Our Environment Makes More of a Difference to Our Health and Mental State Than We Realise

It’s been over 9 months since I moved to Vanuatu to volunteer as a Clinical Psychologist with the Port Vila Central Hospital and the Vanuatu Government’s Ministry of Health. That means that I am over a third of the way through my volunteer experience.

The first 1–2 months were challenging and a little overwhelming with so many new things to learn and new people to meet. I was also feeling a bit guilty about the people I had left behind to have this experience—especially my old private practice jobs and the patients I had there.

Once I settled in, however, the following seven months have been some of the best times of my life. I’m not pushing myself too hard anymore. I am experiencing a great variety of opportunities with my volunteering work, helping people where I can. I am developing some excellent friendships too.

About two months ago, I returned from a two-week trip to Australia to attend my sister’s wedding. It was my first time going back to Melbourne since moving to Port Vila, and I was really excited to go back and curious to see if things felt any different after not being there for the prior 8 months.

Before I left Melbourne in August 2018, I was burning out. I had been highly productive and efficient with my work and was cramming a lot into every day and every week, but I was also stressed out and exhausted. My elevated blood pressure and constant fatigue were pretty solid indicators that my lifestyle was not going to be sustainable forever. I was also beginning to feel more isolated and disconnected from others and wondered if this was just a sign of the times, age, or environment.

Moving to Vanuatu for 2 years was the perfect way to find out. Port Vila is a really social place if you want it to be, as people are always willing to stop for a chat or a drink at one of the 400+ nakamals in town. Vanuatu is also said to run on “island time”, which means Port Vila operates much more leisurely than Melbourne. This isn’t so great if you want your 3-on-3 basketball tournament to start on time, but pretty great for reducing stress as long as you don’t worry too much about things that are out of your control.

The first thing that highlighted to me how much more relaxed I am in Vila is that when it came time to wrap up work to fly to Australia for my sister’s wedding, I felt so refreshed already that I didn’t even feel like I needed to have the holiday. That had never happened to me before.

The moment I arrived back in Melbourne, however, I felt stressed again and tired shortly after that. I don’t know if it was staying in the city, but many people were rushing and agitated both on the road and walking around. Everyone seemed to be on a personal mission to get from point A to point B as fast as possible because they had important things to do and important people to see. Even I began to get caught up in this way of thinking within a day or two, and it was hard to unwind and relax.

People in Melbourne also seemed to be off in their own world of headphones and smartphones, with very little interaction with anyone on the street. The few strangers I did smile at or said hello to looked at me like I was weird, and I was like, “oh, yeah…we don’t acknowledge other people here!”

Reverse cultural shock is a real thing. Sometimes it does take a while to adjust back, even longer than it takes to adjust to a new culture in a new place. For example, people from Melbourne often expect Asia, South America, or Africa to feel different when they first travel there. It is a much weirder experience for things to feel unusual in the place where you grew up.

My sister’s wedding was beautiful and heartwarming, and I couldn’t be happier for her and her new husband. It was amazing to see many of my friends and family again, and I hope to stay in touch with all of the important people in my life from Melbourne.

I just don’t know if I still call Australia home.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Could You Develop Your Own Guide to Better Living?

The Making of a Genius?

In 1726, at the young age of 20, Benjamin Franklin came up with a list of thirteen virtues that he wanted to live his life by. He then carried around a small booklet to track his daily and weekly progress against these virtues.

Franklin included an example of this tracking system as well as a description of these virtues in ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’:

T = Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
S = Silence: Speak not but what benefits others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
O = Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have it’s time.
R = Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
F = Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
I = Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
S = Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.
J = Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
M = Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
C = Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.
T = Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
C = Chastity: Never use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation
H = Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

That’s a pretty intense list to try and follow, and Franklin never seemed to achieve them all on any day if you look at his chart. But, on the other hand, maybe he still improved more from striving towards living by these virtues than if he hadn’t? It’s hard to know.

We know that Benjamin Franklin managed to do a lot in his lifetime, and he excelled at nearly everything that he put his mind to. Most people still know who Franklin is nearly 300 years later, and his face remains on the US $100 bill, so he must have done a few things right.

12 Rules for Life?

By now, many of you have probably heard of Jordan B Peterson and his viral self-help book ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’.

Here are his 12 rules, which make up the chapters of the book:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

I notice some overlap between Peterson’s rules and Franklin’s virtues. # 8 and # 10 from Peterson is very similar to Sincerity and Silence from Franklin. # 2 and # 7 from Peterson is similar to Industry and Resolution from Franklin. # 6 is similar to Order and Tranquility from Franklin. Franklin’s list is more personal and focused on self-discipline and resisting excess, whereas Peterson mentions children and animals.

Looking at the two lists, I’d take Franklin’s virtues over Peterson’s rules any day if I had to choose between the two as my guiding principles for life.

People seem to love Peterson at the moment not because his rules are what we should all live by, but because he is well-read, intelligent, articulate and confident. He is very sure of himself and not afraid to say things exactly how he sees them, which makes him a strong thought leader in a time of confusion and minimal external input into what a positive and meaningful life actually consists of.

But what if we could actually learn how to come up with our own principles and virtues for better living rather than trying to adopt Franklin’s or Peterson’s rules to our own lives?

How Do We Develop Our Own Guiding Principles in Life?

It is possible to develop your own guide to a better life in only three steps…

STEP ONE: Who am I?

To know what we want, we first need to figure out who we are (or, more accurately, what we see ourselves to be).

STEP TWO: What do I care about?

Once we know who we are, we must figure out what is important or meaningful to us (and what isn’t).

STEP THREE: How do I show that I care about these things?

We then need to figure out what actions we need to take and what systems or habits we can develop to help us live consistently by these values.


Our identity, or who we see ourselves to be, often consists of many factual things. It may include our name, our family, our nationality, our ethnicity or racial background, our culture, our class, our friends, our relationship status, our sexuality, our gender, our religious beliefs, where we live, where we work, what we do for work, what our interests and hobbies are, and what we like to do for fun or to relax. Most people can answer these questions fairly easily.

Different factors can shape the overall identity of one person much more than they do for others. For example, a cisgender straight white male may not consider that his gender, race, sexuality or culture play a big role in his identity. However, these factors could be huge for someone who is non-gender conforming or sexually fluid or from a minority cultural or religious group in the country they live in and have suffered stigma or discrimination.

1a. Take a personality test to help answer the question “Who am I?”

No matter what is important to you, everyone needs to construct a cohesive narrative or story about who they are. If you are getting stuck in describing your personality, there are many tests out there that can help you. Peterson and I agree that the five-factor personality model is probably the best personality test for the average person trying to understand themselves better. You can complete it for free at this website.

An individual’s scores on Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience are fairly consistent across their lives, so knowing where you sit on the spectrum of each of these facets is a helpful way to get to know yourself better. It can also help you work with who you are rather than against yourself when designing your own principles for better living.

Looking at my last IPIP-NEO results, here are my percentile scores on each of the five factors, ranked from highest to lowest:

  • Openness to Experience: 95th percentile
  • Agreeableness: 90th percentile
  • Extroversion: 74th percentile
  • Conscientiousness: 74th percentile
  • Neuroticism: 13th percentile

Here are all facets that I am in the top 11% in comparison to other males of my age from Australia:

  • Cooperation…… 99th percentile
  • Liberalism………… 97th percentile
  • Adventurousness…… 95th percentile
  • Emotionality……… 90th percentile
  • Altruism………… 90th percentile
  • Trust……………… 90th percentile
  • Activity Level………… 90th percentile
  • Intellect…………… 89th percentile


DESCRIPTIVE INFORMATION: I’m Damon Ashworth. I’m the middle child in my family, with an older brother and a younger sister. My parents are still happily married, and we all get along fairly well. I am a dual citizen of Australia and the United States of America but have spent most of my life in Melbourne, Australia. I am of Caucasian descent. My parents were both teachers, so that makes me from the middle class, I guess. My friends are predominantly from Melbourne, but I’ve made some friends when I lived in the US for two years and some good friends since moving to Vanuatu. I am currently volunteering in Vanuatu for two years as a Clinical Psychologist with the Ministry of Health and at the Vila Central Hospital. I identify as a straight male, and I am currently in a happy monogamous relationship with my girlfriend. I have been baptized as a Christian but do not attend any religious services. I love reading non-fiction books, listening to podcasts, playing basketball, volleyball and tennis, and being creative in writing and making music and movies. I love hip hop and some mainstream music, horror and comedy movies, and stand up comedy. I also love to be active, get outside and visit new places on holidays, and travel and snow ski when I can afford it.

PERSONALITY PROFILE: I am extremely high in openness to various experiences, including cultural, intellectual, emotional, and physical. I am very high in agreeableness and tend to do whatever it takes to have positive relationships with other people. I will always try to co-operate with others if I can. I like to challenge convention and try to help bring about progressive change. I prefer a lot of variety in my life and like to go on adventures. I am highly attuned to my emotions and the emotions of others around me and try to remain open to whatever I am feeling. I enjoy helping others when they need it. I trust others easily and strongly believe that most people are generally good and not out to harm others. I have lived a pretty fast-paced life and care about being both efficient and effective. I love to have in-depth discussions with others and enjoy playing with ideas and reflecting on important aspects of life through meditative practices and my writing.


Finding out what you care about is through the process of clarifying your values. Values are guiding principles in life that we cannot achieve like a goal but choose to live by each day. For example, someone who values honesty does not live consistently with what matters to them the moment they tell a lie but is consistent as soon as they go back to telling the truth. By clarifying which values are most important to us, we can know when we have gone off track and what to do to get back on.

2a. Engage in thought experiments to elucidate what is most important to you

An interesting experiential method to help patients identify their top values if they aren’t sure what they are is to write their obituary. For this, they would write what they hope would be said about them if they were to die after a long and good life. Whenever I think of writing my epitaph, all I come up with is, “Here lies Damon. He tried his best.” This tells me that one of my core values is applying myself to be the best that I can be.

If writing your obituary seems too dark or morbid, try to imagine your birthday party at least 20 years later (I choose my 70th birthday). All of your closest friends and family are there. Then, the most important person in your life gets up and makes a speech about the type of person you have been from today until then (over the past 20+ years). What do you want to hear them say? It can be a powerful exercise that often brings tears to people’s eyes and helps them realize the type of person they most want to be going forward, both to themselves and others.

2b. Take a strengths survey to identify your key strengths or top virtues

If none of the above activities interests you or help to highlight your core values, the Values In Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey can. It ranks your strengths from 24th to 1st and is quite useful in elucidating what you may want your guiding principles in life to be. You can find it on this website.

My Top Strengths

Based on my 2018 findings, my top nine strengths are as follows:

  • 9: Honesty, Authenticity and Genuineness
  • 8: Forgiveness and Mercy
  • 7: Fairness, Equity and Justice
  • 6: Creativity, Ingenuity and Originality
  • 5: Judgment, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness
  • 4: Humour and Playfulness
  • 3: Kindness and Generosity
  • 2: Curiosity and Interest in the World
  • 1: Love of Learning

My Top Virtues

Based on my 2018 findings, my top virtues are as follows:

  • Wisdom — Average score = 6.2
  • Humanity — Average score = 8.33
  • Justice — Average score = 13.33
  • Transcendence — Average score = 13.4


I care about being an honest person. I care about living my life authentically and genuinely and being a “real” person with everyone I interact with. I care about forgiveness and being compassionate to those who have wronged me. I care about being fair to others and not letting my feelings bias my decisions or actions. I try to give everyone at least one chance, and sometimes more, unless it is obvious that the other person does not want things to be equal or fair. I care about challenging convention and thinking of new and more efficient or effective ways to do things. I care about not jumping to conclusions and looking at the evidence and things from multiple perspectives before deciding the best thing to do. I care about being able to say that I am sorry and that I was wrong or being open to changing my mind if evidence to the contrary is presented. I care about not always being serious, being playful, having fun, laughing, or smiling with others. I care about being generous and kind with others and giving them my time and help, and undivided attention if possible. I care about learning new things and developing my knowledge and skills in a variety of subjects and topics. Finally, I care about maintaining my curiosity and awe, growing as a person and gaining wisdom, and using what I have learned to help out humanity where possible. This may be done individually or on a larger scale.


Finally, we need to assess how we have been living consistently with our core values or key strengths. In other words, how much are you currently being the person you want to be, and what changes can you make to move more in the right direction from now on?

3a. Do the Bullseye Exercise to assess where you are currently at

The Bullseye exercise, first created by Swedish ACT Therapist Tobias Lundgren, is the best way to determine if you are living consistently with your values in four key areas of your life: 1. school or work, 2. leisure or recreation, 3. personal growth or health, and 4. relationships (including with friends and family).

Keep your core values or key strengths in mind and say whether you have been fully consistent with these values in this area of your life (a bullseye) or if you have lost touch with your values (all the way at the outer circle), or anywhere in between. You can download a full worksheet here, or you can imagine placing an X somewhere in each quadrant in the picture below:

3b. Set up some sustainable systems and/or goals that would make you live more consistent with your core values and strengths in each key area of your life.

Once you have identified where you stand on each quadrant of the bullseye, ask yourself what you can do over the next 1–2 weeks (short-term), next 1–3 months (medium-term) or next 6–18 months (long-term) that would help you to feel like you are living more consistently with your core values or key strengths. For example, this could be designing new working, eating or sleeping goals and targets.

If you do set goals, make sure that they are SMART:


Work is going really well for me, although it would help setting weekly goals for myself and assess my progress against these goals to determine my efficiency and productivity. I will do this each Monday at 8 am. For leisure, we have been visiting beaches more frequently recently, and I want to get to the beach at least once each weekend if possible with other people so that we can enjoy our time together. I want to see new beaches at least once a month if possible to explore different parts of Vanuatu. For relationships, I want to schedule time in my calendar each month dedicated to keeping in touch with all my family and friends back in Australia. Lastly, I have not been as active as I would like to be for personal growth and health, and my lower back has been sore as a result. I want to get back into swimming at least once a week and stretch every time I go to the gym or play basketball.

As you achieve your goals or put your systems into place, you are showing yourself and others that you know who you are and what is important to you. You will begin to feel that you are heading in the right direction towards a more personally meaningful and satisfying life. You will have created your own guide to better living!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

10 Bits of Advice I’d Give My 10-Year-Old Self

When I was ten, I was in grade four at primary school. I was one of the tallest kids in the class and fairly skinny and uncoordinated.

I loved sport and computer games. I enjoyed living where I did in the northeast suburbs of Melbourne and had some good friends that I spent a lot of time with.

I was not too fond of school, talking on the phone, doing chores around the house, and my little sister. I also tried to take sick days from school fairly regularly with a sore tummy that I only realised years later was actually anxiety. I’d had a horrible teacher the year before who really didn’t seem to like me and had no idea how to cope.

Here are the first ten thoughts that come to mind that I would say to myself if I could go back in time and have a chat with my ten-year-old self:

1. Before you do anything else, breathe

I know you worry a lot and stress yourself out by overthinking, but you don’t have to have all the answers yet, or maybe ever. So before you do something you may regret, stop, take ten slow, deep breaths into and out of your belly, and try to breathe out all the air with each breath. Then see how you feel and what you can do.

2. Focus on one thing at a time

I know that you feel that you have too many things to do and not enough time. But multitasking is a myth and will stress you out more. Instead, determine whatever is most important to you in any given moment, and then try to put all of your intention and effort into that until it is complete, or you need to take a break or have a rest or something more important comes along.

3. Don’t always believe what your thoughts tell you

I know that you personalise things a lot and catastrophise or imagine the worst. Some things are your fault, but many things are not. You are not “bad” or “evil”, but you can do some pretty mean things if you want to. You’re also probably not going to die about the homework assignment that you forgot to save on your computer. Start meditating 10 minutes a day before you go to bed, and you will be successfully understanding your thoughts and managing your emotions in no time.

4. Write things down

I know you feel that your mum and dad don’t always understand you, but you can learn to understand yourself through reflection. First, write down 3 things that you are grateful for every day. Then, make a plan to address any concerns or worries before they all build up and become overwhelming for you. If you spend 5–10 minutes writing in a journal every day, you won’t regret it. Also, learn how to use a calendar or diary as soon as you can. Good organisational habits now will make life much easier for you later on.

5. Don’t forget to have fun

I know that you are super competitive and hate to lose, but basketball, swimming, tennis, baseball or any other sport that you do is meant to be fun. Practice isn’t always fun as that’s focused on helping you get better, but if you don’t enjoy competing or playing the games, find another sport that you think you will enjoy, and put more time into that. You are not going to be a professional athlete who gets paid, and that is okay. Sport is a very healthy hobby to have, and if you can enjoy it, it’s even better.

6. It’s okay to make mistakes, get rejected or fail

I know that you struggle not being very good at something. Even though it doesn’t feel that good to be a novice or a beginner, the only way to become good at something is to first be okay at sucking at it. If you can persist through the sucking part, you will become a lot better over time, not suck so much eventually, and probably even enjoy it. So keep playing and practising guitar and trombone, drawing and being creative, and paying attention in Italian class. It’s pretty cool to make art and speak multiple languages, and easier to learn when you are still young. Also, take French at high school, not Indonesian.

7. Keep reading and learning outside of school

I know you don’t like school much at the moment, but don’t just let your teachers dictate what you should learn. If something interests you, explore it further. If you have questions that you want to answer, see if you can find the answers in books. There are a lot of wise people that have clarified their thoughts and written them down for you. Their words will help you a lot as you get older, and fostering curiosity and a love of learning at your age is awesome. If mum wants to teach you how to cook, bake, clean, iron, sew, listen to her, watch what she does, try it and get feedback until you know what you are doing. The same goes with dad trying to teach you about sport, cars, gardening and making things with tools. You won’t regret having these skills once you move out on your own.

8. Make time for friends and family

I know that playing video games is fun, but technology shouldn’t replace face-to-face contact with other people. Be interested in people more than you are in things. You will learn a lot from them, and it will make you happier if you are yourself and they appreciate you for it. Your family won’t always be around as much as they are now, so try to enjoy the time you have with them even though they can all be annoying at times. And be nice to your sister. It’s not her fault that she is cuter and more extroverted than you. She’ll actually turn out to be a pretty cool person and a good friend to you one day.

9. Invest in index funds

I know that it is fun to spend money if you have it, but saving and investing doesn’t have to take much time and effort and is worth it. No matter how much money you earn or are given, put 10% aside and stick it into an index fund. The power of compounding interest means that you will be setting yourself up for your financial future, giving you more freedom to do the things you want to do when you are older without worrying about money. You probably won’t feel like you are sacrificing much, but the long-term benefit will be great.

10. Try to be the best you that you can be; everyone else is taken

You often compare yourself to others and don’t feel like you are as good or as lovable as them. The truth is you will never be as good as your brother at being your brother, so don’t even try. Rather than comparing yourself to who others are today, try to compare yourself to who you were yesterday. As long as you strive to be a better person each day, that is all you can do, so be proud of yourself for who you are and for the effort you put in. Although it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, know that mum and dad are proud of you and love you too, even if they don’t always show it in the way you want them to. Your life will be pretty cool in the future, and it doesn’t just get harder and harder, so try not to worry about the future too much. Focus on what is in your control each day, and the future will take care of itself!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Why 18 is the New 15: The Negative Consequences of Always Wanting Our Children to Feel Special and Safe

In 1970, children were thought to be ready to enter Grade One at Primary or Elementary School when they could travel independently around their neighbourhood for 4–8 blocks from their house.

This included 6-year-olds being able to go to the shops and buy things by themselves, or walk or ride to school if it was close enough, and knowing how to explain to a police officer where they lived if they were asked.

These days, the police officer would probably arrest the parents for neglect if a 6-year-old child was found 4 blocks from home by themselves.

Times have changed, but is this always a good thing for our children?

I remember having a lot of freedom growing up. My mother would let me and my siblings play down at the park by ourselves two blocks away from our house. My brother was 7 or 8, I was 5, and my sister was 2 or 3. We weren’t entirely alone. According to my mother, we had a pet Rottweiler watch over us too, and “she would never have let anyone hurt you kids!”.

We rode or walked ourselves to and from school when my brother was in grade 5, I was in grade 3, and my sister was in grade 1. It wasn’t just a bike path either. We had to ride on roads, cross over a river and railway tracks, and not even at a designated crossing. Both my parents had to work, though, so it was just what was done.

After school, we’d come home, open the door by ourselves, make a snack, and play some games or watch TV until our parents came back from work. We were “latch key kids”, and I don’t think we minded too much at all.

Growing up, we played outside unsupervised by adults all the time. Running around with the other kids on the street, playing a sport or making up games, having waterbomb fights during the day or playing spotlight at night. We’d ride to the milkbar whenever we felt like ice cream or a snack and even did a paper round in the neighbourhood with my brother a few times well before we were old enough to work legally.

Granted, there were a few scraped knees and maybe some storm drains that we shouldn’t have gone down. But I knew how to make my way all over town to all my friend’s places on a bike by my 10th birthday. To me, exploring places either by foot or on my bike with my friends and without any parents around were some of the best memories of my childhood.

Fast forward to 2019, and most children will have to wait until they leave their family home to get the same amount of unsupervised time outside that I had before I was a teenager. They spend less time hanging out with their friends in person, and any time they spend is likely to be supervised by their parents or done alongside them, even when they go to the local shopping mall.

In her excellent book, ‘iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood’, the author Jean Twenge says that as a result of the reduced freedom for our youth, the typical 18-year-old in 2019 is similar in maturity levels to what a 15-year-old was back in 1970.

These days, children and adolescents are less capable of living, socialising, or working independently than the previous generations and are suffering more psychologically as a result.

Depression, anxiety, narcissism and deliberate self-harm have all been increasing, and dramatically so since 2012. Unfortunately, this also happens to coincide with the widespread proliferation of smartphones into our society.

If parents should be concerned about anything when it comes to the safety of their children, it is about what they are getting up to online. Adolescent girls appear to be particularly impacted by the introduction of the smartphone and the increased usage of social media that comes with this. As a result, suicide rates among teenage girls have risen to the point where they are now similar to suicide rates in boys of the same age.

What would you prefer to build in a child?

A. A conviction that they are amazing, just the way they are?


B. A belief that they can face and overcome most of the challenges they face in life if they learn from setbacks and feedback and apply themselves?

You may answer both, but if you had to choose one, what would it be?

Self-esteem (A), which is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:

“a confidence and satisfaction in oneself”


Self-efficacy (B), which Psychologist Albert Bandura defined as:

“the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the sources of action required to manage prospective situations.”

After decades of research, we now know that focusing on building a child’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem (A) at the expense of improving their capacity and self-efficacy (B) in learning and doing things by themselves can have some adverse side effects.

Research on Self-Esteem:


  • Low self-esteem is linked with increased violence, teenage pregnancy, suicide, low academic achievement and increased rates of school dropout (Misetich & Delis-Abrams, 2003)
  • Living alone, being unemployed, having low socioeconomic status or having a disability is linked to lower self-esteem (von Soest, Wagner, Hansen & Gerstorf, 2018)
  • 70% of girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way (Dove Self-Esteem Fund, 2008)
  • Teenagers with low self-esteem have less resilience and a greater sense of hopelessness (Karatas, 2011)


  • People with healthy self-esteem are more resilient and able to respond helpfully and adaptively to disappointment, failure and obstacles (Allegiance Health, 2015)
  • In China, self-esteem significantly predicted life satisfaction (Chen, Cheung, Bond & Leung, 2006)
  • School programs that build self-esteem in primary school children also reduce problem behaviours and strengthen connections between the students (Park & Park, 2014)


  • Abraham Maslow put self-esteem as a need in his hierarchy of needs pyramid. However, later in his career, he noted that individuals with high self-esteem are more apt to come late to appointments, be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending, more likely to accept an offered cigarette, and much more willing to make themselves comfortable without bidding or invitation.
  • Carl Rogers, another Humanistic Psychologist, got so sick of new staff coming into his Western Behavioural Sciences Institute with no desire or ability to work that he once sent out a letter that said, “less self-esteem please; more self-discipline!”
  • People with fragile or shallow high self-esteem are no better off than individuals with low self-esteem. They engage in exaggerated tendencies to protect, defend and enhance their feelings of self-worth (Kernis, 2008)
  • Academic performance is weakly related to self-esteem, with some students doing worse academically after their self-esteem increased (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger & Vohs, 2005)

Baumeister has looked extensively into the issues with some types of high self-esteem. He found that:

  • Students with high self-esteem tend to overestimate their abilities. They also like to boast to others about what they can do.
  • High self-esteem doesn’t make people more attractive to others; it just makes the individual think they are more attractive
  • Bullies at school and work tend to have higher reported levels of self-esteem
  • People with high self-esteem are more likely to take risks and engage in unprotected sex. They tend to be impulsive and not think through the consequences of a decision before acting
  • People with high self-esteem are more likely to be prejudiced against others. They tend to be smug and superior when interacting with others
  • People with high self-esteem are less likely to work through and overcome relationship conflicts. They can be abusive in relationships and assume their needs come first no matter what situation they are in
  • People with high self-esteem seem blind to their own faults and are less likely to learn from experience, change or improve themselves

Research on Self-Efficacy:


  • A meta-analysis of over 100 studies found a moderately strong correlation (.38) between self-efficacy and job performance (Stakjovic & Luthans, 1998)
  • Another meta-analysis found that high self-efficacy is related to better emotional stability and greater job satisfaction (Judge & Bono, 2001)
  • Greater self-efficacy leads to less burnout for teachers (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2007)
  • Increased self-efficacy in nurses can improve their work performance, reduce turnover rates and protect them from exhaustion (Fida, Laschinger & Leiter, 2018)


  • High optimism and self-efficacy in students lead to better academic performance, greater coping with stress, better health, and more satisfaction with school (Chemers, Ju & Garcia, 2001)
  • Increased self-efficacy leads to more enthusiasm and commitment to learning in students who had previously been struggling to read (Margolis & McCabe, 2006)


  • Patients with cancer with high self-efficacy adjust to their diagnosis better and are more likely to adhere to their recommended treatment (Lev, 1997)
  • Patients with high self-efficacy who have joint replacement surgery exercise more frequently and improve their performance more after the surgery (Moon & Backer, 2000)
  • Improving self-efficacy can increase how much previously sedentary adults exercise, which then enhances their overall health (McAuley, 1992)
  • Parental self-efficacy can reduce the risk of postpartum depression in new mothers (Cutrona & Troutman, 1986)
  • Low self-efficacy is related to anxiety (including social anxiety and panic attacks) and depressive symptoms (Muris, 2002)

The Coddling of the American Mind

This fascinating 2018 book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explains that we have fallen prey to three cognitive distortions that have made the children of the iGeneration less prepared for the real world, more narcissistic, and more likely to suffer from emotional and mental disorders.

The three cognitive biases are:

  1. “What doesn’t kill us makes us weaker” — therefore, we need to protect our children from everything and make sure that they are safe and free from emotional pain at all times,
  2. “Always trust your feelings” — so if you feel something, it must be right, and if something offends or upsets you, it must be the other person’s fault, and
  3. “The world is made up of good people and bad people” — therefore, you must try to call out and take down anyone who has a different point of view because you are precisely right and they are clearly wrong.

We now try to protect children from every danger, monitor and structure all play so that children never get hurt or bullied, and avoid any criticism or activities that may dent their ego.

We tell them that whatever they think and feel must be right and to believe in themselves. We say this even though Psychologists and Behavioural Economists know that there are nearly 100 different biases that the majority of humans fall into, including emotional reasoning, loss aversion, catastrophising and all-or-nothing thinking.

At schools, all children are made to feel like winners regardless of how they do, and they all receive participation awards or student of the week prizes at some point during the year so that no one feels left out or inferior. As a result, 40% more students now receive As for their subjects than they did in the 1970s, even though SAT scores have declined in this same timespan.

What Can We Do?

I’d rather have my children go to a school where teachers are more like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Here’s an excerpt from his excellent commencement address to his son’s year 9 graduating class in 2017:

From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

I want our kids to learn life lessons that help them gain the skills and knowledge required to function as independent adults in the world.

I want children to be both physically and mentally healthy and suffer less from emotional and psychological disorders.

I want them to develop high self-efficacy and a belief that they can do something by trial-and-error and effort rather than assuming that they are great no matter what they can do.

How Do We Build Self-Efficacy?

According to Bandura and Akhtar (2008), there are four main ways to build self-efficacy in our children’s lives. We can do this through:

  1. Mastery experiences: Ensure that your child has regular opportunities to take on and tackle new and challenging tasks that are just outside their current level of comfort and competence. By pushing themselves with these tasks, they will grow and gain more self-efficacy than repeating something they already know how to do.
  2. Vicarious experiences: Ensure that your children have positive role models or mentors that they can observe doing the things you want them to know how to do. This could be you, another family member, a friend of yours or a coach. Because you are likely to spend more time with them than other people, it is essential to model the behaviours, mindset and skills you want them to learn. If you do this, they can learn from you, emulate what you do, and then get feedback on how they are going and how they can keep improving these skills.
  3. Verbal persuasion: The type of words used in self-talk and with others can play a significant role in how much self-efficacy one feels. Like Dr Carol Dweck says, in promoting a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset, we need to praise effort and what children do (their actions and intentions) rather than who they are as a person or what the outcome was. This builds up a greater desire to take on more challenging tasks in the future instead of the fear of being wrong, not succeeding, or not being “smart enough”.
  4. Emotional and physiological states: We need to focus on the overall mental and physical health and well-being of children. If they are sick, tired, sleepy, hungry, stressed, depressed or anxious, it will be more challenging for them to maintain a high level of self-efficacy, and belief in their ability to successfully tackle a challenge will decrease. By helping children look after the other areas of their health, they are more likely to have the energy and confidence to take on whatever is in front of them, overcome setbacks, and persist until they have achieved their goals.

For more information and ideas on how to help kids to build resilience and self-efficacy, please visit the Let Grow website or learn more about the Free Range Kids’ Movement.

Crime rates are now at their lowest point since 1963. Thanks to many societal changes, your children are definitely safer than you were growing up, yet they have way less freedom. Would you be willing to supervise your children a bit less and let them do more by themselves or with their friends if it helped them grow into independent, resilient and capable adults?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Why Bother Overcoming Fears?

Last weekend I managed to complete my PADI Open Water SCUBA Diver Course:

PADI Temporary Card

Open Water Diver

Name: Damon K. Ashworth

Diver No.: 1902AA8575

Cert Date: 16-Feb-2019
Instructor Number: 305944

Store/Resort Name: Big Blue

Store Number: 36279

This person has satisfactorily met the standards for this certification level as set forth by PADI.

It was a pretty big challenge for me since I don’t really like being on boats and find it scary just swimming out in the middle of the ocean. But, I did it because a close friend asked me if I would be her dive buddy for the course, and I thought there would be no better opportunity than when I am already living in Vanuatu, home to some of the best dive sites in the world.

To get your Open Water Card, you need to pass many theory tests about diving, and you need to complete 24 skills in a pool and then replicate these skills out in the open water across four dives. We saw a shipwreck, some amazing coral and sea life, and even a few small reef sharks during the open water dives.

The scariest part to me was when I was up to 18 metres underwater, knowing that I’d need to stop for 3 minutes at 5 metres on the way up and ascend slowly to avoid decompression sickness. It meant that if I felt a bit anxious or panicky for whatever reason, I couldn’t just get out to the surface straight away and start gasping for air. Instead, I had to remain calm, breathe slowly and steadily using my regulator, put some confidence in my divemaster who was guiding us through the training and focus on whatever was in my control instead of worrying about things that were out of it.

It’s done now, and I completed the dives and all the skills successfully. Some moments were pretty cool, especially seeing the wreck and the sea life on the coral reef. In general, though, I didn’t love it and was utterly exhausted and a little bit relieved once I did it.

So how do I know if it was worth it? Should I have bothered challenging myself to do something where I actually worried that I could have died if something went badly wrong?

When Is It Worth Facing Your Fears?

The answer is it depends. It depends on:

  1. What are you afraid of?
  2. How afraid you are (on a scale from 0 = no anxiety at all to 10 = completely overwhelmed and having a panic attack)?
  3. How safe or dangerous the thing you are afraid of actually (or realistically) is? and
  4. How much of an impact will it have on your quality of life if you do not face up to your fear or try to overcome it?

If what you fear has a low risk of actually occurring AND the activity is quite safe even though it feels scary AND not doing it has a significant negative impact on your life, IT IS WORTH TRYING TO CHALLENGE YOURSELF AND FACE YOUR FEARS.

For me:

  1. I think the fear of SCUBA diving was dying.
  2. The thought of actually going SCUBA diving increased my anxiety to a 7/10, which is quite high but not quite at the panic stage.
  3. The 2010 Diver’s Alert Network Workshop Report found that only one-in-211,864 dives end in a fatality. This makes diving riskier than flying in an aeroplane or riding a bike but much less dangerous than driving a car, skydiving, or running a marathon. We’re even more likely to die from walking or falling on stairs than we are from SCUBA diving.

4. If I never went SCUBA diving, I doubt that it would have reduced my quality of life in any way. I did it mostly because I wanted to spend time with my friend, and I wanted to challenge myself to face my fears, as not being able to withstand my concerns would have a substantial negative impact on my quality of life.

Based on the above information, I am glad to get my PADI Open Water Certificate. I’m not too sure if I will ever go again, though. I could enjoy it more and become less anxious about diving over time, and that did happen even across my four open water dives. If I went again, my anxiety might be a 5 or a 6. In reality, though, I think I can enjoy snorkelling just as much without it lowering my quality of life in any way, and I’ll probably do that more than SCUBA diving in the future.

What Are the Most Common Fears?

The top ten most common specific phobias are:

  1. Arachnophobia — fear of spiders
  2. Ophidiophobia — fear of snakes
  3. Acrophobia — fear of heights
  4. Agoraphobia — fear of crowds or open spaces
  5. Cynophobia — fear of dogs
  6. Astraphobia — fear of thunder and lightning
  7. Claustrophobia — fear of small spaces
  8. Mysophobia — fear of germs
  9. Aerophobia — fear of flying
  10. Trypanophobia — fear of injections

By looking at the above common phobias, they all have some basis for why we may become afraid of them. Some spiders and snakes can kill, as can dogs (especially if they have rabies). Planes can crash, and falling from high up can be fatal. People can become trapped and suffocate in a small space or crowds, and lightning strikes have killed people. Germs and bacteria spread disease too. Medical mishaps are the third most significant cause of death in the US, according to the latest figures from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The issue is that our brain is not very good at distinguishing hazardous things versus things that feel dangerous but are actually pretty safe.

How Do We Overcome Fears?

We overcome any fear through the dual process of gradual exposure and cognitive reappraisal after the exposure:

1. We determine what fear it is we would like to master. Preferably, this is something that you are currently avoiding that is negatively impacting your life, such as not going to the doctor or dentist because you are afraid of needles.

2. We develop an exposure hierarchy on this fear. This should have at least five different tasks that are ranked from least scary to most scary (scale from 0–10) tasks that you would like to challenge yourself with. For example, for Arachnophobia, this may be a 2/10 for looking at pictures of spiders, to 4/10 for watching videos of spiders, to 6/10 for looking at spiders in an enclosure, to 8/10 for a spider being out in the open in front of you, to 10/10 for letting a spider crawl over your hand or up your arm.

3. We start with the least scary task first and stay in the situation for at least 10 minutes if possible. This should be long enough for the anxiety to peak and then reduce substantially during the exposure exercise. A psychologist can teach specific behavioural and thinking skills to help lower stress levels during the exposure if it is not reducing.

4. We reflect on the exposure experience afterwards and try to change our previously held beliefs about what we fear. This is called cognitive reappraisal and is done by asking ourselves, “how did it go?” “was it as bad as I thought it would be?” and “how would I approach a similar situation in the future?

5. Once we are comfortable with that level of the exposure hierarchy, we repeat steps 3 and 4 with the next task on the exposure hierarchy. Then, once we become comfortable with the next step, we repeat this process with the next task until we are successful with all tasks on the hierarchy. This would mean the fear has been overcome or mastered.

What if What I Fear Really is Dangerous?

If you have Ophidiophobia and live in Australia, you’re probably not going to want to befriend a snake that you run into out in the bush. Australia is home to 21 out of the 25 most deadly snakes in the world. If you wanted to overcome this fear, you might want to learn instead how to distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes and get more comfortable only with deadly ones from behind solid glass panels at your local zoo. Or you could visit someone who owned a harmless pet snake so that you could get used to being around it and touching it and realising that you are safe.

If you’re afraid of heights, I wouldn’t suggest being like Alex Honnold and trying to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite, but trying out the edge experience at the Eureka tower in Melbourne or even riding on the amusement park ride The Giant Drop on the Gold Coast might be a pretty safe way to challenge your fears.

Facts can really help some people challenge their beliefs about their fears, but nothing beats putting ourselves in a feared situation first and then challenging our beliefs afterwards.

For me, knowing that only 12 out of the 35,000 different varieties of spiders are harmful to humans makes me not worry every time I see a little one unless it is a whitetail or a redback spider.

It helps to know that flying is one of the safest forms of travel, with a one-in-12 million chance of crashing. Likewise, although I don’t try to stand in an open field with a metal pole during a storm, it does help to know that being killed by lightning is nearly as rare, with a one-in-10.5 million chance.

Even though I’m not particularly eager to watch it pierce my skin, needles don’t hurt nearly as much as I used to imagine, and the pain goes away almost immediately after the injection. Bacteria is everywhere, so I couldn’t avoid germs entirely even if I tried. Getting exposed to a bit of dirt when we are young might also be good for developing our immune system.

If I ever feel a bit trapped or panicky the next time I dive, it will help to remind myself that I have done it before. I have my open water certificate and the skills from this, and what I’m doing is actually pretty safe as long as I don’t panic and follow what I have been taught in my training.

Just because we are afraid of something, it doesn’t mean we have to avoid it for the rest of our lives. But we don’t have to face our fears every time either, especially if it is not harming our quality of life. So if you determine it would be good to challenge yourself and try to overcome a fear, I hope the steps outlined above help, and I’d love to hear about any success stories in the comments below.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

To Trust or Not to Trust?

Recently, some things have come to light that I have found personally disappointing. A few people have behaved in a self-centred way, and it puts me in an awkward situation.

If given a choice, I always try to be kind, open, honest, respectful, and cooperative. However, sometimes some people don’t play by these same rules, and the more open and honest you are, the more they can use this information against you.

These experiences have led to me doubting myself. I wonder if I am too trusting, as some of my friends say. Other friends tell me that the only way to respond is by playing the game and putting my own needs first.

What should we do if someone is being unkind and only considering their needs irrespective of the consequences these actions have on us?

Game Theory

Game theory looks at the best rational approach to take in a strategic interaction between two people or groups of people. There are many different games, including cooperative games, where an official can enforce the rules and consequences, and zero-sum games, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

One of the most famous examples of a game is the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’:

Imagine that you are a member of a criminal gang and that you have been arrested alongside one of your gang associates. You are in separate rooms at the police station, and you have no way of communicating with your associate. The Police tell you that they have insufficient evidence to get either of you on a big charge, but enough to get both of you on a smaller offence. So the Police give you and the other prisoner one of two options:

  1. You can betray your associate by testifying that they were the one who committed the crime, or
  2. You can co-operate with your associate by remaining silent and refusing to testify.

The possible outcomes are:

A. If you both remain silent and co-operate with each other against the Police, you both only get one year in prison.

B. If you both try to betray each other by agreeing to testify, you both get two years in prison.

C. If they betray you, but you’ve tried to co-operate, they get to walk free, and you get three years in prison.

D. If they try to co-operate by remaining silent, but you betray them and agree to testify, you get to walk free while they have to go to prison for three years.

The rational approach is not to co-operate with your associate, because at worst, you will get two years in prison (B), and at best, you will serve no prison time (D). This is compared to the worst outcome of three years in prison (C) if you remain silent, and the best result is one year in jail (A). Therefore, not betraying your associate and co-operating will only lead to a worse outcome, even if you know that your associate will co-operate with 100% certainty.

Therefore, it is not always rational to try to co-operate with someone who could potentially take advantage of you, and positively not sound if you know that they are deliberately trying to take advantage of you.

What About Long-term Strategies?

If two people play multiple games of Prisoner’s Dilemma and remember what the other player did previously, does it make it more desirable to co-operate rather than betray the other person? This is more reflective of how most relationships are in real life, whether with family, friends, co-workers, bosses, or intimate relationships. We may win more in one situation, but at what cost? This iterated version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is sometimes known as the ‘Peace-War game’.

In 1984, Robert Axelrod organised a tournament where participants chose their strategies in an extended version of the Peace-War game, with 2000 trials. He found that greedy approaches to the game actually didn’t fare too well and resulted in more years spent in prison by the end of the game.

One of the most straightforward strategies was also the most effective, and this was tit-for-tat. The tit-for-tat strategy aims to always co-operate in the first trial and then do exactly what your opponent did on the previous trial for your next move. This way, you punish a betrayal with a quick betrayal back and reward co-operation with ongoing co-operation. Sometimes (in 1–5% of the trials), it is good to co-operate once even after your opponent betrays you, but generally, the most effective method is still tit-for-tat, which is interesting to know.

After the tournament ended, Axelrod studied the data and identified four main conditions for a successful strategy when negotiating with other people:

  1. We must be nice. This means that we should never defect or cheat before the other person does, even if we only want the best for ourselves.
  2. We must retaliate quickly and at least 95% of the time if people try to defect against or cheat us. It’s not good to be a blind optimist or always co-operate no matter what the other person does. This only leads to us being taken advantage of by greedy people.
  3. We must be forgiving and get back to trying to co-operate once we see that the other person is trying to co-operate reasonably again.
  4. We must not be envious and try to beat our opponent or score more than them. Creating a win-win scenario is ideal if possible, even if it means giving up some points by co-operating when you could defect.

What Relevance Does This Have For Real Life?

It may be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that screwing others over is the best way to get ahead in life. Or to not put ourselves out there so that we don’t get taken advantage of. In reality, this would only be the best approach in a world where every other person tries to take advantage of everyone else every chance they can. This is not the case in any society on our planet as far as I know, so never trusting people and always assuming the worst from others is not the way to go.

Trust Don’t Trust
Untrustworthy Get hurt Don’t get hurt
Trustworthy More connection Less connection

By looking at the table above, the best outcome is to try and trust reliable individuals (and co-operate with them) and not trust or co-operate with individuals who are not. The worst results are being hurt by putting our trust in those we shouldn’t or not letting in or co-operating with others that we really could have.

Maybe I am a little too trusting. I assume that other people are kind and good people who have good intentions unless I am proven otherwise. This is the position that I will continue to take, even if it means that sometimes I get hurt once I realise that someone is a bit more self-centred or dishonest than I had hoped.

Looking at the four elements of a successful negotiating strategy, I know that I am nice, forgiving and non-envious. However, the lesson that I need to learn is that of swift and appropriate retaliation or enforcing a certain consequence shortly after someone is nasty towards me. This would help deter the other person from trying any more selfish tactics in the future and could put them back on the path towards co-operating and trying to achieve a win-win situation for both of us.

I have thought previously that if I always co-operate, I can be happy with the person I am. However, sometimes being firm and assertive and standing up for ourselves in the face of unkind and selfish behaviour is the far better and more self-respecting approach to take.

I hope this article has encouraged you to not give up on trying to trust or co-operate with others. I also hope it will encourage you to stand up for yourself if someone tries to take advantage of you.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Four Ultimate Concerns in Life

I’ve been afraid to say this for a while because of how it will be perceived, but my favourite book of all time is actually a textbook. So before you think that makes me someone you would never want to speak to, I’ll ask if you have ever read anything by Irvin Yalom, American Psychiatrist and Author?

His book ‘Existential Psychotherapy’ is a true masterpiece he worked on for 10 years and is written as eloquently as any of his other titles, including ‘When Nietzsche Wept’, the best fiction novel award winner in 1992.

What is Existential Psychotherapy?

Existentialism is the philosophical exploration of existential issues or questions about our existence that we don’t have an easy answer for. We all suffer from anxiety, despair, grief and loneliness at times in our lives. Existential Psychotherapy tries to understand what life and humanity are about.

In the book, Yalom explores what he considers to be our four most significant existential issues in life:

  1. Death
  2. Freedom
  3. Isolation
  4. Meaninglessness

These existential issues or ultimate concerns are “givens of existence” or “an inescapable part” of being an alive human in our world. He shows how these concerns develop over time, how we can run into problems with each of these issues, and what they might look like in patients coming to therapy. He also talks about how we can try to live with these concerns to negatively impact our lives less, even if we don’t have clear-cut solutions to them.

Let’s go through each of these ultimate concerns…

1. Death

Homo sapiens, or humans, as far as I know, are the only species in the animal kingdom that are aware that one day they are going to die.

The first time I heard this, it fascinated me and made me wonder if life would be more comfortable not being aware that one day we cease to exist.

Imagine it. Life is going well. Then suddenly, it is no more. No worry about what the future holds. We are born. We experience life. Then we are no longer there. No fear. Just nothingness.

Being aware that we will die shapes and influences our lives much more than we would like to admit. This is because so many of our anxieties and phobias at their core are fear of some loss or death.

Irvin Yalom says that while the actuality of death is the end of us, the idea of death can actually energise us.

If we don’t know when we will die, being in touch with the fact that one day everything will vanish is enough to overwhelm some people and make them panic.

For others, it is enough to make them follow the maxim of carpe diem and helps them to seize the day by appreciating everything they have so that they can make the most of the precious time they have left on this planet. Time is really just a bright spark of lightness between two identical and infinite periods of darkness — one before we are born and one after.

Death is the ultimate equaliser, for no matter how much we have achieved or done with our time on this planet, the truth is that we will all one day die.

It is also true that we will not know exactly when death will happen. It might be with a car accident tomorrow, from cancer in ten years, motor neurone disease in twenty years, a heart attack in thirty years, a stroke in forty years, or during our sleep in fifty years.

Because our knowledge of our inevitable death is so inescapable and hard to confront and deal with directly, we instead focus on smaller and more manageable worries or concerns in our lives that we can do something about if we want to. If we successfully address all these minor concerns, however, we then come in contact with our fear of death again, and the cycle repeats itself.

Most people tend to have one of two basic defence mechanisms against their fear of death:

A. They can think that they are “special” and that death will befall others but not them, and try to be an individual and experience anxiety about life.


B. They can think they are an “ultimate rescuer” and try to fuse with others and experience anxiety about death (their own mortality and that of their loved ones).

A breakdown of either of these defences can give rise to psychological disorders:

  • narcissism or schizoid characteristics for the “special” defence, and
  • passive, dependent or masochistic characteristics for the “ultimate rescuer” defence.

In general, trying to be an individual is a more empowering and effective defence than fusing with others. Still, the breakdown of either can lead to pathological anxiety and/or depression.

The way to feel better about death anxiety is through an exercise called “disidentification”:

  1. To begin with, ask yourself the question “Who am I?” and write down every answer that you can think of.
  2. Then, take one answer at a time, and meditate on giving up this part of yourself, asking and reflecting on what it would be like to give up this part of yourself and your identity.
  3. Repeat this with all the other answers until you have gone through all of them.
  4. You have now disidentified yourself from all parts of your identity. See how you feel, and if there isn’t still a part of you, that feels separate from all the labels you give yourself. This provides comfort and reduces anxiety about death and life for a lot of people.

What I try to manage death anxiety is to only focus on whatever is most important to me that I can do something about in any given moment. I try to appreciate and be grateful for the time that I have had with each important person in my life. I try to be as fully present in the moment and with others as I can be. I try to use every moment and meeting as an opportunity to impact someone’s life positively. That way, I’ll hopefully not have too many regrets and be glad for the time I have had on this planet, no matter how long it ends up being.

2. Freedom

The second ultimate concern is about freedom, responsibility and will.

Every country in the world talks about fighting for the freedom of its citizens and about taking away some people’s freedom to ensure the safety and security of all. Therefore, the existential dilemma is how much freedom do we give up to others to feel safe and secure, or how much safety and security do we give up to feel genuinely free? Are these concepts in direct opposition, or is it sometimes possible to have enough of both?

Responsibility means taking full ownership of:

one’s own self, destiny, life predicament, feelings, and if such be the case, one’s own suffering” — Irvin Yalom

In the past, one’s life was set out for them by their parents or society, and many people struggled to fight for the right to live an authentic and genuine life.

These days, most people struggle instead with the amount of choice that they have in their lives. They come to therapy because they don’t know what they want to do or how to choose, given all of the available options. They also know that if no one else is telling them what to do, it is ultimately their responsibility if things do not work out the way they want them to. People wish to choose for themselves but fear not having someone to blame when things don’t work out.

There are various defences that we engage in to avoid responsibility and shield ourselves from freedom, including:

  • compulsivity
  • displacement of responsibility to another
  • denial of responsibility (“innocent victim” or “losing control”)
  • avoidance of autonomous behaviour, and
  • decisional pathology

We can do something over and over again to relieve anxiety or stop thinking about things. This can present as OCD, hoarding, or any addiction ranging from technology to drugs and alcohol and even dependency on others.

We can try to coerce others to make decisions for us or seek out and find controlling partners, bosses or friends. But, we can also play it safe and try to do what we think everyone else does; focus on keeping up with the Joneses, engaging in passive activities that don’t require much effort, and feeling stuck in an unfulfilling relationship or career.

The problem with giving up the responsibility for how our lives turn out is that it creates an external rather than an internal locus of control. Depression and other forms of psychological disorders are more highly correlated with an external locus of control. It can also lead to learned helplessness, where people no longer feel like they can do anything to change their life in a positive direction.

The way to manage the responsibility and freedom paradox is to develop an internal locus of control. This is generally more beneficial for most people’s well-being unless we blame ourselves or change things out of our control. This includes what has happened in the past, what other people do or say, and acts of nature.

The serenity prayer nicely spells out how we should approach responsibility:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.” — Reinhold Niebuhr

Paradoxical intention is a good antidote too. This means that we try to do the opposite of what we typically do for a period of time and keep an open mind and observe how things go. We can then see if the outcome is better than what we usually do or if it has taught us something about what will be best for us going forward.

Anything that creates a double bind is potentially helpful for encouraging people to take more responsibility in their lives. One way is to remind someone who struggles to make their own decisions that by not deciding, they are still making a choice not to choose. This means that no matter what they do, it is impossible not to make a decision that impacts the direction of their lives. Even if we choose to follow what someone else wants us to do, we still choose to do this. Therefore, why not take responsibility for our own lives and forge our own paths?

3. Isolation

There are three types of isolation:

“A. Interpersonal isolation: isolation from other individuals, experienced as loneliness

B. Intrapersonal isolation: parts of oneself are partitioned off from the self, and

C. Existential isolation:an unbridgeable gap between oneself and any other being.”

A common way that people try to escape from existential isolation is to fuse with another fully. This is also a strategy for dealing with death anxiety, with people trying to be the “ultimate rescuer” of someone else. It can lead to an individual feeling temporarily less alone. Unfortunately, however, the less isolated we are from others, sometimes the more isolated we are from ourselves.

Other people try to overcompensate for their feelings of isolation by never relying on anyone and trying to be fully independent. Both extremes can have negative consequences.

The main thing we can do to manage our feelings of isolation is to realise and accept that we are social creatures and have always relied on others to survive. This drive creates a desire to feel closer to, more understood, and more connected to people than we can ever achieve and sustain.

Growing up, many people feel loved and comforted in an unbalanced relationship towards their needs being met over their parents. They then try to reenact this within their adult relationships and usually end up feeling resentful, angry and disappointed as a result.

Yalom believes that a good relationship involves “needs-free love”, which is about loving someone else for their sake. This is opposed to “deficiency love”, a selfish love where we only think about how useful the other person may be to us. Creating a relationship where you want the best for the other person is a healthier way to manage interpersonal isolation than demanding for them to meet every need for you.

Some of the best solutions to intrapersonal isolation are to have time to get to know ourselves through practices such as journaling, therapy and meditation. Introverts may need to have more of this time than extroverts, so it’s important to tune into how agitated or lonely you feel to know if you have found the right balance or not.

Unfortunately, existential isolation cannot be fully breached, and therefore needs to be accepted, as it is out of our control. To feel the pain that comes with this isolation and our desire not to have it is challenging, but it can help reduce the intensity of the feeling. Being grateful for the meaningful connections we have in our lives and trying to strengthen them without losing our sense of self is another way to lessen the intensity of the feeling.

4. Meaninglessness

According to Yalom and many non-religious philosophers, humans are meaning-seeking creatures in a world without a universal sense of meaning. As a result of this, most of the world turn to a religious or spiritual belief system of one type or another that clearly lays out the meaning of the world and our purpose in it. People who truly believe these systems often provide a lot of clarity, reassurance, and guidance. The tricky part is that these belief systems can vary widely, and it is hard to know which one is more correct than another or if some of them are even harmful.

What we do know is that most belief systems tend to agree that

it is good to immerse oneself in the stream of life”.

People can try to find meaning through:

A. Hedonism: Seeking out pleasure and positive experiences and trying to avoid pain,

B. Altruism: Dedication towards a cause that helps other people, and

C. Creativity: Transcending oneself through art.

Many philosophers believe that both the search for pleasure and the search for meaning are paradoxical. By this, they mean that happiness and meaning or purpose in life are tough to achieve when they are aimed at directly, but possible if they are aimed at indirectly.

So if you or someone that you know is complaining about a lack of meaning in life, try to see if there are other issues. If possible, address these other issues first, and see if your worry about meaninglessness has lessened or gone away.

The best indirect way to increase a sense of purpose and meaning in life is to build kindness, curiosity and concern for others. This is often best done by helping out with a charity, joining a club, fighting for a cause, or attending a group activity or group therapy.

Yalom strongly believes that a desire to engage in life and satisfying relationships, work, spiritual and creative pursuits always exists within a person. Therefore, the key to managing meaninglessness is to remove the obstacles that prevent the individual from wholeheartedly engaging in the regular activities of life.

We may never be able to find the absolute meaning of life. However, what we can do is work at creating a life that is personally meaningful to us.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Why Do Some People Cheat in Relationships and Others Remain Faithful?

With the development of the internet, dating websites, social media, smartphones and dating apps, it is now easier than ever for someone to cheat on their partner or spouse.

This same technology can also make it easier to get caught due to the potential digital trail created with each of these unscrupulous liaisons.

The Ashley Maddison hack and the scandal were examples of technology helping people have extramarital affairs and leading to them getting caught. The hackers tried to blackmail the company and many users and then released all their details in a massive data leak when users did not meet their demands. As a result, families were broken up; and the scandal ruined reputations and even lives in the aftermath.

The consequences of infidelity continue to have a devastating impact on individuals, partners, children and society. Yet, it remains an issue that is prevalent in every country and culture. Maybe even more so today with the advent of technology.

Given the massive changes that we have gone through in the past 30 years, I am interested in finding out the prevalence rates of cheating, if our attitudes towards infidelity have changed, and if there is anything that we can do about it.

What is Cheating?

The definition of cheating is quite hard to specify and depends on who you are talking to and their expectations for the relationship they are in. The stereotype is that males tend to perceive cheating to be exclusive to physical encounters or actions. In contrast, females also see emotional infidelity as cheating, which is sharing something with someone you wouldn’t typically feel comfortable saying to your partner. Many people also believe that relationships that exist purely over the internet or phone can also be considered cheating, especially if explicit words, photos, or sexual acts are exchanged using these devices.

Infidelity has been defined by Weeks, Gambescia and Jenkins (2003) to be a violation of emotional or sexual exclusivity. The boundaries of what is meant to be exclusive are different in each couple, and sometimes these boundaries are explicitly stated, but they are usually merely assumed. This means that each partner can have different assumed limits, making it difficult for both partner’s exclusivity expectations to be met (Barta & Kiene, 2005).

Leeker and Carlozzi (2012) believe that when someone has a subjective feeling that their partner has violated the rules around infidelity, sexual jealousy and rivalry naturally arise. If an act of adultery has occurred, the consequence is often psychological damage, including feelings of betrayal and anger, impaired self-image for the person cheated on, and a loss of personal and sexual confidence (Leeker & Carlozzi, 2012).

Prevalence of Infidelity

Like my previous article How Have Intimate Relationships Changed Over the Years, and Where Does It Leave Us Now?, the majority of the research presented in this post comes from the surprising and entertaining book ‘Modern Romance’ by Aziz Anzari (the actor and comedian) and Eric Klinenberg (a Sociologist).

Unfortunately, people who are suspicious when it comes to infidelity sometimes have a reason to be. More than half of all men (60%) and women (53%) confess to having tried to mate-poach before. This means that they attempted to seduce a person out of a committed relationship so that they could be with them instead. I can’t believe that these figures are so high.

I also can’t believe that in “committed relationships”, where the partners are not married to each other, the incidence rate of cheating is as high as 70%.

It gets a little bit better for married couples, with only 2–4% of married individuals admitting to having an extramarital affair over the past year in the USA. However, this increases to 30% of heterosexual men and 25% of heterosexual women who will have at least one extramarital affair at some point during their marriage. It’s scary to think that somewhere between a quarter to a third of all married individuals have affairs, but good to know that two-thirds of all married people stay faithful to their partner all their lives too.

Attitudes Towards Extramarital Affairs

In ‘Modern Romance’, they share results from an international study examining people’s views on extramarital affairs across 40 countries.

In the USA, 84% of people strongly agreed that cheating was “morally unacceptable”. In Australia, 79% view extramarital affairs as morally unacceptable. Canada, the U.K., South America and African countries all have similar rates of cheating disapproval as Australia. Areas with the highest disapproval rates are typically Islamic countries, with 93% of those surveyed in Turkey stating that marital infidelity is morally unacceptable, second only to Palestinian territories with 94%.

France is the most tolerant country for extramarital affairs, with only 47% saying that cheating is unacceptable. They also happen to be the country with the most extramarital affairs. The latest data indicates that 55% of men and 32% of French married women admit to having committed infidelity on their spouse at least once. The second most tolerant nation is Germany, with 60% finding extramarital affairs to be morally unacceptable. Italy and Spain are equal third, with 64% each.

Expectations vs Reality

When you compare the level of disapproval towards infidelity with the data on the actual prevalence of extramarital affairs, the numbers don’t quite add up. However, in the USA especially, many people who cheat themselves still condemn the practice at large and would not be okay with being cheated on themselves.

A Gallup poll on cheating even found that infidelity is disapproved of at a higher rate than animal cloning, suicide and even polygamy. Although it is against the law, being married to two people is seen as less offensive than being married to one and breaching the honesty, trust and connection that you share with your partner.

People also differ between their beliefs and practices when it comes to whether or not to confess an affair or infidelity once it has occurred.

A Match.com nationwide survey in the US found that 80% of men and 76% of women would prefer their partner to “confess their mistake… and suffer the consequences” rather than “take their secret to the grave”. However, the excuse given by most people who have cheated and haven’t told their partner is that they didn’t want to hurt their partner. It’s interesting that they only worry about their actions’ impact on their partner after the unfaithful act has already occurred and not beforehand.

Unfortunately, most people try to keep their own affairs to themselves and make excuses for their behaviour while demanding at the same time that their partners own up to their indiscretions if they stray. If their partner does own up, they are likely to treat them harshly for it, because after all, cheating is considered morally unacceptable by most.

Why Do People Cheat?

Dr Selterman from the University of Maryland looked into why 562 adults cheated while in a “committed” romantic relationship. He found eight main reasons given for why the infidelity occurred:

  1. Anger: seeking revenge following a perceived betrayal
  2. Lack of love: falling “out of love” with a partner, or not enough passion or interest in the partner anymore
  3. Neglect: not receiving enough attention, respect or love (#1 reason for women)
  4. Esteem: seeking to boost one’s sense of self-worth by being desired by or having sex with multiple partners
  5. Sexual desire: not wanting sex with their partner or wanting to have sex more with others (a common reason for men)
  6. Low commitment: Not clearly defining the relationship as exclusive or not wanting a future with their partner or anything too serious
  7. Variety: Want to have more sexual partners or experiences in their lifetime (a common reason for men)
  8. Situation: Being in an unusual scenario, such as under high stress, under the influence of alcohol or a substance, or on vacation or a working holiday (a common reason for men)

Interestingly, not all of these factors suggest that infidelity directly reflects how healthy a relationship is. Instead, often it says much more about the person who commits the infidelity and their personality or impulse control than anything else.

Ways to Reduce the Likelihood of Infidelity

In ‘Modern Romance’, the authors explain that passionate love inevitably fades within every relationship. A loss of passionate love could lead to infidelity if people don’t realise that this may indicate how long they have been together, not an issue with their relationship.

Companionate love, or that sense of building a life and a legacy with a partner, is different to passionate love. It can continue to grow across a relationship and a lifetime rather than decline with time. Couples in their 60s and 70s often rate their relationship satisfaction as much better than when they were younger and trying to raise children together and work full-time.

One way to reduce the likelihood of committing infidelity is to focus on building companionate love and a shared life and legacy together, rather than equating real love with passion.

In his classic book ‘On Love’, philosopher Alain de Botton said that:

“Perhaps the easiest people to fall in love with are those about whom we know nothing…we fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as beautiful, intelligent and witty as we are ugly, stupid and dull.”

It’s much easier to idealise or become infatuated with someone that you don’t know that well. Imagine that they are perfect or have none of the flaws that your current partner (or you) possess.

The quickest cure for infatuation is to actually get to know the person a bit more (without breaching the infidelity norms of your relationship) and realise that they are just as flawed as the rest of us. Once you understand this, leaving one flawed relationship for another but having to start all over again carries much less appeal.

In another of his excellent books, ‘The Course of Love’, de Botton states:

“When we run up against the reasonable limits of our lovers’ capacity for understanding, we musn’t blame them for dereliction. They were not tragically inept. They couldn’t fully fathom who we were — and we could do no better. No one properly gets, or can fully sympathize with anyone else… there cannot be better options out there. Everyone is always impossible.”

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t leave abusive and neglectful partners. It just means that we need to avoid imagining that there is “a lover (out there) who will anticipate (all) our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly and (always) make everything better. (This) is a blueprint for disaster.” No one is perfect, and being grateful for what we do have with our current relationship and trying to make it as good as possible is much healthier than imagining that “the one” is probably just around the corner, if only we could find them.

Unfortunately, we still have the issue of love and sexual desire typically being separated in our society. Esther Perel, couples therapist and author, points this out better than anyone in her groundbreaking book ‘Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic’:

“Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling… our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness… (but) it’s hard to feel attracted to someone who has abandoned (their) sense of autonomy… Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”

Another way to keep the spark of desire alive then is to make sure that even though you do many things together with your partner, you must also do some things individually.

Fortunately, Perel also agrees that both love and desire can be maintained or grown over time with effort and a specific way of looking at things:

“For [erotically intelligent couples], love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure, and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of romance, it is the beginning. They know that they have years in which to deepen their connection, to experiment, to regress, and even to fail. They see their relationship as something alive and ongoing, not a fait accompli. It’s a story that they are writing together, one with many chapters, and neither partner knows how it will end. There’s always a place they haven’t gone yet, always something about the other still to be discovered.”

What About If Infidelity Has Already Occurred?

If cheating has already taken place, many people say that too much pain has occurred, trust has been breached and broken, and leaving is the best thing to do to maintain a sense of self-worth and self-respect. However, breaking up may not be the easiest, most practical, or best solution in other cases. For individuals in these cases, I would recommend reading Perel’s more recent book ‘The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity’.

In this book, Perel says that:

“Once divorce carried all the stigma. Now, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.”

Perel warns against merely passing judgment about the act of infidelity, as this shuts down all further conversation about what happened and why and where to go from there. Instead, Perel believes that it is much better to see an affair as a symptom of a troubled relationship or a troubled person.

If the person is troubled, and they are remorseful for what they have done and willing to try to make amends and not cheat again, they must get help to address whatever issue led to the infidelity in the first place. But, on the other hand, be wary if they are unwilling to get help and work on themselves but merely say it won’t happen again.

If it is the relationship that was in trouble, relationship counselling may be able to help too. Perel says that:

“Infidelity hurts. But when we grant it a special status in the hierarchy of marital misdemeanors, we risk allowing it to overshadow the egregious behaviors that may have preceded it or even led to it.”

If both people in a relationship can take ownership of the behaviours they engaged in that caused pain and hurt to the other and are willing to start again to build a stronger relationship; they can have a healthy relationship in the future. It’s just never going to be the same as things were before the infidelity took place.

My Personal Opinion

Monogamy is sometimes hard, as is continuing to have a healthy relationship, but it is a choice. We may not always have full control over what we initially think or feel, but we do have the capacity to think things through properly before acting.

My favourite relationship researcher, John Gottman, found that couples who turn towards each other when there is an issue in their life are much more likely to stay together than couples who turn away from or against each other. One study found that newlyweds who remained married 6 years later turned towards each other 86% of the time when issues arose. Newlyweds who were divorced six years later only turned towards each other 33% of the time. Turning towards your partner when a problem occurs is the key to a close and connected relationship and is much less likely to result in infidelity.

For me, it comes down to personal values. I want to have a relationship that is close and connected, with openness, honesty and trust. I don’t want to feel like I have to hide anything, and I don’t want to do anything that I am not personally okay with or that I know that the people who mean the most to me would not be proud of.

Anything that we hide from our partners tends to lead to greater distance and a feeling of disconnection. This is especially the case with stuff that we may know is dishonest, not respectful, or something we feel ashamed of. Our body language, micro expressions and tone of voice also tend to reveal how we genuinely feel over time if we are hiding something, even if we wouldn’t like to admit it.

Existential philosophers believe that our biggest challenge in life is to come face-to-face with the true nature of who we are. Over time, our actions and not our intentions become our character or who we are. I aim to be the best partner and person that I can be and learn from any mistakes that I make along the way so that I hopefully never repeat them. What about you?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Parenting is Tough, but Science Suggests Clear Strategies that Help You to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children

In 2018, the American Psychiatric Association identified what they considered to be the three major goals of parenting:

“1. Ensuring children’s health and safety

2. Preparing children for life as productive adults, and

3. Transmitting cultural values”

Many environmental and biological factors influence a parent’s and a child’s capacity to reach these ambitious goals. However, there are still a few simple changes in how we try to parent our children and manage emotions in ourselves and those closest to us that can make a significant difference.

Parenting Styles

In 1971, a researcher named Baumrind identified and developed three main parenting styles. These parenting styles include parents’ attitudes and values about parenting, their beliefs about the nature of children, and the specific strategies they use to help socialise their child.

The parenting styles are known as:

1. Authoritative

Includes being warm and involved in the child’s day-to-day life, helping the child with reasoning and inductive thought processes and reflective practices, democratic participation, letting the child have a say in what goes on, and being good-natured and generally easy-going with the child.

2. Authoritarian

Includes being verbally hostile towards the child, using corporal punishment, not reasoning things through with the child, using punitive control strategies or excessively harsh punishments, and being directive towards the child rather than discussing things with them.

3. Permissive

Includes high levels of warmth, but a relaxed and non-consistent discipline style, with minimal rules, expectations and guidance. This includes lack of follow-through on consequences, ignoring misbehaviour and boosting self-confidence rather than disciplining the child.

The graph above highlights a fourth style known as uninvolved (Maccoby & Martin, 1983), which includes very little control or strictness and very little parental warmth.

Subsequent reviews by Baumrind in 1989 and 1991 found a clear winner for parents who employed an authoritative parenting style over an authoritarian or a permissive parenting style, especially once children reach higher.

An authoritative parenting style has been shown to lead to the more significant development of child competence, including better maturity, assertiveness, responsible independence, self-control, better co-operation with peers and adults, and academic success (Baumrind, 1989; 1991). In addition, children of authoritative parenting also exhibit higher levels of moral conscience and prosocial behaviours (Krevans & Gibbs, 1996).

Other research has found that non-authoritative parenting styles can lead to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, ADHD and conduct or behavioural problems (Akhter et al., 2011). For example, authoritarian parenting can lead to antisocial aggression, hostility and rebelliousness (Baumrind, 1991), and anxiety (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998).

Indulging children too much and not setting appropriate boundaries can reduce the child’s academic performance and social competence (Chen et al., 2000). Permissive parenting can also lead to low self-control and impulsive, bossy or dependent behaviour in children (Baumrind, 1967).

Uninvolved parenting leads to a greater risk of behavioural problems and depression (Downey & Coyne, 1990).

The chart below clearly highlights the consequences of each style of parenting:

If you want to develop a more authoritative parenting style, be warned that it is the most time-consuming and energy-demanding of all the methods (Greenberger & Goldberg, 1989). However, if you would still like to give it a go, try any of the following strategies from a questionnaire developed to identify an authoritative parenting style, and see if they work for you:

  • “Learn the names of your children’s friends.
  • Ask about your child’s problems or concerns at school and communicate with their teachers about any issues that they may be having
  • Encourage the child to talk about their troubles
  • Give praise and acknowledgment when the child does something positive
  • Tell your child that you appreciate what they try or accomplish
  • Give emotional comfort and understanding when the child is upset
  • Respond to the child’s feelings and emotional needs
  • Show sympathy or empathy when the child is hurt or frustrated
  • Express affection by hugging, kissing or holding your child when it is appropriate to do so
  • Explain the consequences of your child’s behaviour
  • Give your child the reasons for the rules you have
  • Emphasize why the rules need to be followed
  • Help them understand the impact of their behaviour by encouraging them to talk about the consequences of their actions.
  • Explain how you feel about your child’s good and bad behaviour
  • Take into account your child’s preferences when making family plans
  • Allow your child to give input into family rules
  • Take your child’s desires into account before asking them to do something
  • Joke and play with your child
  • Show patience with your child
  • Try to be easy-going and relaxed around your child.”

The Relationship Cure

There isn’t an author out there who has conducted more in-depth and scientific research on interpersonal relationships than John Gottman. ‘The Relationship Cure: A Five-Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships’ is his 2002 book that offers a 5-step guide to improving the quality of your relationship with your partner or children.

The five steps to improve your relationships are:

1. Look at Your Bids for Connection

We need to analyse how we bid for connections with others and respond to other people’s bids for connections.

A bid is simply any form of expression, whether a verbal question, a visual look, or a physical gesture or touch that says, “I want to connect with you!

A response to a bid can be either an encouraging sign that shows that you also want to connect by turning towards them or a discouraging sign that indicates that you do not wish to connect through turning away from them or turning against them.

Over time, turning towards responses lead to even more bidding and responding and a stronger, closer relationship. But, conversely, both turning away and turning against reactions leads to less bidding, hurt or suppressed feelings, and the breakdown of the connection you share in the long-term.

2. Discover Your Brain’s Emotional Command Systems

There are seven main areas in which people differ that can influence relationship needs. Once you have discovered if you and your family members are low, moderate or high on each system, it becomes easier to see how it affects the bidding process in the relationship.

The systems are referred to as the:

  • Commander-in-chief (dominance and control)
  • Explorer (exploration and discovery)
  • Sensualist (sensual gratification, pleasure)
  • Energy Czar (regulates the need for energy, rest, relaxation)
  • Jester (play, fun)
  • Sentry (safety, vigilance)
  • Nest-builder (affiliation, bonding, attachment)

3. Examine Your Emotional Heritage

People typically develop one of four emotional philosophy styles. These styles are learnt during childhood and can affect your method of bidding and your ability to connect with others.

The four emotional styles are:

  • Emotion-dismissing (“You’ll get over it!“) = less bidding and turning away
  • Emotion-disapproving (“Don’t feel that way!“) = less bidding and turning against
  • Laissez-faire (“I understand how you feel.“) = bidding may or may not increase
  • Emotion-coaching (“I understand. Let me help you!“) = more bidding, turning toward, with the bonus of guidance being offered for how to cope.

Families that create emotion-coaching environments give their children a higher chance of having more successful and loving relationships with their parents, siblings and friends. They also tend to get along better with their co-workers and romantic partner when they are older.

4. Sharpen Your Emotional Communication Skills

By learning effective communication skills, we are more likely to say what we actually mean and feel without the other person becoming defensive, which can increase our chances of positive changes occurring and relationship satisfaction increasing.

The four steps of effective communication are as follows:

D — Describe the situation, and stick to facts, not judgments

(e.g., ”When you don’t clean up your room”, not “When you are disrespectful and don’t care about your things!”).

E — Explain how you feel

(Emotions — e.g., “I feel hurt and upset!”. Not opinions — e.g., “I feel like you don’t care about me or the house rules!”)

A — Ask for what you need or would prefer

(Behaviours — e.g., “I would prefer that you follow the rules we have established and clean up your room before going outside to play with friends”. Not feelings — e.g., “I would prefer if you actually cared about this family and your things like you say you do”).

R — Reinforce the potential benefits to them, you and the relationship if they could do what you have asked

(e.g., “Then your things won’t get wrecked, you can play, I can relax, and we can all have fun together later instead of me having to nag you all the time!”).

You might be sceptical, but it really can work, and it does become more comfortable with practice.

5. Find Shared Meaning with Others

This can be done by sharing your dreams or visions, or it can be about developing consistent rituals together that, over time, can lead to more shared experiences and a stronger emotional bond.

With the kids, this may be prioritising having dinner around the table with the whole family and chatting each night without technology, or it could be:

  • a regular movie night every Friday,
  • church every Sunday morning,
  • games night once a week, or even
  • Christmas and Family Day with the extended family
  • New Years at the beach every year, or
  • Anything else that you can repeat regularly

Rituals provide great memories for the children and predictability too and help them to feel loved and secure. What you do does not matter too much; it is about what is meaningful to you and your family.

So there we have it. If you try to develop an authoritative parenting style, turn towards your child’s emotional bids, foster an emotion-coaching philosophy in the home, and try to communicate and find shared meaning with your children effectively, you will be well on your way to raising emotionally healthy children. I wish you all the best of luck with the challenges along the way!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Which Archetype Are You?

Ever notice how any successful story throughout history tends to have a similar cast of characters?

If you haven’t bothered counting, I’ll let you know that most characters will fall into one of 12 principal roles, and this explains why and how we can find favourite stories so relatable. Carl Gustav Jung, a famous psychoanalyst, defined these characters and their journey as Archetypes.

What is an Archetype?

An archetype is something that symbolises primary human motivations, drives, desires and goals. It influences how one finds meaning in life, what one values, and personality characteristics. Most people tend to identify primarily with one archetype, although it can be a mix of a few different ones.

Below are the 12 archetypes, with a brief description below them:

If you’re a visionary, you value innovation above all else. You look for patterns in the ordinary and try to create order out of chaos. You are intuitive and tend to find it much more comfortable than others to predict trends and look into the future accurately. You love to exchange ideas, share your opinions, and try out new gadgets. But you also tend to overthink things or catastrophise if stressed and overwhelmed. When this happens, you need to retreat to somewhere secluded and/or scenic to once again focus on your next innovative idea that you would like to put into action.

The visionary archetype includes the designer, the detective, the director, the entrepreneur, the hermit, the futurist or the strategist.

If you’re a caregiver, you value being compassionate, caring and kind to others, especially your family and friends. You struggle to say no to people because you love to help out and give as much as you can. Burnout is a risk if you spread yourself too thin, however. You are easy to get along with, flexible to various situations, and always willing to do what is required to adapt to and fit in with others without losing your sense of self. Your favourite activities involve spending time with those you love, and you are the person that people call or talk to if they have been going through something tough or are in crisis.

The caregiver archetype tends to include the loving parent, the teacher, the nurse, the doctor, the best friend forever, the rescuer, the mentor, the healer, the veteran and the civil servant.

The royal wants power and to be in control. They love being a leader and the boss and love living the high life and the sense of entitlement that comes with this. The royal is not afraid to throw money at a problem so that it will go away and is willing to use their status, title or name to get what they want and feel that they deserve. Activities, holidays and clothes all need to be the best that money can buy.

Royal archetypes include the king, the queen, the prince or princess, the boss, the executive, the politician, the diva and the networker or social climber.

The performer is all about entertaining others and being the centre of attention, even at social and family gatherings. Like Lady Gaga, they live for the applause and moving others emotionally or making them laugh. The performer wants to be seen and believes that being dramatic and in the right places with the right people is the best way to achieve this.

The performer archetype includes the actor, the entertainer, the comedian, the clown or fool, the eccentric, the trickster, the storyteller, the spellcaster, the magician and the provocateur.

The spiritual person has their faith as the cornerstone of who they are. They are belief-driven and pray and seek for what they know to be true to come to fruition. They love to engage in yoga, meditation, and connecting with others on a deeper level and feel very connected with others and the world around them. The biggest trap for the spiritual person is magical thinking and not doing enough to take action and change the questionable things in their lives. They instead have hope and faith that things will work out the way they want, even when all the evidence suggests otherwise.

The spiritual archetype can include the shaman, the saint, the mystic, the guru, the angel, the missionary, the martyr, the disciple and the Samaritan.

The tastemaker values the beautiful nature of things above all else. They pay attention to trends, fashion and decor, and ensure that whatever they have is as aesthetically pleasing as possible. But, unlike the royal, they don’t assume that this is just about what is most decadent or expensive. A tastemaker loves to explore new restaurants, shops, technology and holiday spots. Their weakness is judging others who do not prioritise aesthetics as much as them.

The tastemaker archetype includes the fashionista, the goddess, the gentleman and the metrosexual.

The explorer loves adventure, exploring the world, and seeking excitement wherever they are. They are curious about everything new and things they are yet to encounter, and as a result, they fear commitment and being stuck in one spot or tied down by someone else in any way. The explorer feels drawn to things unseen and undiscovered and is willing to be practical about what it takes to live their lives in this way. They love meeting new people and immersing themselves in new cultures and experiences.

The explorer archetype includes the adventurer, the traveller, the seeker, the discoverer, the wanderer, the individualist, and the pioneer.

The advocate is always being a champion for a good cause and hoping that things will get better if they fight for what they believe in. They may tend to get too caught up personally in the cause but are willing to back up what they believe in by getting signatures for a petition, fundraising money for a campaign, or organising a protest. They also try to live their lives in a way that is consistent with their values and standing up for those less fortunate or those without a voice, such as flora and fauna.

The advocate archetype includes the hero, the environmentalist, the crusader, the vegan, the lawyer, the feminist, and the human rights advocate.

The Intellectual takes pride in their extensive knowledge about things that are important to them. They are always seeking new information and trying to apply it in a useful way to increase their wisdom. The intellectual can come across as a know-it-all, but they never feel like they have enough new things to learn. They love to spend time reading books and going to museums and are happy to impart their knowledge to anyone willing to listen.

The Intellectual archetype includes the philosopher, the student, the geek, the sage, the scientist, the theologian, the crone, the inventor, and the judge.

The rebel’s core values are justice and autonomy. They are fiercely independent and cannot be contained by the social niceties, order and dutifulness. They do what they want at all times, and like adventure and excitement, challenging convention and being deliberately provocative too. They are at risk of not thinking through the consequences of their decisions, and as a result, can overconsume drugs or alcohol or get into trouble with the law, at work, or with those closest to them.

Rebel archetypes include the warrior, the hedonist, Don Juan, the femme fatale and the wild man or wild woman.

The athlete lives for staying active, fit, and in shape. They love to compete in anything involving physical activity and are happiest when they have achieved a big, athletic goal. The athlete tends to turn everything into a competition, which can annoy others, but they are just as happy pushing themselves to improve their health and body. Clothing is worn for comfort and performance only, not aesthetics. The athlete loves to attend sporting events and is also happy to watch sport on the TV.

The Athlete archetype includes the competitor, the outdoorsman, the dancer, and the tomboy.

The creative loves being original and genuinely expressing themselves. The creative hates to repeat or copy what others have done before them. They are happiest creating something from nothing, and this may include a piece of art, but it could also be a meal, an outfit, a room in a house or even an idea. The creative tends to be a perfectionist, which can make it difficult to begin a new project. Once you get started, you tend to get into the zone until a project is complete or you need a break.

The creative archetype includes the artist, the chef, the child, the poet, the novelist, the shapeshifter and the romantic.

What Are Your Main Archetypes?

At archetypes.com, it’s possible to find out which archetypes you are most similar to. This may help you identify what journey you need to take in life or what areas may be best for you to focus on going forward. Included below are my results:

I’m pretty happy with these results and not surprised by my top 2, but I was surprised to see visionary my third highest archetype. I’ve never thought of myself as imaginative or innovative, but I do want the world to change for the better and am willing to do what I can to improve the mental health of others.

Based on these results, it’s apparent that I love to help others. Still, I need to be cautious about taking on excessive responsibility for others or feeling too guilty or inadequate when I can’t help as much as I would like to. I love to learn and be curious about new things, but I still need to be humble and understand that there’s still so much that I’ll never know. I also need to realise that not everyone wants to learn as I do, which is okay. Lastly, when I have an innovative idea, it is vital that I put this plan into action to make a real difference. I would also benefit from connecting with others and collaborating with the right people to help make these dreams a reality.

I know that archetypes and the test are not highly scientific, but I still found them useful to think about what story I am trying to live out and what values or principles I am being guided by. Caring for others, learning new things, and creating positive change is what I care about. What about you?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist