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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.

 

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.

A COPING PLAN FOR SELF-CRITICISM

Let’s say you are doing something that causes you emotional stress. For instance, you feel you’re always blaming yourself when things “go south.” You’re also disgusted with yourself because deep down you know it’s ridiculous to imagine that you’re always to blame.

You get so fed up with all this self-blame that you decide it is time bring this tendency under your control. No one is telling you or forcing you to be self-critical so you know you can work to control it and do it less often. OK, working from that decision and desire, how do you go about tackling this problem.

First you have to assess where you are. You need what’s called a baseline that tells you how often you criticize yourself each day. To find out you need to start keeping a record. This is simple enough. Several times during the day, when you have a break from work or home responsibilities, reflect back on the past few hours. Note any conversations you have had, and examine your comments and your thoughts for any indications of criticizing yourself. Also write down details of the situation, such as time of day, where the behavior took place, and any other people involved. If you’re able, you can also do this recording right after realizing you’re being self-critical.

At the end of the day, record the frequency of these negative comments on a sheet of paper with the date and day of the week. Post this record in a prominent spot where you will see it each day. The number you record will correspond to the more detailed record you kept earlier.

For the first couple of weeks, don’t do anything else. Just keep recording those numbers on your posted sheet. There’s no need to post the detailed record, but stay organized and keep those records together in a folder.

Don’t be surprised if the number of times you engage in self-critical behavior each day begins to drop. This is a nice side-effect of the recording procedure. For one thing, you are bringing your habit clearly into your conscious mind, which means you will more likely catch yourself about to take the blame for something and be able to resist doing so. You begin to announce, “Well I guess it’s my fault,” but say to yourself, “Wait a minute, I’m not responsible for this and I’m not taking the blame.” Just becoming aware of your action can help you be your own counselor!

Posting the record can also bring out your competitive juices. That is, as you approach the end of the day you realize that yesterday you had 8 episodes of self-blame, and today you’re only up to 6. You tell yourself, “If I manage to avoid another episode I can beat yesterday.” If you pull it off you will give yourself a tremendous reinforcement when you see the chart the next day.

One nasty thing about our undesirable habits is that we don’t monitor their occurrence. We have no idea how often we do something we would like to stop. Just becoming aware of the frequency of the action can lower the frequency. If it doesn’t happen for you, don’t sweat it. After a couple of weeks, you will at least know where you are, and you will have that baseline against which to evaluate any steps you take to decrease your habit.

A nice thing about the detailed supplementary notes coordinated to the chart is that you can begin to discern trends. You may notice that self-blame is more frequent in the presence of certain others, or in specific situations (such as in a meeting or when you’re tired). Keeping the record makes you aware of your actions and can help you get a handle on specific events, places, and people that are strongly associated with the actions.

Once you’re aware of them, you can reduce your exposure to them, plus be more on guard when you’re in those situations. Again, awareness is the key. Most of our bad habits take hold of us because we’re totally unaware of when and where we’re exercising the habit. Find those situations that bring on self-critical comments, and then you can take corrective action aimed at appropriate targets.

The next steps are up to you. Find techniques to reduce your self-blame tendencies that work for you. Remember that one size does not fit all. What worked for your neighbor or friend will not necessarily work for you. And keep up the chart because you will be able to evaluate precisely the effectiveness of any technique you try.

Above all, remember that you are changing your lifestyle. You’re not in this for a week or a month. You are literally modifying how you act in specific situations. It takes time, practice, perseverance, and patience. There is only one way to win this fight, and that is to treat it like warfare. You are the general in charge of your thoughts and actions, and failure is simply not an option. Will you win every battle? Of course not. You will always have slips and setbacks. Ultimately, however, they must not deter you from feeling that you are winning the war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A LESSON FROM COLLEGE

The carpenter was finished repairing our front porch. He was standing nearby with the invoice while I was sitting at the dining room table writing his check. He looked to be in his early 60s, probably not too far from hanging up his hammer. Suddenly he asked, “So what do you do, Brooks?”

“I’m a professor at King’s College.”

Immediately he asked, with kind of a challenging tone, “So tell me, Brooks, what do those kids learn in college?”

Now I had been teaching for 30 years and I had developed my ideas about what he was asking. Also, I had posed his question myself dozens of times in presentations to parents at functions like Parents Weekend and Open House for prospective students. The old guy didn’t know it but he had lobbed me a softball.

“They learn discipline, transferable skills, who they are, and how to express their passions.”

I looked up at him and his expression was clear that he was a little taken aback with an answer he didn’t expect. But then he pulled out a chair, sat down next to me, and said, “What do you mean by all that?”

Paraphrasing, I replied, “OK, by discipline I mean learning to organize your life, plan ahead, establish priorities, how to find information and how to evaluate it. I mean learning how to be a team player, resolve conflicts, and solve problems. I mean respecting other points of view. Transferable skills are things like being able to speak, write clearly, read with comprehension, and have some technical ability. Expressing passions….I mean discovering who you are, developing some values and standards and finding ways to put all that into actions that bring you satisfaction.”

Silence, as he stared intently at me. Finally he said, “What about all that book learning?” I laughed, “Yeh, you have to learn that stuff to get a grade. But I think all the other stuff has more staying power because it involves learning to live. The book stuff fades fast.”

He got up, handed me the invoice, and I handed him the check. “My niece wants to go to college and learn about computers. Computers, math….a girl! I told her she’s wasting her time and her parents’ money. Good talking with you. Any problems with the porch give me a call.” And that was that. He was clearly unconvinced about the value of college, especially for “a girl.”

OK, why do I share this story in a piece about coping? Well, strip the story of the college context and two people talking, and you have some coping lessons. Just make my conversation with the guy into a conversation with yourself. You’re experiencing emotional upheaval over some circumstance in your life. How do you go about coping?

Let’s use my statements to the repairman about college learning. To cope effectively you must organize your thinking about your dilemma. What are your priorities? Are you communicating effectively? Are you listening and understanding others’ point of view? Are you working to solve a problem, or focusing on your emotions? Are your thoughts and actions within your circle of control? Are they consistent with your values?

We deal with these aspects of coping again and again in this blog. They’re often cast in some specific context, but the point is, no matter what the context, the themes developed usually have a much broader application because in the final analysis, they’re all about dealing with how to live. That’s what coping is: discovering actions that bring you meaning and satisfaction, actions that take you beyond mere existing, and into the arena of living.

So, the questions you need to ask yourself when you’re troubled should go to this central core: “Am I living in a way consistent with my values, my passions, and my needs? Or, am I avoiding and denying my challenges just to excuse my emotions and insecurities?”

It’s not rocket science, folks. Follow some basic rules and you’ll be fine.

 

 

 

 

 

FEAR OF FAILURE

To one degree or another most of us have experienced times when we avoid some activity because we’re afraid we’ll fail. Fear of failure can be a major obstacle to effective coping. Have you ever found yourself hesitant to take on a new challenge because you’re afraid you will fail? In some cases, your fear might be quite realistic. That is, you may lack the training or knowledge to complete a task, and you know better than to try and attempt it. The coping problem develops, however, when fear of failure becomes chronic, and your habitual way of dealing with challenging situations is just to walk away. In this case, you’re avoiding, quitting, giving up, and never giving yourself a chance to cope with problems.

Here’s a good general coping strategy for dealing with fear that impedes effective coping. Remind yourself that fear can be a good trait because it will prevent you from becoming too reckless, careless, and overconfident. Instead of putting yourself down for being fearful at the possibility of failing, why not put a more positive spin on things? Why not recast your fear into admitting that you are cautious and just want to get the odds in your favor before moving on? You can modify your fear of failure into a cautious and wise risk assessment. In other words, your fear about being unable to complete a task successfully can be seen as a positive characteristic because it encourages you to assess your odds of success. If the odds are low, you need take steps to determine why and develop a plan for increasing those odds. If your plan is totally unrealistic and you can’t increase those odds, you should abandon the task or redesign your strategy. Viewed in this context, you evaluate the fear as realistic and make it less of a source of concern for you.

Let’s consider two well-known Generals from American history to illustrate this point.

During the Revolutionary War, George Washington spent a lot of time retreating, knowing full well that if he stood and fought, the British would annihilate his army. So Washington, fearing failure, kept avoiding battle. Did he do so because he was a coward, or because he had a strategic plan? In fact, Washington’s fear spurred him to develop a strategic plan: he would turn and fight only when conditions changed the odds a bit in his favor. Give him a cold night, a half-frozen river, and Christmas Eve, he figured a surprise attack on the Hessians at Trenton had a reasonable chance of success. He was correct, and his success at Trenton totally revitalized the morale of the colonies and made a lot of people feel that the British could be defeated. The war continued for many more years, and Washington continued to do a lot of retreating, but he knew his cautionary strategy would pay off in the long run.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have another George, Custer, a general for whom retreat and fear were totally foreign, things to be denied and ignored. During the Civil War, his reckless charges as a cavalry officer paid off, and he began to feel indestructible. Eventually, during the Sioux War a decade after the Civil War, unlike Washington he let his ego get in the way of cautious strategic cost-reward analysis, and we know how that ended!

When you’re faced with risky odds and a fear of failure, let your fear encourage you to take a step back and organize your thinking and actions around determining if you can increase the likelihood of success. If you can’t, then the prudent thing to do is to use your fear of failure to motivate you to act wisely and not take on the task. If you can increase those odds of success, however, go for it by following a realistic strategic plan.

Just make sure you include the consequences of failing in your risk assessment. For instance, during the space initiative of the ‘60s, NASA exemplified what we’re saying with a culture of, “Failure is not an option.” It’s a nice phrase, but NASA faced the reality that failure potential was always present. That harsh reality was brought home by the Gemini capsule fire during a launch rehearsal that resulted in the deaths of three astronauts.

For NASA, “Failure is not an option” in reality translated into, “We’re going to do everything we can to minimize the odds of failure.” Custer did not understand that coping principle; Washington did. Let the example of Washington guide you in your efforts to confront your life challenges.

 

 

FEAR AND AVOIDANCE

Michael Church, educator, clinical psychologist, author, and co-host of this blog, once said to me, “The first question I ask my clients is, ‘What are you avoiding?’” Think about that question, because Church is saying that all who seek counseling for adjustment and coping problems have “avoidance” at the root of their problems. And, indeed, throughout this blog we have entries that again and again point to assessing and identifying avoidance actions as the first step in successful coping.

Let’s consider another question: “Avoidance is obviously an action, so what emotional state is motivating that action?” The answer is “Fear.” Fear is the great motivator that goads you into avoidance actions, so truly, if you want to stop avoiding facing your problems, you must first deal in some realistic fashion with your underlying fears.

Kyle says, “I never seem to be able to stay in a relationship once it starts to get serious. At that point I back off, the girl gets pissed, and that’s that.” “OK,” you reply, “Kyle clearly has a fear of commitment.”

Well sure, but the core issue is much more than that. Perhaps it’s really a fear of rejection or loss, failures that Kyle simply cannot face. Perhaps when Kyle faces a situation calling for a commitment, it triggers abandonment fears in Kyle that can be traced to his childhood. Maybe mom was an unreliable caregiver and Kyle was terrified of this common childhood fear. The point is, in general, the core fear underlying avoidance actions is usually not obvious. Finding this core may require some soul searching, some honest looks into the mirror, perhaps even some professional help, before you can begin to confront and correct the avoidance reactions.

Kim really wants to apply to medical school, and she has the academic record to consider that action as a realistic one to pursue. Yet, she is deathly afraid of failure, and of confirming her family belief that as a “girl,” there’s no way she should consider being a doctor. Nurse? Yeh, that’s OK, but a doctor? Kim’s fear may go back to her childhood when she was always reminded of limitations on her options imposed by her gender. Now, as a young woman, she must restrict her goals to avoid awakening the primal fear implanted in childhood.

Cult leaders and others who try to manipulate your thinking and your devotion are well aware of the importance of constantly reminding you of things you should fear and avoid: parental standards; those who look, act, or worship differently; other nations; immigrants; politicians of a particular philosophy, etc., etc., etc. By constantly bombarding you with boogeymen who are everywhere, you eventually succumb to the message, lose all sense of personal empowerment, and turn your life over to the leader. In short, you become a dependent vegetable.

Obviously I could go on and on, and many entries in this blog present a variety of examples of avoidance actions and the fears that drive them. The point is, effective coping involves facing your fears, determining if they are realistic, and also determining if they are under your control or not. Excessive dependency on others, which is incompatible with personal autonomy and empowerment, makes the process all but impossible.