A new book identifies the toxic thought patterns that get in the way of happiness and success.
In early 2007, life coach Andrea Owen hit her own personal rock bottom. After two back-to-back toxic relationships, she found herself broke, jobless, and pregnant. "The loneliness and shame were crippling," she writes in her new advice book How to Stop Feeling Like Shit ($17, amazon.com). Over the next few years in therapy, Owen worked to identify the self-undermining behaviors (including perfectionism and a need for control) that had led her to her lowest point. And once she started building her own counseling practice, Owen recognized that those behaviors were among a group of all too common mental habits that hold women back: "I began to understand that while life knocks us down, it's these habits that keep us down," she writes. Here, the 14 thought patterns on Owen's list.
You’re a jerk to yourself
If you’ve ever thought, These jeans make me look fat, you’re guilty of bad habit #1. “How do you speak to yourself when you see your reflection after you step out of the shower?” asks Owen. “Or when you make a mistake? Or when you get passed over for a promotion?” If your inner dialogue is anything but compassionate, you’re setting yourself up to feel crappy. Period.
You don’t ask for help
When it comes to what’s really going on in your life (whether you're dealing with, say, a health problem or relationship troubles), do you avoid unloading your emotional baggage, even among the members of your inner circle? Some of us hold off because we don’t want to burden our friends and loved ones. Others are too afraid to look needy. Either way, staying silent is bound to leave you feeling even more isolated.
You sweep stress and anxiety under the rug
No one jumps to embrace difficult emotions, of course—but avoiding fear, stress, disappointment, and worry can set you up for destructive behaviors like emotional eating and alcohol dependence. According to Owen, when you finally allow yourself to feel all the feelings, you'll experience a sense of relief, and actually be able to function better.
You compare yourself to others
If you log onto Facebook and immediately feel bad about yourself, know this: “When you compare yourself to others, most of the time you’ll lose,” writes Owen. “Rarely do you ever get lost in the sea of comparative thoughts and think, ‘Phew! Glad my life/body/house/relationship is so awesome and so much better than hers.” So. True.
Maybe you pick a fight with your partner during a dreamy vacation, or flake out on a work project right around bonus season. One potential reason you wreak havoc when life is good: “It’s as if you expect it to fall apart anyway, so you’re simply trying to create the inevitable and be in control of your own fate by beating the wreckage to the punch,” explains Owen.
You feel like a fake
There’s a name for thinking you only got promoted because your company needed more women in the executive suite. It’s called the imposter complex, and it’s defined as feeling like a fraud when you accomplish something legit. Pro tip: accept praise, be proud of your achievement, and know that you were rewarded because you are capable, intelligent, and worthy.
You’re a people pleaser and approval seeker
All you want to do is head home after work, but you tell your friends you’ll meet for happy hour just...because. Sound familiar? There’s nothing wrong with making others happy, but when your selfless choices start to bring you down, it’s time to reevaluate. Says Owen, “I’ve found so much freedom, peace, and power from letting go of being responsible for other people’s feelings.”
You strive for perfection
“Perfectionism is one of those perplexing habits that allows shame to have us on a leash, controlling how we behave and in the end, making us feel like shit,” explains Owen. So while being "the best" at something may sound great, the struggle for perfection tends to wear us out—and ultimately leaves us feeling even lesser. Womp womp.
You put up a strong front
You may be doing yourself a disservice by ‘staying strong’ in the face of hardship. “When we tell people to be strong, what we’re really saying is: don’t fall apart, don’t cry too much, don’t crumble, don’t go too far ‘over there’ where we—the audience of your pain—will be uncomfortable,” says Owen. So the next time you feel like you need a good cry, please cry.
You always need to be in control
You color code your closet. You’re obsessed with making schedules. You micromanage your child’s life. They’re not destructive tendencies, but they do tend to signal a need to be in control at all times. The problem? When you’re hellbent on a certain plan, any blip has the power to leave you feeling like a failure (even if it was entirely out of your control).
Wholeheartedly embracing joy feels too risky for most of us, says Owen. “It’s like allowing ourselves to climb a rickety old ladder—we expect to fall off that ladder as we climb more rungs. The higher we get, the riskier it gets, and the more it will hurt when we do eventually fall.” Here’s the catch: While you wait for something terrible to (maybe) happen, you miss out on happiness.
You play the blame game
Maybe you're at odds with your mother. Or you've been fighting with your partner. It’s easy to say, “It’s all their fault.” But is that mentality actually constructive? The blame game allows you to exempt yourself from the situation, and that can lead to more problems. “When we blame others, it blocks us from experiencing empathy,” writes Owen. “Making accusations or casting blame actually stops us from acknowledging the feelings of others.” As a result, we lose our ability to connect with that person.
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You're an overachiever
Having goals is great. Feeling like you always need to to overachieve is less great. According to Owen, overachievers believe their self-worth depends on whether or not they accomplish their lofty ambitions. They often don’t understand why others aren’t as motivated as them (cue relationship issues), and also tend to spread themselves too thin trying to get it all done.
Adapting a zero f*cks attitude sounds like the ultimate choice for an independent woman. Yet taken to the extreme, it can be dangerous. “It’s not a healthy behavior to completely disregard what everyone thinks and others’ opinions,” says Owen. “That just goes against social norms altogether.” Better to have a short list of people whose opinions and feedback really matter to you.