Stepping Stones to Success

As the new year approaches, you may be thinking about making New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps you hope to improve your life by  eliminating unhelpful habits and/or by establishing  new positive  habits.  While contemplating what you want to do in the coming year, you might find yourself thinking about resolutions you made but didn’t keep during the past year. Keep in mind that if you only focus on what you didn’t accomplish this past year,  you can end up feeling like you’re not good enough and you may even feel  like a failure.

Beginning a new year with a defeated mindset will only make it that much harder to reach new goals. Instead, focus on what worked well for you this past year and what you achieved. Then lay down more stepping stones.

A good place to begin is with a sense of gratitude. Ask yourself what has blessed your life: health, loving friends, a comfortable home, special family members, employment — you fill in the blank. Also, try to think about your blessings in context. Maybe your job doesn’t pay as much as you’d like, but you find your work fulfilling. Perhaps you’ve experienced some health struggles, but you feel good about the way you handled those challenges. You may not have tons of friends, but the ones you have are truly special. Your family may not live nearby, but you love each other and keep in touch regularly. Take some time to really savor these good things in your life.

canstockphoto29626029Focus as well on giving yourself credit for your own successes, large and small. Even if you didn’t meet all your goals this year,  it’s important to recognize and celebrate the things you did accomplish, and, give some thought to how you contributed to those accomplishments. Of the things you tried to accomplish, what went well?

Next, consider how you can build upon your blessings and your successes. Maybe you want to develop new ways to support your health, such as learning how to make healthy food choices that are also tasty, finding enjoyable ways to increase your activity level, and so forth.  Perhaps you can deepen your relationships by showing your appreciation to your friends and family.  Maybe you can make your work more satisfying by performing random acts of kindness at the office (who left that cookie tray in the break room?), or by finding creative ways to make the work more interesting. Whatever your goals now, you can consider how to develop new strategies, but you can also build upon elements of the strategies you’ve used before that worked well. No matter what you want to do, you can use the blessings and successes from this year to inspire and encourage yourself.

canstockphoto21501545Lastly, set reasonable, incremental goals. Think about your larger goals, and then break them down into smaller steps so you can experience a series of successes on the way to achieving the overall goal. For example, if you decide you want to develop a new exercise routine, but you haven’t exercised regularly in a long time, you can try to begin by walking 20 to 30 minutes 3 times a week, rather than trying to run for an hour daily. Then you can gradually  increase the amount you exercise, if that’s your larger goal. Remember to keep track of your progress, so you will be able to recognize what you are accomplishing and give yourself the credit you deserve.

The same applies to any resolution you set: use small, achievable goals towards your ultimate goals. As you reach your smaller goals, acknowledge and celebrate each accomplishment. You’ve earned it!


As you consider how you would like to build on your blessings and successes in the new year, keep in mind that…


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For more ideas about developing a “What Went Well” perspective as the new year approaches, you can also check out


canstockphoto15299774[HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING, PART 5] By Audrey Berger, Ph.D.

“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward”  Thomas A. Edison.

When things go badly for you, do you tend to blame yourself, and believe that things will probably continue to go badly for you in the future (i.e. think pessimistically)? Or, are you more likely to assume that it’s a temporary setback and that things will get better (i.e. think optimistically)? It should be obvious that these two different ways of thinking about difficulties are likely to promote very different emotional and behavioral responses. For example, when things go badly, those who think pessimistically typically respond with significant distress and anxiety, and may even experience feelings of defeat; those who think optimistically are likely to experience less distress and anxiety, and are apt to be more focused on how they can improve things as they go forward .

We now know that how we feel depends, to a large extent, on which information we attend to in a given situation, and how we interpret that information. Studies have shown that even though we each receive up to 11 million bits of information per second through our senses, our brains are only able to consciously process around 40 – 60 bits per second.  This means that we regularly miss vast amounts of information, and that we only attend to a sliver of reality. In recent years, psychologists have begun to recognize that emotional reactions can be changed by helping people to adjust where they focus their attention and how they interpret the meaning of an experience.

So, if you are prone to pessimistic thinking, and are susceptible to the resulting anxiety and distress, remember that there are almost certainly many alternative perspectives and interpretations that you are not considering, and that that both can be adjusted: you can change where you focus your attention, and find different ways to think about the information you select.

The first step is to try to become aware of what you’re thinking when things don’t go well; if you realize that you’re being self-critical and expecting that things will continue to go badly in the future, you can take action to shift to a more helpful perspective. It is not recommended that you try to simply suppress negative thoughts, because that may cause them to become even more powerful and persistent. But, there are strategies you can use to help you manage and modify any unrealistic pessimistic thinking. It is best to be prepared with some of these strategies, so you can quickly interrupt what could otherwise become a downward spiral of self-criticism and worry. What follows is a sampling of some strategies you can try.

REDIRECT THINKING: The simplest and fastest way to block ruminations is to distract yourself and refocus your attention onto a constructive and absorbing activity. Create a “rumination escape kit” ahead of time and keep it handy. In your kit, include anything that can serve as a healthy distraction that you can use to quickly shift your attention when needed. Simply interrupting the negative downward spiral is often enough to contain and even reverse it.  Negative emotions can sometimes provide clues about things that may need your attention, but rumination and negative downward spirals don’t benefit you. You can schedule a later time to think about/sort out the issue, in order to better address it; after scheduling a time when you will revisit the issue, use distraction to redirect your thoughts for now. The key here is to interrupt the rumination. But, if you have enough time , an effective and enduring way to shift your mindset is to challenge your negative ideas about the cause, meaning and implications of the negative event.

PRACTICE ARGUING AGAINST YOUR PESSIMISTIC AND SELF-CRITICAL BELIEFS:  Disputing your beliefs with evidence you have not been considering is the basic framework of this approach. Brainstorm as much evidence as you can to dispute your beliefs, and then identify more useful, but realistic, beliefs. Recognizing more benign or even positive ways of viewing the situation can significantly alter how you think and feel, as well as facilitate your ability to acknowledge and address issues that do need your attention. Sometimes it can help to imagine that your pessimistic beliefs are the assertions of someone else, rather than your own. We are often much better at fighting back when criticism and negative thinking comes from someone other than ourselves. To build your capacity to dispute your pessimistic beliefs, try writing them out, and write down evidence that you can use to dispute those beliefs.

SELF-COMPASSION JOURNAL:  Instead of arguing against self-critical beliefs, another alternative is to use self-compassion. When you are being self-critical, write down those thoughts and the feelings they provoke. Next, think of an imaginary friend who is kind, loving, accepting and compassionate, and write a letter to yourself about the situation from the perspective of this imaginary friend. Have your friend express love and support as s/he responds to your self-critical thoughts and painful feelings with acceptance and compassion. After writing the letter, leave it for a while, and then come back and read what you wrote, allowing yourself to really feel the love, support, compassion and acceptance expressed by your friend.

SELF-COMPASSION MANTRA: Another version of the self-compassion approach is to create a mantra that you can use whenever you are inclined to be self-critical. You can modify the language of the mantra, but the example provided by Kristin Neff (2011) is to repeat to yourself some version of the following phrases the moment you realize that you are being self-critical or feeling distressed: “I am having a very hard time right now.  Everyone feels this way sometimes. May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I give myself the compassion I need.”

MEDITATION AND RELAXATION TECHNIQUES: Meditation and relaxation strategies are also helpful, but they need to be practiced regularly. We will discuss the issue of meditation further in a future article in this series.

You may recall that last time we discussed how shifting from pessimism to optimism involves three elements: (1) cultivating realistic optimism, which we covered in the last article in this Happiness and Well-Being series; (2) neutralizing unrealistic pessimism, which we’ve addressed today; and (3) developing a growth mindset, which is so fundamental to optimism that we will focus exclusively on this issue next time.


Colman, J. (2012-10-16). Optimal functioning: A positive psychology handbook. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from
Fredrickson, B. (2009-01-27). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from
Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from
Halvorson, H. G. (2010-12-23). Succeed: How we can reach our goals. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from                                                                              
Neff, Kristin (2011-04-19). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from

If you haven’t yet read the first four posts in this series, read them now to learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness and Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                             Happiness and Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism


OVERCOMING PESSIMISM AND SELF-CRITICISM by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.


[Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.                          

A pessimist sees the difficulty in  every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty – Winston Churchill

Optimists and pessimists can be distinguished from each other by how they think in a certain areas of their lives: (1) the way they interpret and respond to any difficulties or setbacks they experience; and (2) whether they expect good or bad things to happen in the future. These differences in how optimists and pessimists think appear to significantly affect many other aspects of their lives. Studies have found that optimism is associated with increased happiness and well-being, and with greater success in a wide array of life arenas. When compared with pessimists, optimists tend to be healthier, and to have better health outcomes when they do get sick.  Studies have also shown that optimists display greater perseverance when they encounter obstacles, engage in more active and effective coping, are less likely to succumb to feelings of helplessness, and are more likely to achieve their goals.

Despite the many documented advantages of optimism, pessimistic thinking does have an important role to play in our lives. Our brains are wired to notice and respond to situations that are potentially threatening because it is crucial for our survival. When there is a real possibility of injury, serious illness, death, or significant loss, it is clearly adaptive to recognize it and take action to prevent or reduce the chances of a negative outcome. However, it is not helpful for people to think pessimistically when circumstances do not truly warrant it; such indiscriminate use of pessimistic thinking can actually have adverse consequences, including anxiety and an elevated risk of depression.

A perspective that manages to balance all these different factors is realistic optimism, which incorporates the ability to think pessimistically when necessary. Realistic optimists are able to recognize when they can have a significant impact on the course of events; they believe that good things will happen because they know that they will do what is needed for success. Realistic optimists also recognize when circumstances are not under their control, and they adjust their thinking and behavior accordingly.

Studies have demonstrated that everyone can learn the skills to cultivate realistic optimism. What follows are three activities that can assist you with developing some of those skills. The “What Went Diary” can foster your ability to perceive and appreciate the things that are positive in your life. This is particularly important for people who are inclined to minimize the positive and emphasize the negative. The “At Your Best” exercise can enable you to begin to recognize some of your strengths, and think about how you can use them in the future. The “Best Possible Self” diary can help you to clarify your hopes for the future and recognize your ability to make choices that will move you toward your goals.


What Went Well Diary – To counteract a tendency to focus on the things that didn’t go well during the day, write down three things that went well that day, and why they went well. How did you contribute to things going well? The items you select needn’t be large things. Even small events are worth recalling and recognizing. You can add some variety to this activity by answering different questions at different times.  For example, you can think about what the things that went well mean to you, or how you can experience more of them in the future. You may also find it useful to periodically review what you’ve written before, in order to remind yourself of what went well in the past.

At Your BestWrite about a time when you acted in a way that you think reflects the best of who you are – either because you did something you feel good about, you were successful in some way, and/or you overcame some type of obstacle. It can be something recent or something that happened a long time ago. Of course, there may be many times that would fit this description, and you can do this activity for as many of them as you like. Review what you have written, and think about how you may have drawn on these strengths in other situations, and how you can use them as you go forward in your life.

Best Possible Self Diary – This exercise addresses your hopes for the future. It helps you to see the big picture and focuses you on what you want to accomplish in your life. It also helps you to recognize your ability to make choices that will lead you in the direction you desire, and it assists you in starting down that path. To do this exercise, sit in a quiet place, and take 20 – 30 minutes to think about what you want your life to be like 1, 5 or 10 years from now. Visualize a future for yourself in which everything has turned out the way you’ve wanted. You have tried your best, worked hard, and achieved your goals. Now write down what you imagine. To make this process even more powerful and productive, you can also visualize some of the steps you will need to take in order to achieve your goals.

In the next article in this series (part 5), we will discuss strategies to help overcome unnecessary pessimism and self-critical beliefs, and in the subsequent article (part 6), we will cover the importance of a “growth mindset.” Taken together, the exercises and skills covered in these three articles help to establish a strong foundation for cultivating realistic optimism.


Audrey Berger, Ph.D. has been a life coach, psychologist and psychotherapist for 33 years. In her life coaching practice she specializes in mid and later life transitions such as retirement, empty nest, midlife transition, positive aging in general, and living well in the face of life challenges such as chronic illness or creating a new life after divorce/loss or breast cancer treatment. She also works with an array of other life issues and goals, including helping couples to create the relationship they want. Since coaching can readily take place on the phone, you can coach with Audrey no matter where you are located. To learn more about Audrey’s coaching services, and to arrange a complimentary coaching consultation, go to Audrey can be reached by email at or by phone at (585) 292-0095.

Fredrickson, B. (2009-01-27). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from

Biswas-Diener; Diener, Ed (2010-01-22). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Kindle Edition. Retrieved from

Halvorson, H. G. (2010-12-23). Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from

Seligman, M. E. (2011-08-10). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life (Vintage). [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011-04-05). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from

Cultivating Optimism” by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website