Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Changing Your Self-Talk

Those with low self-esteem are often pessimists. And pessimists have three bad self-talk habits. Dr. Martin Seligman discusses the differences between optimists and pessimists at length in his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.

First, according to Dr. Seligman, pessimists ascribe the cause of negative events to themselves. If their tire goes flat, it’s because they were careless about where they were driving. Optimists blame the damn construction site they drove through for causing a nail to get stuck in the tire.

Second, pessimists ascribe the cause of negative events to something permanent rather than something temporary. They say to themselves “The world is against me” rather than “Things didn’t work out my way this time.” And, conversely, pessimists ascribe good events to temporary causes. “I was lucky this time”--not “I am the best man for this job.”

Lastly, pessimists make negative generalizations about themselves, rather than focusing on the specific instance of failing. Instead of “I didn’t study hard enough this time,” they say “I’m not smart enough to learn this material.” And when they do do well, they don’t say “I am really good at chemistry”--instead they say “The teacher made the test really easy this time.”

How do you replace the old tapes that play in your head? As soon as you hear yourself doing any one of those three things mentioned above (blaming yourself, making the bad causes permanent rather than temporary, and generalizing the bad), stop yourself. If you’re into behavioral modification--or BDSM--put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it every time you catch yourself thinking that way. Seriously.

Once you stop the thought, you have two choices. You can argue with yourself or you can distract yourself.

Argue with yourself. Is what you’re saying to yourself true? What alternate explanations are there? Think of the last activity or assignment you did well. Write three separate lines about why you were successful. Do not make those explanations specific to the assignment. Make positive generalizations about yourself. Think of the last activity or assignment you screwed up. Write three separate explanations for why it went poorly. These explanations should either (1) blame an external force--not yourself (my boss is an idiot), or (2) contain a specific reason that is temporary not permanent (I was tired that day vs. I never have enough energy).

Distract yourself. Think about something else. No need to keep repeating that same old garbage to yourself. Read an engrossing comic. Talk to a friend about chaos theory.

Distracting yourself is not cheating. You may feel that you need to think through those pessimistic thoughts, come to terms with them, analyze them, blah, blah, blah. You don’t. They are worthless and meaningless. You don’t sit around and contemplate flat earth theory, do you? It’s not correct and has no relevance to your world. The same with your negative thoughts about yourself.

For more information on optimism, check out Dr. Seligman’s books, Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism.

Over the last couple of weeks we have discussed how to build self-esteem. Now it is time to go forth in the world and build competencies, volunteer, live with integrity by doing what you value and want to do rather than what others think you should value and want to do, and change your self-talk.

It’s that simple.

And that hard.

Up next Tuesday: I'll begin discussing how to manage social anxiety

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dating is Not Re-Mothering

No one’s purpose in this world is to shine attention only upon you, ignoring the cute baby in the room, the tiny kitten licking its round striped belly or the skilled raconteur at a party. No one’s purpose in this world is to love you unconditionally. I know, I know, you are finally getting some female attention, and you’re loving it. But don’t forget there is someone else in the relationship. Her. And don’t forget that there are other people in your world outside your relationship. Your friends. Your family.

Geeks, often having had harshly critical parents and having experienced more than once being ostracized from a group, feel the urge to find a place of total acceptance and love. A place where there is no criticism, no challenge to anything you do or say and no requirement that you change in any way. Like an infant held in the arms of a new mother who sees her baby boy as perfect and all she could ever ask for.

This place of total love and acceptance does not exist.

Nor should it.

You have a lot of really annoying behaviors, not the least of which is your narcissism.

As you bask in this new female attention, don’t forget to ask how *her* day was and to fill her Brita water filter if you drink the last of it. Don’t drip on her bathmat if she doesn’t drip on yours. And don’t forget you have friends and that sometimes she comes first, and sometimes, they come first.

Next Friday: Dating is Not Life Out of the Ordinary

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Changing Your Worldview

To build up low self-esteem, there are certain beliefs you need to let go of.

First, how you compare with others is irrelevant. People with poor self-esteem are the only ones comparing themselves to other people. No one with a good sense of self-esteem cares. They’re too busy enjoying what they’re doing to think about how someone else does it better or more efficiently.

Let me say right now: there is nothing you do that you do better than everyone else in the world. Also there is no subject about which you know more than everyone else in the world. I don’t care if you’re Steven Hawking. You will always lose this contest. There will always be someone smarter than you; someone who was younger than you were when s/he graduated from college; someone with a more prestigious degree from a more prestigious university, a higher verbal score on the SATs or better recall for Simpsons jokes.

So what do you do about the fact that you are not the best at anything? Should you curl up in a ball and cry yourself to sleep?

Not being the best at anything does not matter. Really. It does not matter for a real sense of self-esteem.

Who’s the jerk who told you it did?

At least you’re better than him.

Being better than someone else is not what creates self-esteem. Being competent and capable are what build self-esteem. You don’t need to have built the most awesome gaming table ever. You just need to have built one that doesn’t collapse under the weight of all the dice you own.

Change your focus. People with low self-esteem are self-conscious people. Get your attention off of yourself. Start doing things for other people and you’ll worry less about how well you’re performing. Quit worrying about how nervous you are in a social situation and start thinking about how to make others feel more at ease (they might be nervous too!). Also volunteering and engaging in other do-gooder acts will make you feel better about yourself.

Often people with low self-esteem are trying to live someone else’s life. You have a (mental) list of things you should do and then you beat yourself up when you don’t do them. Let go of your obligations and do what you want to do, not what you “ought” to do.

Make a list right now of the things you’re supposed to do that you drag your feet about doing or do grudgingly. Maybe it’s spending the holidays with your family, maybe it’s working more than forty hours a week, maybe it’s never turning down a social invitation. Whatever those things are, vow not to do any of them this year.

Up next Tuesday: Changing Your Self-Talk

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dating is Not Engagement

Don’t assume that because she kissed you, made out with you, went out with you that you are now in an exclusive relationship. *Most* women will consider the relationship exclusive when sex gets involved but don’t assume that either.

She will not just be dating you. You should not be only dating her either until such a time as both of you decide you want your relationship to be exclusive.

You need the practice dating anyway, as I will say time and time again. If you’re dating a lot of different women, rejection by one of them becomes meaningless. If you’re dating a lot of different women, you will avoid getting obsessively focused on one person. If you’re dating a lot of different women, you increase the odds in your favor of finding the “right” one. But even that I hesitate to say because you should not be approaching dating as a goal-oriented activity. If your intention is to find a wife or even a girlfriend, dating becomes a lot less fun. And you begin treating the women you date like produce that you throw back on the pyramid of fruit after one look. Remember that the people you date are people, and even if she won’t be your girlfriend, she could be a friend, a business contact, a girlfriend for your best friend or simply a person that was interesting to have one conversation with and learn something from.

A few years ago I had a profile on an online dating service and one guy I was paired with wrote me this one-line email: “Are you a conservative, Bible-believing Christian who takes the Scriptures literally?” I failed the question and was thrown back on the pile. Now I respect that he was looking for a wife and didn’t want to waste his (or my) time if I didn’t meet one of his deal-breakers. But don’t ever do that with a live person. In fact, don’t do it at all: you need the practice dating so don’t limit yourself so early. Do not ask her your deal-breaker questions (no smoking, must be an atheist, must not be a Luddite, etc.) on the first (or second or third…) date. Do not tune out for the rest of the evening when she mentions something that “rules her out.” It’s rude and childish. She’s still an interesting person with funny anecdotes to tell or information to share about subjects you know little about.

Besides, what most people call deal-breakers aren’t deal-breakers. I have a tall friend who said she would never consider dating someone shorter than her. Guess what? The man she married is shorter than her.

Erase even the thought of deal-breakers.

Having them isn’t helping you find the right person.

Having them is keeping you from meeting women.

Next Friday: Dating is Not Re-mothering

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Building Competency to Build Self-Esteem

Your self-esteem is built on the belief that you are a capable and competent person in the world, and there are several concrete ways you can encourage that belief.

You already have areas of your life in which you display competency. Make a list right now. Take out a piece of paper (okay, okay, a blank google document) and list at least fifty things that you’re good at. Fifty seems daunting? I bet you can come up with one hundred things you know how to do and do well. Juggling. Driving a stick shift. Creating Web sites. Playing chess. Using a slide rule. Understanding quantum physics. It’s a long list, isn’t it?

Now look at your list of skills. Think concretely about ways you can transfer these skills to the areas you are not so competent at, like talking to women. Maybe you are very good at giving presentations at work or training another person one-on-one. What about training one-on-one puts you at ease? How can you duplicate that in social interactions with women? Maybe the reason you’re comfortable with one-on-one training is that no one besides the two of you is around to judge how well (or poorly) you’re doing the training. So think about how to set up situations like that with women. No, not cornering one in an abandoned parking garage. Maybe online dating is best for you. Sending emails back and forth instead of trying to chat up a woman at a party where there are a bunch of people around.

Yes, seeking to transfer your skills of competency will require you to actually do something. The only way to increase your competency in the world is to risk doing it wrong, screwing it up, and completely turning off another person. Who cares? She’s just a person. And she doesn’t even know how to calculate the area of a circle, much less write code in C++.

Based on the list of fifty skills you created, write down three skills you already possess that you can make use of in social interactions. Write down how and under what circumstances these skills are transferable. Try them out in the next month. Write down where you will test this out.

You also need to build whole new competencies. Learning how to fix a toilet actually has a use beyond the skill itself. Learning anything new is a confidence builder. I recommend learning how to do tasks that require physical activity or creating an object (but build something that’s not a superconductor). Particularly for intellectual types, knowing how to do concrete activities in the material world, like planting a garden or making a bird feeder, is a good self-esteem builder. You already know you’re really smart. You don’t need to convince yourself of your competence in that area.

It may sound ridiculous. But trust me. When you complete a task you didn’t think you could do, no matter how completely unrelated to social interaction and no matter how “insignificant,” you will feel more confident in all areas of your life, including talking to women.

P.S. It also makes you a more interesting person to talk to if you’re out there learning new things.

Right now write down three things you will learn how to do in the next three months.

Next Tuesday: Changing Your Worldview

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dating is Not Stalking

It's Friday, so as promised, I'll start a series on Unacceptable Dating Behaviors.

First up: Dating is Not Stalking.

Yes, you are curious if she’s been on Match.com cruising for other guys since you started emailing her. Yes, you want to know if she’s changed her profile since your first date and now she says she wants a kind of man that excludes the likes of you. And, yes, knowing her last name, you want to google her and see what comes up.

And I have to say, grudgingly, that googling her is okay.

But don’t check up on her online activity on a dating site. Don’t keep googling her with ever more complicated Boolean logic to find anything you can on her. Google her once. Check your local online jail inmate lookup once (the one in King County, Washington will tell you if a person has been in jail in the last year). And call it good.

At least for the first six months of a relationship, do not show up at her house unless you have been invited over. And don’t ever drive by her house or place of work to see if she’s there without intending to make your presence known. This might have been a fun activity when you were in high school (maybe college) and you were with your best friend goofing off on a Thursday night, but it isn’t funny now. Having a woman slap you with a restraining order when you were just getting to like her is not in your best interest.

Also you do not need to know everything she’s done since you last saw her. So quit prying if you get a vague reply or what you believe is a redacted answer. This applies even if said woman has become your wife. It’s creepy, controlling and most people don’t like to have to admit to all the boring stuff they spend their time doing. Or the embarrassing stuff. Even if she is your girlfriend, fiancĂ©e or wife, you do not need to know that her appointment every Friday afternoon is to get electrolysis. And you do not need to know that she spends half an hour every day filing and re-filing her junk mail and bills. We all have weird behaviors we’d rather not discuss.

It is not okay to:

See whose phone numbers she has programmed into her cell phone.

Ask her who called when her phone rings when you are together. If she wants you to know, she’ll tell you.

Read her email or check to whom she has been writing. Even if she left her account open on her computer when you were alone in the room.

Look through her mail. Even if it was left lying on the coffee table and you are waiting for her to get her coat.

It is okay to:

Read her blog. It’s public. It’s meant to be read by the people she knows.

Listen to what she is saying on the phone if she’s sitting right next to you while she’s talking. She probably wants you to listen if she stayed in the room to answer her phone.

Google her name. Once.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Understanding Self-Esteem

For the next few weeks on Tuesdays, I’ll be writing about self-esteem and how to develop it. And for those who don’t need to increase their self-esteem, I’ll address some “do not do” dating behaviors on Fridays. Today being Tuesday, let’s launch into self-esteem.

Self-esteem and self-regard are at the foundation of any kind of lasting happiness. Without self-esteem and self-regard you will accept less than what you deserve. You’ll take a job that’s not very challenging, a salary that’s too low or you won’t risk trying for that promotion. You may allow others to treat you disrespectfully. You may treat yourself like crap, too--just listen to how you talk to yourself about yourself. Without self-esteem and self-regard you will not have the confidence to go after what you want--including, of course, pursuing a girlfriend.

Naturally, if you already know you have difficulties with self-esteem, none of that is news to you. You see it in your paycheck every week or you feel it every Saturday night when you once again have no date. The question is: what do you do about it?

First, you must understand where your lack of self-esteem comes from, then you must go into action to combat low self-esteem with the concrete exercises I’ll discuss later.

Self-esteem is built at an early age, so, yes, you can blame your parents if you didn’t turn out so well.

An anxious caregiver sends the message that you are not good enough. If you were good enough, the caregiver wouldn’t have to worry so much, but s/he knows you’ll likely screw it up (whatever it is) and so s/he worries. And then so do you. “Will I just embarrass myself if I ask her out and she says ‘no’?” “If I screw up this product launch, will they find out I’m a fraud? Better let someone else take the lead on this one.”

The overprotective caregiver sends the message that you will hurt yourself if you take risks, and moreover that you will hurt the caregiver if you take risks. Babies and toddlers are very protective of their parents. They have to be. Without their caregivers, they literally can not survive. So if you had an overprotective parent as a small child, you learned very early not to do anything that would risk your relationship with your parent, whether that meant not trying activities that seemed physically unsafe to your parent, or whether it meant not leaving their sight to do anything on your own. Risk for you has become associated with danger and potential abandonment or censure. So you stick with what’s safe, what you know you’re already good at--getting graduate degrees, doing the Sunday New York Times crossword in pen.

Or maybe you had a parent that was a perfectionist. Nothing was ever good enough. If you made your bed like you were asked to, your mother would follow behind and remake your bed because you didn’t do it right. What does that teach you? For one thing it teaches you not to make your bed. And it teaches you to let other people do things for you since you’ll just screw them up. Once others do things for you, you lose chance after chance to build up your sense of competence in the world. You can’t build competence if you don’t engage in new activities and thus prove to yourself that you are capable of doing them. A perfectionist parent teaches you that you can’t do anything right, even the simplest task like making a bed. Perfectionism makes for a self-conscious child. It makes it difficult to perform any task, especially a new and unfamiliar task, if you feel you’re being scrutinized while you do it. So you don’t engage in the conversation about Shakespeare because you can’t remember if he wrote in middle or modern English--nor are you willing to ask and look dumb. You learn not to do anything or say anything that might be--the Force forbid--wrong.

What do you do now? Is it just too late for you if these patterns and attitudes have already been established in childhood?

Not at all. Stay tuned for exercises to build self-esteem. Next Tuesday: Building Competency

Friday, September 4, 2009

Myth 11: “Dating Is About Game-Playing”

Actually, now that you’re an adult, you don’t have to pull girls’ pigtails, or pass notes to friends of the girl, or play hard to get, or calculate exactly how many days you should wait before you call her so you won’t seem desperate.
Are some women game-players? Yes. Are some women incapable of directly saying “I’m interested in you” or “I like it when you lick my armpits while we’re doing it”? Yes. But, good God, why would you want to date those women?

And if find yourself game-playing, who do you think you’re going to attract? I’ll tell you: overly tanned women who try to drink men under the table and end up living with addicts and/or abusers. Or eighteen year old girls.

The advice. Quit over-analyzing. Take what people say and *do* at face value. She may not directly *say* she isn’t interested but her actions can tell you this very clearly: if she takes more than a week to call you back, she isn’t playing hard to get. She isn’t interested. If she flirts with your best friend, she’s not trying to make you jealous because she’s really into you nor is she trying to show you how cute she is. She likes your best friend. If that ends up being a misinterpretation, that isn’t your fault. It’s hers. Does it mean you might lose out on a few dates? Yes. But better to skip those encounters and so avoid ending up with a game-player.

You can larp with vampires but don’t date them--not the emotional vampires anyway.

And that’s the last of the eleven dating myths!

Now that we’ve finished with the myths, take some time to reflect back on all of them. Make a list of all the things you don’t do because of myths you hold about dating. These activities might include not taking swing dance lessons (myth two), refusing to go on blind dates, and not asking out the girl you have a crush on (myth nine). And now the challenge: choose an item from your list and do it in the next month. And let me know what happens!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Myth 10: “I Can Make Her Like Me”

First, no, you can’t.

Second, there are laws against it.

You argue that it happens. You know a guy whose cousin’s accountant had a serious crush on with this woman who told him she wasn’t interested in him romantically--or so she said. And now they’re living together.

It also happens that you can so annoy a woman that not only will you never date her, you’ll never date anyone she even vaguely knows because the word will get out.

It also happens that you can find yourself sitting in county jail wondering why she thinks you were stalking her.

The advice: Move on. There are plenty of other women out there.

Up next, Myth Eleven, “Dating is About Game-Playing” (and not the good kind)