Savvy Psychologist’s Top 5 Psychology Takeaways

Dun-dun-dun-DUN! After 5 years, 250 episodes, 14 million downloads, one book, and lots of corny jokes, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen presents her top 5 takeaways from researching, writing, and hosting the show.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #251
sunrise pup

I can’t believe it! It feels like just yesterday I sat in my bedroom surrounded by pillows and piles of sound-absorbing laundry (yes, the laundry was clean) to record my first hesitant podcast episode. Fast-forward 250 episodes and five wonderful years, and here we are at my final solo episode. 

Next week your new Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Jade Wu, will stop by the show to chat with me. I’m so excited for you to finally meet her!

But first, we have a final episode to savor. For five years, I’ve been inspired by your requests, combed through the literature, read thousands of studies, and maybe, just maybe, gotten sucked into way too many Office Space clips on YouTube. I’ll never tell. After pondering all that, I've arrived at my five biggest takeaways to help you understand the minds of your fellow humans. And your own mind, too!

Take Home #1: Behavior persists because it’s reinforced.

Or, in plain language, people do things for a reason. It’s easier to wrap your head around someone’s “bad choices” when you understand what those choices bought them. 

For example, your best friend stays with a horrible partner? To her, it may be better than being alone. Your little brother couch surfs and won’t get a job? To him, at least he’s not shooting for the stars and then failing. A customer drives through McDonald’s with three monkeys and orders them each an ice cream cone? Well, that’s not necessarily a bad choice—who doesn’t like ice cream and happy monkeys?

Who doesn’t like ice cream and happy monkeys?

Anyway, my point is that every poor decision, weird preference, or choice that makes you scratch your head can usually be understood through the power of empathy. Think: what does this person get out of this? What does this action buy them? 

Usually, they attain something desirable (love, money, power, positive emotions) or avoid something detrimental (harm, rejection, discomfort, negative emotions). Put yourself in their shoes, and you may just smack your forehead and say, “Ohhhhh! Now I get it. If I was in their situation, I’d probably do that, too.”

Take Home #2: People do the best they can with what they have at the time. 

This one comes right after Take Home #1 for a reason. When looking at Things Gone Wrong, whether in your own life or the lives of those you love, it can be helpful to remember that people—both you and others—generally do the best they can given their circumstances. Those circumstances may be colored by mental illness, trauma, addiction, poverty, or any number of other challenges. It’s by no means an excuse for treating others poorly, but it is a reason.

This Take Home can be easy to apply: a friend who’s just been through a messy breakup may lean hard on you for a while without giving much back. Remembering that he’s doing his best right now can give you the shot of compassion you need. 

You alone get to decide whether to extend compassion or forgiveness to those who have wronged you.

But it can also be really hard. For example, if you survived an abusive childhood, it might be really hard to believe your parents were doing the best they could. You alone get to decide whether to extend compassion or forgiveness to those who have wronged you, so I'll leave that up to you. On the one hand, you may think the notion that people do their best is a cop-out. But on the other, you may feel relief with the realization that many parents were not ready to be parents, never learned how to manage their own lives, had lousy parental role models themselves, and struggled mightily with their own demons while their kids were dependent on them. Again, these aren’t excuses, but it can be liberating to know a tough childhood had little to do with you and everything to do with them and their struggles.

Last but not least, you can apply the idea to yourself. If you’re newly sober, reeling from a divorce, struggling with depression, or any number of infinite human struggles, offer yourself some compassion, do what you can, and forgive yourself for your shortcomings as you put your energy and effort into getting out of bed, resisting cracking open a beer, or simply reminding yourself that you are worthy and loveable.

Take Home #3: Don’t believe everything you think.

I’ve loved this quip ever since I saw it on a bumper sticker. It’s basically the cognitive-behavioral therapist’s mantra. Here is the deal: you can’t control the thinking of your brain any more than you can control the beating of your heart. But even if you can’t control your thoughts, you can control how you respond to your thoughts.

Now, some thoughts you should listen to: “Eat these vegetables,” “Pay my taxes,” “Remember to vote.”

But others aren’t so useful: “I’ll never amount to anything,” “I can’t do this,” “I screw everything up.” 

For the problematic thoughts, you have two buckets of tools. The first is change. This is where you challenge your thoughts. For instance, “Really, brain? I screw everything up? It’s true things are tough right now, and I’ve definitely made mistakes, like every human, but I’ve got some good things going for me.” Or, “It’s not an emergency that I gained a few pounds. No one notices it like I do. Plus, my weight doesn’t define me, anyway.”

The other bucket of tools you have is acceptance. And by acceptance, I don’t mean accepting the content of your thought, as in, “I guess this means I’m a loser. Oh well.” Instead, it means accepting the thought as simply that: a thought. For example, “Huh, my brain is telling me I’m a loser again.” Or, “That’s quite the thought. Never mind and carry on!”

Most problems are like vampires—daylight makes them wither.

A rule of thumb related to don’t believe everything you think? Don’t believe anything you think after 10 p.m. Your brain is not credible during a 2 a.m. freakout, so don’t make any life decisions (or even take yourself too seriously) when you’re pacing in your pajamas. Remember: most problems are like vampires--daylight makes them wither.

Take Home #4: A rising tide lifts all boats.

In other words, challenge yourself in one area and it will pay off in others. For example, have you ever started an exercise program and found yourself naturally eating more salads and passing up the s’mores brownies? Or maybe you’ve cut back on TV and found yourself reading more books. Psychologists call this generalization, and it’s a pleasant snowballing side-effect of working hard to make improvements in your life.

Generalization is a pleasant snowballing side-effect of working hard to make improvements in your life.

Therefore, once you learn you can put action before motivation in order to lace up your shoes and go to Zumba no matter what mood you’re in, you can apply the same lesson to studying for your GED. Or when you discover you can slow-breathe your way through that long-delayed dentist appointment, you can do the same for airplane turbulence and finally jet off to see Paris in the springtime. 

The point is that small changes often catalyze bigger changes in your life. So go ahead and challenge yourself. You may be surprised where it takes you.

Take Home #5: Emotions don’t last very long.

In a tough spot, did your grandma ever offer you a tissue and a reminder that “This too shall pass?” Turns out that’s a decent slogan for emotions. We invest vast amounts of energy to avoid feeling bad (not to mention ingesting vast quantities of alcohol, drugs, and food), but it turns out feeling bad doesn’t even last that long. 

Next time you feel lousy, let yourself feel your feelings rather than pushing them down. It’ll be over sooner than you think.

A study in the journal Motivation and Emotion backs me up. The researchers surveyed over 200 students about their experience with 27 different emotions (I know, I didn’t think there were that many, either!) and found that sadness lasts a comparatively long time, but a whole host of other negative emotions—shame, fear, disgust, boredom, and irritation—tend to evaporate quickly.

So next time you feel lousy, let yourself feel your feelings rather than pushing them down. It’ll be over sooner than you think.

To wrap up, I need to say that I’m so grateful for my time at QDT, and most of all, I will miss each of you. You are engaged, smart, and—dare I say—savvy. I’m so lucky that you’ve listened to the show these past five years. You are the lifeblood of the show and it couldn’t happen without you. I hope I’ve made your life better in some small way because I know you’ve added so much to mine.

Finally, please come with me as I take on some new projects I’d love to share with you—namely, a second book and some all-new online courses that will make your life happier and healthier. Head over to EllenHendriksen.com and sign up for the email list. I’m excited to keep bringing you evidence-based research, a sympathetic ear, and zero judgment for many years to come.

For this special episode, some extended credits: Savvy Psychologist is audio engineered by Steve Riekeberg and edited by Karen Hertzberg. Huge thanks from the bottom of my heart to the whole team at QDT: Morgan Ratner, Michelle Margulis, Emily Miller, and Kathy Doyle.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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