Thursday, March 19, 2015

Self-Esteem and Anxiety - A Guest Post by Dr. Harold Shinitzky

This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger Dr. Harold Shinitzky. Dr. Shinitzky is a licensed psychologist and former Director of Preventive Services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics. He has been the mental health correspondent for Animal Planet, Radio Disney, ABC and Fox Television in Tampa. He is also the co-author (with colleague Dr. Chris Cortman) of "Your Mind - An Owner's Manual for a Better Life" and recently released "Take Control of Your Anxiety - A Drug-Free Approach to Living a Happy, Healthy Life." Dr. Shinitzky was our featured writer on January 17, 2012.

Janelle was an overachiever.  She always achieved top honors in school.  Her teachers praised her at the end of every marking period.  Her parents showered her with rewards for her successes.  She pushed herself to achieve the Dean’s List.  Janelle was humble with every comment or award that was bestowed upon her.  Unbeknownst to anyone was the fear that she would be discovered to be a fraud, and she worried that she was never good enough.  The anxiety led Janelle to self-imposed pressure to seek perfection at every turn. 
Throughout her life, Janelle struggled with her self-esteem.  At a young age she was taught, “Don’t get a big head.” Compliments would be minimized, trivialized or negated.  She would graciously nod her head when she was recognized for some stellar performance, her grades, a successful task, or a specific accomplishment.  Surprisingly, her self-esteem was always in doubt. 
Her parents apparently were perplexed as they indicated that they had spent their entire lives showering Janelle with kudos. Though it is truly wonderful to have loving and compassionate parents who sing your praises, what is far more important is for Janelle to assimilate her own accomplishments. When we are born, our self-worth is neutral.  But as we develop and experiment with life, we set, work, and hopefully achieve our goals.  If you achieve your goal, your self-esteem becomes positive.  However, if you set, work but don’t achieve your goal, you are hopefully able to learn from the experience so that the next time you will be able to achieve your goal.  In Janelle’s case, she minimized her achievements.  Her personal narrative was that she was not worthy of the “false praise.” In reality, none of her triumphs were ever accepted into her self-worth. Imagine the impact to your psyche if every positive in your life was negated.  She employed mental gymnastics to convert every positive into a neutral value.  Reality was never truly assimilated. The little voice inside was predictable and negative. It was like her friend, actually, her “frenemy.” Janelle’s own disbelief and internal self-talk has led her to be filled with anxiety and fraught with self-doubt. 
You probably know someone just like Janelle -  bright, talented and respected, but for some reason their self-esteem does not match up comparably to their abilities.  A healthy self-esteem is not braggadocios, arrogant or snobby. A healthy self-esteem reflects your awareness of what you do, the feedback you have received and your capacity to accurately self-appraise. To have a healthy self-esteem, your behaviors should match up with your values. In essence, you need to live congruently between your choices and what your core values are.
In our book, Take Control of Your Anxiety: A Drug-Free Approach to Living a Happy, Healthy Life (Career Press, 2015) we discuss many steps to address an individual’s anxiety and struggles through the use of a variety of adaptive coping skills. In Chapter Four - Garden Tools, we discuss Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques (CBT).  In CBT, we encourage individuals to master two parts to this healthy self-esteem equation. First, catch yourself when you begin to have negative internal self-talk. Second, insert a comment that is positive, constructive and productive which is based upon reality. Most people feel like the first part will be easy while the second part will be a challenge. Actually, it is just the opposite. It’s rather difficult to catch your internal negative dialogue as it has become so common.  The goal is to catch the negative self-doubt and anxiety as soon as possible. Then you need to begin the process of honestly taking in the feedback and praise offered by others. The tendency of anxiously rejecting all positive experiences in life leads people down a path of apprehension, fear and worry.  Instead, begin to hear the feedback and compliments that you receive based upon your behavior.
Interestingly, many people are not comfortable accepting compliments. Again, we are not talking about creating a pompous, self-righteous individual. Anyone who receives these labels needs to consider toning it down. When we help individuals confront their internal negativism, we oftentimes need to help foster the development of the skill of accepting compliments. There are two parts to the process of accepting compliments. First, you literally need to say the words, “Thank you.” Not “Thanks.” Not “No biggy.” Not “Anyone could have done that.” Rather, you actually have to produce the two words, “Thank you.” Second, you need to state why the compliment matters to you. Based upon the goal that you had created, the plan that you enacted, and the fact that you achieved the goal, now that you are receiving feedback and praised based upon the reality of your behavior you need to acknowledge the reason that this compliment is important to you.

Here is an example for you. Compliment: “I am so proud of you for getting the high grade on your exam.” Response: “Thank you. I have been working harder this quarter to do better in class.”  This process might seem foreign to someone filled with anxiety and self-doubt, but in order to attain an accurate, healthy self-esteem you need to take these two steps. 
When Janelle acknowledged that her lifelong style of rejecting praise had not helped her feel secure about herself she decided to consider these two strategies. Whenever she heard that little internal negative voice, “You’re not worthy,” she would challenge this with a positive and truthful comment, “When I have applied myself, I have been able to reach my goals.”  She also practiced accepting compliments. She admitted that this was a major challenge. However, when she started sharing the reasons why the compliment was important, she realized that she had put forth effort in life.  
Janelle had taken two major steps toward addressing her anxiety and negative internal comments which, for the first time in her life, left her proud yet humble about her accomplishments and honestly grateful that people she values offer their compliments regarding her achievements. To Janelle and all the Janelles reading this, you now have the tools to challenge your anxiety in order to lift your self-esteem in a beautiful way.