Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    5-16

 ABSTRACT:  Factors involved in one’s being upset, anxious, and/or insecure excessively or unnecessarily are reviewed, and adaptive approaches to these factors are suggested.

KEY WORDS:  equanimity, anxiety, upset, insecurity, calm, tranquility, peace, quality of life

We are all subject to upset, anxiety, and insecurity from time to time, due to the nature of our human existence, but quite often people are more upset, anxious, and insecure than they need to be, given the situations that they are facing.  We have become acquainted recently with the amazing calm of some Buddhist monks, presumably stemming from their extensive meditation practices, and many of us know persons in our lives who are significantly, surprisingly calm and tranquil.  We can probably all move toward being more calm and tranquil, if we see that as desirable.  Some of the self-defeating factors that keep us from being more calm and tranquil are described herein, as well as some stepping stones to becoming more calm and tranquil.

Dictionary.com defines equanimity as “mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain; calmness; equilibrium.”  In this essay I will focus mainly on the aspects of calmness and tranquility.

We can make many different choices with regard to the kind of life and the quality of life that we would like to live, including the choice of how calm and tranquil to be.  (Genetically determined temperament does make some people more responsive to stimuli than others, but everyone can become to some degree more calm and tranquil if they wish.)  For making these kinds of decision, human beings tend to think in either-or ways (either you are calm or you are over-excited) and to exaggerate how differently they would feel if they were more calm.  As with many of our life experiences, we can only evaluate them well after having the experience and not in anticipation.

Some people like arousal or even over-arousal, rather than calmness, and they seek arousing situations or use substances for arousal.  The ideal state for most people, though, is some satisfying and productive combination of arousal and calm, or, at an even deeper level, knowing how to be calm in the midst of activity.  A final step in this choice and learning process would be to develop the inner capacities for choosing in every passing situation how energetic or how calm to be and how to attain these states at will.  Since we are each a bit different in our internal chemistry, we must individually decide what is the best combination of arousal and calm for us. 

Functional and circumstantial issues that can keep people stirred up and prevent calmness and tranquility include fearing that some things will be worse if one is more calm, fear of disasters, fear of other people, making inaccurate assessments of danger, fear of social rejection, fear of displeasing others, feeling overly responsible for others, fear of our own thoughts and feelings, low self-esteem, concerns about unseen forces, modeling, parental upset, using upset to distract ourselves from other things, feeling shame, feeling inferior, feeling guilty, and existential fears and concerns.  If we can deal better with these issues, it would help us to be more calm and tranquil.


 If each person must decide on a balance between calmness and arousal, how is such a judgment to be made?  The existential situation of all human beings is living in an environment that has many dangers (dying of dehydration in the heat, freezing to death, lions, tigers, bears, plus all the contingent dangers we create ourselves, such as having car collisions or airplane crashes.  Naturally, then, we are going to experience fear, anxiety, and insecurity, depending on our situation and condition.  In this sense, being upset, feeling anxious, and feeling insecure are “natural” and “normal,” but we are capable of going overboard with them and feeling “too much” of them—meaning, an unnecessarily large amount of them when a more reasonable evaluation of our situation and condition could lead to less upset.  One could argue that any amount of insecurity, upset, and anxiety could be justified, since death could be the outcome of not paying sufficient attention to all dangers, but above a certain level, feeling more anxious, insecure, and upset actually reduces our ability to avoid those dangers (people fainting when facing danger, being so upset when facing danger that they “can’t think,” being so impulsive that they put themselves in greater danger, etc.).  Also, having twice as much anxiety, upset, and/or insecurity does not double our chances of responding adaptively and staying safe.  At low levels of anxiety, upset, and/or insecurity, having somewhat more anxiety, upset, and/or insecurity may improve adaptability, but as the level rises, more anxiety, upset, and insecurity improve adaptability less and less until after a certain point they diminish adaptability.

We are endowed with various internal signals to ourselves with regard to whether something (either external or internal) is “good” or “good for us” (positive feelings and emotions, such as satiation, the pleasure of being touched, happiness, etc.) or “bad” or “bad for us” (negative feelings and emotions, such as hunger, fear, shame, guilt, etc.).  In other words, these feelings and emotions are not just experiences but are a way that our organism has of telling us what will be good for us or bad for us.  These signals are conditionable—i.e., they can become associated with other stimuli and thus serve as markers for those stimuli, as when a wife who has been abused learns to see the “signs” in her interactions with her husband that abuse might occur again in the near future and feels fear when seeing those signs.  Having these conditionable signals for ourselves seems to have had overall adaptive advantage for purposes of keeping us alive and procreating, although our emotions are not very discriminating in their conditioned associations, as when a woman who is sexually assaulted attaches great fear to the repeat of that experience and hence becomes afraid of all men rather than fearful only of those who pose an above average risk to her.

So, we are faced with the problem of choosing a level of anxiety, upset, and/or insecurity that is sufficiently motivating to allow us to survive but low enough that we don’t suffer a great deal and low enough that our adaptive responses are not swamped by too much arousal.  This will be a compromise level; going too far in either direction is “bad” (either being overly upset, so that life is miserable, or not paying enough attention and blithely having accidents and perhaps dying).  It might seem odd to say “choosing a level of anxiety, upset, and/or insecurity,” but that is exactly what this essay is about.  You can decide on the level you want and make that your response, by being more accurate in assessing dangers, learning to recognize more accurately your own responses to perceived dangers (anxiety, upset, insecurity), and becoming comfortable with your chosen compromise level somewhere between constant fear and no fear at all.  It is incorrect to assume that these things are dictated entirely from outside and that your responses are so “natural” that you have no control over them.

As an example, I was very afraid as a child that the house would burn down, because the chimney ran through my bedroom, and I could feel that it was very hot.  It was hard to calmly go to sleep because of that fear.  Over time, with experience and with repeated reassurance from my parents, I accepted that a hot chimney did not imply that the house was in danger, and I was no longer anxious about that.  I was also quite worried as a teenager about how to conduct casual interactions with peers (especially girls) and adults, but forcing myself to enter into these kinds of things (instead of avoiding them), I became reasonably comfortable with them (although I still don’t really like going to parties where I don’t know anyone). 

The point is that coming to an accurate assessment of a danger, allowing oneself to habituate to (get used to) a feared situation, and actively trying to learn how to cope better in a feared situation can allow one to feel less fear and better about the situation (and therefore less anxiety, upset, and insecurity).  The same applies to any circumstance of concern that arouses feelings that act against calmness.  This still doesn’t tell us what an appropriate level of compromise is (between calmness and arousal), and you will have to decide that for yourself.  I’ve treated many clients who were (we all agreed) “excessively” fearful of things, who knew through their feelings that their fear was excessive and wanted it to be lower, and who through effort did lower that level of fear and then felt that it was an acceptable level, so we can conclude from that that each person can tell what is tolerable and intolerable for himself or herself.  Consider that with many people in a room, some will think it too hot, and some will think it too cold, and they will usually announce this as if their own experience was or should be the same as that of everyone else.  When you say, “It’s too hot in here,” you lose touch with reality itself, because you act as if your sense of things is reality.  You should say, “It seems too hot in here to me” or “I feel too hot in here” or “It’s too hot in here for me,” which appropriately identifies your experience as your own and not necessarily anyone else’s.  That way, you can stay open to the many different experiences of others and expand your sense of total reality.  When you “own” your own reality, you also reduce the temptation for others to dispute false reality with you, by saying “No, it’s not too hot; it’s too cold!” which will generate an argument about whose reality is “real,” which is a foolish argument, because every person’s personal reality is “real” to him or her.

On another side of that coin, we as a group seem to have a general sense of what acceptable levels of risk are.  Most people drive on highways and freeways, even though there is always a small chance of having an accident.  We don’t discuss or bemoan this socially, so we can conclude that this level of risk is “OK” for most of us.  There are a small number of people, of course, who never drive on freeways because of their fear.  Many of them would like to drive on freeways and could achieve this through coming to a more accurate assessment of the actual danger (risk) and allowing themselves then to embrace (accept) this risk (surrendering to the accepted level of risk).  If the actual risk was considerably higher, then many fewer people would drive on freeways, because at some higher level of risk, many more people would conclude that that level was simply too high for them (higher than their chosen maximum level of risk). 

This example points out to us that our assessment of risk and of other “how much is enough or too much” issues depends significantly on the attitudes of those around us.  If everyone else seems to accept their lives as they are, then we will tend to do so as well, even if those lives contain an undesirable amount of pain and suffering.  As individuals we have or could have our own assessment of what is acceptable, but many people simply take what others say or seem to feel as a guide, whether or not they would agree if they purposely came to their own conclusions.

There will always be risks in life that we cannot avoid, and in order to have an emotionally tolerable existence, we must to some extent accept those risks, while at the same time guarding “reasonably” against them.  At one time, no one thought that not having seatbelts posed an unacceptable risk in driving, because no one yet knew about or had seatbelts, but now that we know about seatbelts and have them, most people view not wearing a seatbelt as an “unacceptable” risk.  Clearly, what we view as acceptable or unacceptable is partly a matter of what we are used to and partly how others around us assess that risk.  This demonstrates, however, that our assessments and attitudes can change!

You must figure out what for you will be levels of comfortable (or at least relatively comfortable, as comfortable as is reasonable) risk, anger, love, fear, conflict, and all the other evaluative markers about our experience that indicate comfort or discomfort, satisfaction or dissatisfaction.  These will be compromises between two variables (e.g., fear and calmness) Your levels need not be the same as those of others, just as they are deciding only for themselves and not for you.  Only when we have agreed to share a joint benefit (cable TV, air conditioning in a building, etc.) do we have to arrive at a joint level of comfort or dissatisfaction (which channels to buy for the town’s cable, what temperature is best for everyone together).

Here are a number of concerns and life circumstances that interfere significantly with the possibility of equanimity, with reconceptualizations that can assist one toward greater equanimity.


Some persons may not wish to be more calm and tranquil, because they fear that doing so would eliminate some characteristic behaviors that they do not want to lose.  For example, if a person’s first priority were to avoid or cope with dangers (due to a view of the world as seriously and constantly dangerous), then to become more calm and tranquil might reduce some of the watchfulness and quick response that the person thinks is essential for safety.  (Bear in mind, though, that if the person were more calm, he might not view the world as so dangerous.)  Other possibly troublesome consequences of being calm and tranquil could include (1) becoming less aggressive or combative, which a person might believe is his only way of getting what he needs, (2) being more cooperative or loving in her family, which she believes will result in the other family members taking even more advantage of her than they do now, and (3) becoming less motivated to achieve in general. 

These fears are based on assuming that one will be the same person in all other ways after becoming more calm and tranquil, but this is not the whole story.  In becoming more calm and tranquil, we will both feel differently and also come across to others differently.  In our business relations, others might be able themselves to be more calm because we are more calm, and this could lead, in some cases, to better relations and more business.  (Would you prefer to be with people who are more calm or with people who are more agitated?)  It might, on the other hand, lead some others to think they could take advantage of us because we are more calm (less combative), but if our greater calm allowed us to see what they are doing more clearly, we might be able to thwart their efforts better than we can right now in our more highly aroused state.  In our families, if we were more calm, others would fear us less and therefore might relax more themselves, leading to more harmonious relations in the family.

If we become more calm and tranquil, others will in general react differently to us.  So, you would have to become more calm and tranquil in order to see how different this will be, and then you could make an informed decision about which you like better.


If we engage in inaccurate assessment of “reality,” then our levels of acceptable risk will be either higher or lower than would be most adaptive (higher if we assess risk inaccurately as being low, or lower if we assess risk inaccurately as being high).  Our assessments of “reality” and of what is “true” are affected by our attitudes and our conditioning, and most people are not aware of the relativity of their views.  When everyone around you believed that the earth was flat, you probably believed that, too, whereas when everyone changed their minds to viewing the earth as round, you probably changed your mind, too, whether or not you had any direct evidence that the earth was flat or round (had been around the world yourself, had talked intimately with someone who had been around the world, understood the cosmological model that dictated that the earth was round, etc.).  You also probably thought that your football running back did not step out of bounds when scoring that game-winning touchdown, even though you had not seen his actual footsteps to evaluate this for yourself.  We often believe and treat as reality things that we wish were true. 

We also misunderstand reality when our perceptual processes give us confusing or misleading information, which leads us to have what are actually illusions (thinking that the sun “goes down” instead of that the earth is turning, because our perceptual systems do not sense the rotational movement of the earth at all (since there was no adaptive value to develop such perception evolutionarily, given that we are confined by gravity to a very small range of locations in any given time in what is actually a spherical rather than a two-dimensional earth)).  Another source of distortion is believing that our emotions are giving us accurate information about reality, as when we think that our feelings of fear are telling us that there is a real danger, in circumstances when the danger is not actually great, because we have been damaged in those circumstances before, like when a child who has been beaten becomes afraid of anger in everyone and not just in the person who beat him.

The primary causes of inaccurate understandings of reality, then, are (1) assuming that our perceptions are automatically true, (2) distorting reality in accord with what we want it to be, (3) believing what others think is true (when it is not), and (4) assuming that our emotions always give us true information.  Each of these will either decrease our equanimity or increase our risk.  If we assume that our perceptions are automatically true or that our emotions give us true information, we will make mistakes in daily life that will increase our level of upset and insecurity.  We may also be vaguely aware that we cannot trust our own perceptions and emotions.  The same reality distortions and mistake-making will occur if we believe what we want to believe and if we believe that what others believe and what we have been taught is all true.

Some people are raised with a great deal of blaming by others and have accepted a one-down position with regard to this blaming (i.e., that if they are blamed, then they must deserve it).  In later life, they automatically assume when anyone else is upset that they have probably done something “wrong” to cause the upset.  In most cases this is not true, or at least the potential blaming by others is not justified (just as the excessive blaming in their childhoods was probably not justified).  The person’s understanding is incorrect, in that blaming is not always justified, upset does not (and should not) necessarily lead to blaming, one’s behavior is not always blameworthy, and one’s fear of blaming may not be related to reality.

Such a person can learn to escape this discomfort, by first acknowledging that he is not always blameworthy when others are upset.  Then he must take a realistic look at what has actually happened.  The other person’s upset may be based on an incorrect understanding of the situation or the motives of others, and the other person may habitually make it a habit to blame someone else for his upset, whether others are blameworthy or not.  In order to increase equanimity, we need to change our habit from automatically thinking “What did I do wrong?” to thinking “Have I done something wrong?”

One unfortunate response to consistently receiving inappropriate blame is to view blame or criticism as always being a personal attack aimed at oneself (and then habitually reacting defensively or with a counterattack).  This is guaranteed to make equanimity almost impossible.  The more adaptive habit is to always ask first “what is happening?” and to make one’s answer to that as accurate as possible.

Here is an extensive list of things you can do to improve the accuracy of your reality perceptions.

If these principles are applied honestly and sincerely, you will get as close to the truth as we human beings are likely to get.  Be patient and tolerant.  It takes time and effort to question what you have believed, what everyone else believes, and what your culture believes.  The bigger your base of reliable knowledge gets, though, the faster you can assess and establish what is likely to be the truth.

1. Learn more about how to think accurately and apply what you learn in all areas.  Always define your terms carefully.  Assess the accuracy of your information, and don’t make conclusions that aren’t supported by the best evidence available.  “Try out” all of the likely conclusions to see how they fit with what you already know relatively accurately and to see what emotions they engender in you.  Ensure that your conclusions about what is true are not being arrived at to make yourself feel better or to make it more likely that you can get something you want.  Take a course in logic or in philosophy, as these will show you more about accurate thinking.

2. Examine anew every sensory perception, thought, feeling, and memory that you have. 

Question each one to see whether there are reasons not to believe it that you have been ignoring.  (Did my dad really beat me, or did he just terrify me?   Do I really simply hate my boss, or do I actually kind of respect him at the same time?  When I feel scared of my wife, is she really that dangerous, or am I perhaps reacting to memories of my mother?)   Ask yourself if you have any evidence to support each of your beliefs.  Evidence may be in the form of your own careful observations, observations of others whom you trust (either personally or in books) and whose observations in the given instance are likely to be accurate, the findings of science, or the wisdom of institutions that are dedicated to knowing the truth.  Evidence for most things should be based on several (or even many) confirming repeated observations, rather than on only one.

3. Be very careful about definitions when examining a proposition or assertion.  There are many, many definitions of “love,” “freedom,” “better,” “perfect,” etc., etc., and if you don’t ask or explore this, you and others will often be attempting to communicate with different underlying assumptions. 

4. Don’t accept your own, your family’s, other peoples’, or your culture’s assumptions about reality, without examination.  (People from other cultures are dangerous.  Strangers are dangerous.  A free-market economy is always the best.  God actually guided the hand of every person who wrote every book of the Bible.  A foetus has a soul from the moment of conception.)  Assume that every perception and every interpretation of a perception may be distorted, and check every one of these as closely as you can.  Be skeptical but unbiased.

Before you make an important conclusion, review the assumptions on which it rests.  (If you concluded, based on your experience of being emotionally abused by your parents, that everyone else would emotionally abuse you in a close relationship, that conclusion would be in error.)

5. Identify all of your self-serving distortions–the ways in which you make reality into what you want to believe or will justify your inappropriate behavior (e.g., I’m better than he is, so I should be the starting quarterback and not him).

6. Accept that your emotions or emotional reactions to things do not necessarily guide you to the truth.  Sometimes our emotional reactions are simply telling us to avoid and therefore to avoid learning more because the truth would be unpleasant (e.g., I feel scared around him, so he must be bad; I love her, so she must be “the one” for me; etc.).  Emotions do have information for us and do guide us, but it is best to examine them and compare their information to what we “know” otherwise before acting on them.

7. Notice any reactions that you have to a reality perception or description of reality that indicate aversion to that view of reality and a preference to avoid it or reject it.  These reactions will tempt you to distort.  (If you are angry at those who believe differently than you do, perhaps you’re actually unsure of your own beliefs.)

8. Identify the reason for your aversion or avoidance.   You may find it to be threatening, unpleasant, hurtful, disappointing, confusing, calling your beliefs or adaptation

into question, suggesting a change in your behavior that would lead to fewer gratifications, etc.

9. Notice the “holes” in your awareness–the things that you are not aware of or avoid.  (I wonder why I never think about my family.  I wonder why I just can’t see it when others accuse me of being self-centered.)

10. Gather accurate information about the issue, and be very careful about the reliability of your information. Just because your parents said it or it’s on the internet or in a book doesn’t mean that it is true or that it is the most accurate information currently available.  Much of what is taken to be information in the world is biased by the person’s emotions or by what he or she wants to believe in the first place, so it is important to be careful.

11. Use the consistency of your experiences over time (after purging them of avoidances) to establish observations that are firm enough to use in constructing a fact or a description of reality.

12. Check out whether a perception, thought, or feeling is consistent with your other senses and understanding at that time.  (When I think of getting closer to Joan I feel scared, but if I think about it further, she isn’t doing anything that would indicate danger.)

13. Check out whether the experience of others is consistent with your own.  Be especially careful in your use of language when you do this, because people often mean different things by the same words.

14. Use cultural experience and concepts–the wisdom of the past–as a check on your observations.  People and their basic needs, emotions, and thought capabilities have not changed much in the last thousand years.

15. Find out whether other cultures have come to the same conclusion about the claim in question.  If they have not, then you (and your culture) may be engaging in distortion.  Just because your culture believes something does not make it true.

16. Once you think you have a statement of reliable knowledge, try to think of any example (person or situation) in the world that does not fit your conclusion.  If you can find even one such example, then your conclusion is wrong and needs further refinement.  It is especially useful in this regard to consider what other people are doing around the world, since if you confine your checking to your own culture, then you may conclude that the conclusion is correct simply because it is consistent with everything in a culture that already believes that conclusion.

17. Keep track of how you know each thing that you know.  Based on the history of how you “know” each of the things that you “know,” keep track of the degree of certainty with which you “know” each thing (and don’t assert more certainty than is justified).  (I think I see enough evidence in the world and in life that God exists to organize my life around that belief, but I still have no direct experience or evidence to “prove” it.)

18. Employ a healthy skepticism about how you interpret your own experience, as well as being skeptical about how others do this, too.

19. Pay attention to your inner voice or inner wisdom–that part of us that has some intuitive awareness of the truth and of when we are trying to fool ourselves.  Cultivate that part of yourself.

20. Ask others whose reality perceptions and honesty you trust to give you their opinion about the matter in question.

21. Strive to be honest with yourself, even when you are alone.  Most people find it easier to distort to themselves when no one else is involved (although the agreement of others helps greatly to establish and maintain group distortions).

22. Strive to know yourself well enough that you know your motives and what you hope to get out of each situation.  Using this knowledge will help you correct for self-serving  distortions.  (I know that I tend to inflate my abilities, so I should re-examine whether I can actually do this new job before I accept it.)

23. Check out how accurately the understanding of reality in question predicts other realities.  Are its predictions consistent with what you know otherwise?  This is often done

by looking at history and what has happened in the past when people have assumed this same thing to be true.  (Has having government and religion joined together for societies led to healthier behavior and happier people than having them separated?)

24. Examine the impact that a given understanding of reality has had on the lives of everyone affected when people act on this understanding of reality (or predict as best you can what the impact on everyone would be if this understanding of reality were acted upon).  (Did heavier emphasis on conformity and on everyone believing the same thing lead to people enjoying relationships more or did it lead to more distrust?)

25. Ask yourself if you would say or believe the same thing if you didn’t care about the outcome for yourself.  (Would I really claim that our team is better than theirs if I didn’t want to win so badly?)

26. Imagine yourself saying the same thing or expressing the same belief and then adding to it an explanation of your motives.  This also will help to identify your self-serving interests.  (I want the family to go to church today, but really I myself “need” to go because I’m feeling guilty about what I did this week.)

27. When you cannot determine whether something is true (or likely to be true), suspend judgment, if it is practical to do so, until you get more information one way or another.  Learn to tolerate currently unresolvable ambiguity.  Often we must act without knowing the full truth or facts, but you act and still know that you are not certain of the truth or the facts, and keeping this in mind will make it easier for you to adjust course as needed.


It is normal to be worried about imminent natural disasters (tornados, hurricanes, fires, floods) and upset and anxious while experiencing them.  The best we can do in this regard is not to exaggerate the dangers but to see them realistically and to do all that we wish to do in advance to protect ourselves and not put ourselves at unnecessary risk.  (See guides above for making realistic assessments.)  Human life does include risks of natural disasters, no matter where you live, so ideally we can expect them to occur sometime in the future but not worry about them until that time (except to prepare with supplies and plans).  If you are one who falls apart during crises, you might wish to plan in detail (in writing) how you want to respond in crises (remain calm, focus on what needs to be done, help others, etc.) and then refer in your head to this plan when a crisis comes along.  Practicing this during several smaller crises can build your confidence in your ability to deal with a major disaster.

Another key to curbing disaster upset and anxiety is to have some confidence that you will survive and cope with the disaster.  Most people in most disasters do survive, and most survivors are surprised at their capacity to cope–helping others, saving what can be saved, and rebuilding afterwards.  Thinking carefully about what one would need during a disaster and how preparations could mitigate harm can help us to take charge and do something other than just worry.


If one is generally fearful of other people, it will lead to significantly greater insecurity and anxiety, as one will be preoccupied much of the time with concerns about upcoming interactions and the possible dangers in them.  The causes of this general fearfulness usually have to do with a history of being ill-treated by others, usually in one’s family, or with a particular trauma that has been generalized in one’s mind.  Persons with this general fear may either feel constantly fearful or constantly combative in efforts to protect themselves.  Neither state is comfortable.  You can assess whether you are the “mistreated type” or the “big trauma type” by whether you have traumatic memories or feel that you must be constantly fighting with others and defending yourself against personal slights and injuries.

The “cure” for both is acknowledging clearly your fearfulness and then reassessing that fear, since it is likely that your circumstances are now different from those when the fear association was learned.  It is accurate to say that by far the majority of people in the world are reasonably “nice” and are not focused on harming others.  This must become your accepted belief, and you can confirm that most others are not intent on harming you by experience–by interacting in a hopeful way with others and discovering that most of them are in fact reasonably nice.  This will not be possible, of course, if you approach others suspiciously or with the unconscious intent of “proving” to yourself that they are not nice (thus justifying your suspiciousness and fear so that you don’t have to continue to confront your fear).  On the other hand, you will be disappointed if you think that others in general are ready to give you the good parenting that you may not have had.  Others in general will expect you to be a functioning adult and not a child to them.  You can gain from their good treatment of you as a friend or colleague, but those who are drawn to parent you may well have some problematic issues themselves, illustrated by their wish to be maternal (or paternal) to everyone.

After you clearly understand your fear, you will need to expose yourself to lots of interaction with various others, so that you can reassess and change your mind about people in general and their threat to you.  You can do this in small doses, of course, and most communities offer sufficient opportunities for this, including taking a class, going to church, going to community functions, joining a club or interest group, volunteering, etc.  It is important that you approach these opportunities with a hopeful attitude but not expecting too much.  With just a little effort, you can learn to start a possible conversation with others (“How about those Dodgers?”, “It’s been really hot this week, hasn’t it?”, “What brought you here tonight?”, “I’m really enjoying this.  How about you?”, etc.).  If you have had little social experience, you may also need to work on your social skills—understanding others through empathy (intuiting what they are experiencing by using verbal and nonverbal cues), cooperating on mutual goals, accepting others as they are rather than wanting to change them, etc.).  A book specifically on social skills can be helpful.

It is especially important to move toward and reach a point at which you feel like an equal with others—not superior or inferior but equal in your rights to decent treatment and basic respect and acceptance.  If you crave more equanimity, you probably don’t feel now that you are an equal, and as a result you feel vulnerable, so it is vital that you come to accept and respect yourself and expect the same from others.  This does not eliminate vulnerability, and we are always vulnerable (to earthquakes as well as to conflicts with certain others), so you will need to accept that basic, unavoidable level of vulnerability and become comfortable interacting every day with the world anyway.

Some persons with severe trauma in their pasts may need a substitute parent in order to progress, and this would best be a qualified psychotherapist (not that the therapist will overtly act like a parent with you, but you will inevitably through transference view them as surrogates for your own earlier relationships).


This is perhaps the most common of fears—the one that gives more grief than any other—the fear of being pushed away, rejected, turned down, humiliated, shunned, excommunicated, etc., with the consequence of being alone.  We are primed to view social rejection as a disaster by our experience as very young children of realizing that our powerful parents could neglect or outright reject us, which would probably result in death for us.  We may grow up with the assumption that others control our welfare and that it is crucial that we be accepted as part of whatever group we are in.  This is false, of course.  While it is not pleasant and may be painful to be rejected, it is not the end of the world for us as adults.  We can figure out how to survive and can enlist enough aid from others to manage.

Being excluded from a group is bad enough, but we fear even more being rejected in our efforts to be close to a person we are attracted to.  It helps to take the larger view—that there are many other people in the world who would welcome a relationship with us, so we must be patient and find them.  Excluding the circumstance of being rejected because of committing a crime or otherwise harming someone, rejections don’t have a lot to do with who we are.  Above all, avoid the trap of ruminating on “What’s wrong with me that has caused my beloved to reject me?”  This self-blame can readily turn into depression, sometimes long-term, so it is important to see rejections realistically.  If you pause to think, you yourself have by implication rejected most of the people around you already, even before they try to be close to you, because you are “not interested in” them.  Everyone else is the same.  We are only strongly attracted to a very small number of potential loves, so it is something of a miracle when the two people in a couple both find the other attractive and desirable!  In most cases when another person that we are attracted to does not share that attraction, it is because of the random hundred or so reasons that any of us do or do not find another specific individual attractive and not because of anything that we have done or anything that we are as a person.   We simply have to accept that the attraction business is a crap shoot.  There is nothing you can do to alter another person’s criteria (almost always unconscious) for being attracted, so don’t pursue someone who is not interested, thinking that you can be better or bigger or whatever and change their minds.  You won’t, and it’s nothing against you.  It’s the human condition.

The same reasoning applies to applying for and being rejected for a job.  With the exception of the actual job qualifications, usually the reasons for being hired or not hired have little to do with you.  They are more likely to be (1) the interviewer already has someone in mind for the position but must go through the motions of interviewing you, (2) the interviewer got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, (3) the interviewer knows the boss wants a certain kind of person even though the interviewer disagrees and may view you as more qualified, (4) the company wants someone less qualified than you so they can pay less, etc., etc.  Again, it is a minor miracle when all of those kinds of conditions are in your favor.  You simply must keep trying until your qualifications and the hiring conditions that you know nothing about match up.  This feels unfair, and in a sense, it is unfair.  On the other hand, that’s life, and since we are human, it couldn’t be any other wayIf you persist in trying to force the world to be the way you want it to be (such as fair), you are guaranteed to be chronically upset.

This more realistic view of conditions in the world points out to us that we have much less control over our outcomes than we would like.  It’s good to know this, but we don’t like it.  We cannot control the likes and dislikes or the choices of anyone else, and all attempts to do so lead to ultimate failure and heartache (or sometimes to bitter fighting and even murder, as you’ve no doubt seen in many movies).  The best approach is to get comfortable with the fact that we are not really in control of rejection situations.  We can do what is reasonable to put us “in the ball park” with regard to general acceptability (be clean and neat, be friendly, be positive, be courteous, be pleasant), but in the end we cannot “make” anyone else like us or choose us.

This is an appropriate time to generalize the above and acknowledge and accept that every one of us is unavoidably vulnerable to hurt and harm in this uncertain thing we call life.  If you want things, you can fail to get them, and therefore you are vulnerable.  Some people try to cope with this by not wanting anything, but this is obviously counterproductive (and a self-delusion anyway, since part of our essential biological functioning is wanting and needing).  It seems more productive over the long run to feel desire and need, to do our best toward realistic goals, and to grieve our disappointments.  This stance acknowledges our vulnerability and allows our normal emotional processes to function, thus keeping us more emotionally healthy.


We learn very early in life how important it is to please others (at least to please them sufficiently to achieve our own goals).  Pleasing others ensures continuation of relationships that we value (especially with parents), and it puts others in a frame of mind to be more willing to give us what we want from them.  On the other hand, we all resent having to please others, since we would like others to be doing what we want without our having to please them or prime them.  Some resent it so much or have been unsuccessful enough in pleasing others that they displease others on purpose (taunting, teasing, contradicting, humiliating, seeking power over others), so as to force others to “prove” that they care, as well as to assert some independence and pay others back for their inconsistent responses to us.  Women are more prone to use pleasing as a tactic than men, because we restrict women from being aggressive and because women have more need evolutionarily to “keep a man” than men have to keep a woman.  Extremes of displeasing others leads to banishment or shunning.

You are fortunate if you like to please others and are successful at it, but you have a problem if you worry all the time about pleasing or you feel anxious and upset if you are not able to please everyone (or at least certain essential others).  Lack of successful pleasing is likely to produce anger as well, which, if pleasing is important to you, you probably suppress.

Since it is necessary, in order to have a good life in society, to please others at least to a minimum level, in order to feel more calm and tranquil we must learn to be successful at pleasing, find a level of pleasing efforts that we are comfortable with, and achieve a balance between pleasing and being pleased by others.  Anything out of balance will feel unfair.

To be pleasing to another person requires (1) understanding empathically what pleases that person, and (2) being able to do what is pleasing to that person with an open heart (so that what you do is not tinged with resentment).  Empathic understanding is mentioned above and may be pursued in the essay on empathy at my website (www.livewiselydeeply.com).  Doing things for others with an open heart requires practice and learning, a belief that the pleasing you are doing is good and valuable, the belief that what you are doing will benefit you (in terms of their response), and the sense that this pleasing is not harming you (either in terms of the actions themselves or the unfairness of the transactions). 

If what pleases the other person is to be responded to with complete honesty, then this would be a fresh skill to learn, since practically no one is raised to do this.  Most of us are raised, instead, to use our words and actions to “make things nice” and avoid conflict and anger, so it will take some effort to get used to being openly honest and knowing clearly what you think so that you can in fact describe accurately what you think and feel.  If what you must do to please another person is so onerous that you can’t possibly benefit enough from the other person’s response to make it worthwhile, then you will want to stop.  If what pleases the other person is lying and manipulating others in general and you describing to him this lying and manipulation that you do, you may decide that doing what is pleasing to this person is not right, which may cause you to wish to stop.  If what pleases the other person is you getting high with him, and you believe that this getting high is not good for you, then will not want to do it. 

The problem that most people encounter with pleasing is feeling that it requires more than they are getting back, which generates resentment and means that you can’t do it with an open heart and that you will sooner or later sabotage your efforts to please.  This should alert you to re-evaluate how much you use pleasing as a way of getting on in the world.  The issue for most people in deciding to reduce or stop pleasing (at least pleasing certain persons or in certain ways) is the fear of losing the relationship with that person or being actively punished by that person for not pleasing him.  If you are pleasing others because you feel inferior or because you are afraid of the other person, then it will take some courage (a different way of being in the world, for you) to stop or walk away.  It may help you to clearly accept that you may have to walk away and lose the relationship or take whatever punishment the person will mete out before you can get away.  Taking this independent stand might require you to become a different person yourself (which in this case would probably be a good thing).  Work on your self-esteem (see my book, “How To Feel Good About Yourself:  12 Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem”), and experiment with holding back from pleasing others so that you can discover that the roof will not cave in.  You’ll like yourself better for it, and you will be much more able to feel calm and tranquil.


Many people have some responsibility for others, whether as a parent, a caretaker, a boss, a teacher, or a human services worker.  Many of us feel some responsibility for friends or lovers as well.  Feeling this responsibility can result in some upset and/or anxiety, because we hate to fail in our responsibility, because we hate to see the person we feel responsibility for hurt, and more fundamentally because we cannot completely control another person, and that person will be making mistakes that we cannot prevent or control.  The key question is what is too much responsibility?  We might say that if it engenders unacceptable or excessive amounts of anxiety, upset, and insecurity in you, then it is too much.  (This does not directly solve the problem of what is “normal” and what is too much anxiety, upset, and insecurity, which it has been argued above is to a significant degree an individual decision.)

To minimize upset, anxiety, and insecurity in this area, we must accurately pick an appropriate level of responsibility.  A parent appropriately has more responsibility for a young child than a boss does for an adult worker, for example.  Parents naturally guide, teach, and control, and the key is to do reasonable amounts of guiding, teaching, and controlling, and not feel responsible for more than that.  As part of teaching, a parent might well allow the child to make a mistake and learn from it, as long as the harm to the child is relatively small.

A couple of useful guidelines are (1) don’t take responsibility or feel responsible for things you cannot control, and (2) the person that wants something has the primary responsibility for getting it, through their active goal-achievement efforts.  If a child is harmed, but it was not due to failures on the part of the parent to reasonably guide, teach, or control, then the parent should not bear responsibility for the unfortunate outcome or feel bad about it.  On the other hand, if a parent does something that the child could do, simply because it is easier than helping the child learn to do the action (like five year olds wanting to help with cleaning the house), then the parent has not done a reasonable amount of teaching. 

If a child wants something and has some capacity to act in such a way as to fulfill the desire, then the child “should” do what he can in that way, in order to learn self-responsibility.  The parent may have to supplement these actions, of course.  This is even more true for interactions with adults.  No other person is responsible for outcomes for a person that that person could control but chooses not to control.  We may feel sorry for someone who could work but who does not work and consequently has no food, but we “should” not feel responsible for their hunger, which in such cases is totally that person’s responsibility.

The most frequent upset that occur for people with regard to over-responsibility is interpreting any bad outcome as evidence of an error on their part.  So, even though a parent has done a good job of guiding and teaching and could not control an outcome, she may still (unreasonably) feel upset and as if she has failed if the child is seriously injured (on a school trip, for example).  To minimize upset, anxiety, and insecurity, we must apply reasonable standards to ourselves in our expectations of ourselves with regard to responsibility for others.  You cannot prevent all of the harm that will come in the world to those you care about.


Many people fear their own inner workings, including their thoughts and emotions, and this is the cause of a great deal of mental suffering (as well as ensuring a steady flow of people to psychotherapists, counselors, and ministers, and supporting the huge market for pills that alter our mental states).  Some ambivalence or dislike for our thoughts and emotions is inevitable, given our human life cycle.  All children find out that some parts of themselves and many of their natural behaviors (how they would naturally eat, sleep, speak, or eliminate) are unacceptable to adults.  Children must adjust (we call this “being socialized,” including toilet-training), but we also tend to reject those unacceptable parts of ourselves and behaviors and wish to suppress them and even repress them (into our “unconscious”), so that they will never again bring punishment or rejection upon us.  For this reason, each of us must re-establish a better sense of self-worth in life as we grow up, which we do mainly by cultivating aspects of ourselves and behaviors that are pleasing to others.

These fears and dislikes of parts of ourselves create significant insecurity for us, and also anxiety and upset if we fear that we can’t control or hide these “unacceptable” parts of ourselves.  At a minimum, it is essential that we forgive ourselves for having those unacceptable parts, so that we can see suppressing and hiding them as simply a practical issue, without any accompanying shame, guilt, or anger at having to suppress them.

One strategy in therapy to help people become more accepting of themselves, especially their thoughts and feelings, is to have them express in the treatment room everything that they are thinking and feeling.  This is not easy, since we have trained ourselves to hide much of what we think and feel from others, but it gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate our rejection and fear of some of our thoughts and feelings and relax our fear of ourselves (regardless of whether we decide to express more of those things with other people).

Most of what we have suppressed and repressed is difficult to bring to consciousness, since we have become accustomed to these avoidances as simply “the way things are.”  If you allow yourself to explore your inner world, and if you notice when you do not express something you are thinking or feeling, you will start to understand the immense amount of yourself that you keep hidden.  Check out which of these things you “have feelings about,” such as resentment, anger, shame, or guilt.  Shame indicates that you expect others to humiliate you and treat you as inferior if they were to know what you are not expressing.  Guilt indicates that you believe that what you are not expressing violates the standards you believe in (or think you should believe in).  Resentment and anger indicate that you have not accepted the reasons for hiding those things from others and that you might like to express them if you could do so safely.

As you explore your lifetime of hiding things from others (and perhaps from yourself as well), re-examine the reasons why you hide them.  You may change your mind about a number of things that you feel that you could now express.  It is most important that you make it OK with yourself that you have all of the thoughts and feelings that you have.  If you, for example, recognize your bisexuality that you have been hiding, you can accept it and stop fearing it and constricting yourself in order to hide it, whether or not you decide that you don’t need or want to express it now.  This requires coming to your own decisions about whether bisexuality is good or bad, whether it is harmful or an addition to life, rather than suppressing it because others think that it is “bad.”  You need not fear that accepting this about yourself or forgiving yourself for it will move you toward expressing it with others.  It may make it more possible for you to express it if you chose to, but you might also decide that your life is just fine without it.  The reason for expressing or not expressing aspects of ourselves should be based on how it enhances our lives or harms ourselves or others, not on moralities that have no basis in real life.  The point is that you can reduce your upset, anxiety, and insecurity by accepting all of yourself and deciding for yourself what you choose to express.


One of the greatest causes of upset, anxiety, and insecurity is poor self-esteem.  When we have a negative assessment of ourselves, we will not trust ourselves to take good care of ourselves, and we will also probably doubt whether we deserve good care and treatment at all.  To the extent that you perceive yourself as “not good enough” or inferior to others, you will not feel or think that you deserve good things in life.  If you routinely feel that you are inferior or not good enough, you will always fear others pointing this out, both overtly and by how they treat you.  With low self-esteem, we know that we will be the last person to be taken care of, and this augments our upset, anxiety, and insecurity about surviving in this world.

Self-esteem develops through childhood according to how we perceive that we are treated by others, particularly by our families.  If you are honest with yourself, you can identify the relationships in which you always felt inferior or not good enough.  You can now use your adult reality-testing abilities (see above) to examine why those persons viewed you and treated you in that way, and you can decide whether that was true or not about you.  You will be declaring independence for your mind—that you have the right to decide for yourself, which is the most important step in rejecting that negative view of yourself and beginning to build a more positive self-image.

No one is inherently any better than anyone else, yet many people cite evaluative “reasons” why they are “better than” others in order to bolster their self-esteem, including religious membership, ethnicity, wealth, parentage, and appearance.  Being a member of your family may be wonderful, but it does not make you better than anyone else.  Similarly, being white or Black or Catholic or Jewish does not make you “better than” anyone else either, but many people cling to the fact that they are of a certain race or religion as “evidence” that they are OK or that they are “better than” someone else.  It is obvious that claiming that one is better than someone else to bolster one’s self-esteem inevitably leads to hurt feelings, resentment, conflict, and struggle.

Crucial steps to take to make your self-esteem more positive are accepting yourself, respecting yourself, loving yourself, deciding on your own standards for yourself, and treating yourself well.  (For a more comprehensive discussion of self-esteem, see How To Feel Good About Yourself:  12 Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem, by Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D. (2003).


Belief in unseen forces that we cannot fully understand may increase upset, anxiety, and insecurity.  If you believe, for example, that luck or fate are forces that are affecting your life, perhaps even daily, then you will look for ways to control them (rituals, sacrifices, superstitions, prayer), but since you will never know if you are controlling them completely, you will always worry about what might happen next, and this will increase your sense of insecurity and perhaps lead to upset and anxiety, too, if bad things seem to be happening.

Of course, recognizing the impact that such beliefs can have on our lives does not prove that these forces do not exist, and we are prone to want to control them if they do exist (viz., people who “knock on wood” even though they would say that they don’t really believe they need to; people who go to church a few times a year, just in case).  Since they cannot be proven not to exist, it is hard to recommend completely disbelieving in such forces, although it might help to keep track of every time a force seems to respond favorably to you and every time it doesn’t (making sure that you record every instance of both) and then decide for yourself if the pattern suggests anything to you about whether or not the force actually exists.

Belief in unseen forces may stem at least partly from our experience as infants and young children that there are forces out there (parents) that can affect our lives positively (feed us), negatively (not feed us), or randomly (feed us but not on a schedule), that we don’t understand and that we strive to control from the moment we have any motoric self-control (eating on schedule, smiling back at goofy parents, stopping crying).  When we are infants, we cannot conceptualize or understand these huge forces that seem to control our lives, and this may be the prototype for our beliefs in unseen forces.  If we understood from the beginning that the huge force was our parents, then we might not have this propensity as adults to think that there are unseen forces. 

The alternative to believing in unseen forces or entities (even God) is to be left with life as it is but with less hope for controlling it, except through further scientific discoveries or cultural achievements.  This means, since we don’t understand why everything happens that happens, that you will have certain probabilities of having things happen (car accidents, gambling losses, deaths) that we just have to live with.  We can take certain actions to minimize our dangers, like having medical checkups, eating in a healthy manner, always wearing a seatbelt, and having insurance policies, but we won’t have any actions to take to guarantee that something happens or does not happen.


Our primary mode of developing behavioral and brain skills is to imitate our primary caregivers, and we have great loyalty to those caregivers.  In addition to the overt, motor behaviors that we imitate (manner of walking, facial expressions), some children imitate their parents’ tendency to upset, anxiety, and insecurity and develop these as coping traits.  If parents believed that being upset about something was a way of dealing with it or making things better, then children can absorb that belief, too.  (The mechanism for this would be along the lines of thinking that if you don’t show upset it means that you don’t care, and you want to demonstrate to others or to unseen forces that you care enough about something to want it changed.)  Poor self-esteem can be modeled from parents in this same way.  You might feel guilty if you felt happier about yourself than your parents, whom you love, felt about themselves. 

If you are suffering unacceptable upset, anxiety, and insecurity from taking on habits of feeling excessive or unnecessary upset, anxiety, and insecurity from your parents or others, then you can re-examine that imitation and decide that you will give it up and have your own amounts of upset, anxiety, and insecurity.  In some cases, if you are still around your parents a lot, they may not like you giving up that imitative learning, but you will probably be better off if you do give it up.  You do not have an obligation to feel like your parents about everything.  Those are their own feelings, and they are responsible for doing something about them, if they choose.


People are almost infinitely creative when it comes to avoiding negative feelings.  A particularly strategic method is to get upset about or worry about something that is less upsetting than something else that one wishes to avoid.  You might get upset about who your daughter is dating in order to distract yourself from the even greater upset you would feel if you faced the problems in your marriage.  Being upset about politics could serve this same function.  Some people stay upset much of the time in order to distract themselves from larger problems, and this, of course, adds upset, anxiety, and insecurity to their lives, as well as affecting the lives of their families and others they interact with.  

Anger is another emotion that is useful for distraction purposes.  It is used most commonly to distract from sadness, but it can serve a masking function for anything we wish to avoid.  We may be frightened and distressed about our lives having no meaning after the death of a child, but we can avoid some of that distress by being angry.  Many people prefer to be angry about such events for years rather than face their hopelessness, and it’s certainly easier to kick the dog, yell at the kids, or hit the wife than it is to yell at or hit the boss!  People around a person who is displacing anger or using anger to hide bigger problems have to be watchful and fearful.

If there is an alternative to this strategy, it would have to be to recognize one’s desire to live with less total upset and anxiety and to resolve to gradually face up to the larger issues that one has been avoiding.  These larger issues could be related to one’s job, career, relationships, or even existential issues such as the meaning of life, why we are here, and whether it is all worth it.


In the long, slow cultural development of our species, societies have used various ideas and feelings to control our individual behavior.  Shame, guilt, and fear of punishment are primary painful emotions that we have harnessed to minimize violence and other mistreatment of one person by another.  We teach individuals what to fear and what to feel shame or guilt about.  We exaggerate the pain of various punishments that could be administered for unacceptable behavior.  We teach people to be ashamed about their bodies and sexuality, and we teach people to feel guilt for breaking rules and for harming others.

Shame is an emotion that seems to be tied biologically to our perceptions of status.  A person who is shamed is “made” to feel smaller and less important than the person doing the shaming, and a person who is ashamed is automatically lowered in the status hierarchy (though perhaps only temporarily).  We can certainly relate to encountering this first with respect to our parents, when they said “You should be ashamed of yourself” and followed that up by treating us with less respect and courtesy for a while.  Religion and government both play on our natural shame feeling to induce us to avoid our shame by being “good” and “good citizens.” 

If shame is resulting in excessive upset, anxiety, or insecurity in your life, the answer is to learn not to be ashamed unless you instigate the shame yourself (and then only for reasons that are good ones).  You can learn to reject (not to respond by feeling shame to) attempts by others to induce shame, based on an accurate perception of whether this is a control or status manipulation and on your own balanced evaluation of whether you have done anything to be ashamed about (regardless of what others think).  This calls on you to think for yourself, to have your own (hopefully humane) standards for yourself, and to be willing not to always respond as others want you to.  By resisting, you would be refusing to accept the lowered position that someone else wants you to have, and you would be asserting (even if nonverbally) your disagreement with the effort being made to have you feel shame.  You must be ready to tolerate some rejection or criticism for not going along with the “shame game,” and you would by implication be suggesting that the group shift its own standard for what is shameful.  (Of course, if your own opinion, according to your own carefully considered standards, is that you should be ashamed of yourself, then it’s fine to feel ashamed!)

Shame, more than guilt, attaches to the self of a person.  You as a person deserve to be humiliated just for who you are, whereas guilt attaches more to a wrong behavior on your part.  Becoming less responsive to shaming efforts, then, implies a changed self-image from someone who “deserves” shame and inferiority to someone who does not.  During this shift you may be angry or embarrassed that you put have up with being seen (including by yourself) as a person who deserved to be humiliated and lower than others.  This shift requires that you work to forgive and accept yourself better.  You will need to forgive yourself for betraying yourself and accepting inferiority, and you will need to accept more (all?) of yourself.  This is in contrast to your previous view of yourself as unacceptable and hence deserving of shame.  (Again, see my self-esteem book for more detail on forgiving yourself and accepting more of yourself.) 


Guilt is another painful emotion that society attaches to unacceptable behavior in its efforts to help us “do right.”  Guilt can last for years, is quite painful, and motivates most people to avoid it, which they sometimes do through rationalizing regarding behavior or denying that they have done anything unacceptable.  It seems that in our society guilt is most common with regard to harming those we supposedly care for and with regard to breaking rules about sex.  Most religions encourage guilt and sensitize us to it but also provide some process for taking guilt away after the fact (through correcting a mistake, acknowledging, atoning, confessing, paying back, etc.).  (See my self-esteem book for steps to take for sincere self-correction.)  Some religions also promise a better life after death to those who are “good.”

To deal adequately with guilt, you will need to question the standards that you are trying to live by (I should feel guilty if I hurt my mother; I should feel guilty if I blaspheme; I should feel guilty if anyone says that I’ve done something displeasing; etc.).  Some of them are probably inappropriate and were taught to you simply in order to control your behavior, rather than because they represented widely agreed-upon standards.  You will need to reject those expectations that are unfair, inhumane, or inappropriate, and decide for yourself what behaviors deserve your guilt.  Certain others may not like you disagreeing with their notions about guilt, but either you continue to use their definitions (and suffer what could be unnecessary guilt) or you change what you feel guilty about to only things that are clearly  “wrong” (and put up with their displeasure at your change).  Once you have chosen your standards, to be a person of integrity, you will need to feel guilt if you break your own rules!

Some of the methods above for expiation may work for you to rid yourself of a particular guilt (atoning, apologizing, confessing, etc.), but if they do not, then your path must be to acknowledge your guilt, make a sincere commitment to not transgress again (including explicit steps that will allow you to carry out this commitment), and then and only then forgive yourself and accept yourself again.


Some people feel excessive upset, anxiety, and/or insecurity with regard to what might be called existential concerns—aspects of our human condition and human existence on Earth that are problematic yet insoluble.  There are constant dangers in the world.  Our bodies are finite and prone to problems.  Our brain power is limited.  Our achievements as a species are amazing, but we still suffer, perhaps even as much as people did in past centuries, despite our medical and labor-saving advances.  There is no one outside of our species to tell us when we are OK and when we are not, or to reassure us that our lives “mean” something.  Women still die in childbirth (even though many fewer).  If there is no God, then we are alone in this huge universe, with complete responsibility for ourselves.  Death comes to us all, and fantasies about achieving everlasting life on this plane are completely unrealistic and would be destructive to the planet if we could achieve them.

Our negative emotions tell us that our beings and existence are imperfect, since only if we had no pain and no painful emotions would we have a perfect life (because pain and painful emotions are signals to us that we have problems).  Since our beings and existence will continue to be imperfect for the foreseeable future, we must find a satisfying psychological adjustment to our situation. 

Our own society’s stance toward life is one of solving problems and technical advancement, and while this may slowly improve our material quality of life, in the meantime it does nothing to explain or assuage our upset, anxiety, and/or insecurity related to existential concerns (the nature of our lives and existence).  Cultures and religions have offered explanations for sin and suffering, and these are helpful (since human beings would rather have a wrong explanation than no explanation at all), but in the age of science, many ordinary people are not satisfied with fanciful, magical, mythical, or metaphysical explanations (including the assumption that there are unseen entities, like God and the Devil, and unseen forces, like fate, at work in our lives).

The only alternative to these traditional aids would seem to be adjustments that acknowledge the problems but attempt to change our own reactions to them (like the difference between railing at the problems and not getting upset about them).  Existentialism in philosophy acknowledges these problems fully but has had little to say about adjusting to them (except “get used to it”).  Sartre urged us to see more clearly the impact of our choices and behaviors and to take responsibility for them more seriously.  Among religions, Buddhism has gone farthest in finding methods of being less upset about existential concerns, by training the mind to see how excessive and useless our upset about such things is and by getting us to accept some pain as a normal part of human life. 

To accept human life as it is may be more feasible than it might seem at first.  We know, from thousands of years of experience, what the experience of human life is for us as individuals.  Life requires that we work to survive, that we do our best to avoid constant dangers, and that because we need others to survive, we figure out how to get along with them.  While we might fantasize about an existence in which we didn’t have to work, we didn’t have to worry about dangers, and we didn’t have to put up with the stupidity and craziness of others, such fantasizing serves no purpose except to encourage us to think that our lives might change magically for the better.  This is not going to happen, and, there are sufficient rewards for work, staying alive, and interacting with others to make this life as it is well worth living.  We will do better for ourselves to figure out how to do these things well, rather than wishing that we didn’t have to do them.  (For another jolt of reality, see my essay “Pain, Suffering, and Death” on www.livewiselydeeply.com.)


Almost all of us could have more calmness and tranquility in our lives if we were to change some of our attitudes and approaches to living.  This will involve, first of all, wanting to be more calm and tranquil.  As noted above, you may have to try it out before making a final decision about your chosen balance between arousal and calm.  You will need to deal with the concerns you have about being more calm, particularly how being more calm might make you less competitive in daily life.

If we assume that much of our over-arousal (and therefore our over-anxiety, over-upset, and over-insecurity) is about how others feel about us and treat us, then adopting a different stance about other people is going to be essential to being generally more calm and tranquil.  This new stance must be one that is not as sensitive to the actions of others  (not getting your feelings hurt for unimportant reasons) because you are able to feel OK about yourself despite the vagaries of others’ likes and dislikes.  You must be able to see others’ reactions as telling you things about them and not about you (that you are worth less or worthless or disliked or out of favor).  You must be OK within yourself, as long as you are not harming others, you feel that you are basically an equal with others (worth just as much as a person as others) and therefore do not accept shaming, and you are not violating your own reasonable standards for yourself (and therefore feeling guilt).  Work on the basics of self-concept (how you see yourself) and self-esteem (how you feel about yourself).

The other factor that affects your equanimity the most is misunderstanding the world.  If you think, wrongly, that others think poorly of you, your whole life will be taken up with perceiving slights and rejections that don’t really exist.  In the same vein, if you believe that you are worth less than others, you will be unable to believe that anyone could really love you, and you are likely to be troubled by this every day for the rest of your life.

(As an aside, note that in regard to equanimity, just as in all other areas of human functioning, healthy and adaptive functioning depends on doing reasonably well with four basic domains of living—accurate perceptions and understanding of reality, your self-esteem, your relationships with others, and your ability to manage your emotions.)

Here is a list of the key changes in these areas that will enable you to be more calm and tranquil.

  • ·       accept that human life inevitably involves some pain, and stop looking for ways to have no pain at all
  • ·       accept that there is always some risk in living and that we are always to some degree vulnerable to being hurt;  live fully anyway
  • ·       stop bemoaning the difficulties of our human existence and instead do the best you can to manage your survival and your feelings
  • ·       after you have done your best to make your life the way you want it, be satisfied with the result
  • ·       stop distracting yourself from larger concerns by being upset about smaller ones; face up to those larger concerns with humility and self-support
  • ·       use all of your capacities to determine what is true and what is not (and be clear about what you don’t know), regardless of what others think and regardless of what your group believes
  • ·       take a realistic view of the actual dangers that others pose to you and base your risk levels on that (rather than on your early conditioning)
  • ·       develop a self-image as basically an equal of others, deserving of respect and basic acceptance and resisting all efforts to make you inferior
  • ·       accept all of yourself and treat yourself well, and reject all efforts to make you feel inferior or as if you don’t deserve good things in life
  • ·       set your own humane, realistic standards for yourself, and decide for yourself what it is appropriate to feel shame or guilt about
  • ·       accept that you cannot please everyone or change peoples’ minds by pleasing, and accept that most social rejection has little to do with who you are (and need not affect your self-esteem)
  • ·       accept and get comfortable with all of your thoughts and feelings, whether or not you choose to express them verbally or in behavior
  • ·       accept that each individual has his/her own experience of life and will come to his/her own conclusions about how to live, and that it’s not important that everyone agree on everything
  • ·       work straightforwardly to reduce your inappropriate fears, by learning needed skills, assessing dangers realistically, and exposing yourself to opportunities to learn that your fears are excessive
  • ·       do not take responsibility for others that they can take for themselves
  • ·       examine the impact of modeling on your levels of upset, anxiety, and insecurity, and decide for yourself who you want to be
  • ·       take what control you can of your life, rather than relying on attempts to manipulate unseen forces, but don’t attempt more control than is reasonable