The Most Common Problem: Low Self Esteem

  • You don’t speak up when you know you should.
  • You often feel guilty about disappointing someone else.
  • You aren’t sure you can do something new, so you decide not to try it.
  • You let others take advantage of you.
  • You are sometimes shy about letting people get to know you.
  • You often don’t let others know what you want or how you feel.


  • You have a deep feeling that you might be superior to other people.
  • You pride yourself on doing everything just right.
  • You are ashamed when you make a mistake or don’t succeed.
  • You are good at what you do but you sometimes feel like a fraud.
  • You are quite impatient when you have to wait your turn.
  • You are careful not to reveal too much about yourself.

Do any of the above statements describe what you feel and do? While everyone may feel some of those feelings now and then, all together the statements are representative of two distinct patterns of low self esteem. In simple low self esteem, the person feels inferior to others. The second group describes the pattern called narcissism. In narcissism, the person feels superior to others, but this is a coverup for insecurity about his or her own self-worth. Not feeling valuable, precious, and lovable is probably the most common problem which therapists eventually encounter after they ask a new patient, “What brings you in?”

People may say, “I’ve been feeling stressed out lately,” or “I think I might be depressed,” or even “My wife is leaving me,” or many other initial complaints, but often the root issue is the person’s innermost feeling about himself. It is also frequently a profound cause of relationship difficulties. Fixing self esteem problems does not happen overnight, but collaborating with a skilled therapist individually or in a group can work wonders and make a tremendous improvement in a person’s overall happiness and quality of life.

Relationship Repair: Calming Down

As John Gottman says in his book, The Science of Trust, “Every couple, in their daily life together, messes up communication, and every relationship has a potential ‘dark side.’ ”

It’s too much to expect that we can always have good communication with our partner. There are always misunderstandings, stress, distractions, hurt or angry feelings, and sometimes even just not hearing what was said. Even in stable, happy relationships, bad things sometimes happen, such as coldness, criticism, stonewalling, etc. Fights are inevitable.

But what Gottman found out in his research is that the thing that matters most for couples is their ability to repair things when they go wrong.

This involves your ability to remain physiologically calm during conflict, that is, your heart doesn’t race, you don’t start yelling, your palms don’t sweat, your eyes don’t dilate. In order to listen well and be understanding with your partner, as well as express your own thoughts and feelings in a way that they can be heard, you need to remain calm.

Can you take a deep breath or two and exhale slowly to calm yourself down? Can you soothe yourself by thinking positive thoughts, like “We will get through this,” or “I know he loves me,” or “I may have hurt her, but I am a good person and I mean well,” and, maybe, above all, “It is OK to make mistakes”? Can you quietly say to your partner, “Please don’t come at me like that,” or “I’m not trying to blame you”? As Gottman says, “The ability to create peace and the ability to self-soothe and soothe one’s partner are central to relationship happiness.

Can you do this? If not, what seems to get in the way? What are you feeling and thinking when you want to calm down but can’t?

4 Signs of a Troubled Marriage

The country’s foremost relationship expert, John Gottman, PhD, has discovered through years of research four things that some couples do which reliably predict divorce ahead for them unless they recognize and change these things.

  1. Harsh Startup
  2. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse”
  3. Flooding
  4. The Body Language of Emotional Distress

Let’s look at each one.

Harsh Startup

In a discussion or disagreement, someone gets negative, sarcastic, condescending or accusatory in words or tone in the first three minutes.  “I don’t know why I bother talking to you about this, but would you please pick up your damn socks!”

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

These are four negative behaviors that are lethal to a relationship.

  1. Criticism – “What is wrong with you?  I’ve told you not to do it that way.”
  2. Contempt – name-calling, sneering, eye-rolling, mockery, laughing at in a hostile way.
  3. Defensiveness – “Me?  I haven’t’ done anything wrong!  You’re the problem!”
  4. Stonewalling – one partner simply tunes out,  walks away, refuses to answer or acknowledge and disengages emotionally and physically from the other.


There is so much criticism, yelling, name-calling, contempt, blaming or general hostility from one spouse that the other feels overwhelmed, hurt, angry, helpless, often to the point where he or she just shuts down.

Body Language of Severe Emotional Distress

  • Heart rate elevate to >100 beats per minute
  • Adrenaline kicks in, ready for fight or flight
  • Blood pressure rises
  • Sweating
  • Higher thought processes (necessary for creative  problem solving) shut down

These behaviors tend to build upon each other, says Dr. Gottman, such that one leads to another in a mounting storm.  The good news is that you can learn to recognize and stop this pattern.  A good first step is to admit to yourself (and your partner) what role you might play in this kind of interaction.  Are you the one who starts it, so fed up that you can’t help taking a jab? Are you the one who gets outraged and defensive because the accusation seems so unfair?

Deep-seated emotional reactions like these usually take professional help to alter.  However, in my next article we’ll look at some of the important changes that make a big difference.  And, you can always look for one of Dr. Gottman’s excellent books for a complete explanation.

Why Should I See a Psychologist?

There are undoubtedly fine practitioners among each different category of licensed mental health professional. How can you make the best choice for what you need? Here are some reasons to choose a psychologist:

  1. Psychologists study the entirety of human development and behavior. To be a “Psychologist” in Texas means that you have a doctorate and have studied not only case histories and clinical observations, but also scientific research.
  2. Licensed psychologists have all conducted their own research into some aspect of human behavior. They are “scientist/practitioners,” and thus are always seeking what works best to help people grow and change.
  3. Licensed psychologists have the most stringent ethical standards of all mental health practitioners.
  4. Psychology doctoral programs last from four to seven years, all of it devoted to human behavior and the diagnosis and treatment of behavioral disorders.
  5. Psychotherapy is a major part of training for licensed psychologists; and psychotherapy is much more effective than medication for treating most psychological problems.
  6. If you do need medication, your psychologist will refer you to a medical doctor.
  7. Psychologists begin their clinical practica (actually working with patients or clients) during graduate school. At the end of their studies, they do a clinical internship, followed by a year of professionally supervised practice AFTER receiving the doctoral degree.
  8. To obtain licensure, a psychologist must pass written and oral examinations in clinical issues and ethical practice. Psychologists are the most highly vetted mental health practitioners. (It is so tough that there is even a funny You Tube video about it.)

Feeling comfortable with your psychologist or other mental health professional is even more important than choosing your medical doctor. If it doesn’t feel right, ask questions or try someone else.

You are looking for someone who really listens carefully to you, understands what you are trying to communicate, respects what is important to you and feels like someone you can trust.

Licensed Mental Health Providers in Texas

The many different types of mental health professionals can present a confusing dilemma for most people. The fact is, there are seven different types of licensed mental health professionals, in Texas, and there are many other unlicensed folks who hang out a shingle and offer help without having had to meet any state requirements for training, experience and ethical practice. I recommend that you look for one of these professionals, who have had to prove their expertise before a regulatory body whose job is to protect the public:

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) – has a master’s degree in counseling, including principles of human development, and has completed 3000 hours of supervised experience.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) – usually has a master’s degree, including the study of family systems theories and techniques. The degree requirements include 3000 hours of supervised experience.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) – has completed a master’s degree in Social Work, including the enhancement of social and psychosocial functioning of individuals and groups, and has completed two years of supervised clinical experience.

Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor (LCDC) – assists individuals or groups in treating chemical dependency problems. The LCDC has a two-year associate’s degree and is not authorized to treat mental health disorders or problems which do not include chemical dependency.

Licensed Sex Offender Treatment Providers (LSOTP)– must hold another mental health license and treats those who have been convicted or adjudicated of a sex crime or a sexually motivated offense.

Psychiatrist (MD) – is a medical doctor. This person has a four-year degree from an accredited medical school and the successful completion of a psychiatric residency program. This doctor will typically focus on medication in treating psychiatric problems. Some receive training in talk therapy as well.

Psychologist (PhD, PsyD, or EdD) – holds a doctoral degree from an accredited university graduate program in either clinical practice or research. All psychologists have been trained in psychological assessment, diagnosis and in different types of psychotherapeutic treatment (talking therapies) for various disorders. In Texas, a psychologist who engages in clinical practice must also be licensed, which involves a supervised internship, post-doctoral clinical supervision and written and oral examinations in practice and ethics.

Should I get counseling or psychotherapy?

If you are stuck and unhappy in your life, or in some area of your life, the simple answer is “yes.” Just a few sessions with a well-trained, skilled and kind professional might be all you need to get “unstuck” and move on with your life.

“But I like to work things out for myself. How could a stranger possibly help me?”

Of course it would be great to be able to work things out for yourself – most people feel the way you do about that. But, I’m assuming that you have already tried to do it on your own. It is not a failure for you if you haven’t been able to do it yet (see below).

A stranger who is also a skilled mental health professional brings an important set of “tools” with which to help you:

  1. Objectivity – Your psychologist can see your problem more clearly than you can, because she is not involved in the situation herself. Clients in counseling often get helpful new insights right away just by hearing an outsider’s perspective. Psychologists often hear, “I never thought of it that way before!”
  2. Knowledge – Psychologists (and other mental health professionals) know about normal human development, about how healthy babies grow into healthy children, adolescents, adults and seniors. They know what has to happen for a person to grow and change and be successful in life. They also know the many things than can go wrong, often with the best of intentions on the part of parents, and how these negative situations can cause pain and problems later in life. Psychologists also know what kinds of feelings, thoughts and behaviors lead to all kinds of good relationships – parent/child, spouses and lovers, friendships, extended family, and work relationships. It is usually easy for a psychologist to see what is going on that may have lead to trouble.
  3. Compassion – All human beings share many of the same hopes, fears, desires and other feelings. Most of us are doing the best we can in our situations. A good mental health clinician will start with kind and positive expectations of you, and, because of his own life experience, including troubles of various kinds, will likely have an ongoing underlying compassion for you and want to help you, even if you don’t see yourself as a friendly or likable person. Most capable mental health professionals view all human beings as inherently precious and valuable.

So, the longer answer to, “Should I get counseling or psychotherapy?” is “Yes, if you want the best chance possible of changing your life for the better as soon as you can.”

3 Tips to Deal with Austin’s Brutal Summer

Devastating drought! Raging wildfires! Burning heat that just goes on and on! Animals and plants dying. Has all this left you feeling a bit depressed? If so, you are not alone. This summer’s weather is a classic recipe for depression: a negative or painful situation over which you are powerless. There is nothing any of us can do to stop the heat or bring the rain. The “last straw” (we hope) was the arrival of the cool front which helped block the tropical storm rains we so desperately needed.

Actually, terrible things happen to people every day, and, while we can’t stop them from happening, how we cope with the things we don’t want makes a big difference in how we feel. Take the drought, for instance. If you just complain and do nothing about it, you will feel helpless, discouraged and maybe depressed. But, there are three important things you can do to feel better.

1) View this weather as a challenge rather than a stopper.

What we think has a profound effect on how we feel. “This is awful, and I can’t bear it” is one thought about the weather. A different view would be, “I don’t like this weather, but I’m not letting it get ME down!” The latter is a thought that reflects confidence, energy and resilience. It is likely to engender creative ideas and coping strategies that lead to action and a more positive mood.

2) Find ways to make even a very small difference for yourself or another creature.

What about taking action to help somebody? How about donating to Austin Energy for another Austinite to have AC or a fan? Perhaps giving someone who is walking a ride? Could you put out a bird feeder and a bird bath? Or adopt a dog or cat? Or help the kids hand water an elderly neighbor’s prized rosebushes? Take homemade cookies to your neighborhood fire department? Call your church or another local charitable organization and find out how you can help. Look online, choose one that sounds good to you and make that call! Two organizations helping fire victims are:

American Red Cross of Central Texas : 512-928-4271 or

Austin Disaster Relief Network Fire Victim Relief: 512-825-8211 or

And don’t forget to take care of yourself! This may be the time to tackle that chore you’ve been putting off. Or start planning a cactus rock garden in your yard. Or take up Yoga. Or get serious about finding a new doctor. Or take a bottle of water and go for a brisk walk in the nice, cool Mall!

3) Practice gratitude for what you have.

Think about someone you know or have heard of who was courageous in adversity. In spite of tremendous loss or a short time to live, people like this manage to keep on living and loving and daring and doing. They see life as a gift and find joy in gratitude for small, everyday things. Do you have enough to eat? Do you have a home? Can you go to bed at night without fear? Do you have a friend? What else is good about your life?

Yes, this has been a rough summer, and it’s not over yet. We still need rain. But we can be tough-minded, we can take action and we can count our blessings .

What are YOUR ideas?

LATE WORD: The fire danger is real. Plan your escape and pack a bag now. If you are told to leave, GO.