Dr. Brandon Santan: “Learning to understand and love yourself allows you to be confident in job settings and relationships”

I’ve been able to create a support system and only surround myself with people who will be a positive influence. I purposefully keep people at a distance at first. I observe and measure people’s interactions with me. If I get even the slightest hint that I’m being used for their own purposes or that the […]

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I’ve been able to create a support system and only surround myself with people who will be a positive influence. I purposefully keep people at a distance at first. I observe and measure people’s interactions with me. If I get even the slightest hint that I’m being used for their own purposes or that the support I provide won’t be reciprocated, I move on.

As a part of my series about “Learning To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Brandon Santan.

Dr. Santan. is a licensed mental health counselor currently working in private practice in Chattanooga TN. He provides a wide range of individual, couples and group psychotherapy and counseling services and specializes in self-acceptance and relationship therapy. Dr. Santan endeavors to help folks live a healthy and well-balanced life physically, emotionally and spiritually using a holistic approach. You can find out more about Dr. Santan at

Thank you so much for joining us! I’d love to begin by asking you to give us the backstory as to what brought you to this specific career path.

My career journey began as a second career after college and after starting my first career. I didn’t meet a significant other in college like most of my friends did. I wasn’t enjoying my first career or where my life was at during that time. In fact, I was struggling in many different ways and I didn’t understand why. I sought out individual counseling for myself and learned that I was sabotaging because I thought I wasn’t good enough. At first, I didn’t believe it, because I have a close, intact family of origin and had a stable childhood without any trauma or abuse, but after many sessions, I came to the realization that I didn’t have the healthiest view of myself. I also realized that part of my struggles was related to my personality and my thinking patterns. I had a strong negative inner voice and had developed the habit of putting myself down internally. My self-acceptance was low and I had low self-worth as a result. The insights I gained during that healing process were so profound for me that I wanted to help other people understand themselves better and live more satisfying and fulfilling lives. So I went back to school to earn a master’s degree in professional counseling and started my new career/mission.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?

I’m so excited about my project which is called “Journey to Authenticity”. It’s a six-module online course that walks people step-by-step from the very beginning of discovering, knowing and understanding yourself all the way to living and being unapologetically and genuinely yourself.

This online course is for people who want to be themselves around others, increase their self-esteem, build their confidence and live their life according to what’s important to them, not someone else. It’s my goal that this course will free people from being a hostage to their worries and fears about what other people think of them and how others expect them to be and enjoy the freedom of being their unique, valuable and wonderful self which will, in turn, create a more fulfilling and satisfying life.

Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self acceptance?

When I was doing my personal healing journey, the counselor helped be look back on the past and I was able to clearly see a series of life events/behaviors that should have been red flags for me. These were things that I had accepted as normal such as the unhealthy pursuit of acceptance and affirmation from peers and a constant sacrificing my wellbeing to make other people happy. I couldn’t stand up for myself, set boundaries and I had no confidence to be myself in relationships. I hid in the shadow of everyone, being what others wanted and expected me to be. During my therapy process, the lightbulb moment for me was gaining this awareness and understanding. After uncovering this hidden shame I carried around about myself, I was finally able to break free from that shame and finally accept myself fully and unapologetically. This was the tipping point for me that propelled me into being authentically and genuinely myself.

According to a recent study cited in Cosmopolitan, in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?

From my experience there are three main causes of low self-image:

1. Adverse childhood experiences such as abuse and overly critical parents/siblings/friends/teachers/coaches;

2. Societal pressures and messages from society such as the idealization of a particular body type in the modeling industry;

3. Genetic predisposition/personality.

For the most part, the consequences are the same or similar for each cause and include:

· Persistent feelings of sadness, shame, guilt, worry fear, depression

· Constant comparison of self to others or to the ideal/desired self which interferes with self-acceptance and feelings of not being good enough

· Eating disorders and/or self-harm behaviors

· Risky surgeries to correct perceived imperfections

· Perfectionism or the pursuit of ways to feel accepted and loved

· Increased risk for a tolerance of unhealthy relationship interactions including the

· Difficulty coping with or being resilient in the face of life challenges

· Social avoidance

· Fear of judgment and/or abandonment

· A series of unstable or dysfunctional romantic relationships

· Unhealthy coping strategies to escape emotional pain such as one-night stands and/or alcohol/drug use

As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?

There are three main reasons why understanding and loving yourself is important:

1. There is only one person in this world that has control over what goes on in your thoughts and that’s you. No one can take control of your thoughts except you so it’s vital that you learn to understand and love yourself so that your thoughts about yourself are positive.

2. Learning to understand and love yourself allows you to be confident in job settings and relationships. When you know who you are and you like who you are you will be able to present yourself to others in a way that demonstrates that you aren’t distracted by that negative inner voice. Yes, people do notice the difference.

3. Self-understanding and self-love make you virtually impervious to criticisms of others. When you are confident in who you are, criticism from others is naturally interpreted as constructive feedback. We typically reject criticism, but when to feel like we are getting constructive feedback, we are much more likely to learn and improve. When you’re more likely to learn and improve you gain more momentum for growth, positive change and upward mobility.

Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?

When it comes to this issue of self-acceptance, many people stay in mediocre relationships for three reasons:

1. They are the cause of the mediocrity and are unaware of it

2. They actively think/believe that they deserve mediocrity and don’t deserve a great relationship

3. They think/believe that it’s the best they can get so they end up settling for something rather than aiming for what they really want

This has a direct link to how you perceive yourself. If you put yourself down and believe that you’re less than what you are then you will have a hard time understanding that you deserve or are able to get into a better relationship.

My recommendation for anyone in this type of situation is to first heal yourself. Go through a process of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Try to figure out what’s at the root of your insecurities about yourself and learn to view yourself with positivity and strength. Typically, when people do that kind of work, the rest falls into place. Relationships often heal as people develop the confidence to open the lines of communication and ask for what they want (sometimes partners in a relationship don’t even know what you want if you haven’t had the courage to ask for it). If the relationship doesn’t improve then people will typically have enough self-respect and courage at that point to end the relationship and move on to a relationship that’s more fulfilling and meaningful.

When we talk about self-love and understanding we don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?

I’d like to tease these apart because I want to be careful not to conflate two different steps in this process. There’s self-love which is more closely related to self-acceptance and then there’s self-understanding which is more closely related to self-awareness.

You will need self-understanding and awareness before you can enter into self-love/self-acceptance. Self-acceptance/self-love really does require us to accept ourselves unconditionally, flaws and all, with the mindset that we aren’t willing to settle, but are capable of and willing to learn, grow and improve ourselves in growth areas.

With that in mind, here are the questions that help us come to a greater understanding our ourselves and the areas we need to change. Some questions are a little more difficult than others.

What are the things/people/situations that I’m naturally drawn to?

What are the things/people/situations that bring me joy and happiness?

What are the things/people/situations that discourage me or bring a sense of unhappiness and dissatisfaction?

What do I take seriously, what do I find easy to not take so seriously?

What are my preferences?

When life isn’t stressful or in crisis, what are my thoughts about?

What are my values?

What are my personality traits?

What are my genetic predispositions (what’s my family history)?

Am I a planner or am I more spontaneous?

Do I like being with people or do I prefer to be alone?

Do I prefer one-on-one time with friends, or do I enjoy a large group of friends?

What are you thinking when you’re feeling nervous? Bored? Interested? Walking down the street?

Do you judge people and situations?

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the past or the future?

Do you expect the worst to happen or the best?

What are you feeling throughout the day?

What do you feel while you’re eating? Driving to work? Lying in bed? Waiting in line?

Once you’ve noticed your emotion, question it. What am I feeling? What do I need right now? How do I normally react in this situation? Is that smart?

What are some of your coping strategies when difficult emotions emerge? Are they healthy or unhealthy?

Where do you find your friends?

Are most of your friendships long term or short?

When your friendships end, what is the common cause?

What types of people do you prefer to be friends with?

What types of people do you avoid?

Do you see a pattern in your romantic relationships?

What are the negative characteristics they all share?

Why do you think those people appealed to you?

What were your shortcomings in your relationships? Are you clingy? Jealous?

Too focused on work? Failed to communicate your needs?

Think about how you contributed to the failure of your relationships. Have you changed your approach from relationship to relationship, or do you continue to repeat your mistakes?

When I was going through my own therapy, I had to answer many of these tough questions. I spent several months reflecting on and answering them. The thing I want to emphasize about my experience is that it was very difficult and took, what seemed like, forever. I remember several therapy sessions where I tried to answer just one of those questions. I had to get honest with myself and that was a very uncomfortable thing to do. I didn’t like some of my answers, but they gave me hope that I was discovering the truth about myself and uncovering the areas that I needed to make changes. That was extremely freeing. I remember feeling as if I was releasing a tremendous pressure from my psyche.

So many don’t really know how to be alone, or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?

I can’t stress enough the importance of learning to be comfortable with being alone. Many people are so used to coping with their insecurities by ignoring them or distracting themselves from them. When we do this, however, we are conditioning our brains in a negative reaction cycle.

We grow in awareness of and confidence in ourselves when we learn to truly be present with ourselves in isolation because, when we do this, we are willingly facing the realities of our uniqueness and breaking the avoidance cycle. Being alone with ourselves and our thoughts leads us to a deeper appreciation for how our minds work and a deeper understanding of what we need to do to make a change.

How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?

When we grow in self-awareness and self-love we become free to accept love from others. It’s difficult to appreciate the love and acceptance of another person when we carry around self-doubt and personal insecurities. By understanding ourselves and truly accepting ourselves we are letting go of things that hold us back in relationships and are able to better understand and accept why someone else would love and accept us.

In addition, conditionally accepting ourselves can make us vulnerable to also conditionally accepting others. Most long terms committed relationships to require a mutual unconditional acceptance. That’s not only a mindset but also a skill. By achieving a certain level of skill in self-understanding and self-love we will then be able to transfer that skill onto another person with whom we are in a relationship, especially when it’s a romantic relationship.

In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?

I spend months teaching people how to better understand and accept themselves, but I will try to concisely summarize the process for you here. Keep in mind that these are two separate steps. As stated above, understanding oneself is a first step and self-acceptance comes later. Let me break it down for you this way.

In order for someone to understand themselves, they must slow down and take time to consider and wrestle with the immutable traits that are part of their hard-wiring such as personality, body type, genetic disposition and so on. They must also consider their unique history and experiences, their values, beliefs and absolute truths that help keep them grounded. Next is uncovering thinking and emotional patterns as well as core beliefs. Bringing any subconscious processes into conscious awareness and then deciding on whether or not they need to change those is vital.

Once you’ve had an opportunity to build understanding and awareness, then you have an opportunity to come to terms with those immutable traits and make an agreement with yourself that you will appreciate, enjoy and actually celebrate the unique experiences and characteristics that make you who you are. This involves more specifically, forgiving yourself for past mistakes, taking pride in your strengths, reframing weaknesses as opportunities to learn and grow, eliminating a negative internal dialogue about yourself and recognizing that your worth and value aren’t dependent on anything except who you are at your core as a human being.

This is really an individual process so the focus is typically on individual change, not societal change, but if I had to pick something for society, I would say that we all need to be kinder to others, serve others and stop the comparison games. Supporting one another and being kind rather than competing to see who can get the most expensive car or the biggest house or to see who has the most correct political or religious ideology will be the most helpful for society as a whole. The pursuit of things and possessions and competition makes us greedy and throws our cycles of acceptance way off balance. When we stop striving for what other people want, we are much more clear about what’s really important and where those important items stem from. This connects us to ourselves and the world around us in a way that promotes genuine authenticity.

What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself, that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?

1. I’ve been able to create a support system and only surround myself with people who will be a positive influence. I purposefully keep people at a distance at first. I observe and measure people’s interactions with me. If I get even the slightest hint that I’m being used for their own purposes or that the support I provide won’t be reciprocated, I move on. I don’t mean to be harsh about this, but I have limited resources and I don’t want to waste them on people who take and never give. Do what it takes to cut out every negative or harmful relationship. Set boundaries, cut off relationships, switch jobs or departments if possible. If it’s not possible to cut out every negative/critical relationship than do what you can to avoid them and limit your exposure to them. Then find people who will be a positive influence for you, encourage you and support you. There is a risk of isolation with this one but remember that we want quality relationships rather than quantity.

2. I work to silence my inner critic and be kind to myself. I used to have a loud inner critic. The biggest reason for this is simply my personality. I’m a people pleaser and highly empathetic. I know what people want and need and I feel responsible to provide that for them. I can get caught sacrificing myself for the sake of others and I used to spend a lot of mental energy putting myself down so that I could lift others up. It just came naturally to me to take on the responsibility for being wrong during times of conflict and erred on the side of being critical to myself. I remember one time apologizing to a bully for getting hurt while bullying me. For most people with a loud inner critic, it has some momentum behind it so silencing it will take some dedication, consistency and hard work. There are many strategies for silencing your inner critic and some need to work in concert with others so it can get quite complex, but one of my favorites that only takes a few minutes of forethought before you cater to that automatic voice is to treat yourself like you would a close friend or child. Consider these questions: Would you judge a friend as harshly as you judge yourself? What would you say to them in a similar situation? What would you say to your child or to a niece or nephew? There’s no reason not to treat yourself just as kindly. Every time you have a critical thought about yourself, for example, drown it out with something positive and/or kind. Do this every time… don’t skip. It takes consistency to develop this new habit.

3. I help others. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean I any longer what to help others. I enjoy helping and encouraging people. When we practice good deeds, we grow in our confidence and sense of pride. Helping others takes the focus off ourselves and puts the focus on the needs of other people which is something that we can take pride in. This doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, although it can be. All it takes is something small such as an encouraging word or a grateful comment. If you have a colleague, for example, who’s having a bad day, offer to buy them lunch or help them with some of their work. I try my best to verbalize my gratitude and offer to help when I get a chance. I was having a bad day a while ago. Some of those old patterns of thinking negatively about myself were tormenting me. The day got busy and I naturally gravitated to helping a colleague. I was able to use that to remind myself of my strengths, that I’m a kind, caring, considerate person and it was enough to lift me out of that negative space.

4. I’ve stopped comparing myself to others. I had an epiphany during my therapy… I have a very bad habit of looking at everyone around me and comparing myself to them. Social media magnified this. This mindset shift can free you from a negative view of self, faster than anything else, in my opinion. Until I brought awareness to this it was controlling my thinking about myself without me even knowing it. Once I stopped comparing myself to other people, I felt free to live my life on my terms. I was no longer held captive by striving after status and competition with others. One of the biggest things I’ve done recently is to quit social media. I used to waste hours on social media looking at everyone else’s picture-perfect lives, longing to have what I thought they had. Since I quit social media, I’ve really felt much more free to live life on my terms and focus on the things that I have rather than don’t have.

5. I let go of the need for the approval of others. I realized a long time ago that I’m a natural people-pleaser. I used to sacrifice myself so that others would be happy, but I realized that it was a futile endeavor. It’s impossible to please everyone. Since I’m a natural people-pleaser I do have a hard time not falling into this trap. It’s OK to want to help others, but when your thoughts are dominated by the idea of what others think of you and your behaviors are geared towards what other people want, then it’s really going to be difficult to truly love yourself. I consider my empathy and desire to please others’ strength, but I’m no longer controlled by them and I please others as a way to be kind and practice my strengths rather than for their approval.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?

Well I think Journey to Authenticity is pretty good, but I may be a little biased 😊 I love the Journey to Authenticity program because it’s the same techniques that I’ve taught to hundreds of clients and patients and it’s the same information I’ve used to transform my thinking around my self-image.

I also really like The Self-Esteem Workbook by Glenn R. Schiraldi PhD. I really like how Dr. Schiraldi integrates mindful awareness into understanding and viewing self.

The Ultimate Edge by Tony Robbins — Tony Robbins has such a unique way of communicating that it really wouldn’t be a resource list without one of his programs. This is one of the most straightforward and honest approaches change that I’ve seen.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman PhD. I like how Dr. Gottman exposes harmful ideas and interactions in relationships. His book is based on his research and highlights several key elements to changing relationship dynamics that I think should be implemented in all relationships.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…

I’ve always liked the idea of “Pay it Forward”, but it never seems to gain momentum. Instead of paying it forward to only 1 person, however, my idea would be to continue to pay it forward in multiples of 5. So, for example, if someone offers you a compliment, you are now responsible to compliment 5 others and each of those 5 people will now be responsible to compliment 5 others. Each of those 25 people will, in turn, each be responsible to compliment 5 others and so on. Assuming 100% compliance, only 8 generations of compliments will equal almost 2 million people. 9 generations will equal 9.8 million, 12 generations will equal 1.2 billion people. All from only paying it forward to 5 people. This is something that can be accomplished in just a few days. Imagine the impact on our society if we implemented this!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?

“The mirror can only reflect an image. You choose how to interpret it.” ~ Author Unknown

I love this quote because it puts me in control of my thinking about how I perceive myself. This isn’t about deceiving ourselves into minimizing our challenges or growth areas, but when we reflect on ourselves, we can choose to focus on the things that we don’t like or we can choose to focus on the things that we do like. For those of us who struggle with self-acceptance and self-love, there must be a balance in the way we perceive ourselves.

If there’s not at least a balance in how we view ourselves then we are going to naturally gravitate towards the negative since that’s human nature. We must, with intentionality and purpose, focus on interpreting ourselves in a positive light by reflecting on our strengths and our positive qualities.

I personally like the 80/20 rule: spend 80 percent of your mental self-evaluation energy on the positive and only 20% of our mental self-evaluation energy on the negative areas. I would even go one step further to say that when you focus on that 20% be sure to reframe it in your mind as growth areas or potential strengths rather than negatives.

Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!

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