consider feedback as objectively as possible. Discard opinions that are not of value and can harm your self-esteem. Here’s an example. My mother (I adore her, so this is not meant to be critical, but is relevant to this point) used to say that I was an under-achiever, prone to laziness. As a young child – and even through my teen years – I believed her. She would know, as my parent, after all – wouldn’t she? It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood and deep into studying psychology that I realized that I am not an underachiever at all, nor am I lazy. I have since discussed those opinions with her, and as it turns out, she believed I was capable of achieving much more than I was, and she was trying to motivate me to do more by telling me I was a lazy underachiever. Sometimes people have methods that we don’t understand, so asking for clarification can go a long way toward reaching an understanding of one’s motives.
When you find yourself obsessing over the opinions of others and questioning your worth, consider the following quote from the great actor Anthony Hopkins:
My philosophy is: It’s none of my business what people say of me and think of me. I am what I am and I do what I do. I expect nothing and accept everything. And it makes life so much easier.
And, more wisdom from Dr. Maltz:
We can make our own happiness because we can choose our own thoughts and even choose our own self-image, and we are well-advised to do so rather than depending on someone else to do it for us.
In fact, that is the core of Psycho-Cybernetics, as Dr. Maltz explains in his book of the same name:
The essence of Psycho-Cybernetics is the accurate, calm, and ultimately automatic separation of fact from fiction, fact from opinion, actual circumstance from magnified obstacle, so that our actions and reactions are solidly based on truth, not our own or others’ opinions.
You CAN be happy while you are proactively doing things to change your life. You don’t have to wait until you achieve a certain goal to experience happiness. There’s no reason to put off LIFE while you are in the process of losing weight, improving your health, exercising more, or working towards any goal. Just deciding to take action can often cause a significant reduction in stress and increase happiness.
Humans are goal-oriented beings – we do best when we have something we are actively working towards achieving.
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. – Viktor Frankl
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