Monthly Archives: July 2012

You Don’t Need Self-Esteem to Break a Bad Habit

Do you know how many people have called my show over the last 3 1/2 decades to tell me they could do the right thing in their lives if they only had self-esteem? 


People use low self-esteem as an excuse all the time:

“What made you do this thing instead of another?”
“Low self-esteem.” 

“How come you stayed with a guy who pummeled you?”
 ”Low self-esteem.” 

“How come you quit X, Y or Z?” 
“Low self-esteem.” 

But that answer is wrong, wrong, wrong!  It’s backwards – it’s making bad decisions that creates low self-esteem, not the other way around. 

Healthy self-esteem is like a tennis racket: if you hit the ball too close to the edge, it’s bad, but if you make contact with the sweet spot, it’s perfect.  High self-esteem is “a sweet spot between an unhealthy level of narcissism and harmful self-criticism.”  It’s right in the middle.  However, you don’t need self-esteem to change your actions, habits, or temptations.  

A lot of you have very bad habits, like eating at 10 o’clock at night, not cleaning your teeth, speaking before your think, and succumbing to temptations like cookies, cigarettes, and booze.  But you absolutely do NOT need self-esteem to change any of them.   What you need is a thing that gets put down, dissed, and discounted all the time: good old-fashioned willpower

And where does willpower come from?  You have to pick a motivator.  Your motivators are the values and goals in life that are important to you.  Once you have them lined up, you can change a habit no matter how much self-esteem you have.  Whether it’s dying from continuing to smoke or drink, losing weight, wanting to be a good role model, or being religious, whatever you decide is your motivator has to come out of your head, not out of the universe.  It’s something you decide.  Just ask people who have quit smoking or drinking, and they will tell you it was willpower, not self-esteem that made them quit.  Certainly when they were drunk and had to smoke 135 cigarettes every five minutes, self-esteem wasn’t an issue.

So, it’s all about willpower.  It’s not a big deal if you don’t have self-esteem.  It is not correlated to success, willpower is.  People with willpower have self-control and self-discipline, which helps them build better relationships, take initiative, and sustain their efforts over time.  And when you use willpower to accomplish something, you can say to yourself, “I did that!”  When you can impress yourself by achieving a goal and cheer yourself on, you begin a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious one.  Because if you successfully change a habit, then you give yourself more self-esteem, and it just keeps on going in a circle. 

Here are some steps to activate your willpower:

  • Make the decision to change.
  • Set realistic goals.  Goals can be like inchworms: once you achieve one goal, you move the goalpost, and then, when you achieve the next goal, you move the goalpost again…
  • Activate your willpower by using the thought of your motivator to guide your behavior.
  • Make a specific plan for change or join a program to help you change.
  • Bounce back from setbacks.  Just getting on your own case about a hitch in the road is not useful progress.


Quote of the Week

Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.
                 – Clementine Paddleford
                    American food writer

Thanks to listener Kim M. for sending in this quote for us to post!

All good things....

No Commitment When Shacking Up

I can’t believe The New York Times, with its hugely liberal perspective, actually published an article on the downside of shack-ups.  I was stunned.  The article, titled “The Downside of Cohabitating Before Marriage,” gives some stats that are simply mind-boggling:

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages – and more likely to divorce – than couples who do not.

The issue lies in the shack-up itself.  When people decide to get engaged, there’s a lot of thought involved.  They realize, “Oh my gosh, I’m making a commitment.”  They talk about babies and families, and where they’re going to live.  None of that occurs when people shack up.  There’s no decision-making, only sliding.  Shack-up couples slide from dating, to having sex, to sleeping over, to bringing their things over, to being there most of the time, to shacking up.  There are no concrete decisions with rings and ceremonies and families involved.  The two people have not and do not talk about what they want, need, and expect from each other.

The article also discusses how cohabitors often have different, unspoken – even unconscious – agendas:

Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage.  One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

You can see right there that shack-ups are just convenient and comfortable.  There is no desire for a connection on a deeper level.  A lot of people think, “Well, living together reduces costs.   It’s easy, and there’s no real risk.  If it doesn’t work, we’ll just break up.”   EXCEPT, they’ve already bought furniture and pets together.  A couple that thinks, “Maybe we will, maybe we won’t,” is not as dedicated as a one that says, “We do, we’ll commit, we’ll make it happen.”

It’s important to discuss everybody’s motivation: “I’m shacking up with you because…” or “My expectation is…”  As I’ve always told people on the show, you cannot have any expectations when you shack up.  It’s not a commitment.  Either one of you can do whatever you want at any given time, so expectations of marital behavior are silly, foolish, and self-destructive.  This is why there’s more mental illness, violence, and breaking up when people shack up.  Women especially start having more anxiety and depression.  They also experience more battering because their partners take their frustration and annoyance out on them.

Shacking up is not an intentional step — it’s just convenient.  There’s absolutely nothing of depth that people can count on.

How to Help Your Older Child Adjust to the New Baby

Helping an older child adjust to a new baby being brought home can be difficult.  I’ve got some tips for how you can acclimate your child to the new situation based on an article published in Psychology Today

First, inform your older child you are having a baby.   Then, you have to tell them why because in a kid’s mind, the first thought is, “What?!  I’m not enough?  You don’t like me and are replacing me?”  For example, you could say, “We decided to have another baby so you could have a brother or sister, and you will never be lonely,” or you could tell them, “When you come home from kindergarten, you will have a little playmate.”   Even if their sibling won’t be able to do much for a while, it’s still something you can have them look forward to.
Second, tell your child some kind of success story.  Say, “Mommy is such good friends with her brother, your Uncle George, and it’s nice to have a brother and a sister.  We want you to have that kind of fun relationship.”  So, you are setting something up for them that already exists that they can appreciate.

Next, reassure your child that love does not get subdivided.  If you have a pizza and half the pizza goes to someone else, the child knows he or she is only getting half the pizza.  That’s a child’s mind.  You have to tell the child, “It’s not like pizza or a cookie.  Love grows.  There’s always more, more, more.  There’s love for Mommy, there’s love for Daddy, there’s love for you, there’s love for aunts, uncles, grandmas, cousins, and the new baby.  Mommy and Daddy have so much love you’re not going to miss out on one shred of love.”

Also, it’s really important that you show your child his or her baby pictures.  Show them when they were first born, when you had to feed them, when you had to bathe them, etc.  Say, “See you couldn’t do this yourself when you were a baby.  Now, you’re a big kid and can do it all.  But at the time, Mommy and Daddy had to do it for you.”  This will help the older child understand he or she received the same kind of attention the new baby is going to get.  Reassure your child that over time the baby’s going to grow up just like them.  He or she is going to be able to do things by him/herself and won’t take up as much time.  You have to remind yourself of that too.  I had to remind myself of this too because I thought the rest of my life was going to be spent with a screaming kid.  But kids go through phases, and this one will pass.

Another thing you can do is educate your child about babies.  If you know a family with a new baby, bring your kid over there.  You can show your child how tiny, fragile and dependent babies are.  Show your child that everybody will need to be gentle.  Point out how babies can get really annoying and cry, but they sleep a lot.  Admit, “When the baby’s first here, he or she is not going to be able to play your favorite games.  You have to wait until he or she is older.”  But then, talk about the things they can do with the baby – take it for walks, sing to it, read to it, hold it, etc. 

One of the things to always point out is that your child will have a special role as a brother or sister.  Talk about how they will be able to teach their brother or sister the alphabet, counting, writing, and riding tricycles.  Explain how the baby’s going to look up to them as a brother or sister because they already know so many amazing things. 

It’s also really important to talk about their emotions.   The truth is sometimes they are going to feel left out, angry, and annoyed because they want the attention, and the baby is either getting it or just being noisy.  These are all normal feelings.  You have to acknowledge that they’re normal.  You can say, “Sweetie, when you feel like you need a hug, just come over.  When I’m feeding the baby, you can cuddle with me, and I can read you a book while the baby’s drinking the bottle or drinking from Momma.  But sometimes sweetie, you will have to wait because it takes time to put the bottle together (or whatever it is you’re doing) and babies can’t wait.  Big boys and girls can wait a little bit, but babies can’t.  So while the baby is a baby, there are going to be times where you are probably going to be a little annoyed.   But you’re a big kid and can do some things for yourself; the baby can’t do anything.”   When you lay out what all the emotions are probably going to be, then kids don’t feel ambivalence, guilt, anger, annoyance, and rage.  They are also less likely to act out violently.

Lastly, make your older child feel involved.  Tell them when the baby comes, it would be nice if they would pick out its clothes or bib.  That way, they feel a sense of some responsibility.  When you ask kids their opinion and give them some responsibility and power, it’s amazing how they get less petty because they still feel important.

Kids’ Allowances: Giving vs. Earning

When it comes to the issue of whether or not to give kids an allowance, there are two schools of thought.

The first school of thought says a child’s allowance should be associated with work:

“The only way you get money is to earn it; there is no entitlement program in life.  If kids have to work for their money, they also will start to understand and hopefully appreciate how hard it is to work and earn money.  There may even be a miracle that takes place, and they will start to understand that Mom and Dad have to work hard for their money as well!”

Up until recently, the American ethic has always been that the only way you get money is to earn it (of course, in reality it’s not always that way – anyone keeping up with the Federal government bailouts?).  Even though Cinderella didn’t get an allowance, she still ended up with a prince, the castle, and a very uncomfortable glass slipper. 

The second school of thought advocates for parents to divide chores into two categories: family chores and extra chores

Family chores are chores children have to do because they are members of the family.  They don’t get paid for them; their reward is an internal sense of accomplishment that helps them develop a work ethic.   
Parents can also create a list of extra chores children can do to earn money.  Extra chores will teach your child to appreciate hard work and understand that earning money involves work.

For example, your children shouldn’t get paid for brushing their teeth, keeping their own space clean, or putting their toys away.  If you child doesn’t brush his or her teeth or clean up, you take away a privilege like watching TV.  But all chores in the home, like setting tables and doing laundry, are paid for with a salary on a weekly schedule.  If work-for-pay jobs are not done, then there’s just no pay.

Here’s what I think:

I really don’t see a huge difference between the two schools.  I think an extremely modest allowance should be given based on your child’s age.  It should be just enough to pay for little small things, nothing major.   For example, they can’t go out and buy a new pair of cool shoes.  You should also expect them to do minor chores for their allowance, such as keeping themselves and their room neat.  Everything else they can earn by doing major chores such as setting and clearing the table, or dealing with the garbage, dogs, and/or yard.  I don’t think you should withhold allowance because they didn’t do something or annoyed you.  I don’t think money should be associated with that. 

For the major chores, create a list with a price tag attached to each chore.  You can even post it somewhere in the house.  The list specifies what things they can do and what they earn for having done them, just like a restaurant menu shows what a particular meal costs.  If they want to make extra money, those are the chores they have to do.  That way they earn their way.  If they don’t earn the extra money, and then say they want to go to some event and don’t have enough money, you just tell them that they need to think ahead the next time.  It teaches them a powerful lesson.  If you just give them the money, it teaches them no lesson.  Instead, they’ll just think they’re entitled, and they’ll be on their way to buying things they can’t afford.

In addition, tell them whatever they earn will have to go into a bank account, some of it will have to go to charity, and the rest they can keep, save, or spend.  Putting money in the bank teaches them to save.  Tell them they can’t touch the money unless there’s something huge taking place (e.g. when they’re 15 and want to go on a special school trip, they can pull money out with the understanding they won’t have it for the future).  The amount given to charity teaches them to be generous. 

By following these steps, you will teach your kids to budget and manage their money, and control their need for instant gratification.

Reasons to Get Married

A lot of people get married for selfish reasons.  They want to be free from their parents, ease loneliness, have sex, show that they’re adults, save or help someone else, attain citizenship, and/or have a baby.  They also might get married because all their friends are married, or they feel like they’re running out of time.

But all of these reasons are WRONG!

You should get married because you have a deep admiration and respect for someone else, and you are willing to help fulfill his or her needs and dreams.  You should get married when you’ve learned enough about a person and his or her family to know that he or she is emotionally and psychologically healthy, and you really want to share your lives together.  When you get up in the morning, you should look at your spouse and think, “What can I do to make him or her happy today and glad he or she is married to me?  How can I make him or her glad to come home to me tonight?”  There’d be a lot more happy people if all we did that.

This is why good marriage counselors don’t start off with the problems and the things your spouse does that make you mad.  Instead they ask, “What was there that made you fall in love?  What was there about each other that you admired, respected, and enjoyed?  What kept you together long enough to get married?”  
And then there’s the whole commitment thing. 

What’s the point of a commitment you might ask?  Isn’t it just a piece of paper? 

The answer is no.  Love without commitment is not enough to maintain a relationship.  In the beginning, rules about commitment are not an issue because the two of you are so overwhelmed by emotion.  But when you start having ups and downs and challenges, and you’ve both gotten a little lazy about being loving and supportive, the rules and expectations start coming into play.  When you guys forget your vows and promises to each other, everything else loses meaning. 

And that’s why marriage is important.  It’s the expression of commitment and devotion in public with promises.

Married people also eat better, take better care of themselves, and have more stable, secure, and scheduled lifestyles than unmarried ones.  Read more about how marriage positively affects your physical and mental health. 

And here’s an email Fiona sent me about the benefits of being married.  I chose it because she added a dimension I hadn’t heard put quite that way.

Hi Dr. Laura,

There are so many wonderful things about being married.  I would like to touch on two that I think are the most meaningful to me.

1. It is nice to know there is someone in life who is “for” you.  I am for him and he is for me.  My husband and I are each other’s cheerleaders.  “Rah Rah!, I’m rooting for you Baby…and thanks for rooting for me too!”  If someone asked me for advice on marriage, I would tell them to make sure you are both FOR each other.  It’s really an easy way to choose wisely.  If that quality isn’t present, you are not a match.

2. The second thing is this:  we are there to be a witness to each other’s lives.  We know each other’s dreams, accomplishments, failures, mistakes, heartaches, triumphs, tragedies, and ecstasies.  We know what is important to each other and what we both believe and what our values are.  We can say, “Yes, they were here, this is who they were, this is what they did, and this is what meant enough to them to fight for.”  I was a witness, I was there.

Reasons People Are Afraid of Love

Why are some people afraid to love?  I can give you a handful of reasons:

(1) Fear of disapproval
People fear disapproval.  Some of you are afraid of crossing religious, racial, national, political, educational, and social lines.  Some of you are afraid to love because you are gay.  There are all kinds of things people fear will make their families and/or the general public shun them — they are afraid to love because there will be hell to pay.

(2) Fear of being consumed
Some of us have a fear of being consumed, especially in today’s climate.  Let’s say you had a mommy who was way past “helicopter” to the point of “octopus.”  Her love meant you had no room…no space…no self beyond her tentacles.  Some people who grew up under that situation are a little afraid to love because they don’t want to feel that again.

(3) Fear of commitment
You’ve heard this a million times – some people just fear commitment.  Commitment is a conscious choice, but it is always faced with the challenges of an unconscious brain.  People may deny that they are in love because commitment keeps them answerable to their “conscience,” and the resulting guilt feels like it is too much.  There are ways you need to behave in order to get love in return and make love survive.

(4) Fear of loss
Some people have faced a lot of loss in life — rejection, abandonment, a parent’s death, suicide, being dumped by some idiot they met on the Internet.  They are afraid and don’t buy the “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”  They’re in the “it’s better to not love than go though all the pain again.”  It’s foolish, and their negativity will probably make a relationship end.

(5) Fear of disappointing   
There are people who just fear disappointing their partner.  They think, “When they really get to know me…when they see me naked…when they see I have problems, they’ll be disappointed.  It’s better to just keep my distance.”

(6) Fear of being found out
Some people don’t want to love because they are still searching for the perfect mommy, whether they are male or female.  Loving somebody is not the issue — being perfectly mommied is.  They will look for situations where they are perfectly mommied, but they don’t give love.  Just like a screaming baby throwing up food out one end and pooping out the other, they take but do not give love.

Additional information can be found here.

Here is a call I took from “Julianna” whose fear of rejection, which stems from her sperm donor father’s abandonment, makes her afraid to love.