Forget Self-Esteem; Work on Self-Acceptance

Here is some counterintuitive advice on self-improvement: Stop working on improving your self-esteem.

Instead, aim for true self-acceptance. Too many people base their self-esteem on competent performance of tasks as judged by the outside world and then define themselves based on these opinions and reactions of others.

As I write in my book “Pack Leader Psychology”, low self-worth drives the need to seek external approval: “The more parts of ourselves we reject, the more important it is to feel accepted.”

I believe we should stop emphasizing self-esteem because it is often taken to mean other-esteem. Yet a person who is overly concerned with the external judgments of others or who values measures of success based on competence often has very low self-acceptance.

For example, narcissists self-report and are measured to have very high self-esteem. Yet they are on an endless search for approval and actually have very low feelings of worth and self-acceptance.  This is what leads them to be attention-seeking, to act superior, and to brag.

Intrinsic self-acceptance, free from the fear of judgment or rejection by others, will bring true inner confidence that is not dependent on the opinions of others. Pursuing the approval of others leaves one lacking in confidence, because one’s self-esteem will always be at the mercy of others — a very weak position to put oneself in.

On an emotional level, if a person feels “less than” or unworthy, this may trigger a feeling of shame, which then may lead to a fear response or anxiety. People who are hyper-vigilant for criticism and shame, then spend a lot of time in the “fight-or-flight” or emotional brain, with resulting behaviors of Submission, Dominance or Avoidance, as I explain in depth in my book.

Wise Words on Intuition from Linda Kohanov (and Horses!)

739035_2008-half-arabian-chestnut-mare_photo_1_1419540419_imgI highly recommend Linda Kohanov’s book “The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing & Transformation through the Way of the Horse.”

Kohanov, a leader in equine-assisted therapy, combines her personal experiences with emotional trauma, horse training insights, spirituality, and “horse whisperer” philosophy to help humans learn to be better humans — from horses.

Here are some of Kohanov’s best quotes on the power of intuition, a key theme in the book:

“Staring into the vast reflecting pools of the equine mind, I realized that healing was less about helping someone analyze her childhood, or work toward some preconceived goal, than reconnecting with the world from a position of empowerment and compassion, expanding her awareness to see things as they were, moment to moment. Only from the vantage point of fully experiencing and participating in the present did the past make sense and the future show potential.”

“We have a culture in which the nourishing, life-giving waters of emotion, empathy, sensory awareness, gut feelings, and other forms of nonverbal awareness have dried up in the heat of our obsessive reliance on all that is light and logical and conscious enough to be mapped, explained, and controlled.”

Instinct is:  “a natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity; a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency by an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason and for the purpose of removing somatic tension; behavior mediated by reactions below the conscious level.”

“Our culture tends to value thought over emotion, logic over intuition, territory over relationship, goal over process and force over collaboration, competition over cooperation.”

“Children are taught to narrow their attention, cling to the past, and focus on the future, thus losing their ability to fully function in the present. They become dependent on authority figures who themselves only excel in highly specialized environments and situations.”

“Most people deny and sublimate their feelings, keeping them well below the conscious level until the somatic tension becomes so overpowering that the emotion overrides reason and finally expresses itself, often in violent and self-destructive ways.”


What Parenting Style Makes Emotionally Healthy Kids?

A large study has confirmed that parents who are warm and non-controlling raise children who are happier and have better emotional well-being.

The study confirmed what is called “attachment theory”, a very well-researched concept that has proven that warm, responsive, attuned parenting is ideal for forming bonds with children.

The study certainly confirms good, old common sense. Yet, sadly, too many parents still believe they must be harsh and controlling, not realizing the long-lasting negative effect this has on children. Some of these negative effects even last a lifetime.

A good rule I like to use is for parents to focus less on behaviors and more on a child’s emotions. In other words, cut back on worrying if a child is behaving appropriately and observe and tune into the child’s underlying emotions. Ask yourself: “Why is my child behaving this way?” This will likely lead to a more compassionate parenting style, which is warmer and less controlling.



Managing Your Child’s Test Anxiety

In my third blog this September on school issues, let’s focus on how to understand and manage a child’s test anxiety.

Nervousness during test taking isn’t entirely bad. Some feeling of pressure can help improve performance. Yet overwhelming anxiety leads to decreased performance and perhaps even inability to complete a test. These results can then lead a child to feeling unsuccessful and fear test taking even more.

Underlying anxiety about test taking is a mix of beliefs and emotions — often a fear of failure accompanied by deep feelings of unworthiness tag-teamed by fears of being embarrassed in front of peers.

As neurobiologists tell us, our brain reacts to physical fears (“Watch out, a bear!”) and emotional fears (“Watch out, those girls are teasing you!”) in the same part of the brain. This survival center is powerful, but operates in a simple “on-or-off” manner.

Therefore, when internally generated thoughts of self-criticism arise (“I’m stupid and will flunk this algebra test and everyone will think I’m an idiot.”) this brain function gets turned on to the “fear” or survival mode.

When the brain is triggered into the fear response, all humans react with classic “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” behaviors. In test anxiety, usually it’s the “flight” and “freeze” behaviors. Students report feeling they want to run out of the room and that their brain just does not seem to work. Some report severe panic, with shortness of breath, sweating, muscle tension and feelings of dread and paralysis.

Neurobiologists also report that when the brain goes into “fear” mode, the cortex or thinking part of the brain does not work as well. Called “cognitive narrowing,” this natural reaction leads one to have poor recall, problem solving and deliberative powers.

Unfortunately, many parents, educators and even students view test anxiety by the end results — poor grades — and the child gets labeled as having an intellectual deficit. The sad irony is that the child’s fear of disapproval from others and from himself is so strong that he earns the bad grade he is so concerned about getting, seemingly confirming his worst fears. In reality, the child’s fear is just too strong he just can’t focus and perform well.

Combat test anxiety with your child with these tactics:

  1. As a parent, decrease your anxiety and focus on homework, school performance and grades.
  2. Increase the family’s overall focus on learning for learning’s sake, not to achieve a grade. Model a curious attitude and an attitude for lifelong learning by reading, going to a museum, learning something new.
  3. Teach and practice with your child self-calming skills, such as deep breathing, body awareness, and management of body tension and fidgeting.
  4. Teach cognitive interventions such as positive self-talk: “I am smart. I have studied. I can do this!”
  5. Teach and practice with your child skills such as mindfulness meditation.
  6. Ask your child to consider: “What is the worst thing that will happen if I fail this test?” She should start to see that it really is not such a big deal, even if she did fail.
  7. Ask your child about his fears of failure, his high expectations for himself and his self-image.

Let’s make learning fun, not stressful, for kids!

Re-thinking Homework Refusal in Teens

Have a teen who refuses to do homework? Some teens even do the homework, but do not turn it in or “forget it”, ensuring them a failing grade. This makes no sense to parents, who only read this behavior as irrational or oppositional:  “He’s just doing it to piss me off,” or “He’s just lazy and irresponsible.”

Instead, let’s look at this behavior through a compassionate lens, which gives us an understanding of the likely emotional underpinning of this behavior.

Teens who are brought into therapy always have issues with low self-worth (same goes for adults.) This is the core cause of issues with low motivation, depression, anxiety, and especially suicidal or self-harm tendencies.

So, if we understand low self-worth as the core issue, it plays out with homework in the following way.  A teen has come to believe she is “stupid,” yet she does not want to turn in homework and have this fault confirmed by earning a bad grade. So she refuses to turn in the homework or loses it, because it is easier to be labeled “lazy” or “oppositional” than confirm the fear that she is “stupid” or “worthless.” Not turning in the homework allows her to protect her self-worth to some degree by keeping alive the thought that she might not actually be stupid.  “I’m not stupid. I just didn’t do the homework.”

Teens are also extremely sensitive to peer judgment. A teen who feels “stupid” does not want to expose this presumed fault in front of her peers. Avoiding turning in homework may be one way they attempt to solve this problem.

Yet parents do not understand and teens often can’t or won’t express these fears. (Because admitting feelings of shame or low self-worth is very difficult to do!)

When parents respond with labels of “lazy” and “irresponsible,” this feeds the child even more shaming messages, guaranteeing the misbehavior spiral will continue.

Parents: Rethink your child’s reluctance to do homework. Find a time to calmly and gently inquire about how she feels when doing homework or how she feels about turning in the work. Try to uncover any fears about grades and feelings of low self-worth.

When you have this talk, don’t immediately reassure the teen that she is “smart.” Just listen. Be fully emotionally attuned. Reflect on her emotions and experiences.