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Coping With Everyday Life

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What This Blog is About

This blog is devoted to discussing how to cope with everyday life, and your hosts (see menu listing of your four blog hosts) will post information from the world of psychology, counseling, and education. Our message revolves around three basic themes: First there is acceptance. There are certain basic truths in life that we simply must accept before we can decide how to act. Second is the notion of meeting challenges. Unfortunately, too often we avoid challenges that confront us because it’s the easy thing to do. Successful coping, however, requires us to take a more difficult road and meet life head on. Third, we must learn what things are under our control. We get in all sorts of difficulties when we try to control things we can’t. The truth is there are only two things we can control: Our own thoughts and our own actions.

We invite our readers to join in our discussion and share their own insights. This blog is not an advice column, but a forum in which to share ideas.

If you are interested in pursuing the psychology literature on any topic we cover, feel free to contact us by email at charlesbrooks@kings.edu. We also encourage you to visit our website (www.subtlesuicide.com) to learn about our published books on subtle suicide, dysfunctional giver/taker relationships, and research on how psychology applies to everyday life.

 

FLEXIBLE GENDER ROLES FOSTER GOOD COPING

There’s a lot of talk these days about how men and women should relate to each other. The “Me-Too” movement, although focused primarily on empowering women who are disabused by powerful men, also has a strong message for men and their self-esteem. It’s a simple message: Men should not define themselves as competitors with women who need to demonstrate their superiority by being pigs.

This is hardly a new message. In 1974, psychologist Sandra Bem published the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI). The test measured where one’s sex-role trait falls on a scale ranging from “Traditional Male” to “Traditional Female,” with “Psychological Androgyny” falling in the middle of the scale.

Traditional Male sex-roles are characteristics like competitiveness, aggressiveness, assertiveness, and domineering. Traditional Female sex-roles include traits like sensitivity, emotional, caring, and passive. The post-WWII childrearing culture of the US identified good parenting as teaching boys traditional male sex-roles (“You need to be tough, kid! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.”), and teaching girls traditional female sex-roles (“Remember, honey, you must always nurture your children and support your husband, and make sure your household is well-run.”)

Bem’s message was that forcing children into rigid sex-roles limited their ability to cope well with everyday life. For instance, what if a situation requires caring, sympathy, and displays of emotion? Well, the traditional male is lost; he doesn’t know how to behave without sacrificing his masculinity-dependent self-esteem. Similarly, what if a situation requires assertiveness and an aggressively competitive spirit? In this case, the traditional female is lost because to act in those ways would be a threat to her femininity.

What a shame! Rearing children to display traditional sex-roles severely limits their ability to adapt and cope with a variety of situations. The traditional male learns he cannot display female traits because to do so would show him to be a sissy or wimp; the traditional female learns she cannot show male traits because to do so would have others judge her to be a penis-envying b…ch, or some similar pejorative.

This dilemma is where psychological androgyny comes in. The androgynous woman is caring and sensitive, but if the situation demands it, she can also be aggressive and competitive. By the same token, the androgynous man is dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, he can also be emotional, sympathetic, and soft. And here is the key: Both the androgynous woman and man can show this flexibility without compromising their respective identities and self-esteem as being feminine or masculine.

Bem’s work was really a logical extension of a book published a decade earlier (1963) by Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique argued against the prevailing view of women best fulfilling themselves by being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. The cultural norm said the psychologically healthy woman will display traditional female sex-roles.  Her appropriate careers were nurse or elementary/ school teacher, although wife and mother were always the best “career” options.

As Friedan saw it, the problem for women was simple. Faced with this rigidity of options available to them, women were submerging their identities in a male-dominated world. Women were being told that their only road to fulfillment was as housewife and mother. In Bem’s context, being an androgynous woman was inappropriate.

I find it remarkable that 55 years after Friedan’s book, and 44 years after Bem’s work, American society is still subjugating women. We’re still, seemingly in vain, fighting the realities of unequal pay for equal positions, and still allowing misogynistic men to mistreat women with impunity. In the 1970s I heard the Oprahs of that day, joined by many emotionally-secure men, raise their voices against the injustice of it all. And yet, here we are, decades later, still listening to those voices.

The problem remains the same: The voices of reason and fairness are fighting an insidious foe, an unconscious bias that, to one degree or another, is instilled in all of us through our childhood and into adulthood. I’ll illustrate the bias by describing a psychology study done in the 1970s.

Young mothers served as the participants. They were chosen because they described themselves as “liberated” women when it came to childrearing. That meant they intended to raise their children to be comfortable with non-traditional sex roles regardless of their gender. Thus, they were raising their boys to be competitive and assertive, but also sensitive and caring if the situation required it. Similarly, they were raising their girls to be nurturing, supportive, and domestic, but also assertive, demanding, and achievement oriented if necessary.

In the experiment itself, each mother was taken into a room and an infant sat on the floor with a caretaker, playing pat-a-cake. In one condition the infant was introduced as “Sarah,” and the mother was encouraged to join in the play using a toy from a nearby box.

In a second condition, everything was the same except the mother was introduced to “Adam.” The same infant was used in both conditions.

The toy box had three items in it: Doll, plastic fish, and a truck. The results showed that most of the mothers pulled out the doll for Sarah, and the truck for Adam. Automatically, without any conscious deliberation, the mothers made what psychologists call an implicit association, pairing a traditional female toy (doll) with Sarah and a traditional male toy (truck) with Adam. (The plastic fish was included as a neutral control toy.)

Do you get it? We can give lip-service to our belief in equality and fair treatment of people irrespective of their gender, but the implicit associations in our minds have trouble overcoming the subtle societal messages preaching inequality that we are all saturated with as we mature. So don’t get all confident a new day is here. It isn’t.

Sure, we have moved beyond that time when the fear of women in medical school was not of failure but of too much success, lest they be judged as less than feminine. We have moved beyond the time when women go to college to find a husband. But the presence of all those pathetic and pitiful men (adolescents, really) who prey on women to subjugate them are alive and well.

Is there a coping lesson in all this? Of course there is, and probably more than one. A major lesson, however, would certainly be that if we are to cope effectively and interact successfully with others, we need to dig deep into our hidden implicit association, our unconscious prejudices, and examine those biases that compromise our ability to relate honestly and genuinely with each other.

 

 

 

IDENTIFY YOUR TRANSFERABLE SKILLS

Many folks complicate their coping efforts by selling themselves short. Joe may not apply for a new job because he feels he doesn’t have the specific skills required. Sally has trouble “selling” herself in an interviewer because she has not thought about her skills in a broad context. The key words in those two sentences are “specific skills” and “broad context.”

To illustrate what I’m talking about, consider a recent newspaper column by Karen Gregory, a 20-year military veteran. She decided to move to civilian life and start her own business. Now you might be tempted to say to her, “Wait a minute. You’ve made a career in the military. How can you possibly be prepared to enter the business world?” Karen no doubt asked herself that question often as she prepared for the change.

She realized she had to ask herself what specific skills she had learned in the military that prepared her for tackling her business dream. So she decided to take a personal skills inventory, and not limit herself to thinking about those skills only in a military context.

Karen’s self-inventory led her to focus on three skills she had acquired and was good at: (1) The ability to be flexible, creative, and persevere when forced to deal with the unexpected; (2) The ability to manage and resolve conflict; (3) The ability to build a productive team.  She also thought long and hard about how these skills would serve her well in a business context. She thought outside the “military box,” so to speak.

Her personal assessment gave Karen the confidence to pursue her dream from, as she put it, “Boots to the Boardroom.” She is now President and CEO of a consulting firm, and a mentor to other women looking for ways to benefit their career decisions.

There’s really no secret to coping by taking a personal inventory of your skills. The problem is, it’s easy to overlook the usefulness of such an inventory. Too often folks define themselves in ways limited to their current job. If you systematically assess your abilities in a broader context, however, like Karen did, you can discover that what you considered to be limited abilities really have wide-ranging applications.

Years ago I knew a professor of English, Russ, who was tired of teaching. A family member who ran a small human resources consulting firm wanted Russ to join him in the business, which involved helping clients create a more employee-centered work culture and increase worker productivity. Russ was hesitant about the career move, doubting that a college professor of English would have much to offer. Once he did a personal skills inventory, however, his outlook changed quite a bit.

Russ discovered that he had exceptional communication skills, both oral and written. He could transmit his ideas in clear and easy to understand language. When his relative gave him a client’s company employee handbook, for instance, he found he could revise it into a more user-friendly document that increased the likelihood of employees developing a sense of ownership in their job. Russ also discovered his outstanding critical-thinking skills gave him many insights into the dynamics of client companies his relative described. He could critically analyze their needs and translate them into employee policies that encouraged worker loyalty and excitement. In short, Russ discovered that he brought a lot of skills to the table that would help his relative’s company.

Many times during my academic career I advised students who were unclear about what major field of study would be best for their career. I would tell them to stop obsessing about their major as an indispensable step for career success. First of all I told them that more than likely they would change jobs, and even careers, multiple times before retiring. Second, I reminded them that their career success would be determined not so much by their college major, but by their transferable skills, such how well they could write, read, speak, think, work with others as a member of a team, and resolve conflicts in productive ways.

I said to them, “If you have those skills then they will be the driving force behind your career and determine your likelihood of success. Your college major will not be that driving force. I know an accounting major who is a dentist, a psychology major who is a VP of a major corporation, a Theology major who is a clinical psychologist, a biology major who works with autistic children, an English major who is a surgeon………….just to name a few career examples that we don’t automatically associate with a particular major. So choose a major because you enjoy it, not because you think it will prepare you for a career. Career preparation is what second majors, minors, and elective courses are for. Pick a major you find fun, and also focus on developing those transferable skills.”

These business and academic examples also apply to coping. Don’t sell yourself short by assuming you have limited skills. Think broadly, outside the box, and do a personal abilities inventory. You will likely discover that you have strengths and abilities that apply to a broad spectrum of employment areas. You will also feel better about yourself, and feel empowered to follow a work path that allows you to be productive and brings you a sense of satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

 

SOME TIPS FOR NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

An acquaintance was recently bemoaning the fact that her gym would soon see hordes of “resolutions nuts” descending upon her and other gym regulars. “These jokers don’t know the first thing about gym etiquette and they’re just a royal pain. The only good thing is that by the end of February most of them will be gone. They dump those resolutions in a hurry.”

Bingo! Resolutions don’t last. That just about says it all. The fact is, these resolutions are a lousy way to cope with things bothering you, whether it’s being too heavy, smoking, lack of exercise, being inattentive to family, etc., etc., etc.

Why don’t resolutions work? For one thing, the very fact that you pick a specific date to begin your transformation into a better person shows that you are procrastinating, and are really not motivated. Picking that date is so artificial, and just means you’re kicking the can down the road.

For another thing, many folks use resolutions to motivate themselves. Well, that’s just putting the cart before the horse. Resolutions must be the result of motivation to do something, not the catalyst for generating motivation.

Also, resolutions are often unrealistic. You make grandiose, unattainable resolutions (“be able to run a marathon by Spring,” “lose 30 lbs by February,”) and you also believe that you’re going to be involved in reinventing yourself, creating a new you. That’s unrealistic thinking.

To have any chance of success, a resolution must involve specific goals involving specific actions: “I will eat a piece of fruit, an apple or a pear, for lunch instead of a sandwich. I will do a workout at the gym 3 days a week. I will walk my neighborhood (or my treadmill) for 45 minutes every day. Every Monday I will weigh less than, or at least the same as, the previous Monday.”

If you want to change something about yourself, don’t wait until some future date to begin; start now. Keep a daily record of relevant actions and outcomes; there are tremendous intrinsic rewards in seeing yourself perform your required activities and in seeing progress. There’s a sense of personal empowerment that spurs you on!

In a previous blog (7.16.16) we discussed some things that are relevant to increasing success when it comes to resolutions. Remember that there is a huge disconnect between “will” and “want.” You may indeed “want” to change your behavior, but you can’t quite muster the “will” to make a step towards that new end. Smoking, weight loss, exercise, and getting in shape all fit this distinction quite well. You may “want” to be able to fit in your clothes better, but you also “want” to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. There is a real push (get off your duff!) vs. pull (I need to take it easy!) inside you, and unfortunately the pull (in this case Netflix) generally wins. So how do you move from focusing on the push rather than the pull?

Connect your New Year’s resolution to a specific motivator and place it squarely in front of you. “Warm weather will be here soon and I want to be able to look decent at the pool”; “That wedding I’m in is only a few weeks away and I need to look sharp”; “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I have to be able to keep up.”

Also, your resolution must involve your values as well as your actions. You may need to confront values-oriented thinking that is inconsistent with your actions: You put off investigating diets (an action) that may work for you even though you say, “I care about my health” (your value); you put off joining a gym (an action) even though you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value); you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action), even though you say, “I value family” (your value); you put off signing up for a course at the local community college (an action), even though you say, “I want to become more educated” (your value).

Use a resolution to connect your actions and your values. Identify those things that you really value, the things that are important to you. Then resolve to coordinate those things you value with specific actions that are compatible with those values. Once you identify constructive actions and begin engaging in them, they will tend to become a part of your routine; they will become automatic and it won’t take much effort to maintain them, making your resolutions successful. And definitely resolve not to wait until January 1st to put them into action

DO COPING PROBLEMS MEAN YOU’RE MENTALLY ILL?

Most people think of mental “illness” as analogous to physical “illness.” They see “illness” as a black/white affair, which might work when talking about physical illness: You’re either sick or you’re well; you have a fever or don’t; you have appendicitis or don’t; you have cancer, kidney stones, a broken leg, or you don’t.

When it comes to “mental” illness things are more subtle. There usually is no clear line separating being ill and being healthy when it comes to our psychological functioning. In fact, unless you have a clear organic (physical) condition (such as brain damage) that causes psychological pathologies (hallucinations, delusions, an inability to process social signals, etc),  you will do well to avoid the phrase “mental illness.” (It’s no accident that this blog is not called “thementalillnessblog.”)

Unfortunately, “mental illness” is being tossed around a lot these days because of “unexpected” behavior, be it inexplicable mass shootings or unusual actions at high levels of government. People using the phrase, however, really don’t understand the consequences of applying this description to someone.

“Mental illness” is typically a negative label we apply to someone who is behaving “strangely,” or in ways that bother us. Furthermore, the label carries all kinds of negative stereotypes, biases, and evaluations against the person so labeled. Unfortunately, like any label, it tends to stick and guide our behavior toward that person, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Rosenhan’s classic study in 1973 illustrated the effect quite nicely.

Rosenhan and some graduate students got themselves admitted to various mental hospitals by going to admissions offices and complaining about hearing voices. All were successfully admitted and diagnosed with psychotic disorders. Once admitted they acted entirely normal, but were never discovered. Their treatment consistently mostly of pills to take, which they managed to flush down the toilet. After an average stay of three weeks, all were released with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia in remission.”

One of the lessons of the study was how the fake patients were treated by the professional staff as real patients. Even though the students behaved normally, once they were labeled “mentally ill,” everything they said and did was evaluated in that context. One student took lots of notes, behavior that was recorded as “compulsive note-taking.” Had he been labeled as a student, his note-taking would have been seen as quite normal.

When I taught abnormal psychology in the early 1970s, every year I took my class for a tour at a nearby state hospital. The head psychologist at the hospital took great delight in having a patient give us a tour without telling us he or she was a patient. Obviously the patient was high-functioning and stabilized on medication (which really was the case with most of the patients). After the tour we would all gather in a room and the psychologist would answer the many questions the students had. First, however, she would begin this post-tour session with some questions of her own:

“How was the tour? Did [name of tour guide] show you lots of wards and answer all your questions?” The students always had a lot of praise for their guide.

Then the psychologist fired the cannon shot: “You know [name of guide] is a patient here,” [gasps from the students!] and diagnosed as schizophrenic” (providing this information would be a violation of HIPPA privacy rules today!). Then she would launch us into a discussion of the danger of labels like “mentally ill” being put on others.

Just imagine if you walked into a meeting with many people and spotted someone unfamiliar. You ask a friend, “Who’s that guy over there? I’ve never seen him before.”

“Oh, that’s John,” your friend says. “Seems he’s been in an institution for the mentally ill and just got out. Ralph [supervisor] has known him for many years and decided to give him a job.”

How will you look at John? Will you rush over and welcome him to the organization? Will you watch his every movement for signs of pathology? Will that label “mentally ill” that is attached to him influence your interpretation of his actions? If John swats his hand at a mosquito you don’t see, will you think, “Omigod, he’s hallucinating!” (If your friend does the same thing, of course, you will probably conclude, “Must be a mosquito in here.”)

The message we want to convey is that the term “mental illness” is a label observers put on someone whose behavior is atypical; it is also a label that carries all sorts of negative stereotypes; and finally, applying the label leads to erroneous perceptions of actions we observe in another. The bottom line is that using the phrase is probably not at all helpful in our everyday interactions.

The flip side of the mental-illness card can also be quite damaging to your coping efforts. That is, how many of you get pangs of anxiety and hesitate to do something because you wonder, “What if I look like a fool? Everyone will probably think I’m mentally ill or something.” Your irrational thinking that you will be labeled mentally ill leads you down that self-defeating path of avoidance and poor coping.

Consider this exchange between a client (C) and a therapist (T). The client has social anxiety problems and is afraid of passing out when in crowds. Note how the therapist challenges the client’s irrational thoughts:

C: I picture myself walking in a crowded mall and getting so panicky that I faint.

T: You faint? Has that ever happened?

C: No……….but it could.

T: I don’t think it’s likely that you will faint if you engage in some of your relaxation breathing exercises. But so what if you did faint? Why would that be so bad?

C: Are you kidding? I would look like a fool. People would think I was an idiot………a total ass.

T: If you were walking in the mall and saw someone collapse, would you think they were some incompetent loser?

C: Hmmm. Well……….not really……….I guess I would think they were sick or something……….maybe hadn’t eaten or taking some medication. No…………I see what you’re getting at……….no, I wouldn’t think they were a loser.

T: So what does that tell you about how realistic your fears are? And by the way, suppose you really do faint, and you wake up and people are standing around you, laughing, pointing at you and saying, “What a loser! Can’t even shop in the mall!”

C: My God, I would die of humiliation?

T: You would physically wither up and die?

C: Well, I would at least be embarrassed as hell.

T: Well, good luck going through life without being embarrassed at times. But remember, you can’t control how others react. You can, however, control how you evaluate situations; you can enable yourself to say, “So what if I faint? If someone sees me as a loser, that’s their problem. The fact is, plenty of people will help me and I’ll get through it.”

In this example, notice how the client’s irrational thinking leads to all sorts of problems. In addition, the client is all wrapped up in trying to control the reactions of others. Both these actions are sure recipes for coping disaster. The point is, and we make it often in this blog, if you want to cope effectively, you must work at keeping your thinking realistic, and at identifying those things you can and cannot control. Getting all obsessed with the term “mental illness” will distract you from that task.

 

 

Last week we re-posted from 2016 a piece by Dr. Carlea Dries on coping with holiday grief. This year Carlea would also like to add her thoughts on how best to help others who are grieving, not only during the holidays, but anytime. Note the emphasis on actions.

 REACHING OUT TO THE GRIEVING

It seems that when the topic of personal grief comes up, especially during the holidays, most of the emphasis is directed at those who have suffered a loss. What’s often overlooked is giving some guidance to those who want to reach out and provide care for others who are working through loss and grief.

 Along those lines, I (Carlea) think it’s important to try and avoid “conversational narcissism,” or making it all about you. This is a fairly common action of making your experience the center of conversation, which distracts everyone from the original focus. An example would be sharing your own story of loss, comparable or not, with someone you were trying comfort. Thus, you might say something like, “I remember when my dog died. I got over it by getting a new dog. That’s all you need to do.” Or, “I remember when my husband died. I joined a social club and met all kinds of new people, even some interesting gentlemen!”

 Of course, when you say such things you are trying to help by giving suggestions and a message of hope. Unfortunately, you may actually be interrupting sufferers from “feeling their grief,” something they must allow themselves to do. Also, comments like those above run the risk of trivializing the situation for the grieving party. “That’s all you have to do.” Your molehill may be a mountain for the grieving. Remember, your comments are coming from a context of having already dealt with your grief. Your listener, however, is not there yet, but is still in the “dealing with it” phase. You can be their “coping Sherpa” but on their schedule, not yours.

 Another danger with conversational narcissism is that listeners may think you are judging them for their grief. You comments may make them feel weak, inferior, guilty, and incapable of coping with their grief.

 In interactions with those feeling loss, instead of focusing on you, try to find ways to provide support in more neutral ways: Deliver a meal; send a care package; shovel the sidewalks or driveway; do a load of laundry. Remember, your grieving friends will eventually be ready to move on from “feeling their grief” to “acting their grief” in positive ways. In fact, as they move toward active strategies to re-engage with life in ways that fit their needs and personality, they may even ask for your advice or opinion about the types of things you did to cope.

 The other day, I (Carlea) was speaking with a veteran who gave an interesting perspective on how he continues to cope with the losses he experienced while in the service many years ago:

 “I celebrate their memories by fulfilling their bucket lists. I do what I can to continue their lives. I give hope for those who are lacking it. I don’t attend pity parties. I read to those who lost sight because even though I lost things, I still can see. I get groceries for those who lost limbs. I do what good I can because there was a reason I was spared.”

 

 

I was reading one of those annual letters many families send out during the Christmas season. This particular one provided an excellent example of coping with grief at this special time of year. The writer’s family would be having Christmas for the first time without a woman who was a mother, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother for various members of the family. The writer noted how much the deceased loved Christmas, so the family would proudly celebrate her memory over the holidays.

The word that caught my eye was “celebrate.” Most people do not associate this word with loss of a loved one, especially at this time of year. In fact, they might expect to see the word “mourn” instead: “We will mourn her memory over the holidays.”

Mourning is indeed an important part of the grieving process, but in the long run, we will cope much better with personal loss if we resolve to honor departed loved ones by celebrating their memory, and focusing on how much they contributed to our life.

With that message in mind, we’re re-posting a piece that Dr. Carlea Dries wrote that we put on the blog December 12, 2016. (You can find Carlea’s bio in the “Hosts” link on the homepage of this blog.)

HOLIDAY GRIEF

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… except when it’s not. 

The holidays usually mean the coming together of family members. Ordinarily this is a welcome time of festive gatherings, exchanging of presents, and special memories made near a roaring fireplace. For some, however, this Norman Rockwell image is drastically different from reality, particularly when recent loss of a loved one is involved. Let’s note that “loss” is not limited to the death; it can also include divorce, hospitalization, incarceration, active duty without a holiday leave, or a family member who moved away. 

Recently, I (Carlea) attended the funeral for my great aunt. Though Marge was 93 and in failing health, her death hit our family rather hard, especially her daughters and sister (my grandmother, who is now the only one left of the original 11 siblings). The sermon during the church service (paraphrased herein) highlighted how this first holiday is going to be different: “You’ll notice the quiet. You’ll notice the missing [specialty food]. You’ll notice the missing chair at the table.” 

While I was at the repast, a good friend of mine (still Carlea) texted to say that her parents are getting divorced after more than thirty years of marriage. This news was unexpected and rendered her numb. She just kept asking how it could be real and why, if it had to happen, it had to come so close to Hanukkah. This was supposed to be the first time she would be hosting her family, and now everything was changing. 

How do you cope with the first holiday season in the “next normal” or “new normal”? How do you hold on to a sense of control when things are clearly out of your control?

The most important thing to do, as we’ve discussed in other blog posts, is to recognize what is in your circle of power. My grandmother can’t bring her sister back. My friend can’t convince her parents to stay together. So they must try to do what they can: accept what it is and move forward from that point. Yes, that’s easier typed than done.

Some feel consoled by leaving a place at the table for the absent person, but many others find that much more discomforting because it is a visual reminder of the vacancy. You may, therefore, choose to remember the person in a smaller way. I (Carlea again) have made ornaments with pictures of departed relatives, reminding me of times we spent together. Every year for Thanksgiving, my mother makes her aunt’s stuffing (though Aunt Petronella called it “dressing”). My mother-in-law uses a picture of her mother as the angel for her crèche. A friend video-chats with her husband who is stationed overseas. For the past 14 years, my father brings homemade goodies to the staff at the nursing home where his parents finished their earthly stories. A colleague mentioned that she has a “moment of reflection” during which everyone present shares a memory, story, or image of those who cannot be with them – one even sings a favorite song! These simple gestures become meaningful traditions that do not overwhelm us with intense feelings of loss. Rather, they celebrate the lives and connections we had to those who are absent. 

Other coping suggestions include planning a totally new activity that literally takes you away from the familiar reminders of the absent one. Go on a mini-vacation. Celebrate with a different group of people. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter. Keep your mind and body distracted, not to the point where you are ignoring, denying, or detaching from the loss, but to keep you focused on something productive instead of painful. 

No matter what options you are comfortable choosing, you must give yourself permission to feel. There will be moments when you want to do nothing but sit in silence. Other times you will want to do nothing but scream. You might even find yourself smiling or laughing and then feel guilty because how dare you be happy when you are missing someone?! Have “the big, snotty cry” if that is what you want to do. Let yourself feel. Take the time you need. As we said in another posting, it’s okay to say “no” to invitations; just be sure you don’t let your mourning stop you from living.  

There was also a message of comfort in the sermon for my Aunt (again paraphrased): Marge lives on in your hearts and memories. If you listen in the quiet, you can hear her. If you feel in the still, you can sense her. Remembering means no one ever leaves.

You might not feel better today. You might not feel better tomorrow. But at some point, you will feel that you have moved to the next normal and that will be the next best thing.

 

 

SEXUAL HARASSMENT: MORE THAN A POWER TRIP, AND WITH COPING LESSONS FOR US ALL

I’ve noticed that when news commentators discuss cases of sexual harassment that are popping up with regularity, they usually assert that “power” is the primary motivation behind harassment actions. That is, perpetrators act to remind their victims (and, I might add, themselves!) which party is dominant in their interactions.

True enough, but from a psychological perspective I think we need to add two additional elements to the equation, elements usually overlooked, but important on several levels. First of all, they give us additional insights into the motives behind molesters. Secondly, they help us better understand the power motive referred to earlier. Finally, they provide us with coping lessons that apply to virtually any social situation.

The first element is pretty simple: Many molesters, for reasons owing to their upbringing, view victims as sex objects. For instance, a man who repeatedly gropes, tickles, squeezes, etc. women, sees them primarily as objects for him to “play with.” This perception, of course, is immature and narcissistic, and betrays in the perpetrator not only feelings of dominance, but also a sense of entitlement. Whether the relationship is professional, family, friendship, or romantic, this man’s arrested psychological growth renders him largely incapable of maintaining social interactions based on acceptance, equality, and respectful partnership.

The second element involves competition. For whatever reason, and probably at a sub-conscious level, molesters see themselves in competition with their victims, and suffer intense unconscious anxiety over it because their insecurities and weak self-esteem produce fear that the victim will win. Again, in the case of a man showing a pattern of harassing women, at some level he feels he must compete with women because they are a threat to his already feeble self-esteem.  Deep in the valleys of his insecure, immature mind, he has this viral fear of losing to a superior opponent. These anxieties motivate him to compete (metaphorically) and demonstrate his power over women. How? Well, because he sees women as sex objects, the competition is expressed in molesting actions that dehumanize them and allow him to proclaim to himself, “I WIN!”

OK, let’s discard the sexual harassment context and look at any of your relationships that are presenting you with coping challenges. Again, forget the harassment issue and focus on a relationship that is causing you difficulty and anxiety. The problem could be with a friend, co-worker, spouse, parent, child, or whomever. As a first step in helping you begin to attack the coping challenge and find actions that might help you move toward a resolution of the conflict, use the comments above to guide you toward some specific questions. As always, focus on the issue at hand and keep your questions within the basic boundaries of, “What parts of this situation are under my control?”

Ask yourself: How do I really see this person? Do I feel in competition with him or her? Do I feel I will lose the competition? Does the person arouse anxiety and insecurities in me? Am I behaving in childish ways toward the person? (If you can’t relate to “childish” simply ask yourself if you deal with the person like you’re on the playground during recess in the third grade.)

What I’m saying here is that some of the dynamics of the molester (that is, insecurity, immaturity, narcissism, anxiety, fear of competition and losing that competition) are at work in your troubling relationships. If you ask yourself some brutally frank questions about your possible motives and insecurities, and work hard to confront your fears with some honest answers, you are well on the way to more effective coping.

Whether we’re talking about the sexual molesters in the news, or your everyday rocky relationships with family or colleagues or friends, the fundamental problem boils down to what Schnarch, a social psychologist, calls differentiation.

Simply put, if you are a differentiated person, you are able to maintain your individuality, your sense of self, in your relationships with others. You can share, cooperate, compromise, respect those who disagree with you, and even admit you’re wrong. But through it all you remain yourself. You do not subjugate yourself to the will of the other, nor do you feel compelled to assert power and dominance over the other. You can work with others from a context of personal stability and self-assurance, not from a context of weakness, insecurity, and dependency. In short, you are “secure in your own skin.”

On the other hand, those low in differentiation might constantly look for attention and approval from the other person. Is that you? Do you suffocate others with demands, possessiveness, and jealousy, forcing them to meet your wants and needs? Those low in differentiation might also be narcissistic “me” oriented people who deny responsibility for any problems in a relationship, and simply see others as objects to manipulate for self-glorification. Is that you? Do you see others as opponents to defeat and belittle so you can see yourself as dominant? Do you regularly and hypocritically cast blame on others while never considering your own role in causing problems?

Think about these comments as you pose to yourself the questions above. If you’re honest with yourself you can greatly improve your self-understanding, your everyday coping skills, and the quality of your interactions with others. You may even realize that those low in differentiation, a personality and behavior profile that includes molesters, are a truly pathetic lot who may deserve counseling, but not our sympathy.