Life skills your mother never taught you

Story highlights

  • Did your mom teach you to have a fair fight with your spouse? No eye rolling!
  • Perhaps mom taught you to haggle at the market, but what about in your boss' office?
  • Did you have a good example of how to take criticism in a positive way?
She had most of it covered. (Take your vitamins, get plenty of rest, don't stick that butter knife in the toaster.) But for life's bigger complexities and perplexities, sometimes even the World's Greatest needs an assist from the professionals.
How to make the best decision
When you get right down to it, life is a string of choices: City or suburbs? Debit or credit? Chicken or fish? It's tantalizing to think that there's one, and only one, correct branch of every decision tree and that it's just waiting to be uncovered by a sufficient amount of rational analysis.
"We feel an obligation to use all our intellectual tools to find the absolute ideal option," says Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and the author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less." "But that's a fool's errand."
The more we agonize over a decision, the more paralyzed we become, Schwartz explains, and the greater our potential for unhappiness later. Pros and cons are not always of equal weight, so instead of making a 10-foot, two-column list, he advises, sit down and ask your gut first. There may be 244 reasons not to go back to school, but how do they stack up against one pro like "If I don't, I'll always regret it"?
After you've discovered what's really in your heart of hearts, take the pressure off by lowering your expectations, then do your best not to look back. "Revisiting decisions after you've made them is not a good idea," says Schwartz. "If you do, you'll find a lot to be dissatisfied with. There's no blueprint for infallibility. Success is getting it wrong as infrequently as possible."
How to fight fair
"The way a conflict discussion begins determines how it's going to end 96 percent of the time," says John Gottman, Ph.D., a cofounder of the Gottman Institute, in Seattle, which studies marriage and relationships. He can speak with such mathematical accuracy because for 30 years he has observed more than 3,000 couples in a laboratory setting while monitoring their heart rates and other physical signs of stress.
Two people can fight fairly often, Gottman says, and still have a healthy relationship. It's not about the number of bouts but the techniques used in the ring. He claims that contempt is the best predictor of divorce, so take note if your signature move is dismissive eye-rolling.
Other below-the-belt strategies include personal attacks and the silent treatment. Starting a conversation gently is the key to ending it well, he says. Harriet Lerner, a psychologist in Lawrence, Kansas, and the author of Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up, says to remind yourself to stop talking: "If only people could listen with the same passion they feel about being heard."
Finally, if you find yourself in the physiological frenzy that Gottman calls "flooding"—racing heart, sweaty palms—stop the argument, even when every cell is screaming, "Annihilate!" Stress hormones inhibit higher cognitive functions, like impulse control and attention. "When we feel threatened, we can't take in new information," he says. "In the lab and in therapy sessions, when people take a break, go back to their baseline heart rate, and start the conversation again, it's like they've had a brain transplant."
How to take a compliment
There are three probable reasons that we deflect a comment about our lovely singing voice or how nicely we're raising our children. First, simply acknowledging it is "like inviting bad luck," says Gottman. "My relatives would spit three times—pfft, pfft, pfft—whenever they said something positive, lest they summon the evil eye." Second, says Christopher Germer, a clinical psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School and the author of "The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion," there's a cultural prescription to be humble (or at least there was before the dawn of social media and reality TV), "and when we get a compliment, we fear there's a momentary lapse of humility."
Finally, Germer adds, it's a form of protection: "We all just want to be loved and valued, but we walk around holding our breath about the ways in which we aren't." When people say something nice to us—when they say they love us, in one form or another, even if it's about our hair or our boots—we may realize how much we crave appreciation. And that makes us feel vulnerable, so we push away the compliment. There's no easy way to subvert the forces of fate, culture, upbringing, and our deepest fears, but try this: The next time a person pays you a compliment, just smile and say, "Thank you." Nothing more. Do it again and again. A hundred repetitions later, you'll start to feel less awkward. Even, maybe, deserving. (Pfft, pfft, pfft.)
How to get a fair salary
First, stop thinking of negotiation as an embarrassing ordeal. "You may have spent a year in the job market. You may spend many more years working hard at this new job for an annual raise of 3 percent—if you're lucky," says Jim Hopkinson, the author of "Salary Tutor: Learn the Salary Negotiation Secrets No One Ever Taught You." "This two-minute conversation is your single best chance to get what you're worth."
Prepare in advance by talking to mentors and friends. And use salary-comparison sites, such as,, and, to determine the average compensation for someone with your background.
The person who says a number first is at a disadvantage, so when a potential employer asks you about money, gracefully dodge the question. Jessica Miller, a coauthor of "A Woman's Guide to Successful Negotiating," offers this script: "If I'm the right person for the job and the job is right for me, I'm sure we can work out something that's fair. What do you have budgeted for the position?" Saying this is not as tough as it might sound. "They're not looking for someone whose primary interest in the job is money," says Miller, "so make the discussion about fit and getting to a number that works for everyone."
Real Simple: What to say in awkward social situations If the other party presses, you don't have to give an exact number, says Miller: "Talk about the entire package—including salary, potential bonuses, stock, and benefits—and give an approximate value." Again, you should say something like "My total compensation is in the high five figures, but every company has a different mix, so tell me how you see the compensation for this position being structured."
If you're caught off guard and blurt out, "I make X amount," all is not lost—as long as you have a few irons in the fire. "Focus on discus¬sions that you're having with other companies and what they're offering," says Miller. "You don't necessarily need another solid offer. You can tell them that you're in talks about another opportunity and the salary being discussed is Y dollars."
When you get an offer, resist the urge to yell, "I'll take it!" Graciously say, "Thank you so much. May I get back to you tomorrow?"
How to spot a narcissist
The "narcissistic personality"—a legend-in-his-own-mind type who assumes that other people exist merely to admire him—is notoriously difficult to tag in the wild. That's because at first you're having too much fun with him, romantic or friendly, to notice the signs. Only later will you register the considerable emotional drain of being in his company.
Here are some indicators that you may have a narcissist on your hands. Is he social, charming, and, well, kind of materialistic? Is he rude to waiters? Does he have grandiose plans? Do his eyes glaze over when you try to talk about yourself, and does he steer the conversation back to his favorite subject? (You: "I broke my leg." Him: "Oh, I broke my leg once when I was skiing the triple black diamond in Vail. You have to see me ski. Everybody said I should go pro.") Does he blame others when things go wrong?
"A narcissistic person can be really likable and exciting at the beginning," says W. Keith Campbell, the head of the department of psychology at the University of Georgia, in Athens, and a coauthor of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement." "The problem is that he lacks empathy." So rather than considering your needs, ever, the narcissist believes that his time and energy are best spent on activities befitting the planet's most exceptional person (that would be him). This selfishness is wearing, and you are soon tapped dry from constantly reinforcing the charmer's high opinion of himself.
If your narcissist is a potential romantic partner, you should probably run, says Campbell, no matter how thrilling the ride. "It's like eating a bunch of chocolate cake," he says. "It feels really good at first, but later you're sick."
If your narcissist is a friend and you want to maintain the relationship, it's up to you to understand her limitations. "Accept that she's a lot of fun to have a drink with, and enjoy her on that level," says Campbell. "But don't hope for anything further."
How to spend time alone
There is privately alone, and then there is publicly alone. To be privately alone can be difficult, because wherever we go, there we are, yammering away at ourselves. "Unless a person has a lot of psychological tools at her disposal, the mind is not a pleasant place to inhabit," says Germer. "We have evolved for survival, not happiness, and thus we have a natural tendency to focus on the negative." When the brain is at rest, he adds, it tends to get busy revealing problems from the past and anticipating problems to come. Once we scanned for predators and poisons; now we fret over the unemployment stats and what our mother-in-law had the nerve to say at dinner.
Germer recommends mindfulness, a practice that sounds esoteric but simply means focusing on what's around you instead of the chatter in your head. When we pay attention to our senses, he says, we can appreciate the color, the texture, and the fragrance of a velvety red rose without thinking, Roses. Valentine's Day. Why doesn't anyone send me flowers? Because I'm fundamentally unlovable, that's why!
Being publicly alone can require a certain amount of bravery, as you know if you've ever sat solo in a restaurant and felt floodlit by the pity of fellow diners. (Hey, Miss Lonelyhearts!) However, says Sylvia Boorstein, a psychotherapist and meditation teacher in Marin County, California, and the author of "Happiness Is an Inside Job," "if you feel awkward, that's because you're telling yourself a story about what other people think. Ask yourself, 'Is everyone really so remarkably tied up in me?' Instead of worrying about other people noticing you, try noticing them." Do they seem content? Worried? Bored? Make up another story.
How to aim high
We're less afraid of living big than we are of failing big. "Our culture has increasingly adopted a zero-tolerance policy for error," says Schwartz. "But the way you develop good judgment is by using it." And by recalibrating your relationship with failure. For decades, psychologist Carol Dweck of Stanford University has conducted studies on theories about achievement and success and believes that most of us have either a "learning orientation" or a "performance orientation." Those oriented toward learning see mistakes as challenges: If you swing and miss, you get up again and swing harder the next time. To those with a performance orientation, it's more important to get things right than to advance to a new level: Swing, miss, drop the bat, and go back to doing something that you're already good at.
If you're performance-oriented, remind yourself that the most lasting and rewarding kind of competence is the kind that you earn. Remember a time when you were completely green: the first day of your first job or the first time that you held a baby. Were you scared? Would you go on to fail sometimes? Are you better now than you ever could have imagined at that fresh, raw moment? Yes, yes, and yes.
How to take criticism
"When we hear criticism, our sense of self gets hijacked," says Germer. "Let yourself say, 'Ouch! That hurt.' " Resist the urge to rush in with rationalizations ("It's not my fault! You hate me!") or self-recrimination ("It's all my fault! I hate me!"). If you need some time to get your head together, ask for it, advises Boorstein. Say, "I'm caught off guard a little, but I want to take this in, so let me think a minute before we keep talking."
Criticism can hit like a punch, and you may experience a physical reaction. Is your chest tight? Is there a lump in your throat? Are you woozy? Germer says to note where you're feeling stress. Awareness helps you relax those spots, which in turn calms your mind. "Anytime we locate an emotional state in our body," he says, "it becomes more manageable than when it's in our heads—where we can wind up having a five-hour conversation with ourselves about the criticism."
The next step, when you're somewhat calmer, is to consider what is being said. Often (as we know from after-school specials) it's something that we need to hear. "Be nice to yourself," says Germer. "But I'm not talking about propping yourself up by saying, 'Oh, I got a bad performance review because the boss has it in for me, and the whole process is bogus anyway.' " That cheats you out of the chance to learn something.
Real self-compassion, Germer adds, is acknowledging that you can be less than perfect at some things without being a total failure: "Then you can take in what the other person is saying and also have the internal support to carry on."
How to walk away
We hate to quit. Not just because supposedly quitters never win, but because of a cognitive distortion that psychologists and economists call the "sunk cost fallacy." Say you're sitting on the couch watching a show and it stinks. You'll probably change the channel. Now say you're at a movie theater and you've paid 10 bucks. Will you walk out? It's less likely, because you have sunk $10 into the experience and will never get the money back. "But which future life will be better?" says Schwartz. "The one in which you sit through the awful movie or the one in which you leave?" And yet you have a nagging feeling that you must somehow recoup your investment, however meagerly.
Schwartz evokes the wisdom of Kenny Rogers: " 'You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.' " Think of quitting as an investment in your future, happier self—that is, the you who is free of the frustrating job, the lousy relationship, the school committee that is draining your will to go on.
There's a good chance that someone will be unhappy with your decision, so get comfortable with being uncomfortable—for a while, anyway. "The reality is that in walking away we may have to sit with a range of unpleasant feelings, including anxiety and guilt," says Lerner. "So when you make an important decision like leaving, take the time to think it through, then be prepared for the difficult emotions that invariably come with change."
How to bounce back from a crisis
We all know we need friends and family when we're in trouble. But true support means more than just a reliable pair of arms to run to. It may be most beneficial to tap different kinds of friends at different stages of a crisis, Lerner says, so take a moment to think about your network, even when strategy feels like the last thing you can manage. When you're reeling with the initial pain, she advises, "talk to someone who believes in your future and can listen to you without needing to 'fix it.' " At the problem-solving stage, turn to the organized, analytical person who can help you break the solution into bite-size pieces. And if time has passed and you suspect you've begun wallowing in a private Pit of Doom, call the tough-love friend who will tell you to get over it.
Finally, "don't feel bad about feeling bad," says Boorstein. "I had a friend who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she thought, Maybe I would be meeting this situation with more equanimity if only I had meditated more. I told her, 'You should feel bad. You're dying.' " We cause ourselves more suffering, she adds, when we tell ourselves that things shouldn't be happening. "The truth is, there are wonderful things that happen in this life, and there are really sorrowful things," she says. "Life is like that. You win a few, you lose a few. You can't cry over spilled milk."
Actually, your mother did tell you that.