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Excel At Life
Pursuing Excellence in Life, Relationships, Sports and Career
Pursuing Excellence in Life, Relationships, Sports and Career


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Cognitive Diary Example:
"My co-workers should respect me!"

Event: Starting a new job and wanting to be shown respect.

Emotions: resentful, hostile, revengeful

Distress Rating: 9--Feeling Desperate

Thoughts: Every place I work it is always the same. I work hard and contribute more to the company I work for than anyone else. Yet, at every job I've had the other employees don't respond to my requests and then laugh at me behind my back. My bosses never recognize my accomplishments. They should show me respect because I have more talent than all of them put together. I will make their lives miserable until they show me the proper respect!

Can You Identify the Irrational Thinking in this Example? There are at least 3 irrational beliefs.

How Can You Change the Thinking? What is another way of thinking about the situation that won't cause the feelings of resentment, hostility, and vengefulness?


Irrational Beliefs:
1) Generalizing. This person assumes that this new job will be the same as every other work experience he's had. The problem with such expectations is that the expectation creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that is likely to create the same outcome. By making these assumptions, this person doesn't give others a chance, becomes angry about future behavior that hasn't occurred, and then projects undeserved hostility towards others.

Naturally, others are likely to respond to him in a negative way when he is already treating them as if they were the ones who caused him trouble in his previous jobs. By generalizing previous experiences to current experiences he creates the negative work environment that causes his resentment and anger.

2) Negative evaluation of others. However, instead of recognizing his role in creating the situation, he focuses on others' behavior. Due to his fear of being mistreated and not respected by others, this person views others in a negative way and is likely to misperceive others' behavior in a negative way. For instance, if he sees someone laughing with another co-worker, he believes they are laughing about him. As a result, his negative viewpoint becomes self-sustaining and causes him to become highly critical and angry towards others.

3) Blaming. Instead of recognizing that his expectations and demands are at the root of the job problems he has had, he blames others for his failures. He believes that their refusal to treat him with respect is the source of the problem. By focusing his blame on others, he maintains his fragile ego at the cost of better relationships. In this way he doesn't have to admit he has a problem. Instead, everyone else is causing him problems.

As a result of blaming others and seeing them as the source of his unhappiness and dissatisfaction, he becomes angry and wants to retaliate. Unfortunately, this is likely to perpetuate the cycle of his expectations so that this job becomes like every other job he as had. Instead of getting respect, others avoid him, dislike him, and some may become retaliatory in return.

How Can This Thinking Be Changed?
"I need to recognize that when I approach others with hostility I am setting myself up to be treated poorly. My negative expectations are repeatedly creating the problems that I am having. It is up to me to create more positive interactions with others."

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PsychNote: If I'm an Introvert, Does that Mean I Will be Less Happy and Healthy?

Study after study shows that socializing is healthy, that people who have social activities in their lives tend to be happier and have greater well-being (Sin and Lyubomirsky, 2009). What does this mean if you prefer quiet activities alone? Does it mean you are less healthy and more likely to be depressed?

Not necessarily.

To answer this question it is important to understand how research is done. The public often mistakenly believes that the outcome of scientific research applies to everyone. So if research indicates that those who socialize frequently are happier, then they believe that is true for all people. This is a common error because that is often how the media presents the results of research.

However, research examines group differences which means that it looks at the average across a group of people. Think of it this way. Just because the average IQ is 100, it doesn't mean that everyone has an IQ of 100. The same is true of other research. In the case of social activities and well-being, the average person may be happier and healthier having more friends and opportunities for socializing but that doesn't mean everyone is.

So, if you are an introvert and content with quiet activities alone, that doesn't mean you will be depressed, lonely, and unhealthy.

But the key to resolving this issue for yourself is how honest you are with yourself.

Are you isolating out of fear or depression?

Or, do you truly get joy out of working alone, solitary walks, gardening, reading, your pets, etc?

And—how will you feel if your best friend moves away or your spouse dies (after the grief, of course)?

If deep down you truly want to be with others and feel lonely in your isolation, then you are more likely to be affected health-wise.

Yet, for those who truly enjoy solitary activities or who may be content with occasional social activities, happiness and health can be just as obtainable as for those who are more socially active.

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Links to news articles based on psychological research:

***Antidepressants May Not Work for Those with Depression Plus Chronic Illness
***Depression treatment needs overhaul
***What can Facebook learn about you from just one click? (Psychological targeting)
***Role of gut microbiome in posttraumatic stress disorder: More than a gut feeling
***New insights into why sleep is good for our memory
*'I'm Not Rude, I Have Social Anxiety.'

For links:

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Passive-Aggressive Example:
The Perfect Backhanded Compliment

Question: How can I respond to "I wish I could be like you and not care about the latest fashion trends."

Response: Although I've addressed backhanded compliments before, this one is particularly difficult. A backhanded compliment is an insult disguised as a compliment. Often, the "compliment" is delivered with a sarcastic tone and can be easily identified as an insult: "You're making a fashion statement today." Or, the word choice gives it away: "You're fashionably dressed for a change." In such cases, the insult can be ignored by focusing on the compliment. A simple "thank you" can prevent the PA person from obtaining satisfaction. Or, in some circumstances, the insult can be more directly addressed. See my response to Handling a Backhanded Compliment (

But the statement "I wish I could be like you and not care about the latest fashion trends" delivered with a tone of sincerity can be a perfect backhanded compliment. The reason that I consider it "perfect" is because unless it is a pattern of behavior it can be very difficult to determine whether it is a genuine compliment indicating that the person admires your nonconformity and individuality or if it is a backhanded compliment. In such a circumstance, simply saying "thank you" may be inadvertently agreeing with an insult. So, we need to have a better way when a statement is so ambiguous.

If we look at my article 7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People ( several rules apply to addressing this behavior:

1) Determine the person's reward. Usually the reward for a backhanded compliment is to make you feel uncomfortable and without a way to confront. If you confronted this person, it can be easily turned to make you look bad, "I was just paying you a compliment that you don't worry about what others think. But maybe I'm wrong--you're so sensitive!"

2) Choose your goal. Most likely your goal is to stop this person from being rewarded and to not have to take a hit to your self-esteem.

3) Always remain calm. If this is truly a PA "compliment", then the purpose is to get you upset. The more you remain calm, the less the PA person achieves the desired response, and thus, is not rewarded for the PA behavior.

4) Be assertive. In this case, being assertive means controlling your non-verbals. In other words, you do not want to look like you've been hurt by this statement. Keep your head up, keep a positive focus, and maintain a smile and eye contact. By doing so, it lets the PA person know that the desired outcome of making you feel uncomfortable has not been achieved.

As for the methods to use:

1) Laugh and agree technique. Although this technique could be used in this situation, unfortunately it means accepting an insult which could be the desired outcome of the PA person. However, if you are skilled enough and this is not a pattern of behavior from the PA person, you could respond with a joking agreement, "Yeah, but it takes a lot of effort to be a fashion rebel." But if you are dealing with person who frequently undermines you in this way, it is best not to agree, even jokingly, as it could reward the behavior.

2) Questioning technique. A person could use a direct question in this situation such as "What do you mean?" with a very puzzled tone. But, that could show the PA person that you are uncomfortable which means they achieved their purpose. Instead, I think a quizzical look indicating that you didn't comprehend the statement may be the most effective approach because it leaves the PA person confused about whether their purpose was achieved. Of course, you need to have good acting skills to pull this off. If the person responds to the look, it may be to further clarify which could lead to an opportunity to more directly address the insult.

3) Be passive-aggressive. A PA response is usually not the best method but can sometimes be quite effective. However, in this situation, such a response may be an option as the PA person has created a perfect trap. As I indicated in the article a person needs to be fairly skilled to use this technique but if you can respond with sincerity "Yes, I imagine it can be quite tiresome to be controlled by fashion demands" it could be a good response. As you can see, it reflects the insult back to the PA person by suggesting a negative characteristic of being "controlled." If you can consistently challenge the PA person in this way, he or she may stop the behavior as it is backfiring on them.

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Book review:

The Value of Each and Every Life and How Perfectionism Destroys that Value

Although I've written a great deal about the perils of perfectionism, the book “Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World” by Iddo Landau highlights an interesting aspect of perfectionism I hadn't thought of before. That is, perfectionistic beliefs can lead to despair due to the supposition that life is meaningless if one hasn't accomplished great things.

Such a belief not only harms the individual who places such demands on him/herself but it can also damage those around him/her. For instance, perfectionistic parents often have high expectations for their children and may criticize or express subtle disapproval when those children don't achieve the parent's aspirations. Or, the perfectionist may regard others with disdain or contempt when those others don't live the life the perfectionist has deemed as valuable.

Obviously, this may not be true of all perfectionists as many of those whom I refer to as “social perfectionists” would be appalled at the idea of harming others. However, they may not be aware that their perfectionistic behaviors and self-demands can provide subtle messages to others who feel they can't measure up to the perfectionist's standards. So even though the perfectionist's focus is on him or herself, others may take cues from his/her behavior.

Professor Landau counters the idea of the meaninglessness of an imperfect life by reflecting on changing the concept of what is meaningful. Instead of a “perfect” life being the only one of purpose and meaning, he focuses on the value of an ordinary life well-lived.

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New article!

Beyond Tolerating Emotions: Becoming Comfortable with Discomfort

I have a problem—I can't help but see all sides of an issue. I call it a problem because it is uncomfortable at times. It makes it hard to take a firm stand on things because as soon as I hear the opposing argument, I think, “Well, that makes sense, too.” As a result, I often have to spend time researching things to determine what is accurate. And if I find that both sides have valid points I end up more confused than ever.

Maybe, being able to see disparate points of view is due to my training as a psychologist, maybe it is my nature. I tend to think, perhaps, that it existed prior to my psychological training and is one of the reasons I became a psychologist—because I could understand and empathize with others who were different from me.

Even in high school I always seemed to get along with the different social groups. But maybe that part of my belief is just an illusion I've created—to feel good about myself and to protect myself from uncomfortable emotions about the true beginnings of my empathetic nature.

Isn't that what we do? Create illusions instead of confronting reality? Maybe I really felt that I didn't fit in anywhere and so I created the illusion of getting along with different social groups. I tried to meet everyone's standard of “friend” instead of facing the reality that I was an outsider. And so my empathy most likely came from my feelings of powerlessness and helplessness and was forged into an alliance with other outsiders. In the end, though, it allowed me a deeper understanding of my therapy clients. But, who knows? Maybe that is an illusion, too.

The illusions we create

People don't like to live in a state of confusion. Confusion is uncomfortable—it is a mix of all sorts of unnamed emotions. We are fearful of being wrong. We are fearful of being on the outside of a social group. We are fearful of being different or being the one that is labeled “bad” or “evil.” We are fearful of not being loved. But all these things add up to not being acceptable in some way. So we try to find ways to rid ourselves of this knowledge and this discomfort. One common way we do this is to create illusions:

1) The “happy family” illusion. I remember an episode of “Cheers” from years ago that illustrated this concept so perfectly. Frazier was dating a very young woman who asked him to her home for dinner. During the dinner, her recently ex-boyfriend (who she was trying to make jealous) showed up and they started arguing. Her father jumps up and gets in the middle of the argument. Meanwhile her brother is making faces at Frazier and throwing food at him. During all this chaos, the mother is smiling serenely and pleasantly states, “Isn't this nice that we can all be together like this?” (Forgive my paraphrasing as I'm describing this episode from memory)

2) The “everyone likes me” illusion. A person believes that because they don't have conflict with others that everyone likes them. This illusion often coincides with social perfectionism which is the attempt to fit in and avoid conflict by being perfectly acceptable.

3) The “if I try hard enough” illusion. The belief that with enough effort we can change things to be consistent with the illusion. For instance, a woman in an abusive relationship believes that she can change her husband and have the “perfect” relationship.

4) The “I would never do that” illusion. When other people do things that get them in trouble or that are rude or mean, we want to believe that we wouldn't behave in such a way. However, studies have shown that under the right circumstances, more than 2/3's of us will. Milgram's obedience studies showed that obedience to authority was more important than the suffering of another individual. Zimbardo's prison study showed that normal people can degrade into brutish behavior when the norms of society are removed. And Asch's conformity studies demonstrated that people will lie rather than disagree with inaccurate conclusions by a group.

5) The “I am right” illusion. We insist on believing that our way of life, our opinions, our beliefs are the correct ones and anything that doesn't fit with our concepts must be wrong. There is no gray area or room for differences.

6) The “ignore the past” illusion. This is the belief that if we pretend past experiences didn't happen or aren't important, then they can't affect us. Yet, the reality is the past is more likely to affect us when we ignore it and don't learn from our experiences.

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New Passive-Aggressive Example: Caretaker of Passive-Aggressive Mother

Question: My mother has always been difficult, controlling and recognizes no limits. Her interpretation of a mother-daughter relationship is one where the mother is always right and should not be contradicted. The daughter's obligation to respect her mother implies silence and never giving her opinion if different than her mother's. If that's done it is considered a high level of disrespect and lack of consideration.

Now I'm 45 and my mother is 82. I'm the only child and my dad passed away 10 years ago. She's a cancer survivor and stayed by herself after she got over her illness as I used to live in the US. So her life has not been easy at all, I am fully aware of that. Yet, my life has not been easy either and my main concern and dilemma is precisely my mother. So, I am in need--desperate need--of advice as to how to deal with the situation. I'm currently living with her as I moved out of the US to take care of her. She is permanently mad at me. I think her feeling bad physically translates into anger and I'm always the target. She's always putting me down and if I try to make any decision in her house (like what bathroom will I clean first, or what vegetable to buy for today's meal, etc) she gets very angry and doesn't eat.

My approach has been silence and not responding, because I know at this point she will not change and if I want to accomplish what I hope which is to help her and take care of her, antagonizing her will result in her not eating, not letting me help her at all. But, despite my conscious decision to just take and take her attitude and not respond, I'm deeply hurt, severely tired and awfully lonely. How to deal with someone like her, if you could provide a practical example it'd be appreciated. Thank you!!


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Links to news articles based on psychological research:

***Smartphone apps reduce depression
***Third-Person Self-Talk Can Support Emotional Control
***Depression in heart attack survivors is common, often untreated
***These techniques can help you cope with your social anxiety at work events
***The New Way To Prevent Anxiety in Kids
***Treating anxiety disorders in children with CBT

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PsychNote: When You Have Negative Thoughts About Your Thoughts

Many times when I'm teaching a client about cognitive therapy and how thoughts can contribute to or exacerbate problems, they become highly critical of their thoughts. In an effort to feel better, they begin to punish themselves for certain thoughts: “That's stupid! I shouldn't think that way!” or “It should be simple to control my thoughts—what's wrong with me?”

One particularly difficult area is when the “thought-stopping” technique is used. This technique literally has a person tell themselves firmly “Stop it!” When a person does so it becomes easy to add a judgment: “Stop it! I'm so weak I can't even stop these thoughts.”

Although the purpose of cognitive therapy is to learn how to change thinking, punishing oneself about the thoughts can make the therapy less effective and may even worsen the problem. Research shows that these thoughts about your thoughts need to be addressed as they can interfere with effective reduction in symptoms.

For example, when researchers studied those with chronic pain who were using cognitive therapy, they found the pain was worse when a person was self-critical of their thoughts (Yoshida et al., 2012; also see Psychnote: It's Not What You Think But How You Think That Affects Chronic Pain So although cognitive therapy can help reduce the experience of pain, the negative thoughts about the thought process can make it worse.

The idea behind cognitive therapy and symptom reduction is to learn to recognize inaccurate or irrational thoughts that increase symptoms. By doing so, ways to challenge or replace the thoughts can be identified and applied.

However, this needs to be a gentle process. For some, even the term “irrational” which is meant to be a neutral description can be a trigger for punishment: “I'm irrational—I can't think straight!” But there is a difference between describing a thought as irrational and depicting the self as irrational. Almost all of us have irrational thoughts at times but that doesn't mean we are irrational people. Learning to recognize an irrational thought allows us to talk ourselves through the situation.

One of the best techniques for someone who has a difficult time being gentle with him or herself is developing a mindful attitude. The mindful approach to thoughts is to examine them without judgment. Then a person can determine appropriate replacement thoughts or to just let the thought go. The "*Understanding Mindfulness*" series, particularly Step 4—Mindfulness and Cognitive Restructuring ( can help you learn this approach.

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New article!

Emotion Training: What is it and How Does it Work?

Emotion training may seem odd to some people: “But it's what I feel! How can I make myself feel different?” It also seems contrary to the idea that all emotions are valid and okay.

On the surface, the method of emotion training seems to be no different from the demands of others:

“Get ahold of yourself!”

“You're so emotional!”

“You're too sensitive.”

“Can't you control yourself?”

“Stop crying!”

How is emotion training different?

The difference, however, is that emotion training is not focused on blaming the individual. Instead, it teaches methods of evaluating and managing emotions. Several basic principles make it different from the demand to control emotions:

1) Emotions are not a weakness. Emotions are a necessary and important part of the human condition. Sometimes emotions are more intense than a situation usually stirs up but that doesn't mean the person is weak. Some people are more emotionally sensitive but that is often a good thing because usually they are more empathetic and compassionate as well. But sometimes people may need to contain the emotions and emotion training helps to do so.

2) Emotions are for the benefit of the individual. Most of the time, containment of emotions is not for other people and making them feel more comfortable. I say “most of the time” because sometimes it may be necessary when involved with vulnerable others such as children. However, generally, expression of emotions and emotion management are for your own purposes.

3) Emotions have a purpose. The method of emotion training values and validates emotions. By recognizing the importance of emotions it helps to put them into perspective and to use them for a purpose. Sometimes the purpose is a message such as “Something about this situation makes me uncomfortable and I need to evaluate it.” Other times it may be for a release such as when a person is grieving.

4) Emotional mastery can be taught. Emotion training teaches rather than demands. Emotional mastery is the ability to understand and interpret emotions accurately as well as to regulate emotions when they interfere with a person's goals. Most people already do this at times. For instance, have you ever been angry with someone and in the middle of an argument receive a phone call? Most likely, you don't answer angrily “What do you want?!” but with a pleasant tone “Hi, how are you?” So emotion training teaches a person how to use this skill when it benefits them.

What is emotion training?

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