Do you struggle with self-doubt and self-defeating habits?  Do you want to feel more confident about yourself and what you have to offer?  Do you focus on pleasing others, rather than following your dreams and living your best life?  The best way to start feeling better about yourself is to notice the automatic mental and emotional habits that don’t serve you well and find more self-compassionate, life-affirming ways to think and behave.  With conscious awareness and a daily focus on changing old habits, you can begin to build new, positive emotional pathways in your brain. Our brains possess the capacity for neuroplasticity, which means that practicing new ways of thinking and behaving can actually change your brain neurons and the pathways between them.

This article will show you how to stop re-running those old self-critical scripts and self-defeating behavior patterns.  If you are willing to face your negative habits, you can learn to be more cognitively flexible(link is external) and to set healthier boundaries, thereby building a brain that is better wired for happiness and success.  Read on to see how to overcome six important barriers to feeling confident, happy, and successful in your life.

Feeling Guilty

Guilt is an emotion that we often learn in childhood. “Eat all your food. There are people starving in India,” or “I’ve been working my fingers to the bone to take care of you and you think you have a right to complain?” As adults we internalize these messages and feel like we’re never enough or can never do enough.  The emotion of guilt can be helpful when it keeps you from intentionally hurting others or violating your deeply held values.  But too much guilt can be crippling and can take the joy out of life — not letting you enjoy the fruits of your hard work.  There are many types of guilt and research shows only one is good — guilt about something harmful that you did.  If you lied to someone you cared about or acted in a selfish and hurtful way, then feeling guilt can motivate you to stop doing the hurtful behavior and make amends.  This will likely improve your relationships and self-esteem. Most other types of guilt are counterproductive.  These include: (1) guilt about not doing enough to help someone else, when you’ve already done a lot or when the other person is not taking responsibility (2) guilt about having more money or better relationships than friends or family members, or (3) guilt about thoughts that you don’t actually act on, like feeling jealous of a friend who just had a baby.  To combat the unhelpful guilt, realize that your thoughts don’t hurt others, only your actions do.  Learn from past mistakes and try to feel worthy of the gifts and good fortune that life has given you.

Thinking You’re a Failure

Many of us have a sense of failure that colors our perception of ourselves and our achievements.  If you look at your life through the lens of failure, you will fail to pay attention to or minimize your positive achievements.  A mindset of failure also doesn’t take into account the difficult circumstances you may have faced or how hard you tried.  This failure mindset may have its roots in growing up with critical parents, not being as smart or athletic as your siblings or close friends, or having undiagnosed attention deficit disorder.  It may be the result of disappointment in a key life area, like getting divorced, being single, having too much debt,  or not getting a college degree or dream job.  Once this failure mindset develops, you bring it with you into every new situation — believing that you lack what it takes to succeed.  Having a failure mindset can act like a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading you to get in your own way.  You may procrastinate and not get the work done on time, or become overly perfectionists and focused on details, rather than the big picture.  You may act in an insecure manner that doesn’t inspire the confidence of potential bosses or customers, or you may do a careless job because you know your work isn’t good anyway.  The first step in overcoming a mindset of failure is to realize it is there and that you don’t have to believe it.  Each new opportunity is a fresh start and a chance to learn from previous mistakes and act differently.

Being a Perfectionist

Are you your own biggest critic? Is nothing you do ever good enough to meet your high internal standards.  Perfectionism can result from a rigid mindset where you don’t change your expectations based on the situation.  It can lead to second-guessing yourself, procrastinating, feeling constantly overwhelmed, or giving up and not even trying.  An article published in the Review of General Psychology found that perfectionists are more likely to struggle with depression or anxiety and they are more likely to commit suicide.  Perfectionists are also more likely to be diagnosed with intractable conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, Perfectionism can be dangerous to your mind and body!  Perfectionists have conditional self-esteem.  They can only like themselves when they do well.  But nobody can do well all of the time.  Perfectionists often feel like imposters or frauds and live in constant fear of being exposed.  To combat perfectionism, get rid of the “shoulds” and black and white thinking.  Give yourself credit for trying.  Stop seeing mistakes as a disaster.  Give yourself time limits for getting the job done.  Don’t allow yourself to check and re-check your work.  Try to focus on the bigger picture and find more compassionate ways to view the situation.

Living with Regret

Regret is a negative cognitive/emotional state that involves blaming yourself for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing you could undo a previous choice that you made.  If there is an opportunity to change the situation, regret, although painful to experience, can sometimes be a helpful emotion.  The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path.  If you have an addiction, regret can be a motivator to give up the harmful substance and live healthier. However, the less opportunity you have to change the situation, the more likely it is that regret can turn into chronic rumination and mentally beating yourself up.  Those experiencing regret replay a stressful or humiliating situation over and over again in their heads, causing the constant release of stress chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol.  This can take a toll on your body and mind.  To combat regret, use mindfulness strategies to keep your attention focused on the present moment.  As meditation teacher Jack Kornfield wisely said:  “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”

Comparing Yourself Negatively With Others

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Theodore Roosevelt

We compare ourselves with others and then make judgments about how well off and successful we are based on these comparisons.  There are upward comparisons (with people who seem to have it better than us when it comes to money, achievement, looks etc.) and downward comparisons (with those who seem to have it worse than we do.) We often feel better about our lives and accomplishments when making downward comparisons and feel bad about ourselves when making upward comparisons.  The problem is that we don’t really know what is going on beneath the surface of other people’s lives.  So when you compare, you are comparing your insides to everybody else’s outsides, as the saying goes.  A paper in the journal Science  reported that activation in brain areas related to reward respond to relative differences in wealth even more han absolute amounts.  Evidently, many Silicon Valley millionaires feel deprived because they can’t keep up with the billionaires in their neighborhood.  We can always find an area in which we’re not as good as others — physical appearance, athletic skill, or career achievement.  Comparison puts a lot of pressure on yourself because we all have different circumstances.  If you could afford a daily chef, life coach, and personal trainer, you would likely also have a movie star body. Unfortunately, parents often compare kids to their siblings and those labels can become our self-image“You’re the athletic one while your sister has the brains.” Comparisons are oversimplifications of the complexity and gifts we all possess as human beings.  The best comparison to make is what you know and are doing today, compared to last month or last year. This type of comparison takes your individual circumstances and ability into account.

People-Pleasing

People-pleasing behavior stems from wanting everybody to like you and overvaluing others’ opinions at the cost of your own time, energy, and self-esteem.  You may have had narcissistic or emotionally abusive parents and learned to focus on pleasing them to survive psychologically in the family.  Research shows abused kids are more able to correctly identify angry facial expressions than non-abused kids.  At a very deep level, your brain may have gotten wired to please and appease others so they don’t get angry and hurt you physically or emotionally.  People-pleasing may also result from being sensitive to rejection and trying to avoid it.  Or you may have grown up with a depressed or addicted parent and learned that the only time you got attention was when you were taking care of your parent or meeting their emotional needs.  People-pleasing is a misuse of empathy.  Just because you can “know” what others are feeling doesn’t mean it is your responsibility to make them feel better.  You always have a choice.  So get rid of the “shoulds.”  Think about what people-pleasing behavior costs you in terms of increasing your stress and taking you away from pursuing your own goals.  People-pleasing can backfire and lead you to resent others for mistreating you. Practice setting boundaries and saying “no” to requests.  Learn to accept some immediate discomfort in exchange for longer-term stress relief.  Learn to prioritize and balance other people’s needs with your own.  Stop surrounding yourself with needy, demanding “energy vampires” and learn to be pickier about whom you get close to.

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