This article first appeared on Happify
The warm wash of shame, the rising heat of anger, the relief of avoiding pain or discomfort—these are all common life experiences.
They’re all based on emotions that helped our ancestors survive. Shame made them back down, thus redeeming their place back in their “tribes” when they had erred. The aggression of anger helped them safeguard their territories and keep predators and attacking tribes at bay. And the fear of the unknown kept them from trying untested berries that might have killed them.
One of the reasons these reactions are often to our detriment today is that threats that previously existed in our surroundings now exist largely in our own minds. In the absence of danger to our physical survival (mostly), we’ve become highly attuned to comments and signs that threaten our psychological survival.
As Seth Godin writes in his book, Linchpin, we’ve mistaken our safety zones for our comfort zones—the latter of which are mostly about maintaining the masks that hide our perceived inadequacies.
My research on the psychological construct of authentic confidence has shown me that if we are to live our most successful and fulfilling lives, we need to first build ourselves from within. Only then can we step out of our comfort zones without the fear of failure or rejection and move on from those when they happen; because they invariably will.
Start by building perspective, by stepping from “ego to eco,” as self-worth researcher Jennifer Crocker, PhD, has said. The ability to separate yourself from the inward focus on survival and to find your place among the people and situations that define you is an essential component of flourishing.
Build Past Perspective
Feelings of shame mostly emerge in our very early years, through our interactions with caregivers who weren’t emotionally attuned to us or who criticized our needs, qualities, or abilities. We need to process those interactions because we hadn’t developed the mental capability to do so at the time. I find that thinking back to an early interaction that still pains you or upsets you is a good place to begin. Ask yourself: “How did I make sense of it at the time? With my older perspective, was that sense-making correct? How can I modify it with my new knowledge and awareness?” For example, you may find that your parents didn’t praise you enough because they were stressed and over-committed, not because you lacked certain qualities.
Build Other Perspective
The mental models we create of ourselves in our early years also include the people in our lives. When our mental models are those of inadequacy, our relationships with others aren’t based on empathy and connectedness. We engage from a place of fear. We see others as “better than us” or “less than us.” We struggle to take their perspective, which makes us either judgmental or afraid to be open and vulnerable. One way of building other-perspective that I particularly like is to become the other person’s advocate. Speak on their behalf and justify their opinions. This does not mean agreeing with them; but instead, developing the ability to hold onto multiple perspectives at the same time—a key skill of effective communication.
Build Future Perspective
One of the fascinating things about the human brain is that the way it sees your future self is the same way it sees another person. In other words, the better you get at befriending your future self, the greater your ability will be to look after your well-being, to do things you won’t regret later, and to make decisions that will serve you in the long term. Try building a wise and compassionate self in your mind—the “you” at 60 or 80 years old. Think of how they will feel, smell, feel. Think of their voice and how they’ll relate to you and you to them. Consult them every day, especially when you find yourself avoiding what you need to do or beating down on yourself for what you “should” or “shouldn’t” have done. What will Future Self say?
The good news is that perspective-taking is a muscle. Begin with whichever of the three ways highlighted here most applies to you and you’ll experience the benefits all around. The even better news? Widening your perspective will fill your life with the meaning that comes from belonging to something much larger than yourself.