Doing Something About Your Life


                               DOING SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR LIFE

Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    12-16

Many people are dissatisfied with their lives—some quite seriously, but most people don’t know what to do to make their lives better.  Help in this regard is available, since psychologists, religious leaders, and philosophers all have a lot to say about the subject, but most people don’t manage to change things much, even if they have consulted “the experts.”  To make sense of this, it is useful to ask how much people are motivated to actually do.  This is not to “blame the victim” (“it’s your fault you haven’t made a better life”), but simply to expose the fact that most people want a better life without having to make major changes in themselves.  It’s relatively simple to change external circumstances, by moving somewhere else, seeking different friends, or taking a vocational course, but changing oneself, such as becoming less afraid of other people, learning to be comfortable with all of one’s emotions, and accepting being less in control of things, is “major.” 

Change is uncomfortable for all of us, since it takes us into the unknown, and we are all afraid of the unknown, since a major aspect of our human adaptation in the world is being able to predict the future (if I do this, that is likely to happen).  Just as we are uncomfortable with people whose customs are different from us, at least until we understand those customs, we are uncomfortable with the unknown.

A second stumbling block for changing one’s life is that we often predict outcomes of change incorrectly.  A husband may want to save his marriage by listening more to his wife, since his not listening is her major complaint, but what is really needed is for him to be interested in what she says.  If he forces himself to merely listen, his attitude will betray what he says he is trying to do.  It is much more difficult and fundamental to change whether he wants to hear what she says, which is why most purely behavioral efforts to change or fix something fall flat.

In a more fundamental sense, people quite often think that a particular thing will “make” them feel better, when in fact it won’t.  Attempts to feel good about oneself and one’s life through more possessions, more approval, or more control over oneself and/or others are bound to fail in the long run, even if they seem initially to feel good.  Our society is relatively immature emotionally and teaches us to believe that we can do anything we want to do and that having more is the route to a good life.  Both of these are false, but they are very enticing, and people seem to have to try them to find out that they don’t work (rather than being willing to believe wise people on the matter).  To recognize one’s limitations and to realize that having more isn’t a good answer are considered “downers” in our society, but if we want to have a really good life, we must face facts and find a different stance about what is important in life and what it means to be happy.

All of us (worldwide) want the same basic things in life—

·       to be basically accepted in our groups

·       to find loving and supportive relationships

·       to feel positively about ourselves

·       to be in a positive emotional state a fair amount of the time

·       to have children and raise them to be good people

·       to have an adequate sense of meaning in our lives. 

Adequate success with these goals is what gives us satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment and what allows us to be in a positive emotional state a fair amount of the time.  Having lots of money and possessions, being famous, being at the top of the status hierarchy, and being in control do not give us lasting satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment and do not put us in a positive emotional state a fair amount of the time.  (You may be reluctant to believe this, but everyone finds it out in the end.)

We can organize our fundamental goals in life, in somewhat more technical language, as follows–

            1-life maintenance and support (sufficient capacities and goal
attainment to enable one 
to take care of oneself and those
legitimately dependent on one, and meeting one’s 
basic needs
at least adequately)

             2-having no more than a minimal or at least no more than a
tolerable level of physical 
pain and bodily damage (recognizing
that some amount of physical and emotional 
pain are normal
aspects of human life and the human adaptation)

        3-having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in one’s life
(including feeling some 
amounts of happiness and hope, and
ultimately some (for many people, small)
 amounts of
satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment),
achieved largely by–

                  3a-having a good relationship with and good feelings
toward oneself (which may include loving oneself,
respecting oneself, accepting oneself, and treating oneself
well, and which in large measure arises
from being loved,
respected, and accepted by others an
d from creating good
outcomes for oneself)

                   3b-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional
pain and internal conflict (though 
recognizing that some
degree of conflict and pain 
is inherent in being human)

                    3c-feeling an adequate level of security

                    3d-having some and to some degree positive, gratifying
relationships with 
others, including most importantly, a
secure place in one’s family and basic 
acceptance in one’s

            (While most of us feel better if we have “meaning” in our lives,
many people do not 
recognize or strive for this sense of meaning,
so it is not a fundamental goal.)

What is “adequate,” “reasonable,” “sufficient,” “tolerable, and “minimal” in these goal statements will vary somewhat with our individual differences (both physically and emotionally) and with differences between societies (particularly values and economic situation).  An adequate level of happiness and a tolerable level of pain are probably not specifiable in measures available to us currently, but each of us can report at any given time which side of that vague standard we are on (positive or negative).  Some societies promote more self-abnegation than others, and some publically put relationships with others above one’s relationship with oneself, but all people would naturally seek a positive relationship with the self and fulfilling relationships with others if they were permitted to do so.  To promote self-denial and self-injury as methods of controlling behavior leads to greater unhappiness in a society. 

Having accepted the goals above and that they are the only ones that have any chance of “making” us happy, we must consider how best to achieve adequate success in as many of them as possible.  What is the best way to gain and maintain basic acceptance in our groups?  What is the best way to find loving and supportive relationships?  What is the best way to feel positively about ourselves?  What is the best way to be in a positive emotional state a fair amount of the time?  What is the best way to raise children to be good people?  What is the best way to contribute positively to our groups (family, town, nation)?  What is the best way to find an adequate sense of meaning our lives?

To answer these questions as best you can, you face some fundamental questions.  (1) Will I get more by treating other people well or by trying to control them and take advantage of them?  (2) Is it sufficiently safe to love others and let myself be loved?  (3) How can I accept myself when I have been taught that I am basically “bad”?  (4) How can I accept the limitations of human life?  What are your positions on these crucial questions that will determine much of what your life is like?  These and other significant choices that we make are outlined below.


We each choose how to focus our energies in life.  You can choose toimprove yourself in each of the fundamental skills and attitudes highlighted here.  These are key choices that we can consciously make that will support our efforts to learn new skills, become more adaptive, and have better lives.  These choices each “make sense,” but to some degree they are also matters of faith, since we have to choose and affirm them before we really know that they will pay off for us.

These continua or dimensions can be regarded as “choices” because each person can recognize how he or she acts with regard to them, can recognize the results of how he or she acts with regard to them, and can consciously choose to change (or not) his or her way of acting with regard to them to make his or her life better.  (The number of people interested in recognizing the impact of their own choices on their lives may be a minority, but if the concept were publicized, more would become interested.)

While our genetic makeup no doubt plays a role in our positioning and choices with respect to these dimensions, we can change our ways of behaving to a significant degree if we choose to do so.  We would expect these choices to be consistent with our consciously chosen values.  For example, our empathy with others will affect greatly the quality of our relationships with others, and most of us can recognize the usefulness of empathy and can choose to develop our empathy skills to whatever degree we wish (or at least up to the limit of our brain’s capacity for empathy).

You can choose to know yourself better and to be aware of everything that goes on inside you—all of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.  This will give you a much more grounded feeling about yourself, and you can enjoy watching the excitement and drama that goes on inside you.  If you block your own awareness of your thoughts and feelings, you will make poor decisions for your life and in social relations you will act like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

 You can choose to be as aware as possible not only about yourself but also about others and the world, so that you can interpret accurately things that help you to make good choices and avoid harm.

You can choose to be honest with yourself, even when you don’t want to see certain things about yourself, others, and life.  You can choose to be honest with others, so that they can trust you not to take advantage of them and so that you do not harm them by withholding needed information or misleading them.

If you do not opt to honest, you will continue to worry that others will see you for who you really are, and you will continue to lie and worry about covering up your lies (and people who know you won’t trust you). 

You can choose to get better at knowing what is true and what is not, including being clear about your own desires and inclinations to distort the truth.  This, together with the self-knowledge that comes from self-awareness, will give you a much better chance of making good decisions.  If you don’t, you will bumble through life and be unable to stand up effectively for what you really believe.

If you choose not to be self-aware, not to be honest, and not to pay attention to what is true and what is not, you will continue to make decisions that lead you toward conflict and failure. 

You can choose to be humble and realistic about yourself, which will help you to see yourself more accurately and to avoid the temptation to view yourself as being worth more than others and “better than” others.  If you don’t choose to be realistically humble and realistic about yourself, others will see you as egotistical and self-centered.

You can choose to understand others better through developing your empathy capacities, so that you can predict what they will do accurately and can treat them better.  If you choose not to develop adequate empathy, you will be confused by how others act and continue to feel distant from them. 

You can choose to have a positive attitude toward others and to treat others well, so that they like you and want to help you.  If you don’t, others will see you as selfish and negative, especially if you opt to try to get what you want by taking advantage of others whenever possible.

You can choose to treat others with respect and courtesy, so they will feel valued.  If you don’t, others will see you as trying to make them feel inferior.

You can be understanding toward others, to minimize unnecessary conflict and better predict their feelings and behavior.

You can choose to be compassionate toward others–attending to them, appreciating their suffering, and wishing the best for them.  If you don’t, people will view you as dangerous and as being out just for yourself. 

You can choose to be more responsible, so that you do what you agree or promise to do no matter what, which makes it more possible for others to trust you.  If you act irresponsibly, others will view you as untrustworthy and dangerous.

You can choose to feel like a basic equal with others and to treat others as basic equals at all times, so you can stop expecting too much of yourself, control your basic human tendency to grandiosity, feel closer with others as members of the human family, and feel more comfortable around others.  If you don’t, you are implicitly saying that you are worth more than others, which continually provokes envy and conflict.

You can choose to treat everyone fairly, so that they can trust you.

You can choose to cooperate better with others, so that you and they can get more out of life, or you can try to get what you want by going it alone or by taking advantage of others whenever you can (by lying, deceiving, cheating, stealing), both of which will reduce your success in life. 

If you choose not to treat others with greater acceptance, love, fairness, equality, and cooperation, you will continue to have interpersonal problems every day of your life.   

You can choose to deal with frustration and disappointment by adaptive means rather than with anger and destructiveness, including focusing on both the positive and the negative instead of just the negative, avoiding blaming, figuring out what went wrong, realistically correcting your behavior for the future, and being nice to yourself instead of beating yourself up.

You can choose to get more comfortable with your emotions, to accept them, and to manage them, so that you can be more peaceful inside and manage your behavior better.  If you choose not to be acquainted with and live comfortably with your emotions, you will continue to feel chaotic inside and troubled too much of the time. 

You can choose to control your behavior toward others, so that you can treat them better and get their trust and cooperation.  If you choose not to consider when to act and when not to act and how to control your behavior so as to maximize your options and success in life, you will continue to make social mistakes and drive people away from you. 

You can choose to develop your capacity for delaying gratification so that you can persevere in reaching long-term and complex goals.  If you don’t, you will live only in the present, as other animals do.

You can choose to take care of yourself more instead of getting everything from others, so you can build self-esteem and pride in yourself and not feel so threatened by how others see you and feel toward you.  If you choose to be dependent on others and not use your strength to take proper care of yourself, you will continue to be ambivalent about how others are treating you and about how you feel toward them. 

You can choose to nurture positive self-esteem in yourself, so that you can feel good about being yourself and can use your capacities in life to the fullest, by respecting yourself, accepting yourself, loving yourself, taking good care of yourself, and doing what is truly best for yourself at all times.   If you don’t, you will continue to feel bad about yourself and be ambivalent about deserving good things in life and from others. 

You can choose to be more accepting of yourself, others, and life, so that you can stop goading and punishing yourself for not being good enough and for failing in life.  If you choose not to love, respect, and accept yourself, you will continue to feel bad (embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, afraid) about yourself. 

You can choose to develop your capacity to love, so you can love yourself and can love others more comfortably, even when you don’t get love back. 

You can choose to be a good person and to live an ethical and moral life, in order to minimize shame, guilt, and conflicts within yourself and maximize the quality of your relationships with others.  If you don’t, others will view you as inconsistent and untrustworthy.

The more of these dimensions you choose not to improve, the more limited you will be in how much you can improve your life.  You can learn about and get better at all of these things.  It’s up to you to choose whether to do it!  You may feel as if you are incapable of doing better, but that is the product of your past unfortunate experience.  If you want to improve and learn, and you make a commitment to yourself to do as much as you can, you can improve.  Make that commitment now, and read on for specifics about attitudes and behaviors that will help.  It’s not really that complicated.  If you treat yourself better, you will feel better about yourself.  If you treat others better, they will treat you better.  If you try to learn more and discern what is true and what is not, you will have a more orderly and successful life.


Here are some examples of problems that people perceive in ways that make it impossible for them to solve.  As you read, think about how these problems could be addressed, perhaps even solved, by paying more attention to the truth, managing instead of just expressing our emotions, being more accepting of self and others, feeling better about ourselves, and treating others as we would like to be treated. 

It is extremely important to notice, here and in the sections to follow, that people generally perceive their problems to be outside themselves (it’s the other person’s fault for how they interpreted what we said, not ours for how we expressed it; if someone doesn’t like me, he is not seeing me properly).  Even though their pain is inside themselves, they usually explain it through outside causes, and they ignore that they themselves are giving an interpretation to those outside stimuli that they try to believe produce the emotional pain that they are experiencing.  They take themselves to be an unchangeable given and focus on changing the outside stimulus so that they can feel better. 

It is of course understandable that people would avoid seeing fault in themselves, particularly if they already feel bad about themselves.  Instead of assessing honestly what we are giving to a relationship, we prefer to focus on the flaws of the other person.  This book emphasizes that while there are some outside stimuli that need to be changed (mistreatment from others, etc.), many of those outside stimuli are not within our power to change, and if we are to feel better, we must change our ways of perceiving, understanding, and feeling about these stimuli. 

Trying to shift the blame from ourselves may be understandable (to avoid emotional pain), but doing this causes us not to take appropriate responsibility for ourselves and our behavior.  Responsibility has nothing to do with blame, though it does relate to (1) receiving appropriate consequences for our behavior and (2) seeing it as natural that we would proceed to solve our problems.  If we blame others or fate or God for what we do, then we don’t think about doing what we can to change our circumstances or ourselves.  Taking responsibility for our behavior (or anything else under our control) makes it possible (and natural) to use all of our capacities to change.

As you read, notice how our rather poor awareness and understanding of all that goes on within us—particularly our blindness to our desires, emotions, and cognitive distortions, our difficulties differentiating reality from falsehood and unreality, together with our willingness to distort reality to make ourselves feel better, and our ongoing efforts to avoid unpleasant emotions all contribute to our failures to live adaptively.  We do our best not to be conscious of feelings of vulnerability, insecurity, helplessness, sadness, inadequacy, and the terror of not being in control, but they continue to play a role as unconscious motivators, and by trying not to feel these fundamental emotions, we cut off some of the richness of being human and some of what could be bases for real connections with others.

We each face survival problems, which are our highest priority (hunger, thirst, illness, physical dangers in the environment including other people), but aside from these, people (particularly in developed nations) are preoccupied with a number of other painful states and conditions.  These are the things they complain about to each other or because of which they engage in psychotherapy.

Painful Self-Esteem 

Our self-esteem is too often painful, and we often criticize ourselves, reject ourselves, feel ashamed of who we are, dislike ourselves, and feel undeserving of good things in life.  Poor self-esteem often leads to attempts to “prove” one’s worth by means of achievements or other methods of eliciting the admiration or envy of others (beauty, strength, wealth, grades, status), to efforts to gain status by pushing other people down the status ladder (wanting to feel that we are “better than” others), and to efforts to distract ourselves, through danger, excitement, collecting things, sex, substance use, pleasure-seeking, etc.  Most people believe that their self-esteem pain is due to other people not liking them enough or to other people criticizing and rejecting them.

Feeling bad about yourself is due not to others not liking you enough but to believing what others feel and express toward you, viewing yourself as inadequate and unpleasing to others, rejecting yourself (not accepting yourself as you are), and applying inappropriate standards and expectations to yourself (and finding yourself wanting).  “Feeling bad about yourself” is not the problem—it is the result.  The solutions to feeling bad about yourself are (1) to free yourself from the expectations and desires of others for who they want you to be and what they want you to do; (2) to look with your own eyes at yourself and determine how you really feel about yourself; (3) to set your own reasonable and humane expectations for yourself, instead of being a slave to what others want you to be and do; (4) to honor your own reasonable and humane expectations and goals for yourself by doing all you reasonably can to meet those expectations and achieve those goals (including seeking to be the kind of person who can be a good friend); (5) after you have done your honest best, to accept your outcomes and accept yourself totally; (6) to always do what is truly best for yourself (what is truly in your best interest), so that you build up good feelings about yourself; (7) to insist on basic respect and on being treated as basically an equal by all others and (8) to spend your social time with people who like you, accept you, and are supportive of you.   

A related requirement for feeling better about yourself is to recognize the status hierarchy competition going on among human beings and come to know without doubt that your position on that hierarchy has nothing to say about your basic worth as a person.  (You can still accept the resource distribution arrangements of the hierarchy (who gets bigger or smaller slices of the pie), but all the while you can know that it says nothing about your value as a person.)

So, the real problems are letting others define who you are and who you are supposed to be, being unable to think for yourself, adopting others’ unreasonable expectations for you and feeling bad about yourself when you don’t meet them, rejecting yourself for failing to be what others want you to be, sabotaging yourself by engaging in behavior that is more harmful than good for you, accepting inferior treatment and positions from others, and spending most of your time with people who reject you and use you for their purposes.  Each of these real problems can be changed and solved, if you are determined to do so. 

Rest assured that you are OK the way you are.  There is nothing “wrong” with you that makes others reject you.  If they are rejecting you, they are doing so for their own reasons (what they want to get from rejecting you) rather than solely because of the stimulus that you present to them.  Start looking at yourself positively and as being OK.  Enjoy being yourself!  (A more in-depth discussion of taking on these beliefs and attitudes is presented later on and can also be found in my book How To Feel Good About Yourself:  Twelve Steps To Positive Self-Esteem.)

Inability to Be Alone Comfortably 

A close corollary to self-esteem pain is the inability to be comfortable alone, since for many people this usually leads to painful focusing on oneself.  Most people don’t like their own thoughts and feelings, especially those that they have about themselves.  If left on our own, without our typical distractions and avoidances, many of us find life meaningless, feel hopeless about our lives, feel bored or “empty,” or feel chronically unhappy and dissatisfied with ourselves and our lives and so try to compensate with finding more pleasure, distracting ourselves, or putting others down.  Some of us are afraid all the time of what we may find out about ourselves.  This inability to be comfortable alone leads to the extraordinary efforts to which many people go to pretend to be other than they are, to distract themselves from knowing themselves, and to have friends and engage in social activities as a distraction from self-awareness.  As evidence, note the desire of so many people to pretend to be someone else on-line.

People who are uncomfortable being alone with themselves are uncomfortable because being aware of themselves arouses painful feelings (shame, guilt, self-criticism, feeling bad about themselves) or because they have no sense of security within themselves and must have others present in order to feel secure.  The problem of painful self-feelings is addressed in the preceding section, and feeling better about oneself makes being alone with oneself much more pleasant!  Feeling fundamentally insecure without others is not due to dangers in the world but to our lack of realistic self-confidence.  This is solved by becoming more comfortable being independent and autonomous.  One must notice and acknowledge that one can exist reasonably well without the constant presence of others and must be willing to view oneself as making enough good decisions and as treating oneself well enough to justify the expectation that things will be OK most of the time, even when one is alone.  We must notice that things are usually OK when we are alone and trust that they will continue to be OK most of the time while we are alone, while developing trust in our ability to cope with most problems alone (and to enlist help when needed). 


For some people, being overly dependent on others is due to not being able to take the risks involved in being open to true closeness with others (i.e., being afraid to be really vulnerable), so that superficial closeness (the presence of others) is needed in order to feel connected to others.  Feeling true closeness enables one to hold onto that connection even when others are not present.  (While it is adaptive to be able to be comfortable while alone, this does not imply that people should not need other people or should not want to be with them part of the time.  We gain many emotional and material things from our interactions with others.  We are addressing here only being uncomfortable and distressed any time one is alone.) 

Lack of Loving Relationships

The most frequently stated complaint among people is that they do not have an intimate, close, loving relationship with a partner or mate.  More specifically, they can’t get the adulation, the affection, the love, or the caretaking that they want.  The majority of people blame themselves for being “not good enough” or desirable enough to gain and hold the attention and feelings of another person or to the difficulties in our society of meeting enough people to find a good match.  Some women may attribute their single status to the immaturity of men and to the common modern pattern of just dating and never committing. 

Many of us wish that we were getting more good feelings from our relationships with others.  You might wish that your boss treated you with more respect or that your wife loved you more.  In many of these situations, the resulting frustrations or feelings of hurt are not expressed but are silently tolerated while the painful feelings continue.  If they are expressed, they are expressed in “fights,” in passive-aggressive retaliation, or in drinking or affairs, and rarely are the desires or the hurt addressed directly and productively with the other party.  The major reasons for this are the fear that change might bring something worse (as discussed above) and the fear that exposing one’s need (the desire for greater respect or more love) will result in direct rejection or humiliation, which is imagined to be even worse than the pain of enduring the hurt without expressing it.  We imagine that if we say, “Honey, I’d like you to love me more and to tell me more that you love me,” she is likely to say something like “Well, if you were better company [or brought home more money, etc.], then I would,” which blames us for our own pain and asserts that we don’t deserve any better.  As a result of fear of this outcome, many people do not seek improvement.

The problem, then, is not really that we aren’t loved, respected, valued, etc., but that we don’t do anything about these things.  We can’t know if another person can love us more if we don’t try to make it happen, and it does not happen by covert means (by trying to be more pleasing, by giving gifts, etc.).  Picking a fight, drinking, having an affair, or getting back at someone by hurting them secretly are not solutions, either, although they may seem to even up the score (in your own mind) temporarily.  It is true that seriously discussing the issue with the other person may result in hearing things from that person that are painful to hear, but the solution, then, is to learn to hear those painful things without getting off topic or retaliating (which would result not in a useful discussion but in a blaming contest).  This dynamic—misinterpreting what others express as being criticism and being unable to hear criticism or blaming without retaliating in kind—is the thing most responsible for lack of resolution of interpersonal problems of all kinds.  (In a later chapter we will expand on how to do this effectively.)  Again, only if we have done all that we can, with courage and honesty, to make things the way we want them to be, will we be able to accept and live with an outcome.

Mistreatment by Others

People frequently feel mistreated by others (attacked, robbed, cheated, not cared for, misled, lied to, used, abused, betrayed, manipulated).  They may feel controlled by others in the painful relationship in ways that they dare not resist for fear of losing the relationship or losing something being provided by the other person.

Mistreatment occurs in many kinds of relationships—when a teacher “has it in” for a student due to prejudice or some other inappropriate reason, when a wife emotionally abuses a husband, when a husband physically abuses a wife, when a child is blamed for parents’ marital problems or for “ruining” the life of one or both parents, etc., etc.  As above, these problems are not the “real” problem.  The “real” problem is the failure of the suffering person to do anything effective to stop the mistreatment, usually for fear of even more pain or fear of losing other benefits of the relationship.

Teasing might be an example, when children (or adults) tease each other, the recipients of the teasing almost always feel humiliated, inadequate, and rejected (which is what the teasers want them to feel).  Yet they could know, if they trusted their own judgment and looked realistically at the evidence, that they do not deserve the insult or the rejection.  So, why do they react by feeling humiliated and upset as if they were being rejected?  They react as the teasers intend because they react to what is expected or according to the template for living which they have learned from the environment (that teasing is inevitable and is for the purpose of humiliating) instead of thinking for themselves.  Most us have been trained in our families that we must accept the pain inflicted on us by stronger members, usually parents making fun of us, so as adults we read teasing situations the same way, and we react, as expected, by feeling inferior and humiliated.  (A few of us go the opposite way, and react with anger or violence, which in a way is more healthy but which is criticized for breaking up the “game” of people humiliating others without having consequences to themselves.)  (If you are thinking that the teasing you do is “just for fun,” then ask yourself why it is fun.  Who wins, and who loses?  Are you using it to get revenge or achieve some other goal?  Why do you want the teased person to feel ashamed or humiliated?)  (The dynamics of practical jokes are much the same.)

In contrast, if we were confident in our value as persons and the acceptability of our recent conduct, the content of the teasing (“your mother wears combat boots,” “you look just like a girl,” or “you look like a boy”) would give no reason for us to feel humiliated and inadequate (unless we choose to go along with the “joke” and react as if we were feeling humiliated).  If we were taking good care of ourselves, we would refuse to feel humiliated and inadequate, and we might even quit the group (even one’s family) in favor of people who would treat us better.  We might (justifiably) feel annoyed at the teasers or other disrespecters for trying to trick us into feeling bad, and we might wonder if these are really friends if they wish us to feel bad, but we would not feel humiliated and inadequate.  And, if we used our heads to know that this was teasing and not real rejection (really being kicked out of the group), there would be no reason to experience rejection (except that we had been chosen to be the recipient of cruel humor).  Of course, sometimes disrespect and rejection can lead to serious consequences, as when evidence of disrespect in some gang neighborhoods can result in killing the disrespecter.  The more peaceful response, though, is to simply say “What?” in a disbelieving way, as if the teasers were saying something crazy (which in a sense they are).  This quickly ends the game, unless the teasers want to become aggressive because you have called them on their craziness.

What is needed in order to extricate yourself from the teasing is to think for yourself, to believe that you are worth more than the teasing would imply, and to reject the faked assertions of the teasers by not reacting as expected or feeling hurt.  You might respond by making fun of the teasers for being so silly.  Your only risk is that the group or the group leader will only tolerate people in the group who are willing to feel bad if teased or made fun of and will exclude from the group anyone who won’t go along with the pattern.  Then you can decide whether being a part of that group is worth the price of feeling bad when ordered to do so (or faking that you feel bad when ordered to feel bad).  In some instances, you can make the group more humane and comfortable for everyone by insisting on a standard of “not hurting each other” and thereby changing the group’s rules.  (The reason for group members to mutually hurt each other is to gain superiority or to express in an aggressive way the hurt that the teasers themselves feel from being hurt themselves so often by persons who were supposed to love them.)

Even if we were able to discount the content of the teasing, though, we might still feel bad about the assignment of low status that the teasing implies.  (People do not tease high status people in the group.)  The answer for this lies in accepting the reality of this status reference (that we don’t count for much) and deciding what to do about it, rather than simply suffering.  Actually, we can attempt to raise our status in the group, by contributing more to the group and its purposes (taking some responsibility in the group, providing humor or entertainment for the group, etc.), or we can decide that if the group values us so little, it is better for us to leave the group and find other people who will value us more highly.  People are often afraid to do this because of the unknowns involved (can we really find anyone who would value us more highly?), but this usually reflects the person’s acceptance already of messages from others that he or she is not worth much.  So, the answers to the problem once again lie in action—in this case, either becoming a person that the group will value more highly, or leaving the group to find something better (and, of course, working on one’s self-esteem so that one can believe that one did not deserve the abuse and that one is valuable enough to be accepted and liked by others).

In general, to change a relationship for the better, you must (1) make your needs and demands clear to the other person, (2) be persistent in your requests and demands in order to get beyond all of the excuses and rationalizations that the other person will give at first to justify his or her behavior that you believe is mistreatment, (3) be consistent in not allowing the mistreatment to start again, and (4) reward the other person for better behavior, with the attitude you display toward him or her.

In order to carry out the above action plan to stop mistreatment, (1) you must have sufficient self-esteem to believe that you deserve better treatment; (2) you must be thoroughly convinced that you deserve better treatment (so that you will not waver when the other person claims that you do not deserve it or that what he is doing is not mistreatment); and (3) you must be willing to leave the relationship if the other person does not treat you better.  The greatest obstacles to getting people to treat you better are (1) not believing that you deserve better treatment and (2) giving in when the other person threatens to mistreat you even worse or leave you if you don’t accept the mistreatment.  You may need to change your attitude about yourself so that you truly believe that you do deserve better.  If you do have a firm belief that you deserve better, and the other person will not treat you better, then you will be better off without the other person, whether that is a parent, a spouse, a (grown) child, or a “friend.”  It may seem frightening right now to be without them, but you will be better off, because you will be free to make better relationships.  (For much more on this attitudinal change process, see my book How To Feel Good About Yourself: Twelve Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem.)

Failure to Achieve Important Goals

Many people are in pain over not achieving what they expected or hoped to in life (income, education, status, marriage, children).  Some suffer as a result of being in jobs that are abusive or do not make use of their most cherished talents and are therefore unfulfilling.  Some believe that they would feel good if only they had more wealth or possessions, and they pine for these.

Not achieving goals that one feels are important can lead to feeling inadequate (blaming oneself for the “failure” to achieve the goals) or to existential despair (losing one’s previous belief that the world is safe and that things will generally work out to your satisfaction).  Usually the actual problem is not the failure to achieve but our evaluations of ourselves for not achieving.  Most people have taken on the expectations of others for them (especially parents) and try to live up to those expectations, rather than thoughtfully examining prior expectations and revising them, if necessary, to be more humane and reasonable. 

To deal with this, the first step is to make sure that you have given your best effort to achieving your goals (rather than being lazy, inattentive to your best interests, or overly dependent on others).  If you have made your best effort, any remaining self-blame is resolved by (1) looking at your behavior realistically (neither making excuses nor exaggerating the problem); (2) revising unrealistic, inappropriate expectations that you have for yourself (usually based on the unrealistic, inappropriate, self-serving expectations that certain others have had for you) so that your expectations are more humane and reasonable; (3) choosing more appropriate goals, based on your more realistic expectations of yourself; (4) compassionately accepting yourself and your abilities just as you are, even if you have realistic hopes to learn more or to increase your abilities; (5) doing all that you wish to do in seeking to achieve your goals, and then (6) accepting the outcome with grace and good humor and without further self-blame.

Existential despair is usually associated with loss or doubt regarding orienting ideals and assumptions about the bigger picture of one’s life (believing that there is some order to life or the universe; believing that there is a being or force that is in charge of everything; believing that one is guaranteed that everything will go as you expect or will turn out all right; believing that we live in a basically beneficent universe, etc.).  You must reconsider these beliefs, and the first step is to gain an accurate view of your existence, with all of its good aspects and its bad ones (being honest with yourself and objective in your assessment).  Identify what exactly you despair of, and consider whether you are asking too much and whether you can continue to have a reasonably good life even if you give up those previous assumptions.  The key to dealing with existential despair is to see your life for what it actually is, whether or not that matches your expectations and assumptions or the expectations of others or of your society, and then to either change or accept things as they are.  You may be loath to give up your despair and to live without your previous beliefs and assumptions, but perhaps you can accept that your life as it is may be OK without those beliefs and assumptions.  If you accept the loss of your inappropriate ideals, you may find that your life is just as good afterward as before when you were expecting different things.

Setting aside your past assessments, evaluate your actual history of getting what you need in life (your accomplishments), and based on this (1) determine whether you can be satisfied with what you have; (2) acknowledge to yourself your actual safety (or lack of it) and your actual history of getting what you need in life; (3) give up your perfectionistic hopes for how things “should be;” (4) do what you can do to improve your safety and your gratifications, and then accept how things really are; and (5) accept your own best efforts to take good care of yourself (by maintaining your safety and reasonably meeting your needs) without blaming yourself as inadequate.

The problem here is not that you are inadequate or that the world is impossible.  The real problems are (1) not giving your best effort, (2) inappropriately viewing yourself as inadequate or a failure, (3) having inappropriate expectations for yourself or for life, and/or (4) not accepting yourself as you are or life as it really is.

Feeling Bored, Empty, Lacking Meaning, and Feeling Hopeless About It All

There are many people who feel bored and empty due to lack of meaning in their lives and who feel hopeless about finding meaning.  Developed societies have contributed to this problem by encouraging people to be mobile (which results in loss of “roots” and greater anonymity), assigning people to play tiny roles in huge enterprises (which results in people feeling unimportant and detached from outcomes), and encouraging people to seek more and more wealth and possessions, as if these things would give meaning to life.  Each of these factors makes it harder to find real meaning in our lives, but if we are determined, we can overcome these influences and find meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

Feeling a sense of meaning occurs when we perceive that our actions or outside events (past or present) are consonant with and contributing to our moving toward the life that we consider to be best for us.  This can be as concrete as cooking a good meal for ourselves, as emotional as memories of how our parents’ sacrifices have contributed to our growth and progress, or as abstract as “seeing” the whole pattern of our lives as a grand symphony leading to our cherished goals.

We all find shared, real, emotional experiences meaningful, if they are consistent with our values.  “Real” emotional experiences, however, require feeling our emotions fully and sometimes strongly, which most of us are raised not to do.  (This is why we crave watching others have those full emotional experiences in movies or plays–so that we can vicariously have some of that experience.)

Actions that result in feelings of satisfaction or fulfillment are likely to also result in feeling a sense of meaning.  Satisfaction is felt when we assess that we have done what was needed to achieve a desired outcome, which may be either a specific goal and its gratifications (e.g., earning a living, improving a relationship, travel to a desired location) or a desired feeling (joy, love, satisfaction, fulfillment).  Fulfillment is felt when we have reached or are progressing toward a goal that we find meaningful by using aspects of our “real selves” that we value (abilities, capacities, knowledge, talents) honestly and sincerely (as contrasted with pretending to be other than who we are or to believe or feel differently than we actually believe or feel).

Fundamental sources of satisfaction and fulfillment within us are (1) achieving true closeness that we have desired with others and (2) actions that use our skills and abilities to express our uniqueness, our values, and our effectiveness in living (art, speaking, acting on the environment, carrying out a plan successfully that promotes our values, earning a living, etc.). 

The real problem is not lack of meaning in life but our failure to seek, find, and cultivate it, through real connections with others or by participating in activities in which we find meaning, satisfaction, or fulfillment.  Since sources of meaning are to some degree unique to us and our unique experiences in the world, contacting that meaning may require us to do what is best for us rather than what others want for us (i.e., to be “different”–something most people dread).  Just doing what everyone else is doing and following the crowd does not provide much opportunity for finding your own meaning (unless being accepted as part of the crowd is in itself meaningful to you).

Being Stuck in Pain-Generating Situations

Many people feel that they are trapped in painful situations that are either chronically unsatisfying (such as a boring job or an undesirable city) or constantly painful (as in a job in which one feels chronically like a failure).  There may be some jobs or other situations in which the advantages of staying far outweigh the possible advantages of leaving, as when one has one year to go to receive a substantial retirement income, while if one leaves that retirement income would be entirely lost.  Most of us would choose to put up with the daily pain for one more year in order to gain that reward.  Most pain-generating situations, though, are endured simply because the person fears that any change would produce a worse situation (which is understandable, given our basic conservatism as human beings and how bad we are in predicting how we will feel under future situations).  The solution for these dilemmas is to take responsibility for evaluating the various alternatives and then decide whether to pursue any of them, rather than being paralyzed by fear of making a mistake.  The problem, then, is not so much the situation but our fear of change and our fear of making a mistake if we attempt a change.  As long as we are trapped, it feels like it is someone else’s fault and responsibility, but if we take action, then the results are our own responsibility.  Looking the problem in the face, making the best decision we can, and taking responsibility for that decision is the only way that we can accept the results with equanimity, since we then have done the best that we can for ourselves.

                       THE FUNDAMENTALS OF ADAPTATION 

It should be clear that fears of coping with change and fears of unexpected negative consequences of change are the enemies of adaptation and that they arise from inadequate self-esteem and self-confidence.  This means that in order to get the most out of life we must (1) be able to identify what we really want (rather than more superficial goals or what others want for us), (2) be willing to be seen as “different” if our cherished goals will be seen by others as “different,” (3) identify realistic paths to those goals, (4) believe that we will be able to cope adequately (not necessarily perfectly) with the challenges of those realistic paths, even if we don’t know in advance what those challenges will be, (5) know that we will feel better about ourselves for doing our best to reach our goals than we will if we don’t try, and (6) believe that if we try to change, our coping will allow us to at least not be worse off, even if we don’t totally reach our goals.

Knowing accurately what will be best for us is a complex undertaking, particularly since our culture is so intent on encouraging consumption and therefore reassures us every day that just having more will make us happy.  Knowing what will be best for you requires self-knowledge, which is best sought by being alone with oneself and reflecting on what one has observed about oneself.  It requires knowing when you have accepting someone else’s goal because it would make that person happy and assuming that it will make you happy, too (which is possible but unlikely).  Take time to explore within yourself and reflect on your experience in life.

We are also prone to either (1) focus on practical external issues when making a decision and ignoring our feelings or (2) over-emphasize our fear and uncertainty so that we end up paralyzed and not acting at all.  Emotions can tell us a lot, but they are not arranged to be concerned about the truth, so consider the reasonable information that they have to give, but don’t let them take you over.

You are unique among human beings, and while we all have the same basic desires and all deal with the same external environment, our emotional conditioning is unique.  Your hierarchy of values is different from everyone else’s, so you will make different choices than others will, if you are being true to yourself.  It takes self-confidence to make choices that others would not make (and don’t understand in you), but making the choices that are right for you will also build self-confidence.  Being “different” doesn’t have to mean having no friends, if you are not put off by others being “different” from you!  Being “different” gives you the opportunity to be a model for others of tolerance and acceptance of others.

No one can “have it all,” and every goal you seek will mean that some other goal doesn’t get your maximum amount of energy, so you must prioritize, and in your desire to “have it all” you will be tempted to overrate your capacities.  It is not realistic to plan to complete college in four years if you must work full-time at the same time to support a family, no matter how much you want to finish in four years.  Ask a counselor how many classes you can realistically take, and then adjust that figure after you have discovered what various courses require in the way of homework.

Most of us build self-confidence and self-knowledge while growing up by gradually taking on more and more activities.  We find out what we can do and what we can’t do.  We extrapolate from that experience to even bigger goals as adults, and we keep on learning about ourselves.  Don’t believe what you hear about anyone being able to accomplish any task if they work hard enough and persevere, because it is untrue.  Think carefully about what you know about your capacities and match that into what your new goal will require.  Be neither optimistic nor pessimistic but rather realistic.

It is almost a cliché now in popular culture that one should “go for one’s heart’s desire” in all things (not just romance).  It is better to have tried than to live in fear and then regret that you didn’t try.  Of course, if you come to accept your life as it is and enjoy it, then there’s no reason to regret not changing.  It is not necessary to have great achievements or constant pleasure in order to have a good life.  (In fact, it’s not even possible to have constant pleasure because of the accommodation that our brains do to any feeling that lasts for even a little while.)

As long as one’s goals are realistic and match one’s capabilities, the only reason to hold back from trying to make one’s life better is fear, and as explained above, dealing with fear is mostly a matter of having reasonable self-confidence.  We human beings cannot know all of the things that could happen on a new path, but we can accept that there will be difficulties and challenges on any path, including our new path, and we can have reasonable confidence that we can survive and cope reasonably well.  It is not necessary that you be able to surmount every obstacle, only that you survive in a fashion that allows you to keep on going, even if that is in a changed direction.  It is not necessary that you reach your original goal, as long as you are learning and growing in the process of trying.  Leaving the security of how things are now can become less important than the interest and excitement of trying to live better.


It should be clear by now what adaptive values and skills are needed to have a really good life. 

·       If you want to feel good about yourself, you must learn to respect, accept, and love yourself and treat yourself well. 

·       If you want to have good relationships with others, you must treat them well (stop taking advantage of them and stop trying to be of higher status than them) and develop sufficient empathy that you can understand their needs and wants (which fortunately are very similar to your own). 

·       If you want to have adequate success in your efforts to survive and have a good life, you must learn a great deal about the yourself, others, and the world, be able to focus your energies toward necessary tasks (instead of being distracted by inner conflicts), and be able to cooperate effectively with others in working toward joint goals.

·       If you want to be comfortable with the realities of human existence (dangers, fear, unpredictability, loss, lives that are OK but not great), you must either count on the grace of a higher power or learn to accept reality as it is, without wanting more, and develop your strengths so you can take care of yourself and make your life as good as it can be. 

·       If you want to have meaning in your life, you must find out what you feel is meaningful and then orient your life around those things.

If you don’t want to develop your skills and abilities, then you won’t achieve any of these things. 

Human beings are fated to have some negative emotions and experiences in life, and it is better to accept that and create a self that knows that it can survive and get beyond those difficulties than it is to build a shell and hide inside, living in fear of trying to change. 

We tend to find excuses or blame something other than ourselves for our failures and pain, but it is harmful to ourselves to blame others or circumstances for our negative emotions.  We will be happier overall if we view it as our natural duty to do something about our negative emotions (either change ourselves or the environment), rather than blaming, since blaming removes our motivation to act in the direction of change.  Taking responsibility does not require blaming ourselves but only that we want to do everything we can reasonably do to feel good.

To realize that we have the same basic goals as all other human beings makes it easier for us to accept them (and ourselves) and makes it easier for us to work cooperatively with others to better our lives.  To realize what our basic motivations are (instead of the masks that culture puts on those motives) allows us to work toward our goals more effectively.

Attitude has a great deal to do with success, and we make choices every day for how to view and understand our lives.  It is useful to review these choices and to alter choices that are harming ourselves, whether or not they are expected and approved by our cultures.  Attitudes shape how we cope with life, and positive attitudes toward ourselves and toward dealing with life help us to have the best lives possible. 

The key capacities to build into our selves in order to have the best lives that we can are—

·       develop important skills, such as knowledge of the world, thinking accurately, trying to find the truth even when it hurts, being comfortable with and managing our feelings well, knowing everything about ourselves, understanding others and cooperating  with others, and making good decisions so that we can always do what is truly in our  best interest

·       develop positive self-esteem, including self-respect, self-acceptance, and self-love, and treat ourselves well

·       use empathy to establish and nurture positive relationships with others that support our positive attitudes and self-esteem (especially treating others well and not trying to take advantage of them)