Pursuing the Good Life: Stop Using Fear As An Excuse


A few days ago, a former student of mine posted a picture on Facebook that included the following question:

If you could write a note to your younger self, what would you say in only three words?

Maybe not surprisingly, the answers I got from my Facebook friends (who consist of people from 17 to 70+ years of age) were quite varied. But the one theme that popped up over and over again was this:

Don’t be afraid.

If there’s one thing that seems to stop people from taking chances and doing the things they truly want to do with their lives, it’s fear.

Fear of failing

Fear of disappointing others

And even fear of success

What I want to do in this blog post is make the argument that fear is, quite often, a nonsensical (or even silly) reason for not trying things. I also want to provide you with some possible ways to tackle your fear if you feel like it’s holding you back in life.

First, though, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s take a minute and talk about what fear is.

Fear: What It Is and How It Develops

By most accounts, fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat.

For example, being bit by a dog while you’re in the park might send your heart racing. Or standing on the glass floor in Toronto’s CN Tower (which stands about 1200 feet above the ground) might make you a little weak in the knees. Or you might even feel queasy as you prepare to take an exam in your Abnormal Psychology course.

So, where do these fears come from?

First, a very small number of fears are inborn. They are nature’s way of helping you survive, of telling you that danger is imminent and that you should probably “get the hell outta Dodge” as quickly as possible. The fear we experience when we hear a very loud noise or stand on a very high ledge are examples of this. In both cases, the threat is real and could conceivably impact your survival.

But most of the fears that grip our bodies and keep us from doing certain things are not innate. Rather, they are learned, and they emerge because of experiences we have (which I’ll discuss more in a minute). Examples might include:

Experiencing fear before taking an exam.

Feeling tense when thinking about asking out that attractive person in your sociology class.

Getting scared before you have to speak in public (which is frequently listed as the biggest fear people have and which prompted Jerry Seinfeld to joke that giving the eulogy at a funeral is worse than being in the casket).

The reasons we experience these non-innate fears is actually quite complicated and would require extensive discussion of some very interesting psychological phenomena called classical conditioning, stimulus generalization, and stimulus equivalence.

But here’s the short version: The human mind is complex and quickly learns how things in our environments are related to one another. We learn, for example, that thunder and lightning go together, that wings and football go together, that Kanye and Kim go together (#thankskanye).

In fact, the human mind has the ability to go even further than these simple associations. Sometimes we learn to associate things that seem, at first glance, unrelated (that is, until we create a connection between them).

For instance, if a person repeatedly goes on a diet and fails to lose weight, he might start to have negative feelings toward things that typically go with diets, things like “eating lettuce” or “exercising.” Interestingly, he might also start to associate “failed diet” with things like “shopping for new clothes and having nothing fit.” Because of this association, going shopping for clothes—or even thinking about shopping for clothes—might produce negative feelings.

Here’s one more example. Because we don’t always succeed when we try new things (often because they’re hard at first), we might associate “difficult” and “failure.” And if failing has made you feel bad in the past, the very thought of trying something difficult might be enough to produce negative feelings and keep us from moving forward.

Now, although it’s completely normal for the human mind to make these connections—even the seemingly irrational ones—there are at least three problems that arise when discussing how the fear that comes from these connections keeps us from pursuing things we truly want to do.

1. The Things We Fear Often Aren’t That Bad

First, because of how our mind connects things, we sometimes come to believe that certain things will be much more “dangerous” than they actually are. For instance, if we get bit by a dog in the park, we will equate the “danger” of the park with the “danger” of the dog bite.

But the park, by itself, is harmless. It doesn’t threaten our survival.

Likewise, failing an exam does not constitute a life-threatening situation (even though some of my students claim they’ll “just die” if they fail one). Nor does speaking in public or even approaching that good-looking person in your class.

And yet, we often convince ourselves that certain outcomes will be much worse than they actually are.

Most often, though, the things we fear are truly not as “dangerous” as we make them out to be.

2. Our Fears Are Not Reality

Second, because of the mind’s amazing ability to connect things, we sometimes act as if our thoughts are the same as the actual things themselves.

For example, to us, the word “dog” basically means the same thing as a picture of a dog or even a real-life dog.

What this also means is that thinking about a “dog” will produce the same response as if a dog was actually about to bite us; thinking about failing an exam will make us feel like we actually failed an exam; and thinking about our new business failing will feel the same if our business had actually failed.

But here’s the thing: Thinking about a growling dog and a real-life growling dog are not the same. Thinking about failing an exam and actually failing it are not the same. Thinking about your new business failing and actually having that happen are not the same thing.

What this means is that many of the fears we experience are dictated not by the actual event itself, but by a mental representation of a future event that may not even happen!

3. Fear Leads to Avoidance

The final problem—and one that’s related to the previous two—is that feelings of fear lead us to avoid. They keep us from taking action on the things we probably need to be doing to make better lives for ourselves.

When we are “afraid” of things, we try to stay away from them. This is because, in our evolutionary past, people who avoided dangerous things were more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

The problem, as I noted above, though, is that our complex minds lead us to fear things that aren’t that dangerous or that aren’t even “real” (thinking about failing an exam isn’t “real” like actually failing an exam).

And when we fear things, we avoid them, which further exacerbates the problem.

For example, imagine a person who wants to be more social but who also thinks she’s “socially awkward.” Her mind has convinced her that she’ll probably say something stupid around people, and so she gets scared and avoids the party (which produces some short-term relief).

Unfortunately, avoiding the party simply reinforces her already-existing belief that she is “socially awkward,” and this only makes the problem worse.

Or imagine someone who really wants to start her own business but is afraid that it’s too risky and might fail.

Even though her life’s dream is to open a restaurant, she fails to take action because doing so provides immediate relief from the fear and anxiety she experiences when thinking about starting her own business.

How to Tackle Your Fears

So, what’s a person to do if they want to move forward, but fear is holding them back?

There are three things I personally have found to be effective when tackling things I’m afraid to do:

1. Embrace the Fear

First, psychological research has shown that one of the best ways to reduce fear is not to avoid, but rather to approach—or to “embrace”—the thing that causes you fear.

fear godinIf you’re afraid of dogs, you should spend time around dogs. Or if you get anxious when thinking about studying for an exam, you should allow yourself to embrace the negative thoughts (which is an important part of a new and effective therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).

Importantly, if the thought of doing these feared things overwhelms you, don’t try to do too much at one. Just take a small, manageable step and then build on it.

When you allow yourself to approach the things you fear, you often find out that they don’t have the negative outcomes you thought they would.

And when you realize this, the fear goes away (which is actually a psychological phenomenon called extinction).

2. What Could Happen: The Worst-Case Scenario

The second thing I try to do when I’m feeling a little fearful is to think about the worst-case scenario. Some time ago, I heard “lifestyle entrepreneur” Tim Ferriss talk about this on one of his podcasts.

Specifically, Tim suggested that people should identify the “worst that could happen” if they decided to try something.

For example, if you decided to ask out that attractive person in your sociology class, what’s the worst that could logically happen? Well, maybe he or she would say “no” to you. (It’s important to think logically when doing this. Failing an exam, for instance, will probably not cause you to die penniless and alone, as a former student once told me.)

Once you identify the worst-case scenario, you ask yourself: “Is there any way I wouldn’t be able to recover from this?”

Unless the worst-case scenario involves maiming or death (which is doubtful in most cases), recovery is almost always possible.

Asking someone out and getting shot down might suck, but you’ll probably recover from it (as many people have).

Failing an exam might hurt a bit (or even a lot), but you’ll probably recover from it (as many people have).

Even having your business fail might be a big blow to you, but you’ll probably recover from it (as many people have).

Recovery may not always be easy. But it’s almost always possible.

3. What Could Happen: Will It Matter in a Year?

A third strategy (which I use quite often), and one that is somewhat opposite to the last strategy, is to minimize the perceived negative effect by asking, “Is this really going to matter in 6 months or a year or 5 years?”

Quite often, we place so much emphasis on the near future, we forget that life is a marathon, not a sprint. And when we focus too much on the short term, we tend to blow little things out of proportion, thinking they are going to have much bigger long-term impact than they actually do.

When we slow down for a second, though, and look at things as part of a bigger picture, we often realize they’re not that important in the grand scheme of things. And when we realize there might not be as much risk involved as we thought, we are much more comfortable facing our fears and taking chances.

Moving Forward

So, there you have it, my reasoning for why I think “fear” is often not a reasonable excuse for inaction.

Now, I’ll be completely honest with you: I still struggle this this—I still find myself getting anxious when I let my mind “run free” (but I’ve been practicing meditation to calm what Seth Godin calls “the lizard brain“).

But becoming more aware of how my fears develop and how I respond to those fears has allowed me to move forward and to do things that I probably would’ve passed on before, like joining a country band (shameless plug: Please check out my band’s Facebook page and our Instagram page. Also follow us on Twitter).

When we embrace our fears and move forward in service of what we really care about, we often surprise ourselves and realize that we had nothing to be afraid of in the first place.


If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please leave a comment below.

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The Negative Effects of Positive Social Support

Social support

A few months ago, I was sitting in a local coffee shop doing some writing. I happened to be seated next to a student of mine, who was having coffee with her friend at an adjacent table. As their meeting came to an end, I heard my student say to her friend, “Good luck on your exam. I know you’ll do really well!” (I wasn’t eavesdropping. I promise!)

At first, I thought to myself, “That’s nice. It’s always good to have supportive friends.” And this particular student happens to be one of the nicest, most supportive, and most genuine people you’ll ever meet, so I expected nothing less from her.

Now, if you’ve been following my blog at all, you’ll know that I recently wrote about how we should try to surround ourselves with positive people. When we do, they make it more likely that we’ll think and act positively.

But as I thought about my coffee shop experience a little more, I started to wonder whether my student’s positive comment might’ve actually had a negative impact on her friend.

After thinking about the issue a bit more, I’ve come to the conclusion that some types of positive social support can actually have highly negative effects. Specifically, certain types of positive social support—although they almost always come from a place of authenticity and good intentions—might actually have the undesired effect of increasing a person’s obsessive passion, which, as I’ll explain in a minute, is a “bad” type of passion that produces numerous negative outcomes.

But before I jump into the issue of positive social support and obsessive passion, let me briefly revisit the topic of passion first.

Passion: A Quick Refresher

As I’ve discussed before, passion occurs when a person loves, values, and spends time on an activity. For instance, I love to play guitar, I find it to be a valuable activity for a number of reasons, and I spend a good chunk of time practicing. (In fact, I’m working at home today, and I spent a good hour or so playing guitar this morning when I probably should’ve been preparing for my classes. But I digress…)

If you look around a little bit (on the Internet, example), you’ll see a lot of people talking about passion. Although there are competing ideas, more often than not, the prevailing belief is that finding and following your passion is the way to a good life. If you’re passionate, supporters claim, you’re more likely to be happy and successful and eventually make a billion dollars. Steve Jobs, for instance, frequently spoke about how important it is to love what to do.

But in reality, it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. The truth of the matter is that not all passion is good. In fact, there are times when being passionate about an activity can actually have negative psychological effects and even hurt your performance.

** Harmonious and Obsessive Passion

As Vallerand and his colleagues have shown, there are actually two different types of passion—an important point that is almost always overlooked in “pop psych” discussions of passion (for example, see here).

The first type of passion, harmonious passion, occurs when a person freely chooses to engage in an activity. Because of the freedom involved, she feels as if she’s in control—she can decide when and when not to do the activity. Hence the term “harmonious”—it’s nicely balanced, or in harmony, with other things in her life.

For example, a student who is harmoniously passionate about her academic activities—which she enjoys, values, and spends time on—can study when necessary but is also able to step away when other responsibilities call. She freely chooses when she wants to study and experiences little guilt when she’s not doing so. Although “being a good student” is an important part of her identity, it’s not everything.

Importantly, as numerous studies have shown, the feeling of being in control is associated with positive emotions and even improved performance.

Obsessive passion, in contrast, is a type of passion in which a person feels pressured to engage in an activity. Although he still enjoys, values, and spends time on it, the lack of freedom involved makes it feel like the activity controls him. As a result, he feels compelled to engage in it and often feels guilty because he neglects other responsibilities.

A student who is obsessively passionate about his academic activities feels controlled by it all—by studying, by grades, by going to class, and so on. When he’s studying, he’s good (although he frequently thinks about the other things he needs to do, which interrupts his concentration). But when he finally pulls himself away to do other important things, he feels guilty, conflicted and “pulled” back to studying: “Geez, I really need to be studying right now.” A huge part of his self-image revolves around being a good student.

With obsessive passion, the compulsive feeling of being controlled creates negative emotions and may even negatively impact performance.

How Positive Social Support Can Make You Obsessive

In addition to studying the different outcomes that occur when a person is harmoniously or obsessive passionate, researchers have examined how these different types of passion develop.

Ultimately, what much research has shown is that harmonious passion develops under conditions of autonomy support. Obsessive passion, in contrast, emerges when people are in psychologically controlling environments.

supportAutonomy supportive environments are those where we feel free to make our own choices and receive support for doing so. Specifically, as Mageau and colleagues have shown, autonomy supportive environments are those where other people (a) provide us with (and support our) choices, (b) give us reasons when they ask us to do something, and (c) try to understand our feelings.

In contrast, psychologically controlling environments are those where we receive pressure from others to make certain choices. These environments occur when others (a) tell us that bad things will happen if we make certain choices, (b) try to make us feel guilty for our choices, and (c) pressure us to perform in particular ways.

Unfortunately, many people operate under psychologically controlling environments, thus making it more likely that they’ll become obsessive about a particular activity.

For instance, people who enjoy their work, but who also feel pressure to perform at high levels, might become obsessive about it, unable to pull themselves away (which often creates the feeling of guilt when they finally do).

Similarly, students who feel pressured to pick a particular major or go to graduate school might become obsessive about their academic activities.

Back to the Coffee Shop

And this is where my coffee shop experience comes back into the picture…

If you remember, my student wished her friend good luck and told her she’d do “really well” on her exam.

But what does it mean to do “really well” on an exam?

If you’re like most people (including most of my students), you define “really well” as “getting a good exam grade.”

Unfortunately, trying to get good grades often creates a huge performance pressure—which, as noted above, is one of the components of psychological control.

In fact, in (yet-to-be-published) research conducted in my lab, we found that students whose friends created performance pressure (like when they say, “I know you can get a good grade!”) reported the highest levels of obsessive passion for their academic activities.

As I think about how my students often interact with one another, I see many instances of positive social support that probably function as psychological control:

“I know you’ll get a good grade.”

“I took that class, and it was easy. I’m sure you’ll ace it, too.”

“You’re so smart.” (which is often based on a person’s GPA)

“You’re a shoe-in for graduate school.”

And so on…

Although most “positive” statements like these are well-intentioned and come from a place of caring and genuine concern, unfortunately, they often have a negative effect.

They introduce a type of psychological control that has the unwanted effect of increasing obsessive passion. And as noted above, obsessive passion is associated with negative psychological emotions and, in many cases, even decreased performance.

How to Provide Good Positive Social Support

So if providing positive social support sometimes has the unintended effect of increasing obsessive passion, what can be done instead? How can we continue to provide others with positive social support (which is good!) that is autonomy supportive rather than psychologically controlling?

First, we need to provide autonomy support as much as possible. Specifically, we should:

Support other people’s choices (even if we don’t necessarily agree with them), which gives them the feeling of “being free to choose.”

In addition, we need to “walk a mile in their shoes”—we need to try to understand other people’s feelings, concerns, and perspectives as much as possible.

Second, and maybe more importantly, we need to urge others to pursue mastery goals and to approach their activities with a growth mindset.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that people who believe their IQ and performance are “fixed” (what Dweck calls having a fixed mindset) typically underperform people who believe that their IQ and performance can be improved through hard work (a growth mindset). Thus, if you believe that you can get better through hard work, your performance is likely to improve.

As much as possible, then, we should try to get others to believe that, through hard work, they can reach their goals.

Dweck has also shown that when people receive praise for working hard, they perform better than when they receive praise for “being smart.”

What this means is that we need to stop telling people to focus on things like “getting a good grade” and instead urge them to “work hard and do their best.”

Instead of saying, “I know you’ll get a good grade,” we could say, “I know you’ll do your very best, and I’ll support you regardless of the outcome.”

Instead of saying, “You have a high GPA. You’re so smart,” we could say, “You have a high GPA. You must study a lot and work really hard.”

Importantly, we can’t forget to reward solid effort when we see it happening. As Dweck noted, a little praise for working hard can go a long way.

Positive Social Support: It’s (Almost) All Good

Positive social support is a wonderful thing. We all enjoy the feeling of having good friends who “got our backs” through good times and bad.

But we need to be careful about what kind of positive social support we give to others. If we provide support that unintentionally exerts a psychologically controlling effect, it might have the negative consequence of making others obsessively passionate about their activities.

pete-2If, however, we provide others with positive social support that is autonomy supportive in nature and that encourages the pursuit of hard work and growth, we can help them be more harmoniously passionate about things in their lives, which—as my youngest son’s hero, Pete the Cat, says—is all good.

So the next time you’re having coffee with a friend, let her know you believe in her. Give her a ton of positive social support. Tell her you got her back.

Just make sure your positive social support is authentic, well-intended—and autonomy supportive in nature.


If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please leave a comment below.

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Is Your Posse Affecting Your Passion?

Picture from freepik.com

The following pronouncement might not come as a big surprise to you:

Who you hang out with matters.

Entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Jim Rohn has gone so far as to say that, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

In fact, not only can it affect your physical and psychological health, it literally can impact what you believe and who you become (more on that in a minute).

Negativity in College

As a college professor, I definitely see a lot of negativity in my students. Although many are happy, it seems as if a good (and growing) number of them are bothered by or even riddled with anxiety, stress, and even apathy. In fact, as I discussed in a previous blog post:

“A report published by Dr. Jean Twenge a number of years ago supports this observation. Twenge found that children in the 1980s and early 1990s showed levels of anxiety that were equivalent to child psychiatric patients in the 1950s (and I’m sure the level of anxiety has probably increased even more in the last 20 years).”

In addition to increases in various types of psychological problems, I’ve also noticed (or maybe just become more aware of) more and more students who seem to be pursuing careers they really don’t care that much about. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard students say some form of the following statement:

“I really don’t like my major. I don’t like going to my classes. But I’m 3 years into it, so I might as well just finish my degree, get a good job, make a lot of money, and then life will be swell.”

Two things specifically strike me about students who make these statements:

1. Their belief that making a lot of money and becoming “successful” will automatically make them happy. Although this notion is widespread, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way. In fact, according to psychological research, once people are able to pay their bills, additional money doesn’t seem to produce more happiness. In fact, some have suggested that the opposite is true: Being happy causes you to do things that result in money and success. Although I think many of my students understand this on some level (maybe from seeing their rich, but miserable, uncle), they nevertheless forget it as they pursue their careers.

2. The sound of dread, anxiety, and lack of passion that is so evident in their voices when they talk about their future careers. It pains me to think that these students might spend many, many hours of their lives working on jobs that drain the life out of them.

Now, there are likely many reasons why students (and others) have these negative beliefs and feelings.

Pressure from parents and professors to get good grades.

The mistaken belief that they have to have their entire lives figured out by the time they graduate from college.

Unrealistic expectations about what it means to be “successful”

And so on…

But there’s also one other reason, I believe, why some students are not as happy as they otherwise might be.

The Impact of Your Posse

In a word, here’s what it comes down to: friends.


Your amigos. Your buddies. Your pals. Your comrades. Your squad.

Your posse.

Yes, your posse can have a big impact on how you feel, how you think, and even on who you eventually become.

Let me explain.

When we hang around others, we consistently “reinforce” and “punish” the things they say and do.

For example, when our friends say or do something we like, we flash them a smile, pat them on the back, and tell them we agree—all of which make it more likely that they’ll say the same thing again some time in the future. Eventually, it’s what they come to believe.

Similarly, when friends do things we don’t like, we frown, shake our heads unapprovingly, and tell them to STFU—all of which “punish” their behavior and make it less likely to occur again. Eventually, they might stop believing and acting in certain ways.

They do the same to us, and we, in effect, mold each other in ways that affect who we ultimately become—how we feel, what we believe, and even how we act. In fact, as this classic study by psychologist Joel Greenspoon shows, we often do this to each other without even being aware of it.

No wonder we frequently find ourselves in the company of people who have similar political beliefs, musical interests, and hobbies. We shape each other in ways that often make us quite similar to one another. No wonder Jim Rohn suggested that we’re the average of the five people we hang around with the most.

And no wonder when we hang around negative people, we find ourselves getting a little (or a lot) negative, too.

Are Your Friends Turning You Into Debbie Downer?

There seem to be numerous ways this plays out in college (and in other settings, too).

1. For one, as I noted above, many students don’t like their majors and classes, and so they end up complaining about them. If they do this with friends who feel the same way, they end up reinforcing each other’s negative statements about their academic experiences. And so the negative feelings continue.

2. There’s also a prevailing belief that college, like work, is supposed to be unenjoyable (or at least the academic part of it). Given this far-reaching belief, it’s almost as if it becomes a competition to see whose days are the most unpleasant. Friends try to “one up” each other (“I haven’t slept for 3 days!” or “I studied for 15 hours straight!”) and end up receiving lots of social praise from each other for doing these extreme things (many of which have a negative effect on their moods).

3. Finally, as a society, we often don’t pay much attention to each other when we’re in good moods—it’s almost as if we’re annoyed by happy people! But when things start to go bad, we show up in spades to support our friends (which is good!). Unfortunately, this can backfire when a student, for example, learns that she only gets attention when she talks about her “miserable” life or posts a negative Facebook status. She enjoys the attention (as most of us do) and behaves accordingly to get it.

In short, we’re often responsible for turning each other into Debbie Downer.

Your Posse and Your Passion

Importantly, who we hang out with also has a big impact on the passion we experience in our lives. I’ve found, for example, that when my students hang around others who believe in the idea of finding what you love to do and pursuing it, they get motivated to do the same.

Similarly, if we have friends who like to shoot down our ideas or who always talk about how life is completely unfair, it’s no wonder we start to feel the same way they do. As they say, misery loves company.

When I talk to students about passion and choosing careers they enjoy, I see the effects of this “social punishment” first-hand. Rather than entertaining the idea of doing something they love, my students come up with excuses (as I’ve done plenty of times before). They might mention a career that truly interests them, but then they quickly follow it with, “That’s not possible” or “I’d never be successful doing that” or “It’s just too risky” or “That’s a stupid idea.”

The interesting thing is that we’re not born being so pessimistic and negative. My sons, for example, believe they can do anything they want when they grow up.

But somewhere along the way, that belief gets beaten out of us.

As I’ve discussed before, some of that “lack of belief” comes from parents and teachers.

But some of it, no doubt, comes from friends—negative friends who, unfortunately, don’t believe in themselves and who sometimes lead us to have the same self-defeating beliefs.

Maybe It’s Time to Re-evaluate Your Posse

Ultimately, your friends matter. Hang around five positive, motivated people, and you’re likely to feel the same way.

But hang around five negative people, and your life is likely to move in the same direction as theirs.

So, if you’re feeling less than positive about the direction in which you’re life is moving, or if you’re yearning to do something that lights you up but don’t think you have what it takes, maybe you need to take a close look at your friends.

If they’re not providing you with the type of positivity you want in your life, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your posse.


If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Have you had to deal with overly negative friends? How did it affect you? Please leave a comment below.

Also, if you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my email list (in the sidebar to the left), and please share it with others (by clicking one of the icons below). Thanks!


Applying the 3 M’s: My Diet and Exercise Updates

As you probably know, I am a psychologist. I study and teach students why humans (and non-humans) do what they do.

Although there are numerous theoretical perspectives in psychology, I tend to categorize myself as a behaviorist, or behavior analyst.

Behavior analysis is a sub-area of psychology that attempts to explain human behavior by appealing to a person’s genetic make-up, past experiences, and current conditions (or current environment).

For example, people who are prone to overeating (ahem…) might behave that way because (a) they have a genetic predisposition to do so, (b) they’ve had lots of good experiences (or “reinforcers”) with food in the past, and (c) their current environment is filled with “cues” that prompt them to eat (like a pantry that is filled with unhealthy foods or friends who encourage them to eat). Together, these factors lead these people to eat more than they should.

Using this framework, behavior analysts have also spent a lot of time trying to change behavior in socially significant ways. For instance, applied behavior analysts do important work in educational settings, in business settings, and in the area of intellectual disabilities (just to name a few).

Importantly, because it’s impossible to change a person’s genetic make-up and past experiences, applied behavior analysts focus their efforts on changing the elements of a person’s current environment that impact their behavior. For instance, if a person struggles with overeating, an applied behavior analyst might try to modify the person’s eating environment so that there are more cues to eat healthy foods and more “rewards” that follow healthy eating.

Dr. Robert Epstein, who worked with famous psychologist/behaviorist B. F. Skinner, has suggested in his great book, Self-Help Without the Hype, that changing a person’s behavior (including your own) can be boiled down to three steps (what Epstein calls “the 3 M’s“):

1. Measuring your behavior (so you have a very clear idea of whether your behavior is changing for the better)

2. Modifying your environment (so the factors that lead to positive habit change are present and the factors that promote bad habits are as absent as possible)

3. Making a public commitment (so others can support you in your efforts)

(I have discussed these steps previously, so I’m not going to dive into detail here. But if you’re looking for a few simple ways to incorporate the 3 M’s into your own life, see herehere, and here.)

Although I study behavioral principles and teach others how to apply them in their own lives, I sometimes forget to use them in my own. As such, this post is simply a way for me to make sure I’m practicing what I preach.

I’m going to experiment a little bit over the next few weeks and see if keeping a running tally of my diet and exercise activities, and then posting everything on my blog, has a positive effect on my health habits.

Doing this, I think, will allow me to capitalize on the 3 M’s in at least two important ways:

First, to make sure I’m providing accurate updates, I will need to measure carefully both my dietary and exercise habits. Research has shown that the simple act of carefully measuring your behavior is often enough to produce positive changes in your habits (because you become more aware of how often you’re engaging in both good and bad habits).

Second, posting updates is a way for me to make a public commitment and capitalize on the social support of family, friends, students, and others. I hope these people will provide me with positive support when I “do good” and call me out when I “do bad.”

Updates start tomorrow (Monday, January 25), and I’ll be posting them at:

Diet and Exercise – Daily Updates

I’d love if you’d check in periodically with me and help keep me on track.

Thanks in advance for your support!


If you have a minute, I’d also love to hear what you think about this post. How could you apply the 3 M’s in your life? Maybe you could start by making a public commitment here. What do you think?

Also, if you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my email list (in the sidebar to the left), and please share it with others (by clicking one of the icons below). Thanks!


Imposter Syndrome: Is It Holding You Back?

Picture from onthejob.45things.com

I remember back in graduate school when I was first applying for academic positions. At that point, I had been studying psychology intensely for about 8 years and had a pretty good grasp on the topic (although I’ve learned a TON more since then). I had published some of my research and received strong student evaluations for my teaching. My graduate advisor told me I was ready to move on.

By all accounts, I was well prepared to take the next step and become a psychology professor. And yet, one thing continued to linger in the back of my mind:

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not ready for this. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

These thoughts would pop up at random times and make me wonder whether I was just a big fraud who really didn’t know what he was doing.

I remember one specific time when was I interviewing for a job. During my research talk (which is a common part of academic interviews), a professor in the audience asked me a question about one of my studies. After I gave my answer, he shook his head a bit, as if to say, “Nope, that’s wrong.” Although he said nothing further, I knew for sure that he had found me out—I was just a punk kid who didn’t know what he was talking about. Obviously, I wasn’t going to get the job…

Well, as it turns out, I did get the job. Moreover, after thinking about the professor’s question for awhile, I realized that I had answered his question correctly. He was the one who was wrong!

About a year later, I was sitting in my office reflecting on my first semester as a college professor. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow! I actually do know what I’m doing. My advisor was right: I was ready to become a college professor.”

And yet, even though I had experienced a number of “successes” by that point, I still had lingering doubts about my ability to be a really good college professor.

So why did I doubt myself?

Hello Imposter Syndrome!

This phenomenon—that despite our external accomplishments, we still don’t believe we’re good enough—is known as “imposter syndrome.”

And I think it keeps a lot of people from doing things they really want to do in life.


First introduced by the psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and studied in high-achieving women, imposter syndrome (which Clance and Imes called the “imposter phenomenon”) refers to the lingering belief that we’re not competent or that we don’t deserve success, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

People with imposter syndrome believe that they are phonies or frauds and that any success they have achieved is due to luck or other external factors. None of their success is due to intelligence, ability, or hard work.

The interesting part about imposter syndrome is that people who suffer from it tend to be the only ones who can’t see that they have what it takes to be successful—that they’ve “got the goods.”

Unfortunately, I see this syndrome a lot in my students (and others). In fact, I still see it in myself sometimes.

Imposter Syndrome: A Couple Examples

Let me give you a couple more examples of what imposter syndrome looks like.

Example #1

A few years ago, I had a student who was clearly exceptional. By all accounts, she had excelled during her college years: She had a very high GPA, great scores on her graduate-admissions tests, extensive research experience (including a publication, which is rare for undergraduates), and even teaching experience. Plus, she was just an all-around good person.

But when it came time for her to apply to graduate programs, I noticed that she was applying to programs that were clearly below her ability level. When I asked her about it, she proceeded to tell me how she “wasn’t that good” and that there was no way she’d ever get into a top-notch program.

After some discussion, I finally convinced her to “up her game” a bit and apply to some PhD programs. I still don’t think she believed in herself, but she went along with me anyway.

Long story short, she ended up getting into several excellent PhD programs. She is now in a highly rated graduate program and doing very well.

Example #2

More recently (as you know if you’ve been following my blog at all), I decided that I wanted to get into a band again. I had played guitar in a few different bands when I was younger, and I realized that I really missed that part of my youth.

There was a problem, though: I didn’t think I was good enough. I had spent the last couple of years taking lessons and getting my “chops” back. And still, I didn’t believe I was good enough to join a real band.

Eventually, I convinced myself that I needed to take the first step and see where I stood. I remember getting together with my future bandmates and talking about what we hoped to accomplish if we decided to start a band. I kept telling them over and over that I might not be good enough or up to their level (because all of them had played in bands recently). In fact, I think my negative talk made them doubt my abilities, even though they hadn’t even heard me play yet.

Well, the first rehearsal came, and as we started practicing our songs, I realized that maybe I could hold my own. We started to learn more and more songs, and I found myself being able to play them competently.

For the first time in my recent guitar-playing life, I thought to myself, “Maybe I’m not an imposter!”

I knew I had (and still have) a lot more to learn, but at the very least, I came to realize that I had greatly underestimated my ability. (I’m also incredibly fortunate to have bandmates who are very supportive and who continue to tell me that “you got this” when I start to question my ability.)

A Few Problems with Imposter Syndrome

Unfortunately, there are numerous problems that come with having imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome can lead to burnout.

Because people who suffer from imposter syndrome don’t want to be “found out,” they often work incredibly hard to cover for their perceived shortcomings. They hope that doing so will keep others from finding out “the truth.” Unfortunately, they overwork and eventually become burned out.

Imposter syndrome is self-perpetuating.

When people suffer from imposter syndrome, they often purposely hold back from performing at their highest levels. Then when their performance suffers, it confirms their pre-existing beliefs about being imposters. And so the cycle continues.

Imposter syndrome keeps people from setting their sights high and pursing big, important goals.

When people believe they don’t have what it takes to be successful or to achieve their goals, they often don’t even try. They convince themselves they’re not able. They also convince themselves that not failing is more important than achieving their big goals or pursuing their dreams.

And so they stay put, not improving or growing in any important ways.

Or if they do try, they set the bar really low so they don’t have to experience failure. In this case, these people often pursue what psychologists call “performance-avoidance” goals.

Performance-avoidance goals are those where the objective is simply to avoid doing worse than others. For example, a student who pursues performance-avoidance goals in class simply wants to make sure he doesn’t get one of the lowest grades in class. He can avoid “failure” by showing others that he has, in fact, exceeded the goals he set for himself—even if they are relatively low (and even if they do result in a less-than-desirable grade).

The problem with these goals is that they typically have a negative effect on motivation and performance. People who set the bar really low don’t get excited about what they’re pursuing. And because their goals are relatively easy to reach, their performance doesn’t improve that much.

Imposter Syndrome: We All Have It

Interestingly, as I’ve talked to more and more students (and others) about the idea of imposter syndrome, I’ve come to realize this:

Many of them believe they’re the only ones suffering from it. They believe that everyone else but them has it “figured out.”

But here’s the reality:

A number of studies over the past 30 or so years have shown that upwards of 70% of people (including Albert Einstein and actress Emma Watson) experience imposter syndrome at some time during their lives (for more examples, see here and here).

I know this is definitely the case for many of my students. As they struggle to get their lives in order, they convince themselves that they’re the only ones who still have questions about their abilities or concerns about where they’re headed in life.

And because being an imposter is perceived as a “bad” thing, they take steps to make sure others don’t find out the truth. Instead, they claim that everything is good, that they know exactly what they want to do with their lives, that they have everything figured out.

Unfortunately, when everyone takes steps to conceal their imposter syndrome, what we’re left with is the collective perception that “I’m the only one who doesn’t know what I’m doing.”

The fact of the matter is that many of us have, at one time or another, suffered from imposter syndrome.

And if that’s the case, we should be willing to open up and talk to others about it. In fact, one of the best treatments for imposter syndrome is talking to others and realizing that many (if not most) people are in the very same boat.

When we finally accept the fact that “we’re all imposters,” we’re more likely to try things out and see where we stand.

And when we finally take a chance and do that, we often surprise ourselves.


If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome? Do you know others who have? How did you deal with it? Please leave a comment below.

Also, if you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my email list (in the sidebar to the left), and please share it with others (by clicking one of the icons below). Thanks!