Step 4: Set realistic short and long-term goals
Step 5: Select the self-help methods that seem most likely to work, i.e.
develop a "treatment plan."
Table 2.3: Analysis of Problem into Parts and Possible Solutions
Step 6: Learn the detailed steps involved in each self-help method you
are using (chapters 11-15) and try out your plan.
Step 7: Continue throughout the project to assess and plot your
Step 8: If needed, revise your plan -- deal with your resistance to
change. Keep up your motivation. Find a therapist.
Step 9: Plan ways of maintaining the gains made.
Step 10: Make a note of each method's effectiveness: what works
Don't fret. Some of the steps can be done quickly or even omitted.
Chapter 2: Steps in Self-Help
Steps in Self-Help
Reader: Step 3 is especially important.
Step 1: Select self-improvement projects, no more than 2 or 3 at a time
Step 2: Start collecting and recording data reflecting the severity or
frequency of the problem
How to Use This Book to Help Change Yourself:
Steps in Self-Help
The steps in carrying out a self-help project are described in this
chapter. However, before trying to change we must realize that a
specific change is needed and we must believe change is possible. The
first step below, selecting a self-help project, gives you several
suggestions for overcoming your reluctance to try to change. The key
is to think about the problem--don't avoid it--by reading about it,
talking to others about it, and thinking how life would honestly be
better without the problem.
After deciding to improve in some specific way, then obviously you
need to understand your problem, overcome your fears of changing
and failing to change, and start to figure out exactly how you can
make the changes you want. This entire book helps you do those
things. Self-help takes a lot of knowledge, it isn't just a simple matter
of having the "will power" to do something, although you must be
motivated to get the knowledge and skills you need to change.
Recent research says we go through six "stages" when we change:
precontemplation (we aren't thinking about changing yet),
contemplation (starting to think about changing), preparation
(planning to change), action (using self-help methods to change),
maintenance (of our gains), and termination of the project (Prochaska,
Norcross & DiClemente, 1994). This is potentially useful research, not
so much in terms of naming the rather obvious stages in changing, but
rather in terms of discovering how to motivate ourselves from one
stage to another. A lot of people deny the need to make changes, even
more want to change but can't get started. We must stay motivated.
Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente's suggestions for moving ourselves
from one stage to another are summarized below but these techniques
have not been well researched. Science needs to study self-motivation
A valuable aspect of the following 10 steps is a simple system for
analyzing your problem into five parts, which, in turn, will help you
develop a comprehensive plan for changing yourself. This system,
described in step 3, will help you understand any problem situation.
Every problem has five parts or levels: (1) the behavior involved, (2)
the emotions experienced, (3) the skills you may need, (4) the
mental processes involved (thoughts or self-talk, motivations, self-
concept, values, and expectations), and (5) the unconscious forces
that may contribute to your troubles. An old adage says, "a problem
well stated is half solved." When a problem is carefully analyzed into
these 5 parts, you can more easily see how most treatment or self-
help methods available today could be applied to this problem (see
This same 5-part system of analysis is also used in chapters 3 to
10 to help you understand how specific problems may have developed,
are maintained, and could be changed. Then, chapters 11 to 15
describe in a simple cookbook manner how you can apply many
different self-help procedures to each of the five parts of your
problem. Chapter 11 deals with the behavioral part or level 1, chapter
12 with the emotions--part 2, chapter 13 with skills--part 3, chapter
14 with thoughts--part 4, and chapter 15 with unconscious factors--
Please note: As mentioned in chapter 1, you may use this book like
a standard text, reading every word chapter by chapter, but when you
are actually trying to self-improve, use it like a reference book,
searching out the information you need at the moment by skimming
the chapters' titles and sub-titles. Every chapter starts with a detailed
index. This look-for-what-you-need-to-know process is not simple, not
if you study the causes and possible methods for "treating" each of the
five parts of every problem. Learning self-control is not easy, if it
were, humans would have mastered it 35,000 years ago. Don't let the
complexity of your problems or of this book scare you, though; plunge
Another caution: making important changes in our lives is not a
smooth, linear process; there are poor plans, methods that don't work,
times when we lose motivation and forget our projects, relapses, etc.
Most self-help projects require several tries, perhaps 80% to 95% of
us have at least one setback as we undertake a self-improvement
project, especially if we are not well read and informed, but the
successful self-helper doesn't give up. He/she goes back to earlier
steps or stages and reads more, asking why am I not more motivated,
what methods will work better, is there another unseen problem
involved, do I need to give more attention to maintaining my gains,
etc.? It is far better to try and fail (this time) than never to have tried
to change at all (guaranteeing permanent failure). When you have
trouble changing, there are a lot of helpful people, books, videos,
professionals, and groups that would be glad to help. I try to point you
towards several sources of help.
Summary of Steps in Self-help
Once you have decided to make some specific self-improvement,
there are ten desirable steps in a difficult self-help project; however,
not every step must be compulsively carried out every time you try to
change something about yourself. Sometimes, you can omit measuring
your progress or analyzing the problem into parts or setting goals or
some other steps. This is because sometimes, the desired change is
very easy to make, as though it is just waiting for an excuse to
change. Most of the time, however, it is hard to change, forcing you to
pay attention to all ten steps. At least, you should know how to carry
out all of the possible steps, in case they are needed:
Step 1: Select self-improvement projects, no more than 2 or 3 at a
____ see problem checklist in this chapter (Table 2.1).
____ if you aren't sure you want to change or keep postponing
making changes (see Table 2.2).
____ ask yourself: could this problem be physically caused? If
so, see a physician.
____ if you have a very serious problem, such as suicidal
thoughts or difficulty thinking well enough to make any plans,
please seek professional help (see the warnings below).
Step 2: Start collecting and recording data reflecting the severity
or frequency of the problem.
____ estimate and record frequency for 1 to 2 weeks prior to
starting a daily record.
____ record information each day that will indicate changes
you are making.
____ keep a diary of your thoughts and feelings as well as
Step 3: Try to understand the problem, how it developed, its
original causes, and what causes it to continue.
____ analyze your problem into five parts. Use Tables 2.1 and
2.3 (in step 5). Look for the origin and influence of each part.
____ what causes your problem? the history? under what
conditions does the problem occur? Any payoffs?
____ see chapters 3-10 and other readings for frequent causes
____ biology and environment as causes. Motivation to
change: do you understand why you want to change? or why
you are reluctant to change? What seem to be the barriers to
Step 4: Set realistic goals.
____ be specific: exactly what behavior, emotions, skills,
attitudes, or awareness do you want to change? What do you
want to eliminate? What to increase?
____ change in small easy steps if rapid or radical change
("cold turkey") is impossible.
____ summary of goals--outcome, time, method. Are these
goals important, fair, and in keeping with your values and long-
range aspirations? (see chapter 3).
Step 5: Select the self-help methods that seem most likely to work,
i.e. develop a treatment plan."
____ consider each of the five parts of the problem:
considering causes and goals, which parts seem to be the most
likely to produce the changes you want to make?
____ refer to Tables 2.1 and 2.3, and chapters 3-10 for self-
help ideas. Sample self-help plans. Read "general idea" and
"purpose" of the methods in chapters 11 to 15 to see which
ones seem most likely to work for you.
____ use doable self-change methods directed at several
"parts" simultaneously or in sequence. But avoid overly
complex plans that overload your computer or your schedule.
Step 6: Learn the detailed steps involved in each self-help method
you are using (chapters 11-15) and try out your plan.
____ give the selected self-help methods a fair trial (daily for
two weeks or more).
____ your motivation is crucial; keep it high (see chapters 4
____ take precautions in advance if any strong emotions or
possible dangers are involved (see chapters 11-15).
Step 7: Continue throughout the project to assess and plot your
____ use self-observation for assessment, change, and
reward. Get other people's opinions.
____ continue systematic self-observation for a few weeks
after reaching your goals.
Step 8: If needed, revise plan as needed--deal with your resistance
to change. Keep up your motivation.
____ change your tactics, if selected self-help methods are not
working. Perhaps other "parts" are more involved than you
____ change your approach, if you lose your motivation to
change. Perhaps the change isn't as important as you thought.
Is the old behavior meeting some unhealthy need?
____ seek professional help if your problems are very serious,
become worse, or do not respond to self-help.
Step 9: Plan ways of maintaining the gains made.
____ use partial and natural reinforcement of the new desired
behavior so it becomes intrinsically satisfying. Make it a habit.
____ may need to repeat treatment occasionally, e.g. start
exercising and dieting again as soon as you gain 2 pounds.
Step 10: Make a note of the method's effectiveness: what works for
____ critically evaluate the quality of your "research." What
else happened besides your treatment that might have changed
the problem situation?
____ jot down ideas about future uses of this method or
improved procedures; share with others.
____ what and/or who were your greatest sources of help?
____ build your confidence in your ability to self-help.
____ go to step 1, and begin another self-improvement.
Select Self-Improvement Projects
Select 2 or 3 self-help projects
For most of us, there is and always will be "plenty of room for self
improvement." Looking over the problem check list (Table 2.1) may
suggest a number of improvements you would like to make. In
general, though, how do you know that you have a problem? Answer:
in many ways, e.g. someone might say you do. You might take a test.
You might simply recognize you are different from others, e.g. you
take twice as long to do something as others do. You may have
feelings you don't like, such as tension, anger, fear, boredom, etc. You
may just wonder if you are "messed up" or being unreasonable. You
may have goals you don't know how to reach. There are obviously lots
of ways of concluding there is a problem. It might be wise to talk with
others about how unusual or extreme your problem actually is. But
make sure you are changing because you want to, not just because
you want to conform to, to please, or to obey others.
Sometimes we are so busy playing or rebelling or just surviving,
we haven't thought seriously about what we want. Reality therapists
ask a good question for self-helpers: "Is what you are doing now really
going to get you where you want to go in life?" If not, then they ask:
"What do you need to start doing to get whatever you want out of
After reviewing these possible self-improvements, remember:
select only 2 or 3 self-help projects to work on at any one time.
Probably one reason self-help methods are effective is because the
self-helper singles out the problem, thinks carefully about possible
solutions, makes specific concerted efforts to change every day, and
records his/her progress. If you take on too many projects at one
time, you dilute this concentrated attack.
What to do if you can't seem to get started on a self-
A body of research shows that there are a series of stages in
changing. The best summary is Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross
(1992) or Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente (1994). In the first stage,
I'll call it "avoidance," we just don't think about the problem, even
though it is perfectly clear to others. Or, we may briefly wish to
change but have no serious intentions or plans for changing. Often, we
blame others for the problem and resist change or believe we can't do
anything about it. We must move to the next stage, call it
"contemplation," before we can begin to change. In this stage we
become more aware of the problem and we think about changing, but
we haven't definitely decided to do something about it yet. We may
wonder if change is worth the effort; we should weigh the pros and
cons of changing. Many people remain in this stage for a long time
(smokers for an average of two years). To actually change, however,
we must move to the next two stages of commitment, called
"planning" and "action." When we make explicit plans, we have
decided to take action soon. We may have already tried to change and
want to try again. Ideally, we will not obsess too long with
understanding the problem and developing a perfect treatment plan; it
is important to actually start changing. In the "action" stage we stick
with an effective plan until we reach our goals. The last stages are
"maintenance," in which after making gains we do whatever is
necessary to avoid relapse, and "termination."
When you realize that many decisions lie between the having-a-
problem-but-not- admitting-it-stage and the I'm-going-to-change-
myself-with-these-methods-stage, you begin to understand the
extensive knowledge needed for self-control. You need to know the
steps in change and the barriers to change; you also need to master
many useful self-help methods, which include self-motivational
techniques. Consider the massive numbers of us that can't get started
changing. For instance, among smokers, it is estimated that only
about 10% are ready to take action, 35% are in "contemplation," and
55% are in "avoidance." That accounts for 70% of smokers saying
they would like to join a stop smoking program but only 3-5% actually
signing up and taking action. The "no shows" had not prepared
themselves for action yet. Just look around you, notice how many
people are overweight and out of shape. Students want to study but
don't get it done. They don't want to be that way; they just can't get
themselves to the DO SOMETHING stage. You must honestly ask
yourself if that isn't your problem too. Do you know some problem
exists, but you just haven't decided to attack the problem directly and
If so, then your first job is to get motivated and overcome your
fears of changing. You need to decide for sure that a particular
problem must be faced and conquered. You need to realize you may
lose certain pleasures when you give up a bad habit. You may need to
"psych yourself up." You may need encouragement. You certainly need
to accentuate the positive reasons for changing. There is evidence that
impulsive action on a self-help plan is likely to fail (1) if you do not
have acute awareness of the probable benefits and losses, (2) if you
try to change without an hopeful, exciting plan (including some faith in
your ability to change), and (3) if you start without determination and
a commitment to fully solving the problem. So, what can you do if you
can't get started changing?
First, there may be a variety of barriers to change that need to be
removed. For instance, many different kinds of fears stop us cold.
Dennis OGrady (1994) in How to Overcome the Fears of Changing
mentions several: fears of the unknown (if you change) and of facing a
new situation, fears of failure and of looking foolish, fears of
commitment and of not wanting the changes you get, fears of
disapproval and of criticism of what you become, and fears of success,
increased responsibilities, and people thinking you are selfish or stuck-
up. The book underscores that fears, such as self-doubts and self-
criticism, like Ill fail, kill the will to change. Likewise, a constant
stream of mental shoulds, like I should be doing better, often
disrupts rather than strengthens our efforts to improve. Dr. OGrady
recommends countering your fears of changing by thinking positively
about the possible outcome and by increasing your self-esteem and
confidence in your ability to self-direct. His and other think positive
books/articles could help some people but when does it work?
Current wisdom says we get to action by learning more about the
problem and about ourselves (e.g. how the bad habit harms us and
how we profit from or need the problem, e.g. smoking helps us relax).
Also, significant others may powerfully confront us about our problem:
the kids say they want us to stop smoking and live longer or our lover
hints that our rolls of fat are not real sexy. Serious thinking on our
own about what kind of person we would like to be may also help us
get to action, especially if self-discipline and personal growth are
valued traits. Many people are inspired to try to change by talking to
others, either others who have changed themselves or others who will
listen and understand our gnawing self-dissatisfaction and desire to be
better. These are just common sense ideas. The remaining limited
"wisdom" we have now about getting ourselves ready to truly change
is in Table 2.2. Surely we will soon learn more specifics about these
crucial self-help steps (see Klar, Fisher, Chinsky, and Nadler  for
a more academic discussion of the intention to seek self-change).
As mentioned before, you need to keep in mind: (1) we often need
to make several attempts to change before we are successful. Either
we try and fail (e.g. the smoker who says, "Quitting is easy! I've done
it thousands of times!") or we work on only one part of the solution at
a time, going through the stages with each successful self-help
project. So, expect some difficulties. Indeed, a previous failure may
have prepared you to succeed the next time. (2) Since we can
effectively work on only a couple of problems at a time, and since
most of us have many, many self-improvements we would like to
make, it is only necessary to get "psyched up" about a couple of self-
help projects at a time. Putting many projects "on the back burner" is
okay, as long as you are working hard on your one or two really
important current self-help projects.
Guard against misdiagnosis
WARNING: None of us is qualified to diagnose ourselves. A major
concern is what if we misdiagnose our own problem. What if our
headache is caused by a tumor instead of stress at work? What if our
anxiety is caused by hyperthyroidism or hypoglycemia instead of
feelings of inadequacy? What if our poor interpersonal relationships
are caused by schizophrenia instead of shyness? What if our "highs"
and irresponsible spending are the result of a mild manic-depressive
disorder instead of simple "impulsiveness?" What if our depression is
caused by PMS instead of our marriage? What if our marital problems
are caused by unconscious childhood experiences instead of poor
communication skills? What if our fear of knives is caused by an
unconscious urge to kill ourselves instead of merely being a fear
reaction to knives?
We are dealing with very complex matters. Even the experts
disagree and don't know much about the causes of many disorders.
Therefore, it is absolutely essential that every self-diagnostician get a
second opinion, especially when there are significant risks involved. If
there is any threat to life, if you might have a serious emotional-
mental disorder (this is hard to know), if you have a chemical
dependency, if the problems could be caused or treated with physical-
chemical means, or if you have tried for some time to make changes
and failed, please seek professional help right away. As mentioned in
Understandings 11 and 12, always get help making a diagnosis and
treating a serious problem. See a physician and/or a psychologist.
On the other hand, it is obvious that many of the problems listed in
Table 2.1 are psychological, requiring new habits, new skills or
different ways of thinking, not surgery or drugs or therapy for a
psychosis. It is also obvious that some of these problems may have
existed for a long time without serious consequences; therefore, it
may be quite reasonable, in these less serious areas, to try initially to
change yourself without first seeking professional help. If you can
change yourself without professional help, wonderful! If you can't, get
See the problem as a challenge and an opportunity
In spite of the warning just given, the evidence is clear (D'zurilla, 1986) that
optimism is important. No one is going to be a self-helper unless he/she
believes (1) the problem is solvable and (2) he/she is capable of solving it. If
you believe you can change things, you will work on the problem sooner,
harder, and longer. Where does this self-confidence come from? Largely from
trying to change things and having some success (see chapter 14--helpful
attitudes). It has been said, "Improving is catching! 50% of people who stop
drinking also stop smoking." So, select something you can change and really
want to change--and let's get on with it.
Selecting Self-Improvement Projects,
Table 2.1: Problem Check List
Place a check mark in front of every goal or problem you would like
to work on. Then go back and decide on what to work on first.
Recommended readings in this book are given in parentheses.
I. I want to change my overt behaviors or my thoughts, such
____ stop a bad habit--smoking, drinking, drugs, over-eating,
swearing (Chapters 4, 11) and try to deal with underlying
____ overcome behavior problems--lying, stealing, deceiving,
laziness (Chapters 3, 4, 11, 12) and look for underlying feelings
____ study or work more, have more self-control and less
procrastination (Chapters 3, 4 and 11)
____ be more caring, giving, affectionate (Chapters 3, 4, 9,
11) and look for interfering feelings
____ be more or less socially outgoing (Chapters 4, 11, 13 and
____ improve a friendship or an intimate or love relationship
(Chapters 9, 10 and 11)
____ reduce excessive worries or obsessions or jealousies
(Chapters 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12)
II. I want to change my conscious emotions, specifically:
____ afraid I'll hurt myself or someone else or have a nervous
breakdown (go get professional help right away)
____ anxious, fearful, tense, shy, up tight, poor sleep
(Chapters 5, 12 , 13 and 14)
____ overwhelmed, confused, bewildered, lost (Chapters 3, 5,
9 and 12, and this may be a problem that needs professional
____ depression, loneliness, sadness, guilt, feeling a failure
(Chapters 6, 12 and 14)
____ resentment, anger, distrust, feeling betrayed, wanting to
hurt someone (Chapters 7, 9, 10, 12 and 14)
____ unexplained changes in mood, mood swings of highs and
lows (Chapters 6 and 12)
____ physical complaints, aches and pains, tiredness, poor
appetite (Chapters 5, 6 and 12)
____ don't give a damn, apathy, feeling that nothing matters
(Chapters 3, 4, 11 and 14)
____ overly eager to please, an unquestioning and obedient
follower (Chapters 8, 13 and 14)
III. I want to gain certain skills so I can handle problems
____ be a good listener, empathic, able to disclose my true
self (Chapters 9 and 13)
____ stand up for my rights, refuse to be taken advantage of
(Chapters 8, 13 and 14)
____ make good decisions, avoid impulsive or uninformed
choices (Chapters 4, 11, 13 and 14)
____ how to meet people, social and dating skills (Chapters 9,
13 and 14)
____ study or test-taking skills, how to concentrate better
____ time management, scheduling, reducing procrastination
(Chapters 3, 4, 11 and 13) and work on underlying needs
____ leadership and persuasion skills. (Chapter 13)
____ parenting skills and relating to children better (Chapters
4, 9 and 11)
____ handling money, budgeting, controlling impulsive buying
(Chapters 4, 11 and 13) and figure out underlying emotions
____ choosing a career, planning out my life, making
educational plans (Chapter 3 and 13)
IV. I want to change the way I think, more specifically:
____ become more hopeful or optimistic, less negative view of
the world (Chapters 6 and 14)
____ be more tolerant of others or myself, more accepting of
what is (Chapters 7, 9 and 14)
____ be more willing to try something different, more brave,
adventurous (Chapters 4, 8, 11, 13 and 14)
____ reduce my own attitudes or expectations or views that
upset me (Chapters 6, 9 and 14)
____ learn to think straight and logically, stop deceiving
myself (Chapter 14)
____ learn positive mental attitudes, self-suggestions, self-
hypnosis (Chapter 14)
____ take more responsibility for my problems, their solution
& my life (Chapters 3, 8 and 14)
____ develop a philosophy of life and learn how to live by it
(Chapters 3, 4, 11 and 14)
____ increase my motivation, overcome my reluctance to
change & work hard (Chapters 3, 4, 11 and 14)
V. I want to understand what makes me tick, why I do the
things I do, the unconscious motives and dynamics within me:
____ uncover and understand the past experiences that still
bother me (Chapters 9, 14 and 15)
____ become more aware of my self-deceptions and defense
mechanisms (Chapters 5, 9, 14 and 15)
____ recognize the "games" being played by me and by others
(Chapters 9 and 15)
____ get in touch with the conflicts and repressed feelings
inside me (Chapters 9, 12 and 15)
____ remember and understand my dreams or daydreams
____ realize the continuing impact of my family life & early
experiences (Chapters 9, 14 and 15)
____ understand my needs--dependency, aggressive, sexual,
etc. (Chapters 7, 8, 9, 10 and 15)
Table 2.2: For the Hesitant Self-Helper--How to Move from Avoidance
to Contemplation to Commitment
Most self-improvement is made by people changing themselves,
not by people seeing therapists or attending 12-step groups. Self-help
is the most common approach with both easy changes and with very
tough ones, including smoking, drinking, and even heroin use (at least
in veterans returning from Vietnam). When these self-improvers are
asked, "How did you do it?" they often say "I just decided." Maybe
there is more wisdom in this comment than we realize at first. It is
quite possible, in certain situations, that "just deciding" is the core of
the problem. Indeed, for some people, once the decision is definitely
made that "I'm going to change," their planning and self-change
skills are quite adequate (or, perhaps, any old plan will work) and they
simply change. The indecision or ambivalence (between changing and
remaining the same) may often, in these cases, be the major problem
(Miller & Rollnick, 1991).
On the other hand, most tough self-change projects are not just a
matter of deciding "I'll do it." Making significant changes in our habits,
feelings, beliefs or attitudes usually require more than will power,
namely, extensive knowledge about self-help methods (which may be
learned by reading or by trying to change and failing over and over
again). And, we also need to learn how to be well motivated and
Overcoming the denial of a problem
Denying your problem is appealing because it is easy, there is
nothing to do, you can't fail, you can blame others, and others quickly
see your resistance to changing so they stop bugging you. We also use
a variety of excuses for doing nothing, such as "you can't get better
until you hit bottom," "I've tried everything," and "people can't
change." Amazingly, many people think self-change is impossible,
including an estimated 2/3rds of our physicians. Notice how we expect
experts to change us but not ourselves. That's nonsense.
What are the barriers we need to overcome in the process of "just
deciding?" For the person who hardly thinks about making a needed
change, the common barriers are (1) a reluctance to admit the
problem ("I'm only 10 pounds overweight," "I'm just big boned," "It
came from having babies," "My wife is overweight too," etc.). (2)
Rebellion against pressure ("I hate it that Mom makes me study before
dinner," "I like the way I've been teaching, this new cooperative
education is nonsense," "I hate it when he/she mentions my weight
when we are making love," etc.). (3) Resignation to staying the same
("I can't do anything about it," "I've tried to quit a 1000 times," etc.).
(4) Feeling a victim and believing that someone else is responsible for
your troubles; therefore, THEY owe it to you to fix it! You shouldn't
have to do the work of changing (Dombeck, 2000). (5) Rationalizing
that the problem behavior is really all right ("I know smoking isn't
good for you but I only smoke 15 a day and usually I don't inhale and
I smoke "light" cigarettes and I didn't start until I was 25 and my
grandpa smoked 2 packs a day until he was 95 and I need them to
relax but I'm going to quit!"). These are the kind of obstacles you
face--they are powerful.
What can we do about our avoidance and denial? First, we can
become aware of our use of excuses and mental tricks to avoid
changing. Certain personalities consistently use specific defenses, e.g.
if someone said something demeaning about you and you responded
by laughing it off or saying "they didn't really mean it--no big deal,"
you are probably prone to use denial or minimization. If you
responded by saying "that person is just mean-spirited, besides you
can't please everybody--these things happen" or "there are deep
psychological reasons why he/she said what he/she did," you are a
rationalizer or an intellectualizer. If you boiled over, verbally or
physically attacking the person or assuming they are totally evil, you
are "externalizing" the causes of the problem. If you became self-
critical and felt blamable for his/her opinion, you are "internalizing"
the causes of the problem. In short, learn what defense mechanisms
you use (see chapter 15) and do something about it, e.g. force
yourself to face upsetting problems, avoid explaining away criticism of
you, empathize with others (even critics), find less destructive ways to
vent your anger, avoid feeling totally responsible for every bad
Second, the obvious solution to denial is to open your mind in
many ways but this may not be easy. You must find good, persuasive
reasons for changing. You must face reality and come to truly believe
that the desired goals are well worth the cost of changing. This means
you admit the problem, see its seriousness, and face the worries and
fears involved in remaining unchanged. Caution: Research has shown
that concentrating on the bad aspects of some behavior causes us to
be unhappy and to want to change, but it doesn't lead to change
(Beike, 2000). To take action and change, we must also see the
advantages of improving and believe we can make the self-
improvements we need. In other words, we have to get intimate with
the problem and learn about it, not avoid thinking about it. And we
must believe in our own self-control. How do you do both?
Miller and Rollnick, who deal with addictions, have developed
questions to help us see our problems more fully (these interviewers
have found that frank accusations and threatening confrontations by
others frequently don't work, our defenses go up and our denial works
To see the problem--
What makes you think this is a problem?
What difficulties have you had related to this problem?
How have you been harmed by this problem? Have others been
What things might happen if you continue doing this?
Do you have lots of reasons why you don't want to change this
To clarify your feelings--
How do you feel about this problem? How strongly do you feel?
What worries you about the future if you don't make a change?
How concerned are you?
How do you feel about yourself and your unwillingness to
change up until this point? or
How do you feel about getting into this situation and not
getting out before now?
To determine if you are really interested in changing--
Can you summarize your reasons for making a change?
What reasons are there for remaining the way you are? (pay
offs for the "problem" behavior)
Considering the pro and cons, how strongly do you want to
What is keeping you from making a firm, specific commitment
to changing right now?
To see how optimistic or pessimistic you are about making
the desired changes--
If you decide to try to change, how confident are you that you
could do it? (Give your reasons)
Do you have some ideas about how to make the changes? Will
you need any help?
Have you read about self-help methods for changing? or about
therapies for changing?
Do you know other people who have made these changes?
When will you start?
The idea is to maximize in your mind the gap--the distance--
between changing and staying the same. The greater the advantages
of changing, as you see it, the greater your motivation. This is a
crucial start. Reading more about your problem and its development,
hearing more about other people solving a similar problem, and
learning more about various methods of attacking the problem should
give you even more hope and determination to get the job done. If
you can't become firmly convinced to change and find yourself making
a lukewarm attempt, you will probably not succeed. If changing
doesn't seem worthwhile, maybe you should seek professional help or
talk with a successful self-helper. Others can help you think more
about the above questions and your future. You need determination to
Third, other people are often a crucial factor in determining if we
change or not. Some people encourage our bad habits, e.g. an enabler
minimizes our problem and doesn't confront us, instead they help us
neglect or cover up the problem because they are afraid of straining
the relationship. So avoid enablers. Helpers gently help us think about
our problems and the solutions; yet, they don't push us into premature
action. Admit your reluctance to change to a helpful friend and ask
him/her to share his/her view of your defenses and your reasons for
avoiding changes. This could be an eye opener. Also, look carefully for
helpful programs in your community, such as self-help groups, anti-
smoking programs, weight loss support groups, exercise programs at
work, and so on. These are great opportunities to increase your
awareness of the problems, see your choices, and get more arguments
and support for making changes. Friends, programs, or groups will
help get you started, and, likewise, arranging continuing support will
help keep you on track: work with a buddy, report your progress to
your doctor or helper every few days, have someone check up on you
every week, tell lots of people what changes you are trying to make
and ask them to keep asking you about your progress, etc.
Thinking of the "pros" comes first but once you are
seriously contemplating changing, you also need to focus on
accepting and/or decreasing the "cons" of changing. You need to
compensate for your losses. Examples: If by giving up smoking
you are losing a way to relax, you need to develop other ways calm
down when tense. If drinking less is taking you away from your
drinking buddies, you need to cultivate new friends or interact with
them when they aren't drinking. If studying more is reducing your
time with your lover, arrange to have an especially good time
during the time you have together. If becoming more assertive and
independent is creating some stress with your partner and causing
some loneliness, you may need to "work it out" with the partner
and become more involved with friends you enjoy. Taking care of
the "cons" will reduce the tendency to backslide.
Start Collecting and Recording Data
Immediately start assessing your adjustment in the area of
concern and continue throughout the project (see methods
#8 and #9 in chapter 11)
Select some way of measuring the changes you hope to make. The
idea is to keep a record of some easily countable behavior, often called
"target behavior," and/or some ratable emotion that clearly reflects
your quality of adjustment in the problem area. Examples:
Measure of Progress
Calorie intake per day (and/or minutes exercising)
Pages read using SQRRR method (or hours spent
Number of times I cried today (or rating of gloomy
Number of times I started to get upset today but
didn't let myself feel the emotions (or rate your
degree of suppression)
Rating of anxiety while speaking (and/or number of
times you speak up)
Number of empathic responses given (or hours
spent with friends or ratings of closeness by
Self-rating of confidence. Weekly rating by a
Number of positive self-evaluations given each day
(or a daily rating of self-esteem)
There are many ways of keeping a tally of the frequency or
duration or intensity of your target behaviors, feelings, or thoughts
during the day. One of the easiest and cheapest ways of keeping score
is to carry a 3 x 5 card and make tally marks during the day which you
could then plot on a graph each evening. This is especially helpful
when the 3 x 5 card is directly associated with the wanted or
unwanted behavior, such as being put on your desk or the refrigerator
door, on the exercise equipment or the candy box, or inside the
cellophane wrapper of the cigarette pack. A simple transfer of coins
from one pocket to another is another good counter. Of course, wrist
counters, similar to golf counters, are available.
If you record each recurrence of the desired behavior, you are
more likely to change your behavior than if you record the bad habit
you are trying to replace. Example: It is better to record hours spent
studying than hours watching TV if you want to study more. If you are,
nevertheless, going to record the unwanted behavior, such as
cigarettes smoked, calorie intake, or nail biting, require yourself to
record the behavior before acting. That way the recording helps to
reduce the habit (Kanfer, 1970).
Rate your emotions and attitudes
You will find that certain feelings and emotional reactions are hard
to measure. For example, suppose you generally feel blue or sort of
sad and bored. How would you count that target behavior? You
couldn't, but you can rate it from 1 to 10, with 1 being very happy and
excited, 5 being neither happy nor sad, and 10 being very unhappy
and hopeless. Likewise, if you are just generally irritable, it may be
hard to count any meaningful bit of behavior, but you could daily rate
your level of irritation or sensitivity or anger.
Every problem--and every desired behavior or feeling--can be
measured by counting or rating. By measuring the problem every few
hours or maybe every day or two, you can tell how serious the
problem is and if you are changing.
Plotting your progress
It is important to start plotting the behavior, feelings, or attitude
you want to change as soon as possible, preferably before you start
trying to change the behavior, so that you will get an idea of your level
of adjustment before self-help is started. In fact, when you make the
graph, record your best estimate of the frequency or severity of the
target behavior or emotion during the previous week. This provides a
pre-observation basis of comparison with later data. Continue to keep
these records, preferably day by day, throughout the time you are
trying to change, and keep the records for a while after the project is
over to be sure you don't backslide.
Why is it so important to keep a daily record of your progress?
Day-by-day (or more often) assessment of your adjustment is more
accurate than your recall a week or so later of how well you coped
(Stone, et al, 1998). Frequent recordings force you to become more
concrete, more realistic, and more objective in thinking about the
problem. You can then better decide what observable, measurable
changes you would like to accomplish. Many people find that as soon
as they start observing the behavior through daily records, the
behavior frequently, almost immediately starts to improve. This is
empirically confirmed by Cone (1999), Thorsen and Mahoney (1974),
Kazdin (1974), and Johnson and White (1971). These improvements
based on observation alone may fade away rather quickly, however, if
they are not reinforced (Mahoney and Arnkoff, 1978).
Another reason for keeping records, especially if honestly plotted
and openly displayed for you and others to see, is that they provide
some encouragement and social pressure to change. Graphs and
charts clearly show successes--and failures. Dieters who record their
food intake faithfully every day lose much more weight (37 pounds)
than dieters who just "try to watch it" (10 pounds). Finally, a
successful record, showing improvement over time, is personally
satisfying because of pride in self-control, and also you receive
genuine praise from others. Almost everyone admires self-control.
Still another reason to keep objective records is that many of us
are poor judges of our own weaknesses and incompetence (Dunning &
Kruger, 1999). Actually, the more a person lacks certain skills, e.g.
understanding grammar or grasping logical reasoning or humor, the
less likely they are to realize their failings (or to recognize the skill of
others). All the more reason to use simple counting or rating methods
for assessing change. This impairment in judgment is so marked in
some of us, however, that even simple methods may not work
because we fail to perceive accurately the event we are to count or
rate. In that case, we may need to get help in detecting and/or
judging our target behavior... or get help in making changes.
Most of my students have made progress charts with the 30-31
days of the month along the bottom. Then they plot the frequency of
the target behavior or strength of their ratings vertically, putting their
scale along the left margin. Arranged this way, the graph shows the
ups and downs of their lives.
A really neat idea is to add explanatory notes (or symbols) at the
high and low points on your graph. Examples: a particularly bad time
might be when working overtime or during exams, your irritability may
go up and down with your financial situation, etc. This information on
your graph makes your behavior more understandable and may lead
to helpful ideas.
Keep a detailed record or diary of your actions, thoughts,
feelings, dreams. Do research.
In addition to the behavioral counts, ratings and graphs, I'd
strongly recommend you keep a diary. If you are working on an
emotional problem--temper control, worry, low self-esteem, fears,
dependency--or on an interpersonal concern--loneliness, shyness,
jealousy, deciding to marry, fighting with roommates--it is valuable to
record the situation and your actions as well as what is going on inside
your head and your gut. For instance, if you are hoping to get better
control of your anger, you could keep a diary including (a) the
situations that upset you, (b) your emotional (gut) reactions, (c) your
thoughts and assumptions, (d) your actions--what you said and did--
and (e) what was the final outcome in terms of how others responded
to your anger. Over several weeks, this information may help you
understand the real causes and dynamics of your anger. Besides,
diaries are fascinating months or years later.
At this point, you are primarily trying to measure your level of
adjustment--how well you are doing. Over time, these measures will
show if you are making progress or not. In addition to frequently
(maybe several times a day) measuring your current status, after you
have decided on a "self-treatment" plan in steps 5 and 6, you will
probably need to record exactly when and how you apply the
self-help method. Example: if you are making and recording efforts
every hour to replace negative, critical thoughts with positive ones,
you will need to rate your level of depression or happiness/optimism
every 3 or 4 hours, at least. The relationships between your efforts to
change and the actual changes that occur are, of course, at the heart
of evaluating your treatment plan. Don't leave that judgment up to
intuition or guess work, measure the connection! This will be
discussed further in step 7. If you are interested in more sophisticated
research using repeated measures in a "daily process," refer to Affleck,
et al (1999), Korotitsch and Nelson-Grey (1999), and Schwartz and
Stone (1998). Self-help projects are ideally suited for this kind of
practical single-subject research.
Progress and goals are different things
When assessing your progress, you are looking backwards to see
how much you have changed over a certain time. However, when
setting goals, as discussed in Step 4, you are looking forward to the
changes you hope to make. Some people set very high goals, resulting
in their feeling discouraged that they are so very far from where they
want to be. Demanding goals can be and should be inspiring. So don't
let ambitious distant goals cloud your perception of how far you have
come. Measure it.
Try to Understand the Problem
Try to understand the problem: what are the five parts?
how do the parts relate to each other? how did the
problem and its parts get started? why have they
continued? What are the reasons for changing?
Most of us would like to understand "what makes us tick," even if
that understanding doesn't help us change. It is like climbing a
mountain; we want to explore our inner self because it is there--a
great mystery that intrigues us. Self-exploration is an important life-
long task; it can help us change in terms of insight and treatment
Understanding the problem can, of course, be a highly complex,
time consuming process (consider that psychoanalysis takes years,
perhaps 500 hours of therapy). I recommend you always describe the
problem by briefly looking at the five parts, but that the understanding
of the history be done quickly at first, coming back to do an in depth
probe into the origin and causes of your problem if that is needed.
Describing the problem: look at all five parts
As mentioned in this chapter's overview, the basic idea or system
utilized throughout this book is that problems become clearer and
more manageable if you break them down into five parts: behavior,
emotions, skills, attitudes-values, and unconscious factors.
Most problems manifest themselves in all or, at least, several of these
five parts. For example, shyness may involve (1) withdrawn, quiet
behavior, (2) tense, nervous feelings, (3) a lack of social skills, (4) a
negative self-concept or expectation that most people will see you as
insecure, and (5) unconscious factors, like fearing being stupid
because you were called stupid as a child or being a loner because you
resented your mother being very sociable.
Here is another example (obviously, not an actual person). The
description of this troubled student, John/Jane, is in considerable
detail, illustrating the breakdown of procrastination into five parts:
Part 1: Behavior
I always put off studying and papers until the last minute. I end
up being rushed and doing a poor job or trying to find any
"easy way out."
I have no organization, no schedule for studying, no list of what
needs to be done, and I frequently forget assignments. I pretty
much do what I feel like doing.
I never study or read unless it is required the next day. I
usually study 2 or 3 hours at most for difficult exams. I prefer
to watch TV, party, listen to music, sleep, be with friends or my
I look for shortcuts, including cheating, getting someone to
write papers for me, talking my girl/boyfriend into doing my
homework for me, etc.
I harass the students who do their homework and do well on
Part 2: Emotions
I hate to study, courses are boring, school seems useless. I
can't wait until I get out of school and make lots of money.
My studying is always rushed, I never feel well prepared, I feel
anxious in class. I hate to get exams and papers back. I'm
embarrassed by my work and grades.
I feel forced to study and resent it. I would rather talk to
friends and do fun things, it makes me mad when I can't do
what I want to do.
I feel little or no guilt about cheating, instead I feel clever and
pleased when I can "beat the system" and get better grades
than the "stupid" kids who do the "useless" homework.
Part 3: Skills (Lack of)
Poor reading ability and speed. I can't learn the details unless I
read the material twice and I can't stand to do that.
Poor writing ability, poor grammar and spelling.
I'm able to persuade or threaten others into lending me their
notes, into typing my papers and correcting the errors, into
letting me cheat off their tests, etc.
Part 4: Mental processes
I think what you learn in school is a waste. What I think is
important is how well a person can control people or "work the
system." I'm good at it.
I think that I will be a responsible, honest, successful, hard
worker just as soon as I get into the real world and away from
this stupid school.
I think I am very intelligent because my friends are constantly
impressed with the things I do, like giving excuses for missing
class or talking teachers into letting me take the exam later
(after I get the answers from someone).
I think the students who study hard or "show off what they
know" in class are jerks and stupid because "they are making it
hard on the rest of us."
I expect to get average grades but I let people know that I
haven't studied, so they will not think I am dumb. I'd like to be
seen as smart.
Part 5: Unconscious processes (these are possibilities which I
can't know for sure at this point or, for that matter, ever)
I may avoid putting myself to the test, i.e. studying hard to see
how able I really am. I'm afraid I'm not very smart; I don't like
to think about it.
I may resent my father who is a workaholic; I probably hated
my father's work, success, drive, organization (everything in its
place), and pushiness. I felt rejected by mother because she
admired father's successes so much. I may push this out of my
mind, except for the resentment and distance I feel.
Many teachers remind me of my father, so this may make it
especially satisfying to blow off studying or to cheat on a paper.
I sometimes think I am an impostor, a manipulator, and a lazy
liar. When I think that way, I feel guilty and have some
awareness that my future is bleak. I push these ideas out of my
mind. Wonder if my conscience thinks I deserve to fail in life?
Note: don't expect yourself, as a beginner, to write so thorough or so "probing" a
description of your problem.
The major point to observe here is that you may have a seemingly
simple problem, such as putting off homework, which becomes
clarified and much more complex when it is analyzed into its five parts.
Anyone can see that John/Jane's behavior of procrastination is merely
the surface symptom of several possibly serious underlying problems
(self-centeredness, poor self-control and study skills, self-deception,
arrogance, a lack of morals, family problems, etc.). The
procrastinating behavior is unlikely to change unless John/Jane
changes many other parts of the problem: his/her habits, his/her
feelings, his/her attitudes, his/her goals, his/her relationships, his/her
skills, and his/her awareness of unconscious motives as well as other
factors. A big order!
On the other hand, in some cases procrastination is a simple
matter that can be quickly solved by setting up a daily schedule and a
reward system for keeping the schedule. It would be foolish to make
our problems unnecessarily complex. So, describe the five parts of
your problem quickly and simply at first, then try a very simple
approach. If that works and satisfies you, don't waste time. If not, look
into the problem more thoroughly.
What is the history?
Beyond theoretical explanations, research findings, and
understanding interrelationships among the parts, every self-helper
should give a little thought, at least, to the history of his/her problem.
Only you know your history. You are obviously on your own to find the
precise current or historical events that cause your unique situation.
Knowing the specific history can be important in developing a plan. For
example, consider two cases of depression: one was recently rejected
by a lover, the other learned as a child to be perfectionistic, highly
self-critical, and to expect to fail. Both are equally depressed.
Obviously, the solutions are probably quite different because the
causes and several parts of the problems are different. Causes of a
problem may not be immediately apparent even to the person
involved, so be open minded as you seek self-understanding, consider
Since behavior therapists are fond of saying their methods can
help without the therapist having to uncover the causes and the
history of the problem, let me hasten to say that I agree with that
too... sometimes. Many problems can certainly be eliminated without
digging deeply into your early childhood and without concocting
speculative psychoanalytic explanations. Yet, in other cases, it can be
beneficial to understand how the problem started and how it has been
maintained. Even the behaviorist would want to ask, "What is the
reinforcement history of the problem behavior?"
Again, the history of your problem may be clearer if you
investigate the background of each part separately. That is, what is
the history of your unwanted behavior, your emotional reactions, your
lack of skills, your irrational or harmful ways of thinking, and your
unconscious needs, "games," or defenses? Consider four stages of
your history, as sketchily illustrated by this hypothetical depressed
Part of the
alone & inactive
expects the worst
very shy at
by Fa. at 6
Ask yourself, "How did each part start and what has kept it going?"
"Is there some reinforcement--a payoff--for each part?" As you will
see in chapter 4, there are many ways for a behavior to be
maintained. For example, many harmful and troublesome behaviors,
feelings, and thoughts have obvious payoffs. Cheating on an exam,
being unfaithful, or being very obedient are all rewarded (at least they
are behaviors that seek certain rewards). Having a psychosomatic
headache may get us attention or off work. Even feeling so shy that a
person withdraws from others may be reinforced by the relief the
person feels when he/she avoids the stress of interacting. Perhaps
every human action that continues is reinforced. If so, look for the
A word of caution: The five parts of the problem do not include all of the possible causes
of a problem. They only include the psychological parts within you. What else might be a
cause of your problems?
Biological and chemical factors: genetic factors, constitution,
physical illness, organically based psychiatric conditions (like
schizophrenia or manic-depression), physical and mental handicaps,
hormones (like PMS), prescribed and street drugs, alcohol, nutritional
influences, allergies, etc. Factors such as these may be the primary
cause of your problem, that's why you must see a physician when
psychological cures don't do much for you (see step 1).
Current physical and social environment: recent crises or stresses,
breaking up, losing a friend or a job, doing poorly on a test, poverty,
abuse, poor work and/or living conditions, poor education, a lack or
excess of friends, the overwhelming demands of a large family, being
teased, being sexually harassed, etc. Factors such as these may also
cause your problem or, at least, contribute to the problem. You may or
may not be able to change your environment. How you perceive and
react to the environment is a psychological process, however.
(Childhood experiences certainly also affect your current behavior,
personality, and attitudes. However, the memories and/or emotional
reactions of these events are still in you; they aren't just history, they
are current, powerful psychological factors in your memory now. These
old habits, emotional garbage, expectations, beliefs, etc. clearly
influence your current adjustment. Throughout this book, the current
impact of your childhood and earlier life is constantly considered,
especially in chapters 9, 14, and 15.)
Obviously, a perfect analysis of your problem would require that all
factors be taken into account to fully understand and explain your
problem--it almost always is very complex. You could spend hours
exploring the history and the current dynamics. As I said, you
probably don't need a perfect analysis. Some understanding is
worthwhile, but clearly there is a limit, perhaps an hour or two of
reading and thinking, unless it is a very complex or important problem.
You have to move on to setting goals for yourself and developing a
For every complex problem, there is a simple answer... and it is wrong.
Most of psychology is descriptive; for understanding, look for
As you read more and more, keep in mind that general psychology
textbooks tend to be 95% descriptive and only 5% prescriptive, i.e.
academic psychology observes, surveys, describes development, and
reports on experiments to prove and disprove theories, but it doesn't
tell you much about how to solve common problems (you usually have
to figure that out yourself). There are thousands of volumes describing
and attempting to theoretically explain human behavior in an
experimental lab. In this book, I have pulled together only the most
useful prescriptive information and summarized it. In each chapter, I
have also cited the better, more prescriptive references. I urge you to
become a reader for self-understanding (see chapters 14 and 15).
Reading useful psychological information can have a tremendous
impact on your life. Give it a try, but I want to repeat a caution: don't
get so involved in understanding--it can be addictive--that you forget
to, or put off, actually trying to change. The key words are, "DO
SOMETHING! If it doesn't work, try something else." If you don't use
what you read within a day or two, you will probably lose it. Keep up
your motivation so you can move on to making specific goals and
plans for changing
Avoid these additional pitfalls: wanting to know everything before
trying to change, worrying more than planning how to change, hoping
for some easy way to change, etc. Continue to reduce your opposition
to changing: accept that change takes time and effort, accept that you
might fail, accept that the changes may result in the loss of some
friends and pleasures. Decide to pay the price for the improvement.
Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente (1994) say that our motivation
to change can often be increased by arousing certain emotions.
Examples: Bad habits, although immediately pleasurable, often harm
our lives. This long-term self-destruction should make us mad. You
can arrange for experiences that emphasize the need to change, e.g.
try running (very slowly!) around the block if you are overweight,
calculate how much you spend per year on alcohol or cigarettes or
excess food, video yourself getting drunk or bingeing, etc. Create your
own negative fantasies about the long-range consequences of your
problem, e.g. imagine becoming so fat you can't make love, fat
clogging your arteries, how your negative attitude and anger drives
everyone away, etc. Looking steadily and honestly at our own gloomy
predicted future can propel us to change.
As you work through the steps of self-help, you are likely to get
more motivated to change. You will read about and measure the
problem, set goals, think about the causes of the problem, wonder
what methods will help, develop a good self-help plan, think about
how good you will feel about yourself if you change and how bad you
will feel if you don't change; all these things add motivation. Seek out
information and support from people. Be real clear about your reasons
for changing. Remember, consider carefully the reasons for not
changing because if you don't become convinced that changing is the
right thing to do, you are likely to slip back to your old habit when the
going gets rough. Hopefully, you can move to the next steps well
motivated. More information about self-motivation is available in
chapter 14 and in Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente (1994).
Set Realistic Goals
Goals guide our lives. Don't be goalless
When setting goals, you should consider: (1) what do I need to
give up or reduce or eliminate (consider each part of the problem)? (2)
What do I need to increase or substitute for the unwanted behavior or
feeling or thought? (3) What change should be given priority and done
first? (4) What are reasonable daily sub-goals and long term goals,
and are they consistent with each other? (5) How fast should the
changes be made (cold turkey vs. gradual change)? (6) Most
importantly, are my goals in this project in keeping with my basic
values? Let's look at these questions more closely.
Setting goals is near the beginning of a self-change process; it is
not even close to being the end result. However, in our culture or, at
least, in my classes, it seems as though many people assume they
have solved a problem just as soon as they have stated an admirable
goal for themselves or someone else. Examples: A person feeling over-
weight says, "I'm going to lose 10 pounds" but develops no specific
plan. A friend says to an unassertive co-worker, "You shouldn't let
them walk all over you, be assertive." Never mind the details of how to
get from where you are (scared and passive) to where you want to be
(strong and assertive)! Don't make that mistake. The next two steps,
5 and 6, help you figure out how to get where you want to go. But,
sometimes, just deciding where you want to go is not simple, as we'll
Realistic, effective goals must be attainable, important, and taken
seriously. Being goalless is a serious problem. Goals serve us well.
They focus our energy, reduce distractions, get us looking for new
solutions, keep us striving, and give meaning to our existence (Locke,
Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981). There is a Web site, MyGoalManager
(http://www.mygoalmanager.com/), which helps you plan the steps,
keep up your motivation, and review your progress.
Demanding-but-reachable specific goals motivate us more than a
vague "do your best" or too easy goals, resulting in better plans and
more effort. For example, when exercising, the goal "to do your best"
does not result in as many sit-ups as "do 10% more sit-ups than you
did last time." On the other hand, overly demanding, perfectionistic
goals are more likely to lead to failure, disappointment, and giving up
(see chapter 6). It may not be easy to find the optimal middle ground
between too hard (seeking perfection) and too easy (not trying hard
enough) goals; try both extremes until you find what serves you best.
Guidelines for goals: your goals should be truly yours, not
someone else's. Goals based on "I should" or "I ought to" are not as
motivating as goals based on "I want to..." Negative goals that state
what you do not want to do (eat too much, get mad, feel sad, etc.) are
not nearly as clear and motivating as positive goals (I will eat 1000
calories per day, make "I" statements instead of getting mad, and
accentuate positive thoughts instead of pessimistic ones). Our goals
should be stated in terms of specific behaviors at specific times under
specific conditions, not just "I want better self-esteem." Sub-goals
usually seem more reachable if they form a series of gradual steps,
rather than one giant leap. Understanding your feelings is a
commendable goal but gaining understanding frequently doesn't solve
all your problems; often you must learn to act differently as well as
understand. Try to do less of what doesn't work (often what comes
naturally) and do things differently; hopefully, more of what works. To
set doable goals means you have to know how to change--how to get
from where you are to where you want to be. Sometimes this means
you must know what methods will work (see next step) or you will
have to use your determination or "will" to change, e.g. stop nagging,
be a better empathic listener, use "I" instead of "you" statements, etc.
Self-confidence that you can accomplish each of your sub-goals is an
important part of your motivation and your reaching your long-range
goals. But if your "I-can-do-it" attitude is an illusion, then you will fail
and your confidence decline.
Your self-help goals should, ideally, be within your control (the
outcome is not). That may seem obvious but goals get confused with
values or wishes. For example, "I want to be happy" is a very
reasonable condition to hope for in life. But our happiness is
determined by so many things, many of which are beyond our control.
So, as a goal of a self-help project, happiness probably wouldn't be as
good as some specific, more controllable act, emotion, skill, thought,
or awareness that would probably help "make us happy." Of course, a
lot of very desirable goals are not entirely within our control: your
grade in Physics, your total sales this year, your love life, your health,
etc. On the other hand, we are perfectly able to decide how many
hours a day we study Physics, how many sales contacts we make or
the skills we use with customers, how much we criticize our spouse or
how many fun things we do together, and how stressed we are or how
much saturated fat we eat. We can have fairly good control over these
things. We can only expect to partially control our behavior, not the
There are but two roads that lead to an important goal and to the doing of great things:
strength and perseverance. Strength is the lot of but a few privileged men; but austere
perseverance, harsh and continuous, may be employed by the smallest of us and rarely
fails of its purpose, for its silent power grows irresistibly greater with time.
If you persuade yourself that you can do a certain thing, provided
this thing is possible, you will do it, however difficult it may be. If, on
the contrary, you imagine that you cannot do the simplest thing in the
world, it is impossible for you to do it, and molehills become for you
Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may
not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in
them, and try to follow where they lead.
-Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888, American Author
Having a very specific notion of where you are going and how to
get there, helps you get there. Also, getting explicit feedback about
how much progress you are making towards your daily or weekly sub-
goals is very helpful. Therefore, it is to your advantage to state your
sub-goals in very specific terms, both behavior-wise and time-wise,
e.g. "I want to lose a pound a week for the next 10 weeks. I will keep
records and reward myself for eating less than 1200 calories per day
by watching TV in the evening. Otherwise, I will have to miss my
favorite programs." The weekly weight loss, the reduced daily calories,
the record keeping, and the rewards are all possible sub-goals.
Likewise, your general goal might be "gaining self-esteem" but the
specific sub-goals could be something like, "Whenever I become aware
of a depressing and untrue self-critical thought, I will immediately stop
the thought and remind myself of two positive traits. I'd like to
increase my awareness of these negative thoughts over the next two
weeks (so I can stop them) and be much more self-satisfied in one
month." Thus, being less self-critical and having more positive
thoughts are self-help sub-goals on the way to self-esteem.
Remember, becoming happier and having esteem are hoped-for-but-
not-guaranteed outcomes; specific self-help goals are more
controllable. It is also important to measure your progress towards
your specific goals. Steps 2 and 7 deal with measuring goal-
attainment, as does recording the behavior in chapter 11 and keeping
a diary in chapter 15.
The desired outcomes (goals) for each of your self-help projects
are likely to be in two or three "parts" of the problem, as described in
the last step, i.e. you may want changes in your behaviors, in your
feelings, in skills, in how you think, and/or in your awareness of
previously unconscious factors. In effect, there are four kinds of highly
related goals (general vs. specific; long-term vs. short-term; method
1. Major, general, final outcome-of-the-problem goals,
I don't want to be so irritable.
I want to be kinder and gentler.
which may be stated as:
2. final outcome sub-goals within specific parts
(behavior, skills, etc.) of the problem,
I want to stop yelling and swearing (behavior).
I want to calm down disciplining Bobby (emotions).
I want to learn a lot about parenting (skills).
I want to think more positively about what Bobby has done,
I want insight into how my childhood affects my parenting
which will almost certainly have some:
3. daily or weekly progress (how fast should I change?) sub-
goals within each part,
I will eliminate cussing by next Monday.
I will, in two weeks, lose emotional control less than once per
week with Bobby.
I will attempt, every time I get mad, to see the similarity
between Bobby and me at his age, and the similarity between
me and Mom/Dad at my age.
4. method (what must I do to produce the changes I want?)
sub-goals within each part of the problem.
I will skip the next meal if I cuss.
I will desensitize my anger in situations where I am correcting
I will read a book on discipline emphasizing positive
I will think of what Bobby did well or that was nice before
I will keep a diary describing when and why I get mad--and my
memories of childhood in which I felt angry or I saw anger in
my parents (or caretaker).
Don't let all these goals overwhelm you. But I want you to get the
point: you need daily and weekly sub-goals. You may even need
hourly sub-goals. You will probably try to change only two or three
parts of your problem (that's what you are tentatively deciding in this
step--although the method you chose to use will also determine your
goals). And, you will need only one or two methods to change each
part (steps 5 and 6). However, there are many possible changes you
could focus on within each of the five parts of your problem, and you
may chose to change rapidly or slowly, and you must chose a self-help
method from among 20-30 possible methods. These many choices,
whether you think about them or not, determine your goals (and your
success) in any self-help project. As you accumulate wisdom and
become more aware of the situation and the decisions you are making
(or neglecting) every moment, you may gain more control over your
But before finalizing your goals, please ask yourself: Are these
goals in line with my real priorities in life? Do these goals reflect what I
value most, what I think my life should be devoted to? Or, am I just
being shortsighted or selfish or spending my time on some change that
is to please others or of little significance to my life or to the world?
These are difficult but crucial questions, don't overlook this step. As
Covey, Merrill & Merrill (1994) ask, "How many people on their
deathbed wish they'd spent more time in the office?" These authors
also express the same idea in another way: select your goals carefully
because you might reach them, only to discover that you have been
climbing a long time up a ladder on the wrong wall! In addition to
Covey, Merrill & Merrill's book, perhaps chapter 3 and a book by Dahl
& Sykes (1988) will help you find the right direction to go .
What is more mortifying than to feel that you have missed the plum for want of courage to
shake the tree?
-Logan Pearsall Smith
Goals are dreams with deadlines.
It is far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, though
checkered with failure, than to take rank with those poor souls, who
neither enjoy much or suffer much, because they live in the gray
twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat..
I expect to pass through the world but once. Any good therefore that I
can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me
do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way
Select the Self-Help Methods
Select self-help methods and organize them into an overall
treatment plan that will be most effective in producing the
In the chapters below, you will find many self-help methods
recommended for these problems. It is important to read the chapters
related to your problem.
Nature of your concern
Chapters that will help you
understand the problem
Deciding on a philosophy of life
Changing your behavior or habits
Chapters 4 and 11
Dealing with anxiety and fears
Chapters 5 and 12
Dealing with sadness, low esteem
Chapters 6, 12 and 14
Dealing with anger and prejudice
Chapters 7, 12, 13 and 14
Dealing with dependency, conformity
Chapters 8, 12 and 13
Understanding yourself and others
Chapters 9, 14 and 15
Love, marriage, and sex
You will find that most situations aren't so simple that you only
need to read one chapter, however. Here is why: Each of the How-To-
Understand chapters (3 to 10) breaks the topic into the five parts:
behavior, emotions, skills, mental processes, and unconscious factors.
Thus, chapter 6 on depression will refer you to chapter 4 because
depressed people need to be active--behaving--and chapter 6 will also
refer you to chapter 3 if guilt is involved and to chapter 13 if you need
social skills to get out and have fun and so on. Before you are done,
you may feel like you have had to read almost the whole book because
everything is so intertwined. Sorry, but that's real life... and you need
to know about all of it.
Remember originally I said the five parts were to help you
understand your problem. Now, it sounds like I'm saying the five parts
help you fix the problem. That's right. This five-part analysis helps
both ways. It is especially helps you find usable self-help methods.
Here is how. Most self-help methods (and therapy methods) have an
influence primarily on only one of the five parts of a problem, not all
five. Thus, there is a highly useful relationship between diagnosis (a
description of a part of the problem) and treatment methods to use.
Table 2.3 will help you see this relationship and find the chapters
telling you in detail how to change each part. At this point, you should
be beginning to get the basic idea of how you could develop a
comprehensive and fairly sophisticated treatment plan.
Table 2.3: Analysis of Problem into Parts and Possible Solutions
Parts of any problem
Psychological self-help methods
1. Behavior (simple
thoughts) (What behavior or
habitual thoughts do I want
Self-reinforcement, self-punishment change of
environment, break the chain early, extinction,
thought control, covert sensitization, self-
--fears and anxiety
--sadness & self-criticism
--anger & prejudice
--dependency & passivity
(What unwanted feelings
Relaxation, self-desensitization, venting
feelings, exposure to harmless fears, stress
inoculation, meditation, constructive use of
3. Skills (Lacking)
(What skills do I need?)
Problem-solving training, social skills via
practice in groups and role playing,
assertiveness training, constructively handling
anger, decision making, study skills, leadership
skills, organization and scheduling skills.
4. Mental processes
(Which views and values
harm--and which help?)
Questioning irrational ideas, correcting
expectations, determinism, building self-
esteem, paradoxical intention, increasing
motivation, values clarifications, gaining hope,
developing a philosophy of life, learning to think
straight, helpful attitudes, self-hypnosis.
5. Unconscious motives
(What needs and defenses
cause me trouble? What
conscious life plan can
replace my unconscious life
Self-awareness exercises, transactional analysis,
psychological reading, focusing, dream analysis,
self-understanding by writing an autobiography,
feedback from tests, friends, and groups, and
learning to accept oneself.
After reading a couple of "understanding-the-problem" chapters (3
to 10) that address your problem, and after reading the general idea
and purposes sections of "possible methods" in chapters 11 to 15, you
are ready to start working out a treatment plan for yourself.
In step 3, you have already seen how to describe your problem,
part by part. Now, you start developing a self-help treatment plan,
part by part. By first considering the pros and cons of using several
self-help methods within three or four of the most promising parts of
your problem, you can crudely draft tentative plans for achieving your
sub-goals within those parts of your problem. Jot down your self-help
ideas and add other methods as you read and think about solving the
problem. Talking to others will help you develop a better plan (see
brainstorming in method #11 in chapter 13). At this point, several
self-help methods should be considered.
Examples of the self-improvement planning process: Finding
Keep in mind that to become an expert self-helper, you need a lot
of practice analyzing problems into the five parts. And you need to
become familiar with a large number of self-help methods, before you
can quickly devise comprehensive self-help treatment plans. After
doing several self-improvements and reading much of this book, you
should be able to think of many possible solutions to almost any
problem within a few minutes, even though a good plan uses only a
For now, even without that practice and knowledge, let's look at
two illustrations of how to develop a well thought out treatment plan.
In the first case, Case A, a young man has a problem of being lonely,
fearful, and pessimistic, especially concerning the opposite sex. In
Case B, the problem is John/Jane again, i.e. procrastination and a
negative attitude towards school.
Case A: A lonely shy man
Part of the Problem
Possible Self-help Methods
1. Behavior: Avoids girls, has little to
Write a contract rewarding talking to
girls with TV time; buy a new record
album as soon as one girl is asked for
a date (chapters 4 &11).
2. Feelings: feels shy, anxious when
talking to attractive girls, afraid of
Use relaxation and desensitization to
reduce fear of approaching a girl to
talk to or for a date (chapters 5 &
3. Skills: doesn't know how to start or
end a conversation; unsure how to
ask a girl out.
Practice different approaches by role-
playing with a friend, observe others,
prepare for conversations in advance
(chapters 9 & 13).
4. Attitudes: has self-doubts and the
belief that it would be awful if a girl
didn't want to go out with him.
Develop a more positive self-concept
by reviewing and praising self for
good points; challenge the irrational
idea that it would be so awful that he
couldn't stand to be rejected by any
girl for any reason (chapters 6 & 14).
5. Unconscious: unconsciously hates
self for being so weak, suspects that
females are demanding, critical, and
fickle; afraid of being hurt in a
Look for the source of the self-critical
attitude (did parents put him down?
Has he been ignored--or indulged?)
Where does the distrust of women
come from? (Mother liked a sibling
more? Has been rejected before?
Afraid of sex or intimacy?) See
chapters 6, 7, 9, 10, & 15.
Case B: John/Jane--Procrastination
See step 3 for a description of the problem; this is a list of possible
self-help methods for changing John/Jane's procrastination:
Part 1: Behavior (Chapters 3, 4, 11, 13)
Self-confront and admit how serious my situation is; decide if I
want to become capable or stay a con headed for trouble. Have
an honest discussion of this with my parents.
Update a To-Be-Done List every morning or no breakfast.
Set up a schedule for studying. If I can't immediately start
studying 3 hours a night (I've got a lot of catching up to do), I'll
start with 1 hour and increase it 1/2 hour each week. My
reward will be time with my boy/girlfriend (they have agreed to
not let me cheat).
Reduce wasted time, stop cheating, stop insulting good
students. Use thought stopping and self-criticism to stop these
things. I'll self-praise my improvements.
Make friends with some serious students, try to see their point
Plan more good times with friends, but goof off and watch TV
Part 2: Emotions (Chapters 5, 12, 14)
Confront my fears and find out how smart I am. Do my best in
one course (4 hours of study per week) and see how well I can
Desensitize my anger towards school work and anxiety about
not doing well on papers and exams.
Challenge my irrational, self-defeating ideas about how stupid
school and studying is. Challenge the self-cons about being so
clever and so good with people. Remind myself of the deep
trouble I am heading for if I don't reduce my hostility.
Make studying more enjoyable by relaxing, eating, having a
coke, holding my boy/girlfriend's hand, etc. at the same time.
Feel better by being better prepared and by feeling proud of
better and honest work.
Part 3: Skills (Chapter 13)
Read about scheduling and time management so I can be
Learn and use a good reading method, such as SQRRR.
Learn to write better by writing in my diary every day and
seeking tutoring at the Writing Clinic.
Build my vocabulary and spelling ability by adding 5 new words
to a 3 X 5 card every day.
Concentrate on listening to others and responding with
empathy to be helpful.
Learn enough and then offer help to others with their
Part 4: Mental processes (Chapter 3, 4, 6, 13, 14)
Test out how much studying really affects my grades.
Study different amounts of time for different exams (record
this) and compare with grades received.
Stop myself every time I tell myself that social skills and
"image" are all that matter. Start being honest with myself
about needing to study more, being scared, etc.
Become realistically excited about my future by spending 10
minutes a day talking to someone or fantasizing about being
successful. Also, imagine failing or becoming a hated con artist
or total jerk.
Look out for excuses, rationalizations, and self-cons that justify
procrastinating, e.g. "studying doesn't help" or "I'll do it
tomorrow" or "I'll be hard working and honest just as soon as I
Learn to think clearly and make good decisions, including a
Develop a meaningful philosophy of life which I can live by.
Ask myself several times a day, "What is the best use of my
time right now?" Act on the answer.
Think of compliments to give students who do good work...and
Figure out ways to build my self-esteem and my belief in myself
as a self-helper who is in control of my life. Increase my
Part 5: Unconscious processes (Chapter 4, 9, 15)
Talk with Mom and Dad to see why he worked so hard and why
resented it. Share with them how I felt left out or rejected.
Find out how they felt about my anger and rebellion.
Increase my understanding of my procrastination and cynicism
by doing an autobiography and/or by keeping a journal.
When I resent a teacher and a tough assignment, I will tell
myself that this feeling is a harmful leftover from my
competition as a child with my father. It is silly for it to spread
Realize that I may have a tendency to self-destruct by
manipulating and lying. Send up a mental warning flare to
myself whenever I feel the urge to con someone.
Become more aware of the unconscious feelings and needs
inside me. Read about the unconscious self-destructive or
rebellious factors in others.
Get in touch with the child within; realize the destructive,
you're-not-OK, put-down games that child has been playing
and find out how to stop game-playing. Take care of my inner
OK, OK, if you are screaming, "NO REBELLIOUS PROCRASTINATOR
IS GOING TO DO ALL THIS WORK!" You are right. But you are missing
the point. This is simply illustrating how a procrastinator might
consider using many self-help methods. In reality, a procrastinator will
probably think of a few of these useful steps he/she could take
(especially if he/she reads this list and about procrastination as well as
motivation in chapter 4). Then, if he/she is ready to change, he/she
will decide to try a couple of the methods.
Deciding on your treatment plan: Make it practical and doable!
In keeping with all the research about good decision-making, I
have emphasized over and over that there are a large number of
possible sub-problems within each part of the overall problem--and,
therefore, a large number of possible self-help approaches to each
part, depending on your unique situation. IT IS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
TO KNOW MANY SELF-HELP METHODS. BUT, KEEP YOUR PLANS
SIMPLE! USE ONLY A FEW SELF-HELP METHODS. This seems
contradictory, but it isn't. To make a good decision, you need to
consider many options. But, your actual self-improvement plan must
In most of your problem situations, there will not be clear-cut
problems in every one of the five parts. In most instances, only two or
three parts of the problem will need to be changed. Concentrate on
what seems to be the crucial parts of your problem. For example,
suppose that you were John/Jane. You would certainly have to first
self-confront and decide you were heading the wrong direction if you
really want to be successful and respected. Then maybe (a)
establishing a To-Be-Done List and (b) a daily schedule with (c)
rewards, plus (d) a diary focusing on how you excuse your
procrastination and blame others for your problems are all the
methods you would need (as your first try). If these methods don't
work, there are lots of other methods to try.
Likewise, suppose you have frequent headaches for which your
physician cannot find a physical cause. Your self-help may concentrate
on only three parts: part 1, (behavior) observing the circumstances
that precede a headache to gain understanding of the causes, part 2,
(emotions) learning to relax to counteract the stress, and part 5,
(unconscious factors) using meditation or focusing (see chapters 12
and 15) to become aware of the repressed emotions that might cause
a headache. If repressed emotions are found, then they can be dealt
with directly. In brief, keep your initial plans very basic and straight-
Become a connoisseur of self-help methods; collect them, modify
them, invent them. READ other books related to your problem. TALK
to people who have solved the problem themselves, to counselors, to
friends, etc. Consider tentatively several methods to change each part
of your problem; don't just automatically select a method just because
you have heard of it. Don't just use the same method over and over
again, there may be better ways of changing. Also, use methods that
will not only solve the immediate problem but will also help you cope
with life in the future, e.g. decision-making skills, build self-esteem,
etc. Obviously, you can't learn everything you need to know in just a
few days, so for your current self-help project select the best two or
three methods you have found for changing two or three parts of your
problem. Then get on with it.
Unjustified emotional reactions--positive and negative--to
certain self-help methods
As you read and think about possible solutions to your problems,
you will have to rely on research findings or clinical opinions and/or
your subjective reaction to each self-help method. Often the methods
you believe will work best actually do, probably because you have
positive expectations. Trust your judgment (until the results come in).
As you get more and more experienced with self-help, your reactions
to certain methods will change, depending on how well they have
worked for you in the past. An experienced self-helper will adapt old
methods and adopt new methods.
You are likely to find, however, that from the very beginning you
have positive and negative reactions to certain methods which are not
based on real experience. For instance, some people think (without
trying it) that it is childish or overly mechanistic to reward their own
desirable behavior, feeling they should just carry out the behavior
because it is reasonable or right or satisfying, not because it is
followed by a silly little piece of candy. Other self-helpers are just the
opposite and prefer to concentrate almost entirely on rewarding
desired behaviors, feeling (without trying it) that speculation about
unconscious motives is, at best, a waste of time or, at worst, foolish
and destructive nonsense. Some people feel that they should just
naturally be good listeners, good empathizers, good conversationalists,
good lovers, etc. without having to learn any new social skills. Others
are insatiable social skills training "groupies." Still others are afraid of
groups--or think they can't learn anything from peers; only
professionals could tell them anything. Many people believe that a
complete, logical, compelling and moral philosophy of life should
magically form inside their minds without their having to study various
philosophies or debate moral dilemmas at length. Others are
constantly pondering the meaning of life; some find meaning, others
Still other self-helpers believe, like Freud, that unconscious factors
are the important determiners of what happens in our lives, so looking
for "games people play," for unconscious defense mechanisms, for old
emotional garbage, for sinister motives, or for "scripts" from early
childhood are the only parts of psychology that interest them. Often
these people spend all their time searching for their unconscious
dynamics and never bother to change.
What are my points? Recognize your biases. These emotional
reactions strongly influence the effectiveness you will have with
specific methods. So, use your "beliefs" in certain methods to your
advantage. In the long run, however, try to guard against having
unfounded biases or hopes; try all kinds of methods and fairly evaluate
them all. I have noticed that psychologists who have a negative
attitude towards some technique, such as projective tests, hypnosis,
NLP, dream analysis, etc., have more often never studied or used the
technique, rather than have used the technique and found it to be
ineffective. The world is filled with skeptics and naysayers. Try to be
open-minded and learn for yourself. Be sure your negative views of
certain self-help methods are based on facts, good research, or your
own experience; avoid having opinions based on comments from
someone else who is also inexperienced.
Avoid striving for the perfect plan! DO SOMETHING!
Don't spend too much time planning how to change. It can be an
excuse for doing nothing. Make decisions about goals and methods,
then get on with it! Again and again in this book I will tell you to DO
SOMETHING, meaning you need to take action. Often just simple acts
will produce the desired changes. There is a story about Milton
Erickson, an unusually clever and insightful therapist, being asked to
make a house call on a reclusive woman who never spoke to anyone
and seldom left her house. Dr. Erickson spent less than an hour with
the lady and found out she was depressed, felt unneeded and lonely,
and was so shy she arrived at church late and left early so she
wouldn't have to interact with anyone. He observed she had several
African violets in her modest home. So, as he left, he gave her this
prescription: "start growing more flowers, ask the priest to notify you
of every birth, wedding, and death in the parish, and send a flower on
every occasion." She did... and it changed her life. Many years later,
Dr. Erickson read a newspaper account of several hundred people
attending the funeral of the "African Violet Lady." It wasn't a complex,
deeply psychological plan. It was a great plan only because she was
willing to DO SOMETHING!
Learn the Specific Steps in Each Self-Help Method
Learn the details of carrying out the self-help methods
selected for your treatment plan, and try out your
treatment plan, i.e., DO SOMETHING!
The treatment plans, as discussed in the last step, merely identify
the possible self-help methods in general terms. To save words, many
of the methods are just described by title or brief label, e.g.
"confront," "schedule," "reward," "desensitize," "SQRRR," "decision-
making," "clarify values," "build self-esteem," "challenge your
irrational ideas...or self-cons," "keep a journal," "recognize put-down
games," etc. It is very unlikely--unless you are very well read--that
you know how to carry out these methods expertly. Indeed, you
probably don't have any idea what some of the labels mean. Don't
worry, chapters 11 to 15 will tell you exactly how to use each method.
For examples, the two people above (the shy guy and the
procrastinator) can find out how to apply certain methods (including
some that may not be used) by reading in these chapters:
contracting for a
clarify values and
Chs 4 & 14
awareness & diary
Chs 4, 11 & 15
sources of fears
revise life script
Chs 9 & 15
Obviously, step 6 is addressing the "nuts and bolts" of self-help.
You can't be a competent self-controller without knowing how to use
several self-control methods (you, of course, already know some).
Many of the self-help methods are fairly complicated for a beginner.
Not that they will be hard to learn (if you read carefully), but you can't
just "fly by the seat of your pants" either. You will need very clear and
detailed directions. Chapters 11 to 15 give step-by-step instructions. I
have tried hard to draw on the best books, the best research, and the
experience of the best therapists or self-helpers. This may result in my
telling you more than you want to know. That's OK, just read the steps
in bold print if that is all you need to know. These how-to-use
chapters also spell out the common problems encountered with each
method (by my students, by me, or by clients), the estimated time
needed to use the method, the overall research findings, the potential
dangers, and the precautions you should take with the method. This is
useful information. Some of these self-help methods may require
considerable practice before you can use them effectively. Others are
easy and ready-to-use.
Try out your plan; Attack the problem with vigor; Give your
plan a fair trial
Launch into a self-help project with as much zeal and optimism as
possible, but allow each self-change method enough time to have a
chance to work. Be realistic, don't expect miracles. For instance,
suppose you have been self-critical and have uttered to yourself 25
negative comments per day (1 or 2 per hour) for 10 years. That's a
total of 91,250 self-putdowns. A few positive, private comments forced
out of you by a skeptical, half-hearted self-help project aren't going to
wipe away a ten-year-old bad self-concept. What will? No one knows,
but perhaps 25 positive, thoughtful, genuinely felt self-appraisals
expressed every day for 100 days would be a good start. Then, add on
two or three successful self-improvement projects, and you will see
some genuine changes in your feelings about yourself and your future.
Even when you have a self-help plan and know how to use the
self-change methods you have selected to use, there is still the
problem of remembering to do the specific things you need to do. This
is not an unimportant or an easy part of the process. Often, self-
helpers are trying to stop a well established habit which can occur
almost without your awareness. Or, you are trying to respond in a new
way to a common situation you have dealt with automatically (or
emotionally), e.g. you may want to find ways to compliment your son
rather than yelling at him when he wastes time or is careless. It is not
easy to remember to make these changes. You have to control your
thoughts to improve your actions.
There is an area of experimental research that deals with
"prospective remembering," i.e. the ability to remember to do
previously formed intentions (like New Year's resolutions!). Much more
practical research needs to be done but here are some of the tentative
conclusions (Arbuthnott & Arbuthnott, 1999). Of course, it is great if
you are an organized person who keeps a daily appointment book and
schedules specific self-help actions at specific times and places during
the day. But, some of us aren't that organized; besides, many desired
behaviors just can't be scheduled in advance because you want these
responses to occur in unexpected situations, such as when you get a
compliment, when someone is inattentive to you or pushy, when your
boss or spouse is critical, when you are tempted to have a candy bar,
and so on. What can you do to remember in those situations?
It has been shown that daily mental rehearsal, perhaps as you are
brushing your teeth or putting on make up, of what you want to do
when specific circumstances arise is very helpful. Also, the kind of cue
we select to signal to ourselves that the situation is right for a desired,
planned reaction is important; good cues include a meaningful, maybe
emotional, event or situation that is specific and easy to notice or
unusual (to catch your attention). Example: when someone mentions
having a problem that can be your cue to give an empathy response.
As another example, Arbuthnott & Arbuthnott (1999) described a way
to make the time-to-act cue more distinctive and effective: a man
reduce his fear in several situations. They asked their patient to
imagine being frightened by a wild animal (he chose a dragon)
whenever he felt afraid, then he learned to associate the image of a
dragon with these relaxation techniques. This helped him remember
what to do when he got anxious. Self-control often requires
remembering many things to do, both to do in action and in your
mind, so you may need to learn some methods to boost your memory.
There is an old military saying: "A poor plan well executed is better
than a good plan poorly executed." Once you have developed your
general plan, it is important to carry out a plan that you consider
important with vigor. Learn to use the selected self-help methods,
then remember to apply the methods. Make your self-help efforts part
of your daily schedule. Remember, as discussed in step 2, to record
your efforts to change! Your self-change actions need to be compared
to your subsequent level of adjustment--are your efforts producing
results? Try to get "high" about making major self-improvements. Get
determined! Optimism and enthusiasm help. Reward and value your
Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has
genius, power, and magic in it.
-W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
Prepare for possible risks
If the description of the method in chapters 11-15
suggests any risk or if you feel that the treatment might be
stressful for you, for instance if it involves strong feelings,
upsetting memories, emotional confrontation with others, etc.,
make preparations in advance for possible undesirable reactions.
This might include having a friend stay with you, consulting with an
experienced person, or arranging to have someone to call, such as
a crisis phone service, if that is needed. The best "back up" service,
however, is not a net to catch you as you fall, but knowledgeable
information and expert advice in advance to avoid falling.
Measure and Plot Your Progress
Continue assessing your progress
Step 2 gets you started measuring and plotting the effects of your
self-help efforts. This step suggests you keep up the record keeping,
so you can decide if you are making satisfactory progress, and
determine what is causing the changes. It is easy to neglect the daily
recording of your progress; it is routine and unexciting; it might even
be discouraging. Try to sustain the record keeping by building it into
your daily routine or as part of a diary, or perhaps doing it before
dinner or at bedtime, and rewarding it. Measurement is not absolutely
necessary but it is helpful. It is absolutely necessary if you want to
truly do objective research.
Deciding if you are making progress
It may not be clear if your self-help efforts are working or not. First
of all, it may take some time to start getting results. Don't give up too
soon. Secondly, there may be some initial changes--getting better or
getting worse--that are temporary. Don't draw hasty conclusions,
these early changes may not last. Third, the change may be so gradual
or the results so spotty that it is hard to tell if you are making
progress, unless you measure. Don't rely entirely on your subjective
judgment; too often feeling successful is wishful thinking (Sorrentino &
Compare the results of your self-help efforts, if you have plotted
your progress on a graph, with the level you were at prior to starting
the project (called "baseline" data). If on 6 days out of 7 during a
typical week of self-helping, you are doing better than you did before,
you are probably (9 chances out of 10) making significant progress.
Pat yourself on the back. That's a crude method but it's ordinarily good
enough; see a statistics book for more sophisticated methods. Lastly,
some periodic review of each project may be necessary forever to be
sure you are maintaining your gains. For instance, over-eating tends
to recur, so dieting may be a lifetime endeavor. Check your weight
every week, and adjust your eating habits immediately if you gain a
pound or two. Waiting until the habit is out of control and you have
gained 5 pounds is a major problem.
Encourage others to check on your progress
Research is showing that "phone therapy," i.e. calling and checking
on someone's self-help progress, is beneficial. Calls have proven
helpful to people stopping smoking, wanting to exercise more, needing
to take medication as prescribed, etc. It is a matter of emphasizing the
importance of your treatment plan and your changing; it is a prompt
or reminder to carry out a new behavior; it is a way of saying "I care
Deciding what is causing the progress
A good self-helper learns what methods work for him or her. The
fact that you are successful the first time you try a particular method
does not prove the effectiveness of that method. The truth is that the
change may have occurred because you expected to get better,
because of some other event (e.g. talking to a friend), because the
problem was going away anyway, or because of many other reasons.
However, if a particular self-help method repeatedly and consistently
works for you, then it becomes increasingly convincing that the
method you are using, not some other event, is the cause of the
improvement. You might even want to stop your self-help efforts
(especially when changing behaviors and emotions) occasionally to see
if the improvement stops also. Even after "proving" a method works
for you, you still don't know if it is the most effective method available.
You must try out other ways.
Becoming your-own-researcher requires an inquiring, questioning
attitude, and a logical, systematic approach to discovering what
methods produce what results. If you faithfully record your daily self-
help efforts as well as the results in terms of how well you are
feeling/doing, there are amazingly rich and complex insights to be
gained from your data. Some excellent examples of the "daily process
approach" can be seen in recent studies (Tennen et al, 2000). For
instance, these researchers confirmed that the drinking of problem
drinkers could be predicted by their nervousness earlier that evening;
thus, confirming the "self-medication hypothesis." However, the
findings got complicated if they looked at more factors: moderate and
heavy drinkers drink less on stressful days if they had used active
coping strategies ("I did something to try to change the situation").
They drank more on stressful days in which they had used emotion-
focused strategies ("I let my feelings out today"). For most people in
this group, however, avoidant coping ("I tried to pay attention to other
things") during the day was not related to how much they consumed.
These conclusions can only be drawn if each application of the self-
help method(s) and the consequences are recorded.
In another study, Tennen and his colleagues divided patients
suffering pain (fibromyalgia) into three groups: recently depressed,
not depressed but depressed years ago, and never depressed. They
found a history of depression was associated with more pain, more
attention to the pain, more catastrophizing about the pain, and more
refraining from social, work, and personal activities when in pain. This
seems to confirm the "scar hypothesis"--that depression leaves scars
that interfere with coping. Interestingly, these researchers came to
believe that people often develop explanations of how-to-cope that
just don't fit with the actual observations of what worked. That's a
good argument for recording data and carefully analyzing it.
In a third study, the same researchers tested and confirmed the
"fallback hypothesis," namely, that emotion-oriented self-help
methods (venting of feelings) are less likely to be used unless action-
oriented strategies (trying to change things) are also being used. Only
by recording both self-change actions and the outcome of those
strategies can we truly understand self-help. Good research involves
thinking in a sensible and careful ways, careful and frequent
observations, and the use of statistics to help us (as well as
researchers) draw valid conclusions. The end product--useful
knowledge--is vitally important. You can do research.
Revise the Treatment Plan as Needed;
Deal with Resistance; Find a Therapist
If your self-help project doesn't produce the desired results in a
reasonable length of time, figure out what is wrong. Perhaps the
method needs to be used in a different way, e.g. a behavioral contract
may be demanding too rapid change, if so, reward changes in smaller,
easier steps. Or, perhaps another method would work better, there are
several to choose from in the same or different parts of the problem.
Or, perhaps you have lost your motivation or the "faith" you need in
yourself to change. Or, perhaps you are resisting change, there may
be subtle pay offs for your unwanted behavior or emotions. Several
chapters discuss the excuses we often give ourselves for not changing.
Seek professional help
If you are still unsuccessful after a couple of revisions of your
treatment plan, seek help from a friend, teacher, school counselor, or
mental health professional. Clinical and Counseling Ph.D. Psychologists
are the best trained; Counselors, School Psychologists, and Social
Workers with a M.A. are adequately trained and could probably be
helpful with self-help; some ministers are trained as counselors but
many are not; the family doctor is ordinarily not any more familiar
with self-help than you are. Do not be embarrassed that your self-help
has, thus far, failed. Instead, be proud of making an effort, including
consulting with them for help with changing.
Why don't we seek help? About 20% of teenagers appear to have
problems, but few seek professional help. Kuhl, Jarkon-Horlick &
Morrissey (1997) found several barriers: many teens believe that their
parents and friends are sufficient help; "Oh, I can handle it" or "it will
work out OK" are other thoughts that block seeking help; also "I don't
have time," "I don't want others to know," "people will think I'm
crazy," "it will cost too much," and "the doctor will tell my parents and
my school" are barriers to getting the help they need. Usually health
insurance will cover the costs. The therapist will explain to you the
confidentiality guaranteed by law.
How to Find a Therapist
How to find psychological help depends on many things: the nature
and severity of your problem, where you live, how many and what
kind of therapists are nearby, whether you are covered by insurance or
not, who is recommended by your Primary Care Doctor, Insurance Co.
or HMO, your financial situation, your past experience with therapists,
etc. A detailed discussion about the nature of therapy and how to
select a therapist is given by Dr. Bennett Pologe at About
Psychotherapy (http://aboutpsychotherapy.com/). A very different
view of "How to Choose a Competent Counselor" is given by Martha
Ainsworth at Metanoia (http://www.metanoia.org/). It would be good
to read both. There is also a book that gives advice about selecting the
right therapist for you (Finney, 1995).
(Note: I apologize for my focus being on finding a therapist in the
US. If any of you will send me information about how-to-find a
therapist in other countries, I will include it here.)
As a general rule, if your psychological treatment will be paid for
by insurance or if money is no problem, go see an experienced,
highly recommended therapist in private practice. These therapists,
usually Ph.D. clinical psychologists or very experienced registered
Social Workers, are commonly listed in the Yellow Pages, but so are
counselors with questionable qualifications. Thus, it is important to get
recommendations from people who know the available practitioners--a
School Counselor or Psychologist, a therapist at your Community
Mental Health Center, an EAP counselor at work, or the psychiatrist
who is prescribing your psych medications. These people's
recommendations are more likely to be on target if they know a little
about the nature of your problems. Sometimes, Primary Care
Physicians, Ministers, and friends or relatives who have been in
therapy know something about local therapists but often they do not.
(A therapist who is seeing or has seen a relative or a close friend is
usually not a good choice for you.)
If you are "on your own" looking for a therapist in private practice,
there are a couple of ways to go. One is to use the National Register
of Psychologists (http://www.nationalregister.com/), which does a
good job of checking each practitioner's credentials. The site is
searchable so you can find psychologists by state and by types of
problems treated. Another approach is to find the Psychological
Association Web site in your state using a search engine or by going to
the New York Psychological Association (http://www.nyspa.org/) site,
which has links to most other states. Many states provide a phone
number to call for a free referral service based on the problem and the
specialization of the therapist (all licensed).
There are many places on the Internet where you can get
psychotherapy entirely online. I have three personal opinions about
that: (1) if I had a choice of seeing a therapist face to face vs. writing
to him/her by email or in a chat room, I believe I'd benefit more from
the face to face experience, (2) while there are excellent therapists
available both face to face and online, it would by my guess that there
is a higher percentage of inexperienced, poorly trained, and
unqualified practitioners online than in offices, and (3) since most
HMOs and Insurance Companies do not, yet, pay for online
professional services, the expense to you is likely to be higher than
your co-pay for face to face therapy covered by insurance. Yet, for
some people there are important advantages to having their therapist
online. Here are a few fairly large sites which seem to select their
therapists pretty carefully: HelpHorizons.com
(http://www.metanoia.org/) (this offers a free checking of credentials
and a listing of online providers), Online Clinics.com
http://www.onlineclinics.com/), and others. Be aware that there are
hundreds of therapists who have their own Web sites and offer therapy
and advice--find them through your search engine and check their
There are also a few Web sites that simply help you find a therapist
personal assistance in matching you with a therapist and also offers
some good advice about how to handle a person who is reluctant to
seek therapy), Who's Who in Mental Health (http://wwmhw.com/),
MentalHelp.net (http://mentalhelp.net/ (under Services, click Find a
(http://www.4therapy.com/), and others. After finding a therapist, you
usually work out arrangements for treatment directly with the
If you don't have insurance/HMO coverage or other means of
fully paying for therapy, your best bet is likely to be your Community
Mental Health Center. Their charges will usually be based on your
ability to pay. Get their number from the phone book. You can also
find the location and phone number of your MH Center by going to
(http://www.samhsa.gov/) site. Then click on "Looking for Help," and
you will get to a Directory of Service Providers and to Referral Help
lines (try that). Then click on CMHS Mental Health Directory or on
Mental Health Consumer Resources where you will find KEN's state by
state listing. Eventually, you will get to your state and your local MH
Center. In general, you will find over-worked MA-level practitioners--
Social Workers and Psychologists--in state funded Mental Health
Centers. Most of these helpers know what they are doing, however, so
don't be bothered that they are not "doctors."
If you live near a major university or hospital with a large
psychiatric service, there will be psychotherapists-in-training. They are
usually well supervised, so as a patient you get the benefit of two
therapists. And the cost is minimal. Likewise, in a very large
metropolitan area, like New York City, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, LA,
San Francisco and so on, there are many specialized treatment
centers, e.g. for phobias, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, Borderline
Personality, Bipolar, addictions, headaches, etc., which always have
interns and residents who need patients. Likewise, there are
advanced training institutes, such as Psychoanalysis, Adler,
Gestalt, and many others. Ask any of these institutions for a low-cost
but competent therapist specializing in your kind of problem.
It is a good idea to carefully investigate your therapist before or
immediately after starting to see him/her. The degrees and state
licenses should ordinarily be hanging on the wall. If they aren't on the
wall, ask where and when the therapist graduated and got licensed. Be
sure to get his/her complete name and perhaps even the license
number, then you can call the state licensing office and confirm their
license (note that my biography on the title page of this book makes it
easy to confirm my credentials). Ask how much experience they have
had treating people with your problem. If they are in training or just
starting practice, ask how much supervision or consultation they will
be getting as you work together. If anything seems amiss or out of
line, bring it up for discussion with them (don't pussyfoot around, YOU
are the boss here; your therapist works for you). If you remain
doubtful about the therapist's experience, training, or ability to help
you, seek another professional's advice or just try another therapist.
Select your therapist carefully, just like you would a heart surgeon.
How do you know therapy is going well? Hard question. First,
sometimes it is obvious from the start that the chemistry just isn't
good. Try someone else. Sometimes, it takes a while to know how well
things are going to click. Good working relationships are a function of
both personalities, the skills, warmth, and techniques of the therapist,
the degree these two people just plain need and like each other, the
amount of trust and openness the patient can develop in this situation,
and so on. If the relationship lacks trust and warmth or if the patient
has little faith in being helped after 3 or 4 hours, it would be wise to
discuss these things bluntly so that improvements can be made or the
patient referred to another therapist. If problems do not arise until
after 6 to 8 sessions or more, a concerted effort should be made to
resolve the barriers--too much has been invested at that point to just
walk away without trying to fix it. Like marriage, this relationship
occasionally needs to be fixed. Oh, by the way, therapy sometimes
gets to the point where it just continues on and on without many
changes occurring. They may have become comfortable or dependent
on each other; the patient may simply believe she/he "should" be in
therapy. When progress stops...when all the benefits have been
gained...therapy should stop.
Time is a good healer
It is not uncommon for interest in changing to wane after a few
weeks. You may discover that the change you wanted doesn't seem
important any longer, that the benefits are not worth the trouble, or
that the new you isn't exactly what you expected. So, certain self-help
projects may just fade away. This is fine so long as you can honestly
assure yourself that you aren't running away from an important,
Sometimes it is best to simply leave the problem alone for awhile,
if the problem is tolerable. Most problems improve with time. Indeed,
some problems seem to get stronger as you struggle in vain to get rid
of them; then, without attention, the problem may gradually
disappear. Consider putting the persistent but mild problem completely
aside for six months, then re-think the problem and what to do about
it. In the meantime, work on other improvements.
Try to Insure that the Desired Behavior Continues
This is a small step, but it requires some conscious effort to insure
that the newly gained behavior is occasionally rewarded, preferably in
some naturally occurring way. Examples: the reluctant student who
needs to reward himself for studying will, hopefully, soon receive
intrinsic satisfaction from studying itself, such as intellectual
stimulation, new interesting conversations, pride in his/her classroom
and test performance, etc. Or, the person, who might at first be so
uncomfortable socializing that rewards, like a good book or a night of
TV, are necessary to overcome the shyness, should eventually find
socializing sufficiently satisfying to maintain itself.
Step 7 mentions the importance of occasionally checking for
backsliding. Like "phone therapy," another approach is to team up with
a buddy who faithfully checks on your progress, is tolerant of
backsliding, but urges you to re-attack the problem if it gains ground
on you. Losing some valued characteristic you have gained through
hard self-help efforts should be a loud warning signal. It tells you to
immediately plug the dike. Mend the damage soon or face a major
repair job. Chapter 4 discusses relapse prevention in detail; you have
to guard against the return of bad habits. Support from others is
important when we start to weaken. Keeping our failures to ourselves
reduces our motivation.
Maintaining your gains or regaining them involves the same kind of
self-help methods that enabled you to make the gains in the first
place. So, this book should be useful here too. Also, a book by Todd
Davison (1998), a psychoanalyst who believes that back-sliding after
therapy is inevitable unless one continues self-analysis, could be useful
in this maintenance step. He emphasizes the use of meditation,
journaling, and the importance of forgiveness.
Don't forget to celebrate your continued success (sometimes success is just
holding your own).
Learn from Each Self-Help Experiment; Use Your Knowledge
It is hoped that you will keep this book handy, using it frequently
for ideas concerning your problem-of-the-moment. With the passage
of time, as the result of your self-experimentation--trying out and
evaluating self-help methods--you will acquire a great deal of unique
knowledge about yourself and self-improvement methods. Make notes
about your preferred methods, what problems were changed
successfully, what methods failed, the techniques that were the most
fun, what parts of your problems seem to be the most troublesome,
what works with your spouse, the children, the boss, a colleague, etc.
A diary emphasizing "growth experiences" could be both helpful and a
treasure in later years.
As you gain confidence in self-help, you will depend less on advice
from friends, experts, and books, like this one, and become more self-
reliant. You will find yourself saying, "I needed help before, but now I
can do it myself" (Janis, 1983). That's great (as long as it is true).
Share your experiences and ideas with others. Find satisfaction in
helping others help themselves and in working together for your
mutual benefit. One of the most therapeutic things we can do is help
The art of helping oneself, although as old as the human race, is
just beginning to be guided by scientific studies. It will take thousands
of researchers and tens of thousands of studies to find the better
approaches for specific problems, and there will continue to be
individual differences so that certain methods work better for some
than for others. As science makes its slow progress and shares its
findings, you will learn from those sources but remain your own expert
and main source of help, a self-helper relying on yourself as a
researcher and as the best storehouse of knowledge about yourself.
That is a big order. Hopefully, this book, plus the personal knowledge
you can add to the book, will combine together with a little help from
your friends to produce a different and better life for you. Good luck.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we lived in a world without unfair
limitations, so everyone had an equal opportunity to make the best
possible life for themselves? For that to happen, society and families
would have to change. School and work would have to change. And,
each of us would have to learn how to produce changes in ourselves
when the opportunities were in front of us. All these changes take
knowledge and work. You can start anytime, though; you always have
yourself to work on.
After reviewing this chapter, you are ready to go to any
"understanding the problem" chapter.
References cited in this chapter are listed in the
Bibliography (see link on the book title page). Please note that
references are on pages according to the first letter of the senior
author's last name (see alphabetical links at the bottom of the
main Bibliography page).