Dear Therapist:

I have always been jealous of those who are able to keep calm when everything around them is in crisis. There are some people who it seems no matter what is going on around them are able to keep cool, stay rational, and make sound decisions. I always tend to panic and do exactly the wrong thing. Is this just a personality type that you are born with or is this something you can develop? If it is something you can really become good at what is the route to achieving this?



The simple answer to your question is an unequivocal “yes.” Human beings have an incredibly powerful capacity to change.

We all have our peccadillos, and nobody does everything perfectly. It is likely that many of the people who you view as the calm in the center of the storm have things about themselves that they do not like. They may envy an ability that you have, while playing down their own capabilities.

Most of us tend to magnify the positive aspects of others (and the negative aspects of ourselves), while minimizing the negative aspects of others (while honing in on our own). In this sense, we are our own worst enemies. The question is why we do this.

Simply speaking, we view ourselves much more emotionally than we should. Though we can generally be logical and dispassionate when we unconsciously judge others, when it comes to judging ourselves, we are exceptionally harsh.

Clearly, our judgement of others is much more in line with reality. Firstly, we judge others unemotionally. As with any other thought process or decision, the logical perspective is accurate in the vast majority of instances. Secondly, it would be difficult to argue that our perceptions of everyone else is somehow biased, but that we only judge ourselves properly. Obviously, it is the way that we see ourselves that is negatively skewed.

Within the emotional versus logical outlooks that we have toward ourselves as compared with others, there are two basic and powerful differences in our underlying feelings and thoughts. We tend to view others in an instinctive manner, without much thought or analysis. Essentially, we base our feelings about others on what we feel about them generally. In order to feel something about ourselves, however, we tend to analyze and overanalyze many aspects and factors, constantly looking for specific reasons to feel something (about which to like ourselves or dislike ourselves). Therefore, our feelings toward ourselves are based on very specific things, barring us from simply liking who we generally are.

The other basic difference between our feelings toward ourselves and others lies in the fact that we view others as based on intrinsic qualities that we believe they have (like caring, interesting, funny, etc.). This is part of the reason that we can easily judge others instinctively. When we base our feelings toward others on intrinsic qualities, there is no need to analyze specific actions, abilities, or accomplishments. The way that we feel toward ourselves, however is generally based on specific external “qualities.” Since we focus on our capabilities, accomplishments, social graces, and other external factors (which would not materially affect our feelings toward others), we often get mired in a constant and ongoing effort to define ourselves—in order to feel positively toward ourselves.

When we are stuck in this position, it can be easy to get flustered and react emotionally. This reinforces the sense that we are not okay, making it all the more difficult to react appropriately. It is this vicious cycle that causes many of us to flounder in feelings of self-doubt, anxiety and depression, among others.

On a basic—and immediate—level, learning to acknowledge when your thoughts and reactions are based on emotion rather than logic can help you to begin challenging both the emotions and these thoughts and reactions. On a deeper level, understanding the basis for your sense of self and working on increasing your level of intrinsically-based self-esteem will help you to react in a better way. It will also help you in many other areas, both emotionally and socially.


-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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