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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Building Up Self-Esteem

Q. I have an inferiority complex and I am having a lot of trouble dealing with people in everyday life. I just realized I had this problem when I joined the Air Force National Guard. Being away from home and civilian life shows you who you are and I had no idea. I became depressed because I couldn't socialize with anyone, and it forced me to analyze myself.

I have realized I am a product of the environment I was raised in. My dad has been a negative influence by being anti-social, and only rarely discusses emotions or backs his children's behavior (good or bad) by positive reinforcement. I have no physical defects, so any complex I have mainly deals with not being able to express myself, and feeling dumb, or just inadequate overall.

I daydream a lot and feel uncomfortable in social situations. I question whether or not the Air Guard is even a good place for me...I am at a low point in my life and would like some advice on how to approach my problem and how to work on it. Can you help?

A. You are obviously a thoughtful person who wants to change himself (or herself?) for the better. That already puts you one leg up on many people who don't have the courage or will to begin the process of self-change--so give yourself a pat on the back!

You are beginning to look at some of the early childhood influences that may--or may not--account for some of your difficulties. Experts will differ on the importance of these factors, but in my view, the road to change is not by focusing on how inadequate your dad or others may have been. You can't change your past or your father (though you might try!)--you can change the way you think and feel about yourself and those around you.

For example, it's very common to feel inadequate or self-conscious around others. Some people are so anxious about dealing with others, we say they have a social phobic disorder. Depression may also contribute to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Both anxiety and depressive disorders are highly responsive to professional treatment--and that is really my main recommendation. This may be hard for you in the military--I don't know how much time you actually can call your own--and I understand the reluctance of many in the armed forces to expose themselves to the mental health system.

Lately, though, the military has become more sensitive to the need for counseling and support for its troops. If you can't find some way of seeking out a mental health professional, within or outside the military, then I would recommend reading one of several excellent self-help books: The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns MD; Ten Days to Self-Esteem, also by Dr. Burns; and--my favorite--A Guide to Rational Living, by Drs. Albert Ellis and Robert Harper.

All these works emphasize that changing the way you think will help change the way you feel! Although there are many "chat rooms" and self-help websites, I would tend to discourage those in your case, since being online may only reinforce your natural tendency to avoid social situations. As with any battle, sometimes the only way out is straight through! Good luck.

May 2003

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