A new golden rule for our times

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on January 29, 2010 · 3 comments

in Uncategorized

“I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!”

Fans of Saturday Night Live will recognize this as the signature quote of Stuart Smalley, the woebegone counselor created by Al Franken (now U.S. Senator Franken!). The brilliance of comedy such as this is that it captures a fundamental truth, in this case, that just knowing “the right words” does not bring about transformation. One of the funniest (and poignant) audio recordings I have heard is of Stuart trying to make a relaxation tape, only to find that he continually gets sidetracked into ruminating about his many hang-ups and emotional struggles.

Moving toward self-acceptance

Self-acceptance is essential for a healthy emotional life.

So, how does one move from disliking oneself and putting oneself down to genuine self-acceptance? This question extends well past “touchy-feely” exercises and self-absorption. Indeed, it is well established that poor self-esteem, a common result of childhood maltreatment, is a significant contributor to clinical depression and an assortment of other psychological disorders. Moreover, recent research has begun to shed light on “self-loathing” as a major vulnerability factor that predicts suicidal behavior following an episode of (and even recovery from) depression with suicidality.

A new rule

Innumerable professional and self-help books have been devoted to this topic. Here we briefly describe a device that many can easily relate to, which we might refer to as Golden Rule II:  Treat yourself as well as you would treat others in a similar situation. Doing this effectively requires a “mode shift.” Modes are ways of thinking, feeling and behaving in response to situational demands. It is obvious that we behave differently when in party mode than when in work mode or church mode. Likewise, leisure mode is very different from survival mode.

Modes are less obvious in relation to our internal processes, but no less relevant. “Critic mode” can unleash harsh, even savage, attacks on one’s own character, motivations, and future:  “You idiot! How could you do such a thing? You’re such a loser. You’ll never amount to anything.”

Isn’t it ironic?

Ironically, most of us would never utter (or perhaps even think) such things toward another person who failed or made a mistake, especially if this were someone we cared about. Why? Because we know that words are powerful and can cause injury when used as weapons. We also know that words can nurture and heal as well. Enter “nurturing mode.”

Also referred to as “best friend mode,” nurturing mode carries with it many important qualities: kindness, patience, forgiveness, reasonableness, flexibility, and firmness among others. When asked what they would say to a dear friend who was down, perhaps having made serious mistakes along the way, my patients almost without exception say things that reflect these qualities. Most important, when asked, “Would you kick him when he’s down?” the answer is always no. When asked why not, the response is because it’s not nice and, besides, it would only make matters worse.

The big question

So, the question follows:  Why do it to yourself? Answers to this question vary, from “Because I deserve it” to “I guess I like to suffer.” In my view, the true answer in most cases is that it’s a nasty habit that developed long ago because of a lack of role models. And the habit is maintained by the erroneous belief that, “If I didn’t do it, I’d be an even bigger mess!”

This, as an esteemed colleague of mine is fond of saying, is an empirical question. So, next time you find yourself upset and consumed by harsh self-criticism, rather than engaging in “positive thinking” or Stuart Smalley-type platitudes, try shifting from critic mode to nurturing mode. What, in fact, would you say to a loved one in similar circumstances? Picture this person in the room and listen to what you would say to comfort him or her. Chances are, it will sound a lot like Stuart Smalley; but, if you’ve shifted modes, chances are you will actually believe what you are saying.

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A new golden rule for our times « Mindful Recovery
January 30, 2010 at 12:35 am

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Roger Verdon February 1, 2010 at 1:17 pm

This is very useful advice that will take some discipline to apply. As a Menninger employee, I ought to know this, but knowing and doing are two separate things. You make the shift in modes very clear and i am eager to apply your guidance.

marta January 31, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Sounds like the command of Jesus Christ.

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