Tag Archives: Happiness

When a Poor Self-Esteem Becomes a Vicious Cycle

Walking Through the maze of esteem

…taken from Creating an Extraordinary Life: Breaking through the Abyss

Toddlers are not born into the world despising themselves – it’s learned. Unfortunately many of the external elements over time give rise to an internal guidance system that says ‘I’m not good enough’ and even encapsulated as ‘learned helplessness.’

A newborn does not enter the world with a poor self-esteem, but develops a self-image in intimate interaction with care givers and others. As the child develops the brain learns to interpret its environment, e.g., crying gets attention, those wet areas around the bottom aren’t very comfortable, etc.

In time an internal guidance system adopts heuristics (rules of thumb) that internalize knowledge and how to react to the external world.  For example, when the bottom area is wet, crying can get a diaper changed. Eventually, growth continues in interpreting the environment, and an interpretive style develops. (At 2:00 a.m., crying may or may not get attention, if the bottom is dry, tummy full, and healthy.)

When a child lives with harsh criticism, a lack of attention, or abuse he or she may learn to interpret the environment as beyond its control. And, if not checked, an interpretive style sets in that says it doesn’t matter what you do, you are always (un-loved, not getting the promotion, etc.).

Martin Seligman has done extensive research on learned helplessness and found that a person, even animals, faced with continued events that cannot be controlled learns to be helpless. In this state, a person interpretsevents as beyond their control even when alternatives are available. [1]

Their internal guidance system has adopted an interpretive stylethat ‘insulates’ the person from a sense of failure — after all, experience has told him or her that ‘that Peggy always gets the promotion.’

When internalized the inner voice translates or interprets new events as also beyond control. What was once an external event (harsh criticism) has become an internal event that precludes success where success is clearly available.

A vicious cycle spiraling downward can precipitate to serious injure a self-esteem. Each new circumstance is interpreted as beyond control, halfhearted efforts made that are not successful, and the ‘lack of control’ is re-enforced. The inner voice now takes over creating havoc even though the once external abuse or harsh messages are no longer present.

Over time the interpretive style of environmental events may take another step that I would call a signature response. For example, a person may adopt avoidance or passive aggressive elements as a coping mechanism that produces undesirable results — after all ‘I’m just not good enough.’

And the vicious cycle continues …


If we look at the cycle, three critical areas need re-aligning:

  1. A young child is limited in removing or modifying harsh environmental messages while adults can learn life skills that permits greater control – which includes separation from abusers, anger management, etc.
  2. Empathy and love can stop and replace the harsh inner (and exterior) voices with charity.
  3. Less successful responses (passive aggressive, half-hearted efforts) can be replaced with skills that produce positive resultsthat yield positive feedback. Improving life skills, professional and personal, can create positive land marks that remind us just how truly valuable that we are.

Life skills can be developed that enlarge our personal competence at cycle busting. These include growing our empathy bucket, survival tactics for handling abuse, and a few tune-up suggestions.

Embrace loving others AKA, growing the empathy bucket.

The Godfrey Camille story reminds us that the number one factor identified in 75 years of keeping track of the personal welfare of participants was that the capacity for empathy trumped all other variables. And just as importantly, the capacity for empathy can be developed. [2]

The ability to flourish economically, as well as enjoying good physical and mental health — was directly related to a “history of warm intimate relationships—and the ability to foster them.” (George E. Vailant)

Increasing our capacity for empathy turns thoughts from inward reflection to reaching out to others. But there has to be more and there is – love is a very powerful feeling. As memories fade, and the warmth of giving of ourselves (and receiving the same) can replace the once harsh messages.

Warm intimate relations also provides feedback that refutes the inner voice that says ‘I’m not loved.’ A simple exchange of hugs, for example, provides the mind evidence that previous mental wiring is a candidate for new heuristics – give a hug, get a hug.

Appropriate hugs almost always invoke a positive response. Asking another how they are doing or about a detail in their life sparks a smile that conveys someone is listening. Children often just need a smile to which they will return a smile sending a signal that one is loved.

Stumped for suggestions on growing the empathy bucket? Here are a few that build on learning to love yourself and building quality relationships:

  1. Learn to love yourself– it’s not a crime and includes:
    1. Self-care and meeting your daily physical and emotional needs;
    2. Eliminate self-criticism, especially comparing yourself to others and remember that the marbling in the agate is what makes it beautiful;
    3. Treat others with love and respect;
    4. Practice saying NO!
    5. Personal blogging and/or journal.
  2. Quality relationships. Quality relationships. Quality relationships.
  3. Explore your love buckets and those of a companion. Your primary love bucket may be service and hers touch – non-sexual touch! So, make some changes, practice a little more hand holding, and see what happens.
  4. Show gratitude to others is simple but effective. After spending a good 10 hours helping someone, nothing says you’re not worth much more than a glossed over thank you.

In short, fostering warm intimate relations allows the brain to rewire old interpretive styles to form new connections.

Serviceis also quite central to enhancing self-esteem and can foster empathy. Focusing inward may create obsessions that obstruct reaching beyond ourselves to embrace another through selfless acts. When loss or issues appear overwhelming and dark clouds have gathered, grief / diaspora (that’s a cool word) will yield in service to another.

The service that we give also invites the Holy Spirit in to cleanse and make anew the spirit injured from the ravages of a swollen river filled with muddy debris, trucks, and houses afloat or adrift.  Even more importantly the mind will be occupied with the positive rather than dark images arising from too much time spent in introspection. New friendships can be forged along with options not apparent to inward glances.

I am also utterly convinced that the physiology of neural connections can be re-written by the cleaning effect of the Holy Spirit. Old neural pathways can reset and new connections initiated.

[1] Martin Seligman, (2011) Building Resilience. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 30, 2014 from http://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience/ar/1

[2] George E. Vailant, (2013) What are the Secrets to a Happy Life? Greatergood.berkeley.edu Retrieved August 13, 2013 from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_are_secrets_to_happy_life

See Also: When a Truck backs over your Self-Esteem

© 2018 by James Spruell All rights reserved

Searching for a Happy Productive Life?

We all search for a good life, to be productive (well, most of us), and be healthy come retirement. But do you know what made the biggest difference in one of the longest recorded studies on happiness?

An amazing 75 year Harvard study tracked 724 men from 2 different groups:

  • Group one was sophomore students at Harvard;
  • Group two was composed of young men from the poorer neighborhoods in Boston and included many from troubled families;

After 75 years about 60 of the men were still alive… and still being interviewed regularly. One might expect that the group from wealthy families, highly educated (Harvard) would by default be enough to predict happiness – but it wasn’t.

What the study found was that men in their 50’s with strong, healthy relationships were the healthiest in their 80’s. And that overall the greatest predictor of happiness was the ability to have empathy for others. It wasn’t money, fame, or many of the things so often sought after.

Robert Waldinger provided an excellent overview of the study as did George E. Vailant. Waldinger’s YouTube Video:


George E. Valiant (2013). What are the Secrets to a Happy Life? Greatergood.berkeley.edu Retrieved August 13, 2013 from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_are_secrets_to_happy_life

Robert Waldinger (2016) What Makes for a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KkKuTCFvzI on Sept 20, 2018

© 2018 by James Spruell All rights reserved

When a Truck backs over your Self-Esteem

Walking Through the maze of esteem


Fortunately self-esteem is not static but a living, breathing entity — at times amazing similar to a coral reef.  These beautiful structures are formed by minute coral cell secretions (events) that across time take the shape that we are familiar with — some to wither and die, or conversely, grow to a point where they alter the very currents that make up seas and oceans.

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia is the accumulation of billions, maybe trillions of small actions (a single cell secretion) to form the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem — a 2,000 mile structure. The reef is quite a paradox that while at times amazingly sensitive to fierce tropical storms, toxins, and ecological events not only survives, but flourishes and provides home to countless ecological communities.

Our reef— self-portrait — emerges in response to myriads of events, continues to evolve and respond to the environment to give shape and definition to that which we are.  And like the Great Barrier Reef self-esteem is sensitive to the fierce storms, disasters, and toxic elements yet is resilient enough that somehow most of us manage.

When life isn’t going well

Low self-esteem often has roots in early childhood, and stems from the most intimate interaction of family, adults, and caregivers. Although a single incident may have a significant impact on how we feel about ourselves, more commonly our esteem is shaped by consistent patterns of interaction — much like the reef. Some of these include a hypercritical care giver, an inability to show affection or warmth, or where a parent displays open contempt for a child.

A healthy self-esteem includes two vital areas. The first is the life skills that let us navigate the roads of mortality successfully. These are grounded in problem solving, the ability to create and nurture relationships, and the capacity to remain alive, active, and move forward ‘in spite of heaven and hell’.

The other area, self-respect, is how we feel about ourselves and how our image of self-worth forms and shapes the belief that we are valued. Of the gifts that we can give to our children and ourselves the sense of personal worth really is priceless. It begins in early childhood with interaction from parents, family, and care givers, and is shaped by our relationship with Heavenly Father, and relationships with a spouse and loved ones. It is the healthy love of/from self, family, and God.

Self-respect issues arising in early childhood and formative periods are like the tiny reef secretions spoken of earlier. The many microelements that contribute to self-esteem may go unnoticed in caregivers but collectively either build or wage war on a child’s self-image. Simple statements, or even lack of attention, communicate subtle messages that a child is/ is not loved.

A short video overview:


From: Creating an Extraordinary Life: Breaking Through the Abyss

James Spruel, PhDl

Dr. Spruell is an author, educator, consultant, and featured/invited speaker. His speaking engagements have taken him across the globe from Kansas City to Melbourne.

His vast consulting experience provides unique insight into the real life problems faced by many. He is the author of the book, Creating an Extraordinary Life: Breaking Through the Abyss and numerous proceedings and articles.

© 2018 by James Spruell All rights

Happy Holidays

Especially for Singles (Video)

Every feel like the Grinch really did steal Christmas? Below are video versions of Finding Happiness for the Holidays — a summary of ideas for turning the holidays into wonderful traditions. Written especially for singles:

(HTML Version)
    Part One
    Part Two


Christmas Noel

   Slide Share

James Spruell, Ph.D.

Dr. Spruell is an author, educator, consultant, and featured/invited speaker. His speaking engagements have taken him across the globe from Kansas City to Melbourne.

His vast consulting experience provides unique insight into the real life problems faced by so many. He is the author of the book, Creating an Extraordinary Life: Breaking Through the Abyss and numerous proceedings and articles.

© 2017 by James Spruell All rights reserved.

Finding Happiness in the Holiday Season – Part 2

Christmas Noel

The introductory post identified 12 suggestions to turn this holiday season into an extraordinary  one.  Today we will look at a few of my favorite suggestions:

  • Creating new traditions;
  • Handling sensitive topics (read that politics) at dinner;
  • Make it reasonable, not perfect;
  • Be grateful – the joy & friends gratitude brings;
  • Resolve to forgive past hurts;
  • Give of yourself,  including random acts of kindness;

Creating New Traditions

I love the movie Lion King and the wise old Rafiki,  especially the scene where Rafiki is dislodging Simba  from the past. With a good whack of his walking stick, he reminds Simba that it doesn’t matter, it’s in the past.

Times change and our status may go from married with children to empty nester, single parent with/without children, to …sigh. And it’s time to create new holiday traditions and memories.

Holiday traditions are about coming together, maybe no longer as a big family, but in every imaginable variation. If alone, you can establish traditions of going to the movies, attending holiday events, etc. Single parents can create a smaller version of what they and the children enjoy.

Three ideas I’ve thrown in are shown below. The important thing is to create your own traditions with positive memories for all.

The Every Other Year Dilemma

Often in divorce cases in the US holiday custody or visitation may be on an every other year basis. Sometimes that works but the rules don’t prohibit talking over the issues. For example, every holiday is not the same for both parents. The 4th of July may be a biggie for one and Thanksgiving for the other. Do some tradeoffs, explore and create what works for everyone.

For myself we started off with the every other year but fairly quickly identified that while one parent always celebrated Christmas afternoon (giving in-laws time to travel) my mornings were free. So we compromised and had a Christmas brunch and present opening in the morning at my house, and a dinner later in the afternoon with the X.

For the guys who don’t have a lot of experience in the kitchen, google has almost everything you need to cook a turkey dinner. I would suggest you start with a smaller turkey  as it takes less time to cook and you won’t have to eat it for the next 7 weeks.

If your cooking has been deemed a fire hazard, you can actually buy a pre-cooked turkey with all the trimmings. And for fun, pretend you cooked it 🙂

A sure way to get a lump of coal…

Stay off the Naughty list by not speaking ill of the X and definitely don’t put the children in the middle between you in a tug of war. Although anecdotal, I can’t count the number of times that friends have related how speaking ill of the X, etc. backfired when the children grew older and realized…

A Gift Buying Day

One of my favorite traditions was to set aside a day for gift buying with the children. Helping the little ones to select a gift for the other parent left positive messages. Smaller children don’t drive, may not have money, and there as yet may be no step-parent to help out.

The children also had fun buying presents for each other. When money is tight, the dollar can buy anything store is often around the corner. Buying gifts for others turn thoughts outward and not inward, selfishly on ourselves.

Christmas (or any holiday) Dinner

One of my greatest Christmas experiences came when a friend invited singles in our congregation (ward) to come over for a Christmas dinner potluck. Christmas Eve was spent cleaning house, the morning  making final food preparations, etc. My children were scheduled to come over early Christmas morn, and that year we rescheduled their visit for late afternoon.

The dinner worked well, and I have fond memories of it. With the kindness of a friend, thoughts were again turned outward to others.

Don’t have a house but an apartment, try reserving the group room. If money is tight, split the cost between two or more. And ‘wella’, a new tradition has been formed.

Handling those Sensitive Topics at Dinner

Wow – politics have evolved into open warfare at times with many entrenched in extremes.

Some pointers for avoiding open conflict include simply seeding the conversation with ‘How ’bout them Chiefs’ …assuming all are Chief fans. Others may take a direct approach by gently reminding everyone that politics are banned from the table.

Or if the topic comes up, try a quick re-direct to safer grounds. And definitely never give into the troll, i.e., step into the ring with the troll and not good things are going to happen.

Sometimes a good approach is to just listen, and try to understand another’s viewpoint. It’s not your job to correct their insanity for in doing so, you might be revealing your own insanity 🙂

Make it Reasonable, not Perfect

Many friends and relatives have come to hate the holidays due to trying to create the perfect dinner, find the perfect gift, etc. Hours and hours can be spent looking for ‘the gift’.

It’s not a contest, and we should tone our efforts down to what’s reasonable.

Be grateful – the joy & friends gratitude brings

Gratitude is often not recognized for the contribution to happiness that it provides. Research shows a positive correlation between gratitude and measures of happiness, health, and satisfaction as well as likeability. And most importantly, it doesn’t cost a thing.

Numerous articles have been written on gratitude, and how to learn to be more grateful. One of my favorites is to keep a gratitude journal, listing every day 3 things for which you are grateful. Gratitude is an important part of the Lord’s prayer, and should be a part of our personal prayers.

Not one of us is an island, and recognizing the many things we have been given is so important!

Resolve to forgive past hurts;

Forgiving others of their trespasses is an important element of the Christian tradition. Letting go of past ill feelings, i.e., tossing out those extra rocks in our backpack,  can renew our spirits and lift the heart.

Sometimes when things have gone terribly wrong we may not be able to forgive all at once. If you’ve tried, then maybe just start with one item at a time until you work your way to charity — the pure love of Christ.

Christmas, Thanksgiving are especially good times to remember to be humble and forgive.

Give of yourself,  including random acts of kindness

Serving those less fortunate is a most appropriate round the year activity, but particularly at holiday time. By turning outward, you can bring joy to another and teach your children the same.

Return to Part One
Video presentation

James Spruell, Ph.D.

Dr. Spruell is an author, educator, consultant, and featured/invited speaker. His speaking engagements have taken him across the globe from Kansas City to Melbourne.

His vast consulting experience provides unique insight into the real life problems faced by so many. He is the author of the book, Creating an Extraordinary Life: Breaking Through the Abyss and numerous proceedings and articles.

© 2017 by James Spruell All rights reserved.


Finding Happiness in the Holiday Season

 Especially for the Single (A two-part Series) Christmas Noel

Ever wonder if the Grinch stole Christmas? You’re not alone — the Holidays can be a tough time for singles (and others).

There can be many causes for unhappiness around holidays from SAD (basically lack of sunlight) to man over board (trying to create the perfect Christmas).

One of the Grinch’s master elves is social isolation that can creep in at Christmas. For example, many single activities are often canceled from Christmas Day until New Year’s Eve and leave a vacuum for some. Others may be facing the “it’s the ‘X’s year” leaving …another vacuum. And the multitude of pre-Christmas family activities may remind you of your ‘singleness’. And it can be tough.

Although it’s been many years, I can still remember that first Thanksgiving and Christmas without my children, i.e., it was the X’s year. And even though I was with my parents and some of my siblings, opening Christmas packages, dinner, etc. only reminded me that my children weren’t there.

But what can we do about it… beyond sitting on the porch, waiting for the Grinch with shotgun in hand? (Do Not Do This!)

Research shows us that genetics plays an important role in happiness, almost 50% is genetic (1). Another 10% is coupled to significant events that are largely beyond our control, e.g. the loss of a close friend or family member. Which leaves about 40% that is under our control.

Dr. Lyubomirsky labeled the 40% that we can manage intentional activities (2) . The question is how do we manage that 40% to increase our happiness during the Holidays? And of the many, many studies on happiness, which are truly useful?

Twelve Days of Christmas: Suggestions

In honor of the 12 Days of Christmas, I’ve listed 12 suggestions for creating a truly remarkable Holiday. My favorites:

  1. Creating new traditions;
  2. Handling sensitive topics (read that politics) at dinner;
  3. Make it reasonable, not perfect;
  4. Remembering the things that bring you joy;
  5. Building new friendships and nurturing relationships;
  6. Be grateful – the joy & friends gratitude brings;
  7. Deck ‘thy’ face with that beautiful smile;
  8. Remember to decorate;
  9. Resolve to forgive past hurts;
  10. Give of yourself,  including random acts of kindness;
  11. Gifts to go;
  12. Everything Else!

Part Two — Some of my favorite Holiday Suggestions
Video presentation

James Spruell, Ph.D.

Dr. Spruell is an author, educator, consultant, and featured/invited speaker. His speaking engagements have taken him across the globe from Kansas City to Melbourne.

His vast consulting experience provides unique insight into the real life problems faced by so many. He is the author of the book, Creating an Extraordinary Life: Breaking Through the Abyss and numerous proceedings and articles.


(1) Bobbi Emel. (2014). 3 Scientifically Proven Ways to Boost Your Happiness. purposefairy.com. Retrieved February 26, 2014 from http://www.purposefairy.com/9482/3-scientifically-proven-ways-to-boost-your-happiness

(2) Sonja Lyubomirsky, S. & Porta, D. (in press). Boosting happiness, buttressing resilience: Results from cognitive and behavioral interventions. . In J.W. Reich, A.J. Zautra & J. Hall (Ed.), Handbook of adult resilience: Concepts, metthods, and applications. New York: Guilford Press.

© 2017 by James Spruell All rights reserved.