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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.

 

ACCEPTANCE PART IV – PUT IT ALL TOGETHER

Suppose you have a bad case of social anxiety. You’re not too outgoing unless among friends and you become a total wallflower when with folks you don’t know. Generally, when you’re in a room full of strangers you look for the exit.

So here you are. Your boss has sent you to represent your company at a social function with reps from other companies, both local and out of town, to hear a presentation on improving employee morale. You walk into the room and fear strikes your heart as you look around and realize you don’t know anyone! And then the critical introspective examinations begin: “I’m going to look and sound like a total idiot.” “They’re all going to wonder, ‘Who’s that poor soul without a friend in the world?’” “I’ll never make it through this thing.” “I’ll just grab a drink, hang out at the food table, and wait for the program to begin. Maybe hanging in the restroom would be better.”

Where is your focus? It’s directly on the negative emotion you’re feeling, and you’re obsessed with how to avoid or escape the emotion. You are also focused on putting yourself down by assuming you will be the laughing stock of the room, so you create a pessimistic self-fulfilling prediction that you will fail. You are defining yourself by your undesirable emotion; you are thinking irrationally and assuming that you are not living up to expectations of others; you are seeking an avoidance strategy so you don’t have to confront and accept your fears.

Are there other, more effective coping strategies you might use to turn the situation into a challenge and not a threat? Of course there are. You can engage in some deep breathing exercises and other mental techniques to relax you a bit. (In a future blog we will take a look at some of these calming methods.) You can challenge your irrational thinking: “Let’s face it, no one is paying the least bit of attention to me and my anxiety, and they might even know someone at my company if I bother to tell them where I work. Just head for the food and ask some folks where they work and let things go from there. Ask if they know the presenter, have ever heard her before, or ever been to an event like this. Simple stuff, small talk. These people are not here to judge me.”

Self-talk like this will help you stop trying to avoid your uncomfortable emotions. If you consider specific actions to take that allow you to behave within the reality of the emotions, you will feel much more in control of your thoughts and behavior. You will feel greatly empowered to confront and challenge situations that bring you fear and anxiety. Remember: The key is to focus on things under your control. In the example given, you have no control over the other people in the room; you do, however, have control over your thoughts and the actions you can perform to make those thoughts work for you, not against you.

The essential core that holds everything together is acceptance. Growing to accept yourself and your emotions is a process, a way of living and interacting with others. It takes preparation, practice, and effort. Acceptance grows out of a type of thinking and acting that focuses on being realistic, not irrational; it emerges from facing your conflicts and anxieties, not avoiding them; it is based on positive, not negative, actions and thoughts, as long as your optimism is realistic and not pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

Perhaps most of all, acceptance is based on a personal system of values and standards that provide you with a social conscience and give your life purpose and meaning. Your values give you the ability to act independently, and result in actions and thoughts that will provide you with a sense of satisfaction and productivity. Cultivate a value system that allows you to venture outside of yourself. Remember, when it comes to effective coping it’s not all about you.

 

 

 

 

ACCEPTANCE PART III – THE ANTHEM, KNEELING, AND COPING LESSONS FOR US ALL.

Quite often events that take place on a large stage have considerable relevance for effective coping at an individual level. Thirteen months ago NFL player Colin Kaepernick began staging a protest against racial injustice by sitting or kneeling during playing of the National Anthem before the game. As I noted in a September 2016 post, his action produced a lot of discussion that centered on his protest method, but not on the issue he was protesting. No surprise there.

And now, a year later, here we go again, although this time more NFL players are involved in the sitting/kneeling protest. Once again, the impetus behind the protest, racial injustice, has been lost in the uproar about the method of protest. POTUS, a self-proclaimed champion of honoring our war vets and current troops, has led the charge accusing players of disrespecting the flag and US service personnel who have died protecting it (although in expected hypocritical fashion, POTUS has spent more time ranting against the NFL than in honoring four US soldiers killed by ISIS two weeks ago in Niger).

NFL players need to face reality and accept the fact that they will lose this battle. Not only do they face one of the most gifted showmen at “playing” the masses who ever lived, but also the patriotism card will always trump the race card. So here’s what I would say to the NFL players:

 

 

Accept it, men. You can’t win this one; your coping technique is inappropriate and continuing it is a form of denial. Your method of protest has been hijacked from you and turned into an issue, patriotism, that is not what you are protesting. But the hijack has succeeded and now beyond your control. By continuing your method of protest, you are violating the first rule of effective coping: Determine what is within your sphere of control. What your method stands for in the eyes of others has been co-opted and placed out of your control.

OK, what coping alternatives might exist for you that you can control? Let’s remember that you are high-profile men with considerable financial resources. Why don’t you seek more proactive actions based on your strengths and resources? First, reach out and attempt to partner with other players, coaches, owners, the Commissioner’s office, law enforcement personnel, the armed forces, and the media. Get together with them to brainstorm and strategize about positive ways to attack racial injustice in America.

Just off the top of my head, you could pour lots of money into already-existing, and new, programs designed to increase contact in favorable settings, and improve communication, between warring factions, notably communities of color and police. Pitch law enforcement to communities as an honorable profession. Ask law enforcement how to minimize misunderstandings between police and citizens. How about working with the armed services is developing strategies to foster a positive view in young people of serving the country. Invest funds to improve ROTC programs in junior high and high schools. Bring recruiters and police into the neighborhoods with you and give presentations that illustrate how to treat audiences with respect, not with suspicion. And through it all, involve parents and families!

Work on the rich fat cats who own those luxury boxes at NFL stadiums to donate to your cause, and to invite disadvantaged youth and their families to watch games, accompanied by veterans, current troops, police, and high-profile athletes. Make doing positive things with all these constituencies the norm, not the exception.

Imagine walking to an NFL stadium gate and seeing other fans, police officers, military personnel, families and kids of all races standing at the gates with contribution jars for your programs. The point is, you should structure things so everyone can become a part of your effort. One way or the other, get people to commit, even if it means dropping a buck into a jar. And get the media to give you immense publicity for all your initiatives. Saturate the airwaves with free coverage and paid advertisements.

I hope you understand that the key here is to ally yourselves with constituencies admired and respected by those who have been led to believe that protesting during the National Anthem can only mean one thing: You are un-American. Now you’re playing on someone else’s field. Take back your issue by allying yourself with all those admired and respected constituencies and demonstrate that, contrary to being un-American, you are showing that by taking positive steps to protest racial injustice, you are glorifying and strengthening America by bringing people together.

Remember that one who “plays” people using deception, indoctrination, and distorted facts weakens our great country by dividing us. Division produces frustration, hurt, anger, and hostility, causing us to act like meek sheep and passively attach ourselves to the false messenger. On the other hand, if you show people what can be accomplished by working together, you destroy the messenger and strengthen our bonds of humanity.

The point is, guys, kneeling ain’t gonna do any of us any good. However, by partnering with all sorts of constituencies, by designing good positive programs, and by persevering, you can change society. Accept the fact that you will not change society by kneeling; it’s a losing battle. Accept that harsh reality, and find new and proactive coping methods to deal with the hatred you face. You will feel empowered, satisfied, and productive, and you may be surprised to discover just how many folks are on your side.

 

 

There are also coping lessons at an individual level that I hope are clear from what is said above. You must accept certain realities, and that includes those emotions you don’t want to face. Denial and avoidance will not work, nor will trying to control everything. You must determine what things are within your sphere of control, and apply your strengths and resources within the boundaries of that sphere. Coping techniques outside those boundaries will fail.

 

 

 

 

 

COPING REQUIRES ACCEPTANCE OF EMOTIONS – PART II

Accepting negative thoughts and feelings as a natural part of life will help you be less self-critical and upset with your life, especially if you believe you don’t match up with your own and society’s ideals. You’re not weird or abnormal just because you experience troubling thoughts or feelings, and you’re not here to live up to others’ expectations.

There are times you must accept your pain without giving into tendencies to engage in some form of escape or avoidance and run from stress. Drug/alcohol abuse, social withdrawal, gambling, eating disorders and other acts of escape and avoidance are likely to magnify and expand problems while taking you farther from your value systems. If you value your roles as parent, spouse, employee, friend, or lover but, at the same time, let yourself become less effective in these roles, how can you expect to feel better about yourself?  If you value work, family, and friends, you must act accordingly, and with a sincere commitment and dedication.

Do you regularly ask yourself, “How well am I doing?” or, “Am I happy enough?” If you overdo it you can lose your ability to feel satisfied in the present. For example, chronically depressed and anxious people are likely to focus on whether or not they are feeling better. They search for answers in social situations to see how they are doing: “Does Joe see I’m here?” “Do I look foolish to Sally?” They also monitor their own actions: “Is my heart racing?” “Am I sweating?” “Am I just pretending?” “How well am I relating?” They try to feel “right,” which makes it impossible to be themselves and have a good time.

Do you constantly check on your actions and worry about what others are thinking? Do you try to maintain complete control of what’s going on around you? Such efforts are not a coping solution, but are the problem. In the final analysis it is actions based on fear and anxiety that are the underlying issues most people have to face; fear and anxiety are the motivators for the conflicts that produce most psychological problems and encourage inappropriate actions.

So stop treating your emotions as if they are alien invaders. They are you! We all have them and it’s natural. You are not weird. Accept your emotions but do not be governed by them. Acceptance of their presence and moving along in spite of this presence is one thing; letting them dominate you to the point that you struggle to deny them is quite another.

COPING REQUIRES ACCEPTANCE OF EMOTIONS – PART I

One of the hardest things to do is to stop trying to control unwanted and unpleasant thoughts and emotions. But you must or they will torment you. Let those negative feelings go, and accept them as a natural part of being human. They are just thoughts, just emotions. You don’t have to control them, be influenced by them, or get overly attached to them. They are not perfect reflections of reality so why be so obsessed by them.  Letting them go will make you less likely to avoid situations that bring you anxiety, fear, and possibly depression.

Gene was sexually abused as a child. Because of this history he cannot comfortably enter into intimate relationships as an adult. He always avoids such relationships. His self-defeating thoughts and anxieties about the past force him to withdraw from life.

Gene needs to let go of his past and stop denying it by trying to control his thoughts and anxieties. He needs to accept the reality of his past and live in the reality of the present. He needs to integrate his values with new actions, goals, and life purposes.

We are all vulnerable to becoming our own worst enemy. We punish ourselves with critical self-evaluations, and we flood ourselves with negative thoughts that increase anxiety, depression, and self-defeating actions. To some extent we must recognize that some level of human suffering is inevitable. When we don’t accept this basic fact, there is an increased risk of dysfunctional consequences.

Of course, we all want to avoid fires, car accidents, and life threatening diseases. However, millions of people won’t get on an airplane, will not go out in public, and will not socialize without alcohol or a prescription medication. These types of avoidance actions are caused by an inability to handle negative thoughts and the emotions that accompany them. Is that the life you want?

Our national health system and the media tell us we need to be strong, happy, rich, and vivacious. Health reports on the nightly news, popular shows, and advertisements on television and in magazines constantly tell us we are not living up to ideal standards. As a result, many of us begin to ask, “What is wrong we me? Why am I not as happy as I should be…more successful…more attractive…?” Can you understand how someone may conclude, “I am a [depressed/unhappy/anxious – choose one!] person”?

How do we get to this point? For one thing we ignore the real reasons for our emotional states, and try to explain our problems as caused by the emotions themselves. We conclude that our thoughts and emotions are the reasons for our dilemmas. “The reason I am coping poorly is because I am [depressed/anxious/angry/afraid/addicted – again, choose one!].

Do you believe your thoughts and feelings are the causes of your problems? Do you see states like depression and anxiety as both your problem and the cause of your problem? Do you see negative emotions as the reason you can’t love, work or play effectively?  If so, it’s time to get past focusing on the emotions and focus on the fact that you are troubled because of actions you take like social withdrawal, avoidance of responsibility, conflict with another, an unsatisfying relationship, or putting yourself in situations that cause you to avoid. You are troubled because of the actions you choose to perform, not because of your emotions.

When you believe your emotions and thoughts are the cause of your problems, you will attempt to manage, control, and avoid them. This approach will not work because when you try to control such thoughts and feelings, they actually become more frequent and troublesome. Thought suppression rarely works, and results in frustration, agitation, and demeaning self-talk.

We all must accept our thoughts and feelings for what they are — only thoughts and feelings. When we become negatively affected and bothered by them we treat them as who we are. “I’m too much of an anxious person to deal with this!’ Well, if that’s your perception of yourself, you’re screwed.

POLITICIANS ARE LOUSY COPING MODELS, PART 2

OK, in Part 1 we saw how our politicians are just a bundle of defense mechanisms. They can get away with it, I guess, given their jobs. Blame the other side and then proceed to act in precisely the way you’re criticizing. That kind of behavior will no doubt get them re-elected. But for us, habitually blaming others for our difficulties, or using some of the other defenses we noted, is a terrible way to cope effectively with the challenges of everyday life.

Why do so many politicians take the defensive road? I’m sure our congressional Representatives and Senators are patriotic Americans. They also seem to understand that as members of the Legislative branch of our government, co-equal to the Executive and Judicial branches, it is incumbent on them to treat each other with respect and civility, even when they disagree on issues. To top it off, they are bright, educated, and fairly well-to-do.

Why, then, do they submit to the hazards of ineffective coping? Why, for instance, do they have such a hard time compromising? Why do they often support proposals they really don’t accept? Isn’t that hypocritical? Why do they seem to favor partisan issues over their own principles and values? Why does anyone do such things? One answer to those questions is, “To avoid facing anxieties and fears.”

What might our legislators be afraid of? Well, how about getting re-elected! That fear is particularly acute for Representatives who go through the cycle every two years. But, you ask, “Why would such educated people, who can easily find other and probably more lucrative work, worry so much about being re-elected?” Good question.

Could the answer be that politicians define themselves by their position? The accolades, respect, and admiration that come to nationally-serving folks can easily go to their head. They succumb to a dangerous temptation of concluding, “I am a United States Representative who happens to be [an attorney, an entrepreneur, a former CEO, a war veteran, etc.]”

A more modest and grounded identity would be along the lines of, “I am [an attorney, an entrepreneur, a former CEO, a war veteran, etc.] who happens to be a United States Representative.” There is a world of difference between the two identities. Are you first and foremost an elected politician, or are you first and foremost a spouse, parent, physician, entrepreneur who decided to give politics a whirl? If the former, your whole world will revolve around staying in office.

I remember serving on a college faculty panel as part of Parents Day activities. We were there to answer questions about academic life at the College. I was a youngster, mid-thirties, and was seated next to a far more experienced and learned colleague from the history department. I’ll never forget how he introduced himself: “Hello, I’m [name] from the history department. But I don’t teach history; I teach your sons and daughters.”  It took me many years to understand that he had discovered the secret that made him such an effective teacher: He defined himself appropriately, not as a teacher of history but as a teacher of life who used history as his instructional vehicle.

So what coping lessons can we take from all this? Number one, be careful how you define yourself! Your self-definition determines those things you see as under your control. If your definition is faulty, you will try in vain to control things you can’t, and then you’re living in a fantasy world. Second, stop making excuses for your actions. Take responsibility. Live in the present and don’t use past events to explain yourself to others. So you have it tough? Who doesn’t?

Finally, make your words and actions consistent. (More about that in an upcoming blog.) Don’t play “mind games” with yourself and others. You’re not here to live by others’ expectations! Determine your values, speak to them, and let your actions be guided by them. Doing so will help you treat others with respect and courtesy, and you will more likely receive the same in return. Being in touch with and honest about your inner self — now isn’t that what a good coping life should be all about? Unfortunately, however, while you may cope nicely you will probably not get elected to Congress. Sorry about that.

POLITICIANS ARE LOUSY COPING MODELS, PART I

I have to admit I’m kind of fascinated with watching politicians these days. Not so much because it’s like being in the monkey house at the zoo trying to figure what’s going on in the minds of the inhabitants…….OK, that may be involved a little bit. But my fascination is really because  I see actions unfold that violate every principle of good coping we try to develop in this blog.

I mean, we’re talking lousy coping techniques using personality defense mechanisms, suspension of reality, avoiding life……..you name it, they’re all there in a beautiful psychology lab for viewing. Want some examples?

Listen carefully to how supporters respond when they hear criticism of 45. Typically their response will include one of the following words: Obama or Hillary. That’s right! They behave like the 18-year old brought before the judge for drunk driving. The kid says, “But Your Honor, you should see all the laws my old man breaks when he’s behind the wheel!”

Dad’s behavior is your best excuse, kid? It’s great rationalization that helps the kid avoid admitting he was wrong. But the fact is, when we justify our behavior by pointing out the terrible actions of others, we are showing we have no defense for what we did, but we sure aren’t going to admit it.  That’s pure denial, self-defeating avoidance, lousy coping, and a firm step down the road to depression.

How about this for avoidance: The Democrats got so mad that the Republicans worked in private on a health bill (precisely what Dems did in 2009), that they took steps to obstruct regular business on the Senate floor. This action is like spreading rumors about a co-worker who is working privately on a project and won’t tell you about it. So you go on the attack: “Hey, Joe, is there any truth to the rumor that [co-worker] is in trouble for lying to the boss?” Yeh, displace your hypocritical guilt onto others. Get the rumor mill started against your enemy. Lousy coping!

Here’s projection avoidance. Have you ever heard a reporter ask a Democrat or Republican why nothing is getting done? The reply is totally predictable: “Nothing is getting done because the other side of the aisle is not willing to work with us.” Wow, it must be comfortable living in a world that is so simplistic. Good luck in coping with the real world! Why not admit that what you’re criticizing in others is precisely what you don’t like seeing in yourself?

The adolescent Tweeter-in-Chief? All he wants to do is campaign, not govern, in an endless search for self-glorification. That’s the ultimate denial of current reality: “I must keep my ego strong to hide my insecurities from others. I must stay in my comfort zone or I might fall apart.” Perpetual campaigning in the comfort zone might work for him, but for us mere mortals, if we lock ourselves in our comfort zone we’re asking for problems down the road. Imagine parents afraid to act like parents, so instead they interact with the kids like they’re college buddies. “My kids love me!” Lousy parental coping and everyone is going to suffer.

Don’t emulate these people because they are terrible role models. As a first step, don’t be nasty to those who disagree with you when you’re on Facebook or Twitter. Express your opinion but show some respect for others. My wife recently saw a post with a profanity-laden speech supporting 45. She posted a reply objecting to the profanity and received a nasty reply belittling her for having her head in a hole. Why so nasty? What would be so hard about writing a reply more like, “I agree that the profanity did not add anything and was unnecessary. Still, the speech was good because it pointed out the problems we have and I believe DT can solve them.” Civility, courtesy, and respect for others are always conducive to self-respect and good coping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEWARE “THE SCREAMERS”!

OK, who are these “screamers”? In a nutshell, they are the folks who are convinced that their opinions, actions, and beliefs are totally correct. In fact, they are so certain their way is best, they become obsessed with trying to convince you to join them in taking the life pathway of personal enlightenment! “My way is best! Join me so you can share in the joy!”

I remember a time in graduate school when my wife and I went to a student party. The year was 1967 and the place was Syracuse University. The times were ripe with student rebellion against…….actually, against just about everything in conventional society. The Vietnam War was kicking into high gear; John F. Kennedy was dead from an assassin’s bullet; his brother, Robert, and Martin Luther King had only a few months to live before they, too, would be murdered. A few college students were really pissed off about the war and some were even taking to the streets to tear apart the American system. Some joined Dylan saying the times, they were a-changin’!

Me? Hell, I was just interested in getting my PhD in psychology and moving on with my professional life with my chosen partner. I had a nice paid assistantship with an eminent psychology professor, Joyce had a job and was earning her own “PHD” (Putting Husband Through,”) and we really weren’t interested in tearing down “the system.”

I say all this just to give you the cultural context present when we were enjoying ourselves at the student party. A few cold brews hit the spot after a week of slaving away in the classroom and the research lab. But a couple of guys I knew decided for some reason that my recreational life was incomplete. They cornered me and began extolling the virtues of “grass.”

“Man,” one of them said, “dump the alcohol. Pot is the way to go. You have to……” And they went on and on and on preaching to me about the benefits and glories of getting stoned. They were totally unwilling to let me do my thing, which was get a Bud buzz!

I told them I was fine with alcohol as my recreational drug of choice. They were wasting their time trying to convert me to their drug. Before turning away I added, “Plus it sounds like you’re trying to convince yourselves of your drug choice. To me, seems like you’re pretty insecure about that choice.”

These guys were “screaming” at me with their excessive attempts to proselytize me to their way of thinking about marijuana. The fact that they were trying so intensely and obsessively suggested to me that deep down, they were insecure and unsure about their actions, and were trying to convince themselves of the wisdom of their choice by getting me to join them.  Psychologists call it Reaction Formation, which means acting on the outside the opposite of doubts and insecurities you feel on the  inside.

A couple of examples: Those who are guilt-ridden on the inside yell long and hard to convince you how pure and sinless they are. Of course, they’re really working to convince themselves. Or, how about those who have strong dependency needs but fear rejection? They are desperate to depend on others and long for their support, but they display to others how self-sufficient and independent they are. They strut around like the chief rooster, proudly screaming they are totally self-sufficient, when inside they are a quivering mass of insecurity and anxiety.

Screamers deny their true feelings; they wear a protective armor when around others to hide those inner feelings. Their actions are designed to do one thing: Avoid facing what is inside them because those feelings are saturated with fear and anxiety. What better way to deny and avoid them than to act precisely the opposite!

It’s a beautiful strategy designed to protect a fragile ego, right? A strategy, yes! A beautiful one? No way! Once folks get on that road of avoiding their fears, frustrations, anxieties, guilt, anger, or any of a number of negative emotions, they are heading in one direction: Depression.

There’s only one way to get off that road, one way to feel secure in your own skin, one way to be able to stop presenting a “false you” to others, one way to stop “screaming.” That way is to attack your inner demons! Confront them, meet them head on, accept them as real for you, deal with them, and resolve them. That, my friends, is coping, and throughout this blog we suggest specific actions to accomplish the coping task!