Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
Ever feel like you’re not good enough? Something bad happens and your brain plays a YouTube highlight reel of every mistake you’ve ever made. Your confidence crashes and your self-esteem flatlines.
You’re not alone. People have been feeling like this as long as there have been people. It’s an old problem and there are old solutions — old solutions that work pretty darn well, as a matter of fact.
I’ve talked about how psychologists steam-cleaned and science-tized ancient Buddhism into modern mindfulness. Well, some very smart people have also dusted off Stoicism and weaponized it into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — which is the most empirically supported treatment for the majority of psychological conditions.
Mindfulness is the gentle cousin that steps back, examines thoughts, and lets the problematic ones float away. But it’s not for everybody…
CBT, on the other hand, is the aggressive cousin that asks negative thoughts if they’d like to step outside and settle this in the alley behind the bar. Having honed Stoic principles into a martial art called “rationality”, CBT righteously whoops some tuchus on the ideas that bring you down.
So when you’re feeling not-so-large-and-in-charge and need a boost, how do you use the modern version of ancient Stoicism to manufacture more mojo?
Let’s get to it…
CBT = “Scientific Stoicism”
There’s a lot to Stoicism (if you want the full whack, go here) but for our purposes we’re gonna Zeno in — whoops, I mean “zero in” — on one key concept:
Your feelings come from your thoughts.
The boulder falling on your Honda didn’t make you sad. And the moron who called you a moron didn’t make you angry. Your thoughts, judgments and beliefs about what happened are what creates your emotional reactions.
“It isn’t events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgments about them.” – Epictetus
And it’s that idea that forms the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
CBT (Beck, 2011) is based on the principle that thoughts influence feelings, feelings influence actions, and actions influence our results, or life circumstances. In other words, situations don’t make us feel certain ways. People don’t make us feel certain ways. It’s how we interpret (or think about) situations or things people say or do that influences how we feel.
Some people are probably rejecting this idea out of hand: Thoughts are responsible? No way. I didn’t even have time to think. He called me a moron and that’s what made me feel angry.
Sorry, no. If I pull a gun-like object out of my jacket and you believe it’s a water pistol, you don’t get scared. If I pull a gun-like object out of my jacket and you believe it’s really a weapon, you’re petrified. Very different emotional reaction. But what changed? Nothing but your beliefs.
Maybe you hated that Honda and would prefer to have the insurance money. Maybe you know that moron is a moron and his opinion means nothing to you. Beliefs determine how you feel and react.
The Stoics realized that we need to question irrational or unhelpful beliefs so we can see the world and ourselves more clearly and live a better life.
“Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn’t from outside me but in my own assumptions.” – Marcus Aurelius
But getting rid of the irrational, negative thoughts doesn’t mean you should just try to fill your head with positive affirmations. That’s replacing one inaccurate thought with another because being overly positive can be delusional. We want rational thoughts.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
Okay, out with the unhelpful, irrational thoughts and in with the useful, rational thoughts… but how do we do that?
1) Identify And Challenge Distorted Thoughts
When you’re feeling unconfident or your self-esteem plummets, that voice in your head, what is it saying? Because we want to get under the feeling to the belief that’s causing it. So answer this question:
“I felt unconfident because I thought…”
You probably have a few “go to” thoughts like, “I’m an idiot” or “I’m a complete failure.” Once you’ve identified them we go to part 2: challenging the thoughts. Stoics knew this second part was critical.
“First off, don’t let the force of the impression carry you away. Say to it, ‘Hold up a bit and let me see who you are and where you are from – let me put you to the test…’” – Epictetus
So what does CBT recommend you do? For every “distorted thought,” provide a “rational response”:
- Distorted: “Because I screwed up this project, I will never amount to anything and I am a complete failure.”
- Rational: “I’ve done great on other projects in the past, so it’s not fair to say that I am a complete failure. And it’s likely I will have successes in the future.”
Don’t let those irrational, overreaching negative thoughts slide by unquestioned. Correct them and, with time, you’ll be thinking the more rational responses instinctively.
(To learn the six rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)
That’s fine for the occasional negative thought but what if you’re someone who is always feeling low self-esteem and always lacking confidence? We gotta dig deeper…
2) Test Your “Core Beliefs”
If you chronically feel down about yourself it may not be an issue of a negative thought here or there; it may be that your “core beliefs” about yourself are negative.
Ideas like “I’m unlovable” or “I’m a loser” might be at the bottom of most of the decisions you make. So that’s where you need to start.
Challenging such a fundamental idea can seem daunting. That concept has a really good lawyer in your head who is constantly presenting tons of evidence to prove his case that you’re a loser.
So it’s probably not hard at all for you to make a list of all that “proof.” Okay, do it. Yeah. Write that stuff down. Seriously. No, it’s not fun. But it’s important. I’ll wait…
Done? Ouch. Not feeling so hot now. But here’s how we fix things. The prosecution presented it’s case. But what you’ve been lacking is a “defense lawyer” on the other side.
“This is the true athlete – the person in rigorous training against false impressions. Remain firm, you who suffer, don’t be kidnapped by your impressions! The struggle is great, the task divine – to gain mastery, freedom, happiness, and tranquility.” – Epictetus
With only the “I’m a loser” side having someone aggressively presenting evidence, you’ve got a bad case of negativity confirmation bias — you’re only seeing the stuff that agrees with the idea that you’re awful.
So sit down and make a second list. A list of reasons you are not a loser — why the first lawyer is wrong.
Because of how our filters (beliefs) are set up, we often notice instances that support the unhealthy beliefs more than we notice those that may support our opposite, healthy beliefs; however, that “evidence” almost always exists as well. One valuable tool involves forcing ourselves to look back over those very same periods of life purposefully looking to see the evidence that supports our healthy beliefs.
Is the no-self-esteem lawyer still winning? Probably. You’re not used to challenging that idea and you probably discount all the awesome things you do, if you notice them at all. So what’s the magic secret here? You need co-counsel.
CBT says that having a friend remind you of all the great stuff you do that makes you important and valuable can help you remember and stop you from dismissing solid evidence.
You may want to rely on family members or friends who were around during each period of life to help you “notice” such evidence. Even if they share things they see as “counting” that you don’t think “should count” write them down anyway…
Having that list of reasons you are pretty darn awesome will help you dismiss that negative core belief and replace it with something more honest, accurate and rational.
(To learn how to use CBT to never be frustrated again, click here.)
Okay, you dug deep and addressed those core beliefs. But everything is not going to change overnight. (Sorry.) How do you keep reprogramming the computer and make sure those old bugs in the code don’t pop up again?
3) Have An “Evening Confidence Ritual”
The Stoics knew you needed to take some time to reflect each day in order to keep improving.
“I will keep constant watch over myself and – most usefully – will put each day up for review… Let us balance life’s books each day…” – Seneca
So you went back and countered the “I’m a loser” case with evidence from the past that you are not a loser. Well, this is a court case that never ends. Every day, take some time at night to think about what you did well. Keep accumulating evidence.
Another important tool for developing more healthy beliefs and thus becoming less reactive, is an ongoing evidence log. Whereas previous tools required you to review your life and look for “evidence” from the past, ongoing evidence logs ask you to be mindful of evidence in your everyday life.
With time, you’ll notice the positive more often. And you’ll associate it with who you are. And your self-concept will become more positive.
“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.” – Marcus Aurelius
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Alrighty, you’ve identified and challenged, you’ve dug deep, and you’re following it up with an evening confidence ritual each night… So what’s the final step toward solid Stoic self-esteem?
4) Use A “Cognitive Cue Card”
Keep monitoring that negative chatter in your noggin and don’t immediately accept it. ABC, kiddos: Always. Be. Challenging.
“When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgment of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.” – Marcus Aurelius
So how can you make the challenging smoother so you don’t spend all day arguing with yourself back and forth like an insane person?
Have a set response to challenge the negative thoughts you’re accustomed to hearing. In fact, it’s a good idea to write it down on a card.
When you’re too tired to self-argue, and you know your brain is headed in the wrong direction, use your “cognitive cue card” to make sure your interpretations are rational and not negative.
One tool that can assist us in doing better “in the heat of the moment” is flashcards… Cognitive cue cards are designed to help us think differently in those situations. So the idea here is, in your calm moments, write down on a 3×5 note card what you believe you need to hear during the less-calm moments.
The message on your card should take the structure of: “Just because ______ doesn’t mean ______.”
Maybe you’re socially awkward and beat yourself up about it: “Just because I said something silly doesn’t mean I’m a loser. Everyone makes mistakes and I’m making fewer of them since reading that absolutely wonderful, fantastic blog post.”
Keep at it. Have that card in your pocket and be compassionate with yourself. It’s going to take time, but with practice you’ll internalize the message. Why? Because it’s rational. It makes sense.
(To learn the four Stoic secrets to being more productive, click here.)
Okay, you’ve earned your toga — and some self-esteem. Let’s confidently round everything up…
Here are the four rituals from Stoicism and CBT that will make you confident:
- Identify And Challenge Distorted Thoughts: (Why did I use the word “distorted”? It’s a lousy word. And I’m a lousy person… Um, hold on a second willya? I have challenging to do…)
- Test Your Core Beliefs: The prosecution has been assembling evidence that you’re “useless” for years. Time for the defense to present their case. And make sure to have co-counsel assist you.
- Have An Evening Confidence Ritual: All you have to do is sit back for two minutes and think about all the great stuff you did today. Best homework ever.
- Use A “Cognitive Cue Card”: In high school, having the answers on a card in your pocket was called cheating. In life it’s emotionally healthy and will not get you detention.
Reprogramming your grey matter with Scientific Stoicism takes time. You’ll screw up. That’s okay. Yeah, the Stoics knew that too.
“Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.” – Zeno
Focus on “progress, not perfection.” You’ll never feel confident 100% of the time. (That would be… kinda scary.) But I believe you can get better. I believe you can be much better.
And our beliefs create our feelings. So it’s rational to feel good.
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Originally published at www.bakadesuyo.com