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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.

MY PRESIDENTIAL SECURITY BLANKET

Even adults need security blankets. Of course, depending on them exclusively to cope with the pressures of everyday life will compromise personal autonomy and empowerment. In moderation, however, our “blankets” can be a great source of comfort as we navigate life’s mazes.

Note that I said security blankets (plural). We often need different ones for different situations. For instance, when my “government and politics” world goes haywire, which seems to be the norm lately, I like to turn to George Washington for security. Yeh, the big guy, President #1.

I was born in Washington, DC in 1944 and lived there for the first 12 years of my life. As a kid I walked the stairway to the top of the Washington Monument…twice. My friends and I could walk into the National Archives (no security checkpoints in those days) and marvel at the Declaration and Constitution on display. We were especially fascinated at the model showing how the documents descended into a vault far below ground at the end of each day. We could join tour lines for the White House and Capitol. At the Smithsonian, seeing Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis dangling from a roof triggered boyhood dreams of ascending to the sky like a bird.

I often heard my parents and grandparents talk about local politics, but “local” in DC meant The President, Senators, and House members. Very early I learned the President was someone special and important, and I was thrilled when, as a boy of eight, I shook Truman’s hand. Oh, sure, I heard adults criticize and even make jokes about the President, but there was always an undercurrent of respect for his office. I also learned he was subject to the whims of fate and voters every four years. DC residents could not vote, but my grandfather owned a farm in Virginia and was registered to vote there. My first exposure to voting took place in November 1952 when he took me with him on the drive into Virginia to vote.

“Are you voting for General Ike like everyone else, granddaddy?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, “I’m voting for Stevenson.”

“But isn’t Ike going to win? All my friends say he will.”

“Maybe so, son, but it’s important to be a good citizen and vote for your choice. That’s why we fought Hitler.” (I knew who Hitler was. On the playground we would often chant a little ditty: “Whistle while you work/Hitler is a jerk/Mussolini bit his weeny/Now it doesn’t work!” That was cool stuff for an 8-year old boy, although I was never quite sure whose weeny he bit, Hitler’s or his own!)

I never forgot that conversation with grandad, and it’s pretty much all I remember about the trip. But I guess it’s the only part that was important to remember. Maybe it’s why since 1968, when I was finally old enough to vote (21 in those days), I have voted in every election, whether presidential, midterm, primary, or special-local. I think deep down I feel if I didn’t vote I would be letting granddad down.

Lately I’ve been wrapping myself in my George Washington security blanket. Reflecting on him gives me some reassurance and comfort in these chaotic political times. He helps me cope with the anxiety the current president piles on me. I mean, Washington was far from a perfect man, but he had tremendous character, honor, and dignity. Once the war for independence was won in 1783, he went before Congress (the Articles of Confederation Congress) and resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Historian Harlow Unger says, “For the first time since ancient Rome, a commanding general with absolute power in his grasp, in future president Monroe’s words, left ‘sovereignty vested in the people.’ It was unprecedented in modern civilization.” Think about that for a minute: “The people must rule, not me. I’m going home.” Are you kidding me?

Here was this guy who was so revered and glorified by the people he probably could have proclaimed himself King and nary a word of protest would have been uttered. No wonder that George III of England, upon hearing that Washington was planning not to take over the country but to retire to his plantation and resume his life as a farmer, is reputed to have said that if Washington followed through with that plan, “He will be the greatest man in the world.” Indeed.

Washington’s retirement lasted four years. In 1987 men like James Madison pleaded with him to join the constitutional convention to help construct a new government that would correct the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. After a lot of arm twisting, Washington reluctantly agreed to join. Not surprisingly, he was elected President of the convention.

Amazingly, however, during the convention deliberations he did not join in the debates. He probably understood that if he did so, debate on that issue would end and the convention would choose whatever side he was on. Such influence would be inappropriate because he no doubt knew most members of the convention were more learned than he was, and they, not he, should determine the final product. He also was no fool, and knew that he would be chosen to hold the executive office in the new government, and he didn’t want to engage in a conflict of interest. Put that in today’s context and think about it: He had a chance to design the government he would be running precisely to his liking, but he said, “No, that wouldn’t be right.” Damn, that’s integrity!

In confirmation of the safest sure bet in history, once the new constitution was confirmed by state legislatures, Washington was elected our first president and took office in 1789. After four years he longed for his Mount Vernon home but succumbed to the pleadings of others to serve another term so the new government could stabilize further. It’s no exaggeration to say that Washington was the glue holding the fragile house of cards together, and many founders felt that should he leave after one term, their experiment would crumble.

At the end of his second term in 1796 he put his foot down and said, “No,” repeatedly, as others once again asked him to continue in office. His firm decision established an informal precedent that presidents not serve beyond eight years, a tradition that was observed for 150 years! (After Roosevelt broke the ice in 1940 and 1944, the 22nd amendment to The Constitution was approved in 1951, limiting Presidents to two full terms.)

Imagine if Washington had surrendered to the lure of presidential power, and had chosen to continue until he died in office. Imagine if he had designated a specific person to be his successor. Imagine if he had treated the office like a throne. Would our executive branch have evolved into a monarchy? Would the constitutional experiment have even survived? Would the states and other territories on the continent have been gobbled up by Britain, France, and Spain, all waiting for this insane experiment giving sovereignty to the people to fail? Scary thoughts.

Even scarier – imagine if Washington had a completely different personality profile than he did. Imagine if he had been an insecure, antisocial, immature, domineering narcissist. Who knows what mischief he might have produced!

Given those scary possibilities, why does thinking about Washington give me comfort in 2018? Certainly because he rose above those possibilities; but also because I believe his monumental spirit, his lifeforce essence, like a majestic indestructible mountain, lives on in the Oval Office. I have faith that the civility, respect, honor, and dignity he bequeathed to the Executive Office under the Constitution are stronger than any individual who would undermine those qualities. As that young boy who roamed Washington nearly 70 years ago, I have to believe it. Failure to do so would destroy that young boy and rip me of my patriotism, not to mention my sense of self.

In the final analysis, I desperately hold on to the hope that Washington’s “gift” to us will carry the day. For me, he embodies the character and soul of the presidency and the nation. In 1796, at last free to go home, his departing message to his fellow Americans transcends time and still resonates 222 years later: “Think of yourselves as a single nation; subordinate your regional and political differences to your common identity as Americans.” As historian Gordon Wood said, “If any single person was responsible for establishing the young Republic on a firm footing, it was Washington…There has been no president quite like him, and we can be sure that we shall not see his like again.”

WHEN YOUR SPOUSE HAS CANCER

            This week’s guest post comes from Sandy. She shares with us the challenges that arise when a spouse has cancer. She also offers some excellent advice about attitudes and actions that she finds helpful in making a devastating situation more tolerable and manageable.

 This is probably one of the more, if not the most, difficult life experiences to write about.  Effectively coping with my husband’s cancer, plus being a positive influence on him, are challenges that I did not expect nor sign up for.

For both of us, this is our third marriage.  We met as teens in an ice rink in a mall in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  We “dated” as best as we could with a 25-mile distance, no car, and old Ma Bell as our communication tool.  Over time we drifted apart and saw less of each other.  He invited me to his Senior Homecoming as he was nominated “King,” and had one other “date” a few years later; that was it. 

About ten years ago, at this time of year, I was single and began an internet search for him. It was five months before I found a list of people from high school that included email addresses, and he was listed as Senior Class President.  I contacted him and asked if he was the same guy who rode his bike 25 miles on a day to see me.  He replied, “it’s me!”  He was living in Missouri at the time and going through a divorce.  I had given up all hope of ever finding true love after two failed marriages.  Our first phone call after over 25 years of not speaking changed all that.  We have been together ever since.

Before he moved down to Florida, he had a cold/virus that affected his tonsils and while the one on the left side went away, the one on the right did not.  It swelled and grew larger over a span of 9 years.  Eventually we learned it was cancer.  It has now ulcerated to the point where it must be covered up 24/7 as it protrudes outwardly on the right of his neck.  He is in pain all day and sleeps very little.

I have learned that patience is key to supporting someone you love who has cancer.  Learning how to react to them is important.  Go with the flow, ask what they need, and how you can help.  They are the best one to tell you what it is and what they want/need at that moment in time.  The pain they experience is situational and can vary.  When you ask, be careful of the timing of the question as this can either be positive or hurtful to then.  Do not interpret their response as something that is meant to be anger toward you personally. Remember, they are in constant pain and need to be approached with the utmost care and love that can be given.  Respect their wishes, regardless how they may seem to you.  This attitude is how I cope with what he is going through and it helps both of us immensely.

How to cope is defined by the person who is unfortunately going through these situations.  Their decisions on how they wish to be treated must be respected.  Encourage and uphold what they want and support them.  You would want the same in return.  Although you may not agree 100%, this is their decision.  When they search for ways to deal with the illness, be aware of what they are doing and educate yourself about the strategies they want to pursue. This is especially important when it involves non-traditional and non-Western medicine.

Another coping method during this time is to find time to vent your feelings about what you are going through.  Talk to someone you can trust, keep a journal, and do not keep your emotions trapped inside, only to explode later, possibly at the one who has the cancer.

And, of course, read this blog. The terrific hosts and writers can be excellent resources to lean upon, especially in time of emotional need.

 Some resources:

https://www.cancertodaymag.org/

https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/

https://www.verywellhealth.com/when-cancer-affects-your-marriage-513974

http://med.stanford.edu/survivingcancer/cancer-and-stress/when-your-spouse-has-cancer.html

 

THE “WHY?” QUESTION

Dean challenges Barb with a question: “Why do you feel so strongly about that? Your position is totally illogical!”

Later Barb finds herself ruminating on the exchange with Dean. “Why do I feel so strongly about it? Am I being unreasonable? Am I illogical? My position makes sense to me and I’m totally comfortable with it but maybe Dean is right. Maybe I should change my opinion.”

A student once told me, “You know what I hate? Having someone ask me why I do something! ‘Why do you get up so early? You should sleep in.’ ‘You don’t want to go out tonight? Why not? It’s Friday.’ Or I’m sitting in the cafeteria with some guys and one of them says, ‘Why do you eat all of one thing on your plate before you eat the other stuff?’

“I mean, what the hell, what business is it of his how I eat? Can’t I eat my food the way I want to? Am I here to please others or to do things the way I like?”

That last question really says it all and gets to the heart of the issue: You really aren’t here to live up to the expectations of others and they are not here to live up to yours. You have a responsibility to be authentic and true to yourself. Will you be satisfied with your life if you try to be someone you are not, someone another person insists you be? If you accept that the answer is “No,” resisting pressure to be what others want you to be will be easier. You will feel more personally authentic and be better able to work through the down times.

Let’s return to Barb’s example above. When confronting negative emotions, does asking yourself, “Why do I feel this way?” automatically produce insight and growth? Most people go into counseling seeking an answer to why questions: “Why I am feeling this way? Why do I have these negative emotions? Why do I get so anxious around others? Why can’t I be more decisive?” Common sense says answering those questions should lead to greater insight, learning, understanding, and positive growth. Research, however, says focusing on why questions can be unproductive and even harmful.

Ethan Kross of Columbia University asked undergraduate students to recall an experience when they felt intense anger toward someone. One group was told to vividly reflect on the experience in their minds; another group was told to imagine they were simply an observer watching themselves get angry at the other person. Only students in the second group showed lower anger when thinking about the original experience.

The lesson is clear: Dwelling on, “Why do I feel this way?” is not effective because you are focusing on the emotion and the person who aroused the emotion in you. Instead, you must view yourself more objectively, not as a victim of the emotion but as someone who can exercise some control over how you view your emotion. You must restructure your thinking about yourself (“I can control my thinking”) and others (“I cannot control what others say”). You need to understand that control is something best exercised on yourself, not on others. You need to understand that positive growth requires posing not the question of “Why?” but posing the question of “What,” as in, “What can I do to develop thoughts and actions that bring me more personally satisfying outcomes?”

 

HUMAN RESOURCES COPING II

Kathy Knowles runs a human resources consulting firm dedicated to making businesses more aware of employee needs, and thereby increasing worker satisfaction, retention, and productivity. She reviews some of the general employee factors that are relevant across all types of businesses: Low Pay; Little Opportunity; Minimal Job Meaningfulness; Underappreciated.

Let’s take these items and extrapolate from the workplace to your life. In other words, let’s see how you can apply basic human resource principles to coping with your life circumstances. To do so, you will need to adjust your thinking a bit, and see your life as your workplace and you as both worker and boss.

Low Pay. Are you overly self-critical, always putting yourself down? Give yourself a pay raise, maybe a symbolic pat on the back now and then, complimenting yourself on a job well done. Watch for the times when you feel pretty good, satisfied, about something you did. Pay attention to when the actions occur and resolve to repeat them when the time is right. Give yourself some positive self-talk: “Damn, I was really helpful. I need to do stuff like that more often.”

Little Opportunity. If you are going to empower yourself and cope effectively with life, you need to have challenges in front of you, and the opportunity to tackle those challenges head-on. Doing so will help you develop and improve your skills. Instead of sitting around and stagnating, you must provide yourself with opportunities to venture outside your comfort zone, experience new things, and find ways to improve yourself.

Job Meaningfulness. If a job is not personally meaningful you are unlikely to enjoy it. And, so it is with your life. Your life must be meaningful and give you a sense of purpose if you are to be maximally productive and satisfied with your efforts. This is where your values, morality, integrity, and personal standards enter the picture. If you stop looking for some expert to run your life, stop looking for artificial chemical crutches, and stop being passive and dependent, you will cope more effectively and enjoy fulfilling discoveries along a meaningful road of life. You must develop your own moral compass.

Underappreciated. This item has a lot of overlap with “low pay.” How often do you put yourself down and engage in self-criticism? How often do you march in your own special pity parade? How much do you ruminate about the past and how others were always mean and rejecting? Do you complain about how others do not appreciate how hard you try, and then internalize that criticism giving yourself a pessimistic evaluation of your abilities? Obviously, you’re not perfect; none of us are. But if you get in a pattern of habitually underappreciating yourself, you will strip yourself of confidence, optimism, and willingness to move forward when confronted with life challenges.

Ownership. This is an item I would add to Knowles’ list of how to increase productivity, morale, and satisfaction in employees. Workers should be given the opportunity to participate in the development of company policies; they should be consulted on a regular basis so they feel they are contributing to the decision-making process within the company.

By the same token you need to develop a sense of ownership about your life. You need to feel confident in assessing what you can and cannot control, and within those boundaries, decide how you should direct your life. When you feel such a sense of ownership you are less vulnerable to others who would dominate and use you for their purposes; you feel greater autonomy and independence in being able to take charge of your life and move confidently in directions you choose.

 

 

 

 

 

HUMAN RESOURCES COPING I

Karen Gathercole is Associate Vice-President of Human Resources at Florida Institute of Technology. In a recent column she discussed the human side of good HR principles. Her examples are all in a business-world context, but I think her comments reflect principles of effective coping that we regularly present in this blog.

Gathercole noted how any successful business boils down to its people, the human capital of the business. Employers should always make a concerted effort to understand the personality dynamics of their workers and how that personality is expressed in preferences for work conditions. An effective employer will investigate under what conditions individual employees are most efficient, and, within reason, will strive to match those conditions to individual workers. When conducted at an individual level, this analysis looks at policies like work schedules, variations in work environment, child care, exercise opportunities, and even providing for diet preferences. Obviously, such investigation requires clear and respectful communication between worker and employer.

Gathercole also notes how communication is especially important in increasing productivity, maintaining employee morale, and giving workers a sense of company identity. Managing, brainstorming, building teams, fostering cooperation and compromise, are all important contributions to the company “bottom line” without making workers feel like forgotten cogs in a wheel.

The best communication is face-to-face. The ease and convenience of our digital world often makes emails and texts relatively impersonal. These convenient forms of communication can also fail to convey nuance in conversation and produce misunderstandings, frustration, and resentment. On the other hand, the clarity of body language, voice tone, facial expressions, and a host of other intangibles are generally enhanced in face-to-face interaction. Even phone interactions are usually superior to electronic messaging.

Following good HR principles will increase the likelihood of having workers who are satisfied with their employment, believe they are valued and appreciated, willing to risk thinking “outside the box,” and feel somewhat empowered to play a role in policies. A careful evaluation of these HR principles by reading “between the lines” should show you that they are also effective coping lessons for challenging conflicts and emotional upheaval in your own life.

Consider communication. How do you communicate with others? In conversations with others do you impose your will on them and act like a dictatorial boss, always conveying the message that you know more and are in charge? Do you truly listen, or do you wait impatiently and interrupt to inject your opinion? Do you fail to put yourself in others’ shoes and try to see things from their perspective? Do you use “I” frequently?

Clear, respectful, and genuine two-way communication is usually involved in effective coping and productive interactions with others. In this blog we repeatedly talk about the importance of communication with others in coping with the challenges of everyday life. You need to train yourself to monitor your reactions and comments when talking with others; you must work at understanding their perspective, and recognizing that it may be different from yours, but that does make their perspective less valid than yours; you must realize that good communication works to find a middle ground between differing perspectives, not argue over whose perspective is better; you must treat others with courtesy, respect, and empathy; you must treat them as you want them to treat you.

Communication with others can be one of the best ways to cope effectively with life’s curve balls, because so often those curve balls come at you because of conflict with others. Seek out face-to-face interactions, and remember the four “C’s” of effective social communication: Consultation; Clarity; Cooperation; Compromise.

RAISING KIDS IN A #MeToo WORLD

I recently saw a newspaper headline that asked, “How should dads talk to sons at this #MeToo time?” Two things about this headline caught my eye.

First of all was the reference to the #MeToo movement. Are you telling me that prior to this movement, parents were not concerned about teaching their sons it’s wrong to assault girls? That’s ridiculous. Responsible parents did not need #MeToo to tell them assault is wrong.

Second, the headline only mentions dads and sons. I guess the message here is that moms have nothing to offer, and that raising girls in the #MeToo context is irrelevant. Just teach them to cook and everything will be fine.

The headline is typical of subtle, implicit sexist messages that denigrate women and assign them second-class status compared to men. The subliminal message is that only dads can provide their sons with the special attention needed to protect themselves against accusations from girls.

As usual, psychology has a lot to tell us about how to raise children. With respect to #MeToo, we can go back to the 1970s and Sandra Bem’s work on teaching children to embrace a variety of emotions and characteristics.

For instance, Bem says we should certainly teach our sons that they will find themselves in situations when they should be forceful, tough-minded, competitive, assertive, and dominant. “You need to be tough, kid! Man up! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.”

BUT, we must also teach boys that they will often find themselves in situations when sensitivity, caring, sympathy, emotionality, and empathy are more appropriate expressions. If we do not teach them that it’s OK to show those traits and emotions, and that doing so does not destroy their masculinity, then they will be lost when in such situations; their coping skills will be severely limited because they will be bound by chains of traditional tough-guy masculinity, and unable to participate in a broader range of productive interactions with others.

By the same token, Bem argues we certainly must teach our girls how to be nurturant, supportive, and understanding. BUT, if we don’t teach them that in some situations they need to be assertive, competitive, forceful, and decisive, they will be dominated by those around them and find themselves ineffective and frustrated. Most importantly, we must teach them that standing up for themselves in no way sacrifices their femininity. In fact, failing to do so will sacrifice their self-esteem and their ability to interact respectfully and effectively with others.

I find the question, “How do dads raise sons in the #MeToo atmosphere?” insulting to women on many levels, and therein lies the problem that spawned the movement. We’re not talking rocket science here, folks. We’re talking about living together with mutual respect and striving for empathy when conflict arises. Girls should be taught to be caring and sensitive, but if the situation demands it, to be aggressive and competitive. Boys should be taught to be dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, to be emotional, sympathetic, and soft. And here is the key: Both can show this flexibility without compromising their respective identities and self-esteem as being feminine or masculine.

One final thought: In the wake of the #MeToo movement and seemingly endless accusations by women made against abusive men, some are saying the whole atmosphere puts tremendous pressure on men (“Am I doing something to offend? Will I be taken to court?”), and makes their world a scary place where avenging women are out to get them. These analyses are pure nonsense, kind of like saying the world is a dangerous place because there are cops all around ready to pounce if you break the law. In truth, the only ones worried about the cops are those seeking to break the law; law-abiding citizens do not walk around worried if cops are watching them.

There’s nothing new here, folks. During the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s, the same cries of alarm came from men. Hugh Hefner called the “libbers” man-haters. Men whined they were scared and complained about stuff like, “Do I call her Miss, Mrs, or Ms? I’m walking on eggshells. Can I compliment her without being accused of harassment?” Guess what? Young men survived, learned to respect women, got married, helped raise the kids, and even (gasp!) did the dishes now and then. Don’t buy into the scary-world warning, unless you’re up to no good.

MAKE NEGATIVES POSITIVES

Wanda Lipscomb-Vasquez, Program Director of Business Services at weVENTURE, offers some advice for those in business who generally see the glass as half empty. First of all, she gives some examples of negative vs. positive thinking. When assigned a job by his boss, Bill thinks, “I will probably fail,” but he should be thinking, “I will try my best.”

When faced with a challenge do you anticipate failure, or do you focus on putting forth your best effort?

How about this choice of self-comments when faced with a difficult task: “I don’t know what I’m doing,” vs. “I can learn.” Which approach is likely to give you the confidence to go forward? Along those same lines, “I can’t do this,” vs. “What a great opportunity.” Once again, putting your thoughts in a context of opportunity to succeed, not a recipe for disaster, puts you in a frame of mind where you can move forward to meet the challenge, and not run and hide out of fear of failure.

Lipscomb-Vasquez adds that in business, it is good to surround yourself with positive-minded people and to find a mentor to help you identify attainable goals and formulate a plan to reach them. Others can also help you stay focused on the task and receive regular feedback about how you’re doing. We bet this feedback loop is often missing in your everyday life, but it’s crucial to success. If you don’t know where you are presently, you can’t evaluate your progress realistically.

Finally, your proposal your boss wants should include a plan that is based on realistic optimism, not pie-in-the sky fantasy. Progressive steps can help in this respect. Kevin presents his production plan to the Board and says, “Within a month we will increase output by 25%.” Who are you kidding, Kevin? Brianna, on the other hand, has a plan that seeks “1-2% growth each month with a year-end goal of 15% growth.” As a Board member, which plan are you choosing?

We touch on these principles regularly in this blog because they are cornerstones of effective coping: View challenges as opportunities, not threats; identify what you can and cannot control; devise a plan to improve those things under your control; regularly monitor how the plan is going; keep your optimism and goals for the plan realistic. This last one is particularly important because it will help keep you from believing too much in the “power of positive thinking.” Positive thinking can be a great boost to your coping efforts, but in the final analysis it is not thinking at produces results; it is positive action that does so.