Why We Love Putting People in a Box and Why We Should Reevaluate Our Views on Ourselves, Others, and Life In General

On this journey through life, we are different people at various points in our journey. Surely you are not the same person at 48 that you were at 18.


Yet the people in our lives often view us as who we were when they met us. More often than not it will be a struggle for them to shift their perception of you. Once they view you a certain way, regardless of the changes and progress you make in your life, it may be a challenge for them to take you out of the “box” they put you in.

This is why if you ask five people to describe someone, you will likely get five extremely varied answers. We meet people at different points in time impacting our perception of the individual.

Even our own self-concept may be reflective of a point in time that no long holds true today. Ask yourself when is the last time you took stock of who you are TODAY not who you were years ago? Do you still view yourself as an extrovert because growing up you liked to go out and socialize but now you spend your weekends at home on the couch dreading the mere thought of going to a party? Do you consider yourself a career driven person but have not been in the workforce in five, ten, fifteen years? Do you view yourself as athletic but have not been in shape since your college years? Often we do not update our self-concept as we evolve through life.

There is no right or wrong here. But at different stages of our life, to an extent, our identity shifts. You are a different “you” as a child vs. college student vs. a young professional vs. a person balancing career and family vs. someone who is retired. Yet oftentimes we hold onto an identity that is no longer valid which can in turn create conflict within ourselves and with the outside world.

Our self-concepts are not always perfectly aligned with reality. Our perceptions of others are not either. While we all tend to distort reality to a certain degree, congruence occurs when self-concept is fairly well aligned with reality. 

Try to reflect on the following three questions:

  • Do you think your view of yourself is how other people view you?
  • Can you think of someone you and a friend view completely differently?
  • Do you believe most people are aware of how others perceive them?

Too many people live on auto pilot. Many of us do not reflect on our beliefs of ourselves, others, and life in general to see if they are still relevant or hold true to this day.

People use labeling as a tool to resolve the complexity of their environments. It is easier to put people in categories than take the time to analyze the complexities of the individual (complexities which we all have). It is simpler and easier to label and categorize. The same can hold true for the views we hold of ourselves.

Not only do we tend to stereotype people, but once we label someone, we fight like hell to keep them in that category. Even if the face of evidence to the contrary. This helps to mitigate our cognitive dissonance.  (Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance).

Ironically enough as clinicians we HAVE to use diagnostic labels to interpret clients’ behavior to bill insurance companies. I am not a big fan of such protocol but it is a requirement for insurance companies to cover services. I feel people are so much more than the categories we put them in.

Yet in private practice we are able to change the diagnostic label as a client progresses through treatment. In day-to-day life, it seems our labels tend to be more rigid and fixed.

We label people: talkative, outgoing, shy, kind, rude, evil, sweet, smart, dumb, hardworking, successful, not successful, rich, poor, the list goes on and on.

More often than not I find people do not like to change their long-held views or labels. Of themselves OR others. Once they made up their mind on WHO someone is–it is what it is.

Even if they experience discomfort in the face of evidence which is contrary to their preconceived views, they will work hard to twist the truth and to justify their faulty perceptions. To reduce the discomfort, they will often use a myriad of defense mechanism (ex. denial, projection, rationalization) to mitigate any cognitive dissonance between themselves and the target of their label/judgement.

We also do the same with the view we hold of ourselves. And of life in general (we see this play out all the time in political discussions).

Not everyone, but many people seem to struggle with changing how they view a person (or oneself) once their mind has formed an opinion.

It is like our mind is a file cabinet. When we see someone we unconsciously pull the file on that person. The problem is we may have not updated our files in 5, 10, 15, 20 years or more.

For instance, one woman I know has repeatedly pointed out to me a mistake a person had made in college. The thing is the woman in question is well into her FORTIES. Thus this person is judging someone based on a mistake made over 20 years ago.  The person was using this mistake, from twenty years ago, as a reflection on this person’s present day character. In reality, this woman was a totally different person in the here and now. This type of type casting is reflective on this rigid, inflexible categorizing, people have a tendency to indulge in. Perhaps you have your own examples coming to mind.

The thing you may notice is that people like to stereotype you. They are going to do all in their power to put you in a box based on how you look, where you work, and where you live particularly at the point in time they met you. This allows them to mentally file you away alongside the thousands of other boxes consuming their mental files.

I have seen this commonly occur in families. It’s all an inside job. The only way we’re able to look at the world is through our own unique lens.

The truth is, all of us are capable real and meaningful change, but we often criticize those who display it. For some, having people “figured out” is preferable to actually figuring them out.

People do not want to take the time to reevaluate a person or their relationship to said person based on the here and now. What compels us to define ourselves and others by often narrow parameters, putting us into categories? People are busy and people are lazy. It is convenient. Labels enable people to make what they believe to be useful generalization. We then use these labels to justify our own behavior in turn.

This can in turn make us feel we know what is best for other people. This is a side effect of our short-sighted judgments. This has been done to me and I know I have done this from time to time with others.  It’s one thing if someone’s actions and behavior are directed at us personally, but when those decisions aren’t,  intervening, will bring about anger and frustration. We use our labels and generalizations to rationalize our actions towards others.

Labels have a way of dehumanizing people. It is okay to have different values. Life is a lot more complex than many of us are willing to acknowledge. 

Yet when we think we know what’s best for someone’s else life, what we are essentially doing is failing to recognize we are all unique people with different values. Keeping people in a box helps us to feel in control. Thus instead of accepting someone as they are NOW, we fight to view them as something we are comfortable with. When we view a person as who they were ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, it can be hard to connect with them if we are not able to communicate with who they are in the here and now.

Do you see the issues that can arise with this type of thinking? Of stereotyping someone and imposing your opinion of what’s best? This type of thinking and behavior plays out often in our society including our political landscape.

Perhaps you have been there before. Someone hurts you and you decide they did it because they’re an evil or bad person. You disregard all evidence to the contrary. When someone else speaks kindly of them, you assume that person does not know the “real” them like you do. Or someone says something that threatens a belief you hold dear, so you decide they’re wrong. Maybe you view yourself a certain way and when someone says something that contradicts this view, you attack them.

We fight fiercely to hold onto our beliefs. We push hard to get people to act in a way we deem best. At the core, this is about feeling secure and comfortable.

Yet being emotionally and mentally healthy means not labeling other people and putting them in boxes that we file away. It means giving ourselves and others the freedom to change.

We are not meant to be put in boxes. As people, we are always growing, changing, and evolving (hopefully that is).

In a way if you are not growing, you are dying.

When we look around at other people, we tend to be naturally drawn to people like us. Conversely, we may be repelled by certain types of people who seem very unlike us. This is why change can feel so threatening. Again, we see this play out in the political realm. But for our own peace of mind we need to begin to see most people do not fit neatly into categories. Life is messy. Things change. People are constantly in flux. The world is constantly moving forward–whether we are on board or not.

As it relates to ourselves, progress is important to be being happy. As humans if we are not growing more often than not we are not going to feel fulfilled. Think of people who have not changed any aspect of their life in five, ten, fifteen, twenty years (maybe you are thinking of yourself). These people in all likelihood lack a vibrancy to them. The thing is growth has a sense of aliveness to it. What makes us feel alive is progress.

The time has come for us to start thinking OUTSIDE the box instead of forcing others (and ourselves) into a box. The time has come to begin making progress in our own lives and allowing others to evolve. Let us not continue to box ourselves or others in.


To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):


Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822


10 Signs You Have a Victim Mentality

Before you can change an aspect of who you are, first you need to be willing to recognize it.  Are you someone with a victim mentality? A person with a woe is me attitude.  A person who NEVER is to blame for any of the problems in their life–regardless of their actions or words.  A person with a victim mentality feels the world is against them and there is nothing they can do about it. If you are not one of them, I am sure you KNOW one of these people–because we all know SOMEONE with a victim mindset and these people are extremely draining. These people are perpetual victims of their own making and victimhood is a way of life for them. It is a deeply ingrained habit and most of the time the person who embodies this mindset can’t see it in themselves. They may be able to see it in OTHERS, but not in themselves.  People with a victim mentality tend to lack self-awareness.  If you have a victim mentality, not only do you cause stress and frustration for those in your life, but create this experience for yourself. Are you wondering if this could be you?

Ten Signs You Have a Victim Mentality

1.You Feel You are Not Responsible. Pause that. Maybe YOU ARE responsible–for the good things that happen in your life, sure. You will take ownership of THAT. You may even take credit for other people’s successes in your life–your husband got a promotion? Well, of course he did, because I am a great wife! And I push him to succeed. Your daughter got a scholarship to a great college? Well, of course she did, great parenting! You may love to take credit for others’ successes including bragging about them like they are your own. You may even humble brag about your own successes (because who doesn’t). But take ownership for the problems in your life? NO WAY are you taking responsibility for that! Get out of here on THAT!

Get into a fight with your wife? She is being crazy and unreasonable. Struggling at work? Not my fault. My boss is a real jerk.  Your sister has been avoiding you because of how much you complain and create drama in the family? She is the asshole. Your doctor refuses to have you as a patient anymore because you have not lose the weight or quit smoking like he’s been telling you for YEARS? Not my fault he obviously is a jerk who is ONLY in this for the money, he doesn’t care about his patients!

See where I am going here? Nothing in your life is your fault–it is always others or circumstances beyond your control.  You do not want the weight of responsibility for anything that is not going well in your life.

2.You Feel Others are Trying to Hurt You. Let’s be real here. Most people aren’t against you. They are for themselves. Human nature is what it is. But if you have a victim mentality, any time someone says something that rubs you wrong or you feel someone doesn’t give you the attention you feel you deserve, you think they are out to get you. It wouldn’t occur to you that people are busy with their own lives and that not everything revolves around you. People with a victim mentality tend to be a bit paranoid–thinking Facebook posts are about them, an unanswered text is an assault of their well-being, a birthday gift that isn’t up to their standards is taken as a slight-I know they gave me this to piss me off. People with victim mindsets not only feel others are actively trying to hurt them, but they also feel others should do more of the work in the relationship. They feel entitled–they feel you should call them, text them, reach out to them, make plans with them, and so on and  so forth. They pass the burden of maintaining the relationship onto you. Often people with a victim mentality have rocky, unstable relationships. Of course–this is never their fault–other people are just self-absorbed, uncaring assholes. RIGHT.

3.You Blame Others. If you are in a relationship with someone who has a victim mentality, you can bet that any conflict will not be their fault. These are the people who notice YOUR changed behavior but do not have the self-awareness to notice how THEIR behavior made you change your attitude towards them.  In any conflict, they will expect you to change but feel they did nothing wrong. They would never think about changing their behaviors towards you to see if they garner a different response. These people often have double standards-they can be short with you, but if you respond in kind, you are the one with a problem. They can not call you but expect you to call them. They can say rude things to you but god forbid you say something snarky to them. I think you get the gist. The blame game is their favorite to play! These people have blaming others and coming off like the innocent victim down to a science.

4.You Feel Powerless to Stop or Change a Problem. You may feel other people just suck. Or life sucks. You feel there is nothing you can do to be a catalyst for positive change in your life. You are just a passenger in your own life. We all know this is bullshit. But if you are someone with a victim mentality this is your gospel.  It doesn’t matter what the problem is or who in involves. If it is a conflict with your boss, you may start looking for a new job instead of working on the way you interact with her. If it is a problem with your health, say your doctor has been telling you to lay off the cigarettes, you may just got to a new doctor who won’t give you grief about your smoking. If it is a problem with a friend, instead of trying to look at things from his perspective, you will just start taking tiny digs at him, hoping he gets the message that you are upset with him. People with a victim mentality feel they do now have the power to change the circumstances of their life and wait on others to step up.  Like the John Mayer song, they are waiting, waiting, waiting on the world to change.

5.You Hold Grudges. Nothing reinforces a victim mentality like a good old grudge. Victims LOVE to be wronged. Love it! Listen, if someone does you wrong, YOU have the power to change what kind of relationship you have with them (if any at all).  Some people really are just shitty. But the burden of their shittiness IS NOT YOURS TO CARRY! Do what you need to do but don’t stew in resentment or hold onto bitterness towards them. All that does is give another person power over you. Victims love to give away their power. Victims love to hold onto the feeling of being wronged.  This is just a way of life for these people. Yet it is not worth holding onto those negative emotions because then the person who hurt you is continuing to live inside of you in an emotional sense. When interpersonal conflict arises, try seeing things from the other’s person perspective, look at the role you played, try to work it out, and if not, it is time to move on. If you really did nothing wrong, be satisfied with that and get on with it. Don’t continue to stew in the horrible behavior of SOMEONE else. Don’t wait on an apology. Don’t wait on them to change their behavior. It is not your job to police the world. If the other person is truly despicable, you learned who they truly are, you have the option to change the role this person has in your life, and keep it moving. Don’t keep the negativity going in your own life.

6.You are Passive Aggressive. Nothing screams victim mentality like passive aggressive behavior. These people tend to have little confidence and do not have the courage to speak their mind directly, but they sure love to get their anger across in covert ways! Moodiness, sulking, indirect digs, sarcasm, eye rolling, the backhanded compliment, silent treatment, lying, manipulating, triangulating, getting others to do their bidding, and so on and so forth. These people pride themselves on their passive aggressive maneuvers. They see themselves as the puppet masters pulling the strings behind the curtain. If someone is being passive aggressive with you, they are not worth your time. Give your attention to people mature enough to say what they truly feel.

7.You are Selfish. Playing the victim is inherently selfish. Ever been around someone who needs to make everything about themselves? Even if it has NOTHING to directly do with them? These are the people who somehow manage to make it all about THEM and how it affects THEM. They love to garner sympathy–playing the victim card at any chance they get. Negative or positive attention–it is all the same for them as long as the attention is on them. People with victim mentalities are the stars of their own movie. It is impossible to get these people to see things from your perspective because they don’t care about your perspective. They care about how they were wronged, how it affected them, how they are hurting, how this isn’t fair, how they are disappointed, and so on and so forth.

8.You Love to Complain. Complaining is a way of life for someone who plays the victim. If anything it is an anomaly for you have anything positive to say. There is no topic on Earth a person with a victim mentality can’t complain about. Rarely do these people have a good word to say about anyone or anything. Complaining is as natural for them as breathing.

9.You Have Low Self-Esteem. Feeling not good enough is at the core of a victim mentality. These people feel weak and powerless.  People with low self-esteem tend to develop a victim mindset because they feel they do not have the self-efficacy to change–at least not to change themselves. However, they may feel they can try to change others. If they felt they could change themselves, they would not feel the need to blame circumstances, others, and a largely “unfair world.”

10.You Compare Yourself to Others. Listen, this one is tough—we live in the age of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, where comparing yourself to others is easier than ever before to do.  All you have to do is scroll through your phone to see what others in your “world” are up to you at any given moment. Comparing yourself to others, and coming up short, is a catalyst for feeling like a victim. Why is their life so fun when I am home plopped on the couch?! Not fair! Comparison is also what causes people to try to victimize others when they feel they come up short. The sad truth is there is often a bitterness to a person with a victim mentality and comparing themselves to others is one of their many bad habits. Often enough, they find ways to invalidate the success of others and to feed their victim mindset–anything to perpetuate the thought that they got dealt a shitty hand in life.

As you can see, when you take on a victim mentality, you are pretty much giving up ownership and responsibility for your life. You also are giving up the chance to be happy.

If it seems like a victim mentality can’t be beneficial to living a joyful and fulfilling life,  so you might be wondering, why would ANYONE want to live like this? Because like anything else, there are payoffs.

Such as?

~Attention and validation. Victims love to complain and whine about their problems. Successful people rarely play the victim card. But for the people who play it, they use their victim status as an excuse for why they may have not achieved a great deal. Often it helps a victim bond with others over how they have been “wronged” and what an “unfair” lot in life they have been given. Victims often grip about how others are “evil” and “bad.” Of course, when others are wrong, evil, and bad, the inference is that they, as the victim, are “right,” “moral,” and “good.” A victim gets to be the hero, the “do gooder” in their own twisted story.  A “poor me” attitude gives people an artificial “high” from their sense of self-righteousness.

~Staying in one’s comfort zone. Victims do not need to change. Why would they? They did NOTHING wrong. There is certain sense of comfort in feeling like a victim. Victims hate change. These are people who love to maintain the status quo.

~Avoiding responsibility for your life. If you are a victim, you are not responsible for the world around you and you often blame others. Blaming others can feel so good. It absolves you from having take a good, long hard look at yourself when you are busy pointing the finger.  It also gives you a fall sense of superiority to blame others and the circumstances around you instead of taking ownership for ALL aspects of your life.

~It is a role from childhood and it feels familiar. Perhaps growing up you played the victim with your parents to get your needs met. Maybe you use to blame your siblings and scapegoat them to get your way. Or maybe you watched your mom play the victim card with your dad to get her way. A victim mindset is often rooted in childhood.

But now the time has come to change for the better. To become a person who takes ownership for all the things in their life-good OR bad. If you have a victim mentality, there are ways to begin to shift your mindset to a more positive way of being.

Strategies to Stop Having a Victim Mentality

1)Be willing to give up the so-called “benefits” of being a victim. The attention. The sympathy. The shirking of responsibility. Playing the martyr role. If you are playing the victim, you are headed nowhere good fast.  Begin to look for proactive ways to go after what you want in life. Be an agent for change. For example, if you are unhappy in a friendship, try to make the effort to work on the relationship. It may not be reciprocated (which you cannot control) but then at least you know where you stand. Do not keep on waiting for the person to reach out and then complain they don’t care. If you want a relationship to improve, you need to make the first move.

2)Stop complaining. I know it is addicting. We all have our moments where we complain too much but it is when it becomes a way of life–that is when it is a problem. It is so much easier to complain than it is to ACTUALLY do something. But habitual complaining is bad for your health–your mental AND physical health. Complaining is a quick way to make yourself–and everyone around you–miserable. Start to break the habit. Complaining keeps you from taking action. But worse it keeps you in a negative reality.  To quote Maya Angelou, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Sometimes what you need is an attitude shift more than any actual external change.

3)Stop living in the past. People with a victim mindset are often grudge holders. They can remember with great detail what you did to them…in summer of 2002. That’s right– I said 2002. They can remember vividly (and with fresh rage) the time their mom made them stay home on a Friday night from their favorite band’s concert– while ALL their friends were allowed to go. That was so unfair, they still think to themselves, 20 years later. They can remember when their parents spent more money on their little sister than on them at the mall. When they were 9 years old. NINE. They can remember when their high school boyfriend stood them up to go hang with his friends. Or the college professor who embarassed them when they fell asleep in class. These types of people remember EVERYTHING.  There is no perceived wrong a person with a victim mentality can let go of. Yet the time has come to stop living in the past and LET IT GO. No good comes from holding onto all that negativity. If is literally a cancer of the mind. If you are an adult, you need to accept that life is not always fair. Not just for you but for everyone. We all get the short end of the stick sometimes. Stop making things worse for yourself. One way you can begin to anchor yourself in the present is to start a mindfulness practice, which may be helpful, if you are someone who ruminates (which most “victims” do).  Try working on living in the present moment and leave the past where it belongs- in the past.

4)Take responsibility for your life. This one is kind of self-explanatory. Everything in your life is 100% your responsibility. That’s right-I said EVERYTHING. The good, the bad, and the indifferent.  If you are unhappy with something, it is time to either make a plan to change it or work on changing your mindset.

5)Know you always can choose differently. We are all one choice away from a completely different life. Stop feeling stuck. If you are stuck, you are choosing the status quo over the fear of change.

6)Get counseling.  I am biased with this one, I know. Yet a good counselor can help you process your hang ups from the past, look at the ways you are currently contributing to the problems in your life, and help you begin to shift your perspective.

7)Be grateful for all the good things in your life. It is hard to be a victim when you practice the art of gratitude.  Try to be grateful even for the bad experiences in your life–they have taught you many lessons. People who may have wronged you have acted as great examples of who NOT to be. Unfortunate circumstances can help to open your eyes to all the many blessings in your life.

8)Learn to forgive. Let go of the grudges you carry towards others. And yourself. Stop beating yourself up for choices and mistakes you made YEARS ago. Stop being angry for what people did to you. Everyone, including you, is doing the best they can. Anger and resentment are heavy burdens to bear. See how it feels to get the weight of anger and resentment off your back.

9)Help others.  Try looking outward. People with a victim mentality tend to spend a lot of time navel gazing and nursing their grudges. Victims tend to think over and over again about all the ways they have been “wronged” in life and are extremely focused on themselves. Try to do something to help and support others-it is hard to feel like a victim when you are focused on being there for others. Be a positive influence in someone’s else life–that is true empowerment.

10)Give yourself a break. You are doing the best you can. Most victims struggle with their self-confidence. Stop being so hard on yourself–beating yourself up does nothing but foster negativity and encourage you to keep the victim mindset.  If you feel negativity on the inside, you will inevitably manifest negativity, in your external environment.

The time has come to release yourself from your self-made prison. Take control of yourself and your life.  No matter what happens in life, you have the choice in how you respond. To live your best life, you need to see yourself as a survivor, not a victim. Once you let go of being a victim, you can begin to free yourself from all the negativity you have been carrying, for far too long.  Just remember, if you want to fly, give up everything that weighs you down.

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in seeking counseling with me:


Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC


590 Franklin Ave.

Suite 2

Nutley, NJ 07110



7 Ways to Overcome Self-Sabotage: How to Conquer the Enemy Within

Are you someone who gets in your own way? Someone who wants things in your life to be better? You have big goals. Big dreams. Yet something always stops you from getting the ball rolling. Perhaps you want to leave a bad relationship but can’t will yourself to do it. It’s not THAT bad, you may tell yourself as you roll over in bed praying your partner doesn’t touch you. Maybe you want to lose those last 20 lbs but can’t keep yourself from rummaging through the fridge once the kids are in bed.  I work hard, I deserve to treat myself, you think to yourself as you make yourself an enormous ice cream sundae. Or maybe you have been putting off looking for a new job for months now even though you know you are in a dead-end situation. I don’t want to write this cover letter or get back on LinkedIn. It is so boring looking for a job and so much work, you may mutter to yourself. That side hustle you want to start? Every weekend you tell yourself, next weekend I will start, I am exhausted-it’s been a long week, where’s the remote? Comfort eating, procrastination, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, self-injurious behaviors…these are all the common forms of self-sabotage we may recognize in ourselves and others. But what about the less obvious forms of self-sabotage? Talking yourself out of something before you even TRY.  Comparing yourself to others. Being NEGATIVE. Ignoring problems. Being arrogant.  Lying (to yourself AND others). Gossiping. Chasing away healthy relationships. Doing what feels good NOW instead of what would be best for later. Being stuck in fear. Keeping unhealthy, toxic relationships in your life. Being addicted to your phone. Being too modest. And the list goes on and on. There are a multitude of reasons why people self-sabotage.  But for many people who grew up in a less than perfect family or experienced a less than ideal childhood, the answer may lie there in how and why you self-sabotage. During childhood, many of us experience pain of different kinds. I am not talking about the falling off your bike pain or getting hit in the head by a ball in gym class type pain. I am talking about emotional and psychological pain.  Even if we grew up in a relatively healthy and functioning family, we may have went to school and experienced criticism from our peers ie the bullies at school. No one escapes being emotionally hurt. It is a part of growing up and is a part of life. I am not a big believer of blaming your parents or your childhood for problems in your adult life. Of course once you are an adult it is on YOU to take 100% responsibility for your life and the results you achieve. Yet many of us DO experience psychological pain during childhood–including from our parents who shape so much of our early worlds. And many of us are still being effected by their words and actions. While we may get picked on at school (which leaves its own type of scars)–it doesn’t resonate quite the same as when you get picked on in your own home.  Perhaps you had a perfectionist mom or a sharp-tongued father. They may have meant well and had your best intentions at heart–but their words still HURT. It is likely you can still reflect back to the criticizing, the shaming, the way the words they said made you feel like you were not good enough.  A mom who told you, “Do you really need ANOTHER piece of cake?”  A dad who in passing let you know, “This won’t cut it, son–our family doesn’t GET B’s–you better smarten up.” They meant well. Most parents do. Mom wanted you to be mindful of your weight–maybe she saw you were gaining a few pounds and didn’t want you getting picked on at school. Dad wanted you to excel in school because he knew how competitive it would be to get into a good college and believed B’s just wouldn’t get you there.  Their reasons and intentions may have been good–but that doesn’t matter. Because when you experienced their words the underlying message was who you were was not measuring up to THEIR standards. As you grew up you began to internalize all those comments that didn’t quite sit right with you.  Or maybe your parents’ words were NOT directed at you. But they directed negativity at themselves and you overheard and absorbed it. Maybe you had a self-loathing mother.  Perhaps mom often spoke of how fat she was, how she COULD have been this, or COULD have done that. Her words depicted she felt weak or like a failure. The message from her still resonates. Mom was not happy with herself and did not feel like she was ENOUGH. Children are like sponges and it is easy to internalize this type of caustic self-talk. If a kid hears their parent speaking of him or herself in a self-deprecating way, giving the message that they themselves are not good enough, how could they possible feel like they are good enough? If mom or dad aren’t good enough, no way I can be. You may find as an adult, you are now your own worst critic. Telling yourself similar messages to which you heard from your parents as a child. You shame yourself when you eat just a LITTLE too much because mom always let you know girls aren’t supposed to eat a lot (which by the way ladies, we all know isn’t true because food is GREAT). Or maybe you never were quite able to get those A’s in school–no matter how hard you tried.  Doing well academically was just not in the cards for you (which is fine–school is not the only indicator of intelligence). Or perhaps you, like your mom, find yourself nowadays feeling not quite enough (a message that is sadly perpetuated in our society).  Worse, you may find that you are doing to your own children, what your parents did to you. Maybe you, like your father, find yourself getting on your son’s back about his grades not being “good enough.”  You don’t want to model this behavior for your kids. But you can’t help yourself. Why do we engage in this type of self-destructive behavior? It does have its payoffs. Self-sabotage is a form of control. Even if the outcome is not what we desire, when we self-sabotage we are ensuring the outcome, albeit a negative one. It may not be the outcome we want, but nevertheless, we are in control of it.  We may find ourselves not only sabotaging ourselves but our relationships with others. For those of us who fear change, this can bring about a comfort of some sorts (better the devil you know, right). Change can be scary even positive change. Happiness can feel unsettling for those of us who are use to sabotaging ourselves. If you become happy, something can happen and it can be taken away. Maybe you don’t want to deal with the disappointment or loss of that feeling. Better to never have it than to have it and lose it, right? Success can seem threatening–once you achieve a goal then the struggle is on to maintain that level of success. This can be intimidating. On some level, you may even believe you deserve to fail. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. How can we overcome self-sabotage? 1)Become aware. Figure out the ways you are screwing yourself over. Reflect back on your life up to now including the way your family of origin is still impacting your day-to-day psychology. Human nature has a way of repeating the familiar even if it is negative and unhealthy. Becoming aware of the way your life history is repeating itself is a good first step to changing. Next, you need to stop the excuses and rationalizations. Stop telling yourself you don’t have the time. Often I hear people say they are too “busy” for something–but we are never too busy for what is important to us. Stop telling yourself it is “too hard.” Too often we psych ourselves out before we even start. We think to ourselves if we keep our expectations low, we can’t be disappointed, we can’t fail. This type of mindset tends to stem from childhood. Self-awareness is key if you want to end self-sabotage. 2)Become okay with not being accepted. It is a strong need for many of us to be accepted by others and “fit in.” Having a desire to be accepted can come at the expense of being successful in the pursuit of your goals. Maybe you had parents who weren’t very successful. Maybe most of your family and friends are struggling with making ends meet. Becoming successful may feel like a betrayal to them. Perhaps you feel if they witness your success, they may feel inadequate and reject you.  Remember these fears may not be conscious but subconsciously driving your behavior. The sad truth is the flip side of acceptance is rejection. It is easier for people to reject you or try to bring you down rather than work on building themselves up. On some level you may fear losing valued relationships in your life if you were able to successfully reach your goals and bring your life to the next level. 3)Become comfortable with uncertainty. We live in an increasingly fast paced world. If you want to thrive, you need to become comfortable with change, and things changing rapidly. If you resist change, you will only create suffering for yourself. The need for certainty is going to limit your ability to progress in life and guarantee you fail at  reaching your goals. Why? Because in order to have “certainty” things need to be predictable and stay the same.  Self-sabotage is a form of certainty–you know you will fail but you won’t have to deal with the stress of changing. You also don’t have to worry about the reactions you may receive from those closest to you as you become more accomplished. Even a spouse can become threatened when their partner starts making big moves.  These are sad truths we may not want to admit. Certainty over success can be a driving force for many of us. The need to be certain all but ensures you will sabotage yourself.  Avoiding uncertainty means trying to create an environment you can control, trying to control other people, and struggling to stay in control of yourself. Control is an illusion. We all like to think we can influence our environment and those around us but the fact of the matter is you can only control yourself. Thinking otherwise is a form of self-sabotage. Let go of your illusion of control if you want to put an end to your self-destructive ways. 4)Lose your self-importance. A prime psychological need is significance. Who amongst us doesn’t want to be important or feel significant? We achieve significance in different ways and what significance means is largely subjective.  But if you want to be important and significant, at the expense of all else, you have a recipe for disaster.  Why? Because to be the most important, you are inherently comparing yourself to others. To be the most important you either need to surround yourself with people with less ability than yourself (which is self-sabotaging in and of itself) OR pretend you have more capability than you do. Neither of these components lay the groundwork for bettering yourself. 4)Challenge your thoughts. We are creatures of habits. We think something for long enough, we are going to resist changing our perspective on it. Humans are lazy. We often don’t want to think (or work) too hard. Challenging your viewpoints can seem daunting. To overcome self-sabotage, you need to begin to look at the ways your self-talk has become negative. Are you a cynic? Do you write yourself and others off before even giving it a chance?  Figure out if your goals are obtainable–and if the way you look at things are grounded in reality. Listen, we all look at people who are Pollyannas as not living in quote, “reality,” seeing their over the top optimism as dooming them to failure. But someone who is a negative curmudgeon is not necessarily grounded in reality either. A lot of things in life are neutral and whether we deem it as good or bad is largely based on our perceptions.  If pessimism is what is driving you, you may want to reevaluate. Pessimism is a form of psychological self-sabotage. Try to find that happy middle ground between hoping for the best and expecting the worst. 5)Recognize your negative patterns and what drives your behavior. What are you triggers? Stress at work? Conflict with your spouse? Your kid not getting his homework done? What is the catalyst for you sabotaging your goals? It is different for all of us. I know when I have a really stressful work day, I come home and want to dive into the Ben and Jerry’s (with rainbow sprinkles and a cherry, of course, because that is LIVING). Yet I needed to learn a new way to deal with my stress to replace that negative behavior of coming home to pig out. For me, I found listening to podcasts on a topic I ENJOY on my drive home, breaks me away from whatever it was stressing me out that day.  What used to happen was after a stressful work day, I would drive home ruminating over what was upsetting me. All that did was amp up my stress level (and make me hungrier, of course). Figuring out your patterns of behavior is a must if you want to stop tripping yourself up. Finding new ways to cope with stress can also help to drop your baseline level of stress. It is interesting to me, as a psychotherapist, to see how many of us are struggling with our coping skills as adults. 6)Stop worrying about what isn’t yours to manage. Let other people manage their lives. Your friend who always calls with a crisis that lasts in a two-hour phone call? Let her work it out on her own this time. Your sister who is always asking you to help with her kids? Let her hire a baby sitter or ask someone else this time. Your coworker who asks you to help them  last-minute with their proposals? Let them know you don’t have the time this week. Your kid who has a project due tomorrow that he hasn’t even STARTED? Let him deal with the consequences for once instead of stepping in to get it done. Try staying in your lane and you will begin to feel a sense of balance in your life. We cannot continue to be everything to everyone. 7)Be selective in who you keep in your inner circle. The sad fact is there are people in our lives who don’t want us to succeed. Whether it is from their own insecurity, self-hatred,  or just the simple fact if they see you do better, somehow that makes them feel “less than” and they will go down a notch on their perceived hierarchy. Or perhaps there are people in your life who have you boxed into a certain role and they do not want to remove you from that box because of how it would make THEM feel. Whatever the root cause may be, it doesn’t matter. It is a nasty truth about human nature.  People feel envy and jealousy towards people–even people they claim to love. Think about the “friend” who knows your on a diet, yet offers you candy and chips every chance she gets. Or maybe she asks you to go to happy hour afer work when you JUST told her you are hitting up the gym.  It is even possible you start to see the pounds drop off and this “friend” is telling anyone who will listen that you are on diet pills or had liposuction to lose the weight. Anything she can to take away from your hard work and belittle your accomplishments. The reality is some people will always try to tear down others to elevate themselves. This is not good for the mind OR the soul. Keeping those people in your life is not going to support you being the best version of yourself. Self-sabotage is preventable.  It often stems from our fears and patterns in our life that can be traced back to our early beginnings. Looking back at our childhood and the way it is still playing out in our lives TODAY can be a game changer. Looking at the people we surround ourselves with and if they are lifting us up or bringing up down is a must. Reflecting on what is driving us and a reevaluation to see if we have our priorities right.  It is time to end your self-sabotage by getting out of your own way. If you enjoyed this article and are interested in seeking counseling with me: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/erin-doyle-theodorou-nutley-nj/243617 Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC


590 Franklin Ave. Suite 2 Nutley, NJ 07110 973-963-7485 etheodorou@theodoroutherapy.com

7 Signs of Walking Depression (“Smiling Depression” or “High Functioning Depression”)


When most of us think of someone who is depressed, we tend to think of the most extreme form, which is people who suffer from major depression (also called clinical depression).  We think of a person who may be home, in bed, unable to function.  We may imagine someone who cries often or talks about suicide.  These are all symptoms of severe depression. This form of depression is usually marked by difficulty going to work, sleeping, eating, socializing, studying, or functioning at even the most basic level in day-to-day life. Major depression is a potentially deadly illness. A person with major depression may struggle with hygiene (it is too much energy to take a shower), making meals (even a sandwich can seem like too much work), or day-to-day tasks (leaving a sink full of dishes for days). This is severe form of depression but most people would notice these signs (or have friends or family who notice their symptoms) and would be more likely to receive help.

A much more common form of depression is walking depression. Depression exists on a spectrum and manifests itself in various ways. The “high functioning” form of depression is “walking depression” or “smiling depression.”  Walking depression’s symptoms can be tougher to recognize because they don’t fall under the picture of what most people think of when they think of depression. People with walking depression may work, raise children, socialize, travel, and even carry out all their day-to-day responsibilities. If you have children, who are not immune to this order, they can be honor students who play varsity sports and have lots of friends. Just because someone is successful does not mean they are not suffering. Walking depression does not discriminate by age, race, or gender. People with this disorder can be high achievers who are achieving remarkable things–but they are doing so with a general sense of misery. A person with walking depression is still getting up each morning, going about their day, going to work, and putting on the facade that everything is A-okay to their family, friends, or coworkers. A person with this form of depression can be very successful professionally, have an active social life, and even be well-traveled.  A person with walking depression may on paper seem to “have it all.” But there is a disconnect between the way their life appears and the life the person with walking depression EXPERIENCES. An individual with walking depression may even be MAD at themselves for feeling unhappy when they know there is no real reason to be.  Kevin Breel, who did an excellent Ted talk on this topic, describes depression perfectly, “Real depression isn’t being sad when something in your life goes wrong. That is normal. Real depression is being sad when everything in your life goes right.”  Having no reason to be sad but feeling sad is TRUE depression. You never know who in your life can be struggling because  a person with walking depression functions, even functions on a high level, but struggles on the day-to-day. People with this form of depression live with a profound sense of unhappiness.

Dysthymia, a chronic, low-grade form of depression, can go on for years untreated. Many people who suffer from this disorder may just think what they feel is “normal” and it is what “real life” is supposed to feel like. Their depression is not disabling in the way clinical depression is but it is still a serious disorder. A person with this disorder may not even know something is wrong because it does not impact their day-to-day functioning. Or they may know something is not quite right but can’t quite put their finger on what. The reality is there is still a stigma that exists in our society as it relates to mental health issues. Many people would never want to admit to THEMSELVES let alone another that they are suffering from depression. It may be because they would feel weak or it may be a blow to their ego or maybe they don’t “believe” in depression (whether for cultural, religious, or familial reasons). However, if you do not acknowledge or believe in depression, this does not exclude you from struggling with this disorder.

How do you know if you or someone you love might have walking depression?

1.Being moody and irritable. When our day-to-day life is a struggle, which it often is for someone with walking depression, it is harder to let things roll off our backs. A person with walking depression may snap at this littlest things or be very cynical in their thinking. The negativity they are feeling internally will spill out in different ways to their external world.  Things that would normally be annoying but no big deal to someone WITHOUT walking depression, can result in bursts of rage or anger in a person with walking depression. Think about it this way–reflect on a day where you woke up tired and in a foul mood. We all have these days. Even the healthiest among us can admit on days where we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, there are situations we would usually laugh off or not let bother us, that really get us going. This is what every day can be like for someone with walking depression. It is already taking everything they have to get through their day-to-day life, so when something rattles them, they have little or no ability to cope. All their coping skills are being used up just to FUNCTION in their day-to-day life.

2. Being lethargic. A person with walking depression keeps it moving…but boy is it a struggle. Work, errands, dropping the kids off at school, they may even hit up the gym. A person with walking depression may do a lot–but with a general feeling of blah. You may drink copious amounts of coffee yet not get the benefit of the energy jolt. Low energy or no energy is the new normal when you are struggling with depression. No amount of caffeine will overcome you melancholy. When someone is depressed their energy levels tend to be low or non-existent because they are struggling with deep feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness. All those negative emotions that accompany depression tend to deplete a person’s energy.  Being in a perpetual negative state of mind takes a lot out of a person. It is not easy to live in a state of chronic depression.

3. Being rigid and unwilling to change. With walking depression, you try not to break your routine (examples: can’t stand the idea of traveling somewhere new, won’t quit the job you hate, won’t leave the partner you have fallen out of love with, don’t want to meet new people or go to new places, etc.). When you are struggling  with walking depression, it takes all you have to just get through the day. You may be unhappy with a certain aspect of your life but changing it would take energy that you just do not have. You don’t want to venture outside of your routine and comfort zone for fear the stress of the change would make you come apart at the seams.

4. Overeating or not eating much at all. Using food (or avoiding food) as a way to cope with your unhappiness. It can go either way depending on the personality type. Change in appetite is something to look into.

5.Unable to look forward to anything and a general sense of cynicism. Maybe your son is graduating college. Or you finally booked that trip to Hawaii you have been putting off for years. Maybe your daughter will be getting married next year. But you just can’t find the energy to care. Happy life events do not bring you joy. If anything you dread having to put on the show of “being happy” at such events. Even worse you feel resentful of the people in your life who DO seem to be happy. You wonder if they are “faking it” or wonder how anyone can so happy over something so trivial. You may suffer a lot of Instragram envy. Or Facebook envy. Or envy of your college best friend’s annual holiday card with a beautiful picture of her and her “happy” family. You try to rationalize why you feel as miserable as you do and simultaneously feel irked by people who appear to be happy.

6.Feeling chronic negativity towards others. This piggybacks a bit off the cynicism towards others. A person with walking depression can come off bitter. It takes so much out of them to just function, it can get them irritated if you ask the simplest thing of them.  A person with walking depression can come across like they  have a chip on their shoulder because while they are doing everything asked of them, they are doing it with a sense of irritability and resentment. They may speak negatively of others and negatively about life in general because of their struggle to keep it together. Remember, if you feel unhappy with your own life it is almost impossible to feel happiness for others.

7. Drinking more. Or self-medicating in some form. Prescription pills. Smoking marijuana. A person with walking depression might only feel a slight sense of relief after a couple of glasses of wine. Or a few puffs on a joint. Or whatever their poison of choice is. It is a red flag that you are struggling if substances are the only way you feel any sense of happiness.

What to do if you think you or some you love has Walking Depression?

  1. Seek help. A good first step would be to tell your primary care doctor who may prescribe antidepressants or recommend a psychiatrist/therapist for you to speak with. When you have walking depression, you may not have the motivation to seek help. If you recognize these symptoms in a family member or friend, try to push them to seek support. People with walking depression do not need to continue to suffer in silence.
  2. Tell your friends and family.  Reducing your isolation can help you overcome the disorder. Friends and family can be a source of great support (and who knows who amongst your social circle has gone through the same). There is no shame in struggling from time to time with your psychological health. A new movement to make physical health just as important as mental health is on the rise. We need to continue as a society to work to become a mental health stigma free country. Carrying the secret that you are not happy is a heavy burden to bear. Often walking depression is a consequence of living a life that you are not happy with. Let your loved ones know you struggle. Admitting the truth can be a relief in and of itself.
  3. Get exercise. Walking is shown to alleviate lower grade forms of depression and is good for overall health. In fact walking is one of the go to recommendations for milder cases of depression. Any form of exercise can help you to treat your walking depression.
  4. Meditate. Often when one is struggling with walking depression, they are very much a prisoner of their mind. One can be stuck ruminating (which is to think deeply about something over AND over). Ruminating tends to dig us into a hole–a hole of negativity.  Try just five minutes of meditating a day to begin to break the cycle. There are many great apps on your phone that can lead you through meditation for beginners and some great YouTube videos as well. I recommend downloading Headspace to your phone and watching “Meditation for Beginners” by Leo Gura from actualized.org (his youtube channel is actualized.org–lots of good videos on there).
  5. Journal. This can help you manage your symptoms and channel your thoughts and feelings. Journaling can help you clear your mind and make you more aware of why you are feeling what you are feeling. It can even be helpful to journal to find patterns in your thinking. If you are in counseling, you can use a journal to discuss patterns about your thoughts and behavior with your therapist.
  6. Lighten your load. Don’t spread yourself too thin! We live in an age where “being busy” is a badge of honor. If you are suffering from walking depression, you should try to really focus on self-care and see what responsibilities you can get off your plate. Chronic stress can be a contributing factor to your disorder. Less is more when you are struggling with walking depression.
  7. Develop gratitude. Practicing gratitude has been shown to influence one’s mood and increase overall happiness.  It can help you begin to shift your thinking from the negative to the positive.  Start every day thinking about three things you can be grateful for.

You don’t have to do all of these suggestions. Just try some. Or one. There is not one size fits all approach to treating depression. Walking depression is very treatable but the first step is acknowledging how you truly feel. And remember the serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” I wish you courage.

If you are someone you love are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1800-273-8255.



590 Franklin Ave.

Suite 2

Nutley, NJ 07110