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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.

IT’S OK TO ADMIT A WEAKNESS

            If you’re a high-profile celebrity you probably avoid divulging any of your weaknesses to others. Problem is, for those who live in the clear fishbowl of fame, hiding is tough to do and eventually some embarrassing things can end up on public display. Just ask the partying US swimmers!

If you’re like most of us, however, you live in a more opaque world where it’s easier to hide some of your less desirable traits from others. Still, we bet you have often faced a situation where you wondered, “Should I ‘man up’ here and admit to a shortcoming?”

There’s no hard and fast answer to that question but there are definitely some situations when honesty can serve you well. Of course, we are not advocating that you bare your soul for all to see, but sometimes admitting to a weakness can lead others to evaluate you more favorably.

For example, imagine yourself in a job interview that goes like this:

Interviewer: “This job will require you to stand in front an audience from time to time and speak to them for about 30 minutes. Does that present any problems?”

Now suppose you really do suffer some anxiety when you are in front of an audience. We don’t mean you faint or tremble uncontrollably and have to run out of the room; we simply mean you get nervous, self-conscious, and would prefer not to speak in front of people unless absolutely necessary. With those conditions in mind, let’s consider two possible replies to the interviewer’s question.

Reply A: “Funny you should ask that. I have to give presentations for my present job and the truth is, I do get a little nervous and anxious when I’m speaking in front of people. Because of that, I try to do a lot of preparation. I try to practice and rehearse what I’m going to say. When I really prepare, I find I’m less likely to stutter or forget my train of thought. So as long as I know in advance about having to give a presentation, I would say public speaking is not a major problem for me, although it wouldn’t be my favorite part of the job.”

Reply B: “No, that requirement of the job doesn’t present a problem.”

Are you secure enough to give Reply A, or will you fall back to Reply B and worry about your problem later? You may be really torn here because you figure that if you give Reply A you might not get the job; if you give Reply B and get the job you’re screwed down the road when you have to give those speeches.

In many situations, when it comes to divulging a weakness, honesty is probably the best policy, a statement backed up by a variety of psychological research. For instance, psychologists asked people to evaluate the application of a hypothetical college applicant. For one group of evaluators, the application included statements from both the student and guidance counselor that some of the applicant’s grades should have been better, that in a few courses he simply did not live up to his potential. For a second group of evaluators, no such statements occurred in the application materials. The results showed that evaluators who read that some of the applicant’s grades should have been better actually rated his grades overall more favorably than did evaluators who did not have the negative observation about the grades.

In another interesting study, college students had to read a paragraph and rate it for clarity. For one group, the material was preceded by a statement that the paragraph was somewhat confusing. For two other groups, an identical statement either came after the paragraph or was never given. The results showed that the first group (statement preceding) rated the paragraph as clearer than did the other two groups.

One final study is worth mentioning. Students listened to a taped lecture by a speaker with a heavy Austrian accent. For half the students, before beginning, the speaker admitted that he had a strong accent and hoped the audience could follow him; no such statement occurred for the other half of the listeners. The results showed that the students who heard the apology rated the speaker as clearer, more likeable, and having more years of speaking English than did the students who did not hear an apology.

One thing is very important to note in these studies: admission of a weakness concerning some ability led to more positive evaluations of the individual being described, but the positive evaluation was specific to that ability. For instance, in the college applicant case, whereas grades were judged more favorably when the applicant admitted they weren’t always the best, SAT scores and other measures of performance were not rated more favorably. Similarly, the apologetic Austrian speaker was judged to have more experience with English, but not someone necessarily fluent in other languages. Thus, admitting a weakness is not necessarily going to have someone see you as a better person in general. Therefore, if you’re going to be honest about a weakness, keep it specific to a particular trait or action.

When it comes to managing the impressions that you give off you, keep in mind that whether you’re talking about a group audience, or a one-on-one interview, others will always be influenced by their expectations. You need to look at these times as opportunities to use those pre-existing expectations to your advantage.  In a job interview, for example, many interviewers probably expect a candidate to deny weaknesses and shortcomings.  Therefore, by admitting to a weakness you are capitalizing by disconfirming the interviewer’s expectation, which might set you apart in a positive way and show your uniqueness.

Furthermore, if you go beyond the simple admission of a weakness and show how you deal with it in a positive way, you transform your weakness into strength. Read reply A again and note how the answer includes initiatives taken to confront and compensate for the weakness. The candidate did not simply say, “I really get anxious when I have to speak in front of others.”

You should also realize that it is not accurate to assume that most people believe that keeping a “stiff upper lip,” and not admitting to weaknesses, is always a good thing. As the studies mentioned show, very often it is the case that admitting weakness is actually perceived as strength. Think about it. Your admission shows that you are not a robot; that being susceptible at times to weakness and mistakes makes you more human; and that you are realistically self-aware and do not see yourself as superior to others.

There are some clear lessons here: a little dose of humility can go a long way. Your honesty may get you that job, or make your audience more receptive. “Thanks for your introduction, Mr. Brown. You make me sound like some kind of expert here, but the truth of the matter is I don’t have all the answers to these complex issues. What I’m going to present today is really a work in progress, and I hope some observations from the audience can help point us in fruitful directions.” Beginning your presentation in such a way shows you are a team player and is likely to make you more likeable right from the start.

So remember:

–When you admit to a weakness, you are likely to be given a break because of your honesty. Other people have their own personal doubts and weaknesses. When you show some of your own, you become more like them in their eyes, and more likeable.

–Accept who you are; don’t try to present yourself to others as someone different. You will experience much lower stress than if you kid yourself and others about your characteristics.

–You do not need to bare your soul to strangers. But when a situation allows you to be honest about a characteristic, don’t be afraid to admit to it and show how you deal with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EFFECTIVE COPING REQUIRES REALISTIC OPTIMISM

Our previous blog (8/4/16) noted that a search for happiness does not give you an effective path toward effective coping with life. The fact is, you will be happier only when you are realistically and optimistically focused on attainable goals that are consistent with your values. If the search for happiness is futile, can an optimistic approach to life enhance your coping? The answer is yes. Psychological research shows that a positive outlook can strengthen both your body and your mind. Optimists tend to develop a “can-do” attitude about life’s obstacles; stress is not all it’s cracked up to be! An optimistic outlook and having positive emotional states at your side are great psychological support systems. Therefore, you should work to cultivate optimistic attitudes and actions to guide your living.

Optimism must, however, be realistic. Do you ever hear yourself saying (or thinking), “Don’t worry, everything will be OK and work out. Things will get better.” Says who? We once heard a world-renowned psychologist say that when he was growing up his parents told him, “You can be anything you want to be if you are willing to work hard enough.” The psychologist said, “I bought into that for a long time until one day in high school the reality hit me that I could never be what I really wanted to be….a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs! It wasn’t going to happen! My dream was just that….fantasy.”

Optimists are more likely to see problems and difficulties in life as challenges that can be met and overcome; they are more likely to be liked by others; they are more likely to look for realistic, external explanations for negative events, and not automatically blame themselves. Pessimists habitually blame themselves or “bad luck.” When unrealistic and inappropriate, this self-blame translates into personal stress that compromises coping.

            You must also focus on optimistic actions, not words. Thoughts without actions tend to remain fantasy. Negative thoughts can also lead to depression. For instance, do you tell yourself, “I’m too much of a pessimist; I need to be more of an optimist”? Such comments can cause you to underestimate yourself. For instance, at the end of a summer course we asked students to reflect on what they had learned and what, if anything, the material had taught them about themselves. One student really put himself down for not being more optimistic. We took issue with his self-disparaging comments:

“You say you’re a pessimist, but consider the fact that you took this course during the summer. That behavior, that action, is a very optimistic choice. You chose to take on extra responsibility during summer vacation; you took a risk, faced a challenge, and took it on squarely. If that’s not optimistic behavior, we don’t know what is!”

Before you decide your level of pessimism about life and yourself, take a good long realistic look at your behavior, not at your casual spoken comments. Talk is cheap. Actions reveal your essence. Words reveal character when accompanied by concordant actions.

You must evaluate how you respond to reality. If you’re a downer, you’ll find yourself in conflict with others, and eventually alone. Your emotional approach to life will influence your social network and the number of supportive friends you have. Ask yourself: “How do I explain my life circumstances?”

We all experience failure and have setbacks; we are all rejected at times by others. How do you interpret these events in general? Are you to blame? Sometimes of course you are! But if self-blame is your habitual pattern of approaching setbacks, you’re setting yourself up for future problems.

For instance, how would you react to a job interview? If you have prepared for the interview and see it as a chance to demonstrate the skills and qualities that will make you a desirable employee, you are viewing the interview as a challenge you can meet successfully. Your preparation and optimistic frame of mind will put you in a relaxed and confident state that will make you appear to be a desirable candidate. But if you view the interview as threatening, as something that will expose your weaknesses and shortcomings, your pessimistic outlook will almost guarantee that what you fear will indeed happen. Your pessimistic demeanor will make you more defensive, less likeable, and a less desirable candidate to the interviewer. The interview will be just what you thought – a disaster.

When our famous psychologist realized he couldn’t become a Cubs shortstop did he quit life? Absolutely not. He focused realistically and positively on his strengths, things he was good at, and worked hard to develop those skills. So must you focus on doing a realistic appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses and base your actions on them.

–Do a behavior inventory of daily activities. Are they actions that make you feel more adequate and bring you satisfaction?

–Cultivate those actions that make you feel productive and bring you personal satisfaction.

–Remember that praise from others is nice to hear, but actions that bring you personal fulfillment are much more important in enhancing psychological growth.

–Make efforts to interact with people who complement your personally satisfying actions.

Do things for yourself. Independent action increases personal satisfaction.

–Don’t get obsessed with material things and happiness. If material rewards come from actions that make you feel productive, consider them icing on the cake, not the reason you’re baking the cake.

–Exercise caution about using mood-altering prescription medication until you have done a thorough behavior inventory.

–Appreciate and enjoy the little things….a smile from a child, a quiet walk in the park, contacting a friend, a good movie or book, helping others in need….those things that bring you satisfaction.

–If you are spiritual, use faith to give you confidence and remind you everything is not for you to control, but you can receive the courage to change the things under your control.

Coping with your life from a realistic optimistic perspective will spur you to empower yourself and initiate autonomous actions that will give you feelings of personal control. Coping with your life from a pessimistic perspective will encourage you to turn sheepishly to others to manage, direct, and control your actions. This fundamental principle applies not only to individual psychology but also to group psychology. Some politicians understand the principle only too well, as witnessed by recent words painting a terribly bleak picture of a doomed United States, followed by reassurance:

 “I am your voice”; “I alone can fix [a rigged system]”; “Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”

 These are pessimistic messages designed to remind you how helpless you are. The words focus on the speaker, not the listener, and are analogous to a psychologist saying, “You must do what I tell you if you are to improve your life.”

Contrast this approach with words spoken by Ronald Reagan:

 “We must realize that no arsenal….no weapon, is as formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women”; “Let us be sure that those who come after us will say of us in our time, we did everything that could be done; we finished the race; we kept them free.”

 These are optimistic words, with the focus on the listener, not the speaker. From a psychological perspective they are analogous to a therapist saying, “I can help you improve your life but you must be willing to work hard to modify your thoughts and actions in ways that satisfy you, not me.”

So it must always be with your personal struggles to cope with everyday life. The focus must be realistic, optimistic, and directed at you and your capabilities, not pessimistic and directed at others to save you.

I’M IN THE MONEY!

We often hear from both clients and students, “All I want is to be happy. Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?” Unfortunately, happiness is one of those elusive states; seek it and you’ll probably find only frustration. It is subjective and emerges from how you live, and is not an end in itself. Making happiness a goal in your life is not an advisable step toward effective coping. You will fail and develop thoughts and actions designed solely to help you avoid future frustration.

Outcomes simply are just not responsible for happiness. One of our clients was awarded a huge sum of money in a personal injury suit involving the wrongful death of one of his children. Unfortunately, he said, “I threw it away on dumb things because I felt guilty about receiving ‘dirty money’ that wasn’t earned.” The real tragedy here is that with some guidance and thought, he and his wife could perhaps have developed a plan to use the money more wisely.

We also know a couple who were in a car accident and received a sizeable settlement out of court. They went on a spending spree: a new house, all the latest modern appliances, new furniture….you name it. The money ran out, of course, and stresses on their marriage began. They had regular arguments on who was to blame for the sudden turn in their “happiness.” They lost the house and filed for divorce.

We all hear people say, “If I win the lottery I will be rich and happy!” Rich, maybe — happy maybe not! Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert notes that in one study, a year after winning the lottery, winners were less happy than were paraplegics one year after their accident. How can that be? When we ask that question we forget that we are considering the lottery winner and the paraplegic from the perspective of our present state, which probably doesn’t include being a lottery winner or a paraplegic. Thus, winning the lottery looks pretty good to us and being confined to a wheelchair looks pretty bad. For the people who actually live in those circumstances, however, their current estimates of happiness are seen in comparison to their earlier life and to the anticipated future.

The lottery winners have learned that the anticipated happiness of winning the lottery was unrealistic; the paraplegics have learned that the challenges imposed by the injury need not be overwhelming or impossible. In both cases it was not the outcome (good luck vs. severe injury) that determined their state of happiness; rather it was the state of mind they had about their life conditions. Overnight wealth can be squandered and lead to long-term problems; paraplegics can choose to find meaning and purpose in their lives through spiritual, artistic, athletic, and other types of pursuits.

These psychological dynamics are by no means limited to things like sudden wealth or severe injury. The same principles apply to loss of loved ones and any other traumatic experience in life.

OK, if the search for happiness is not the key to effective coping, what is? Login tomorrow and we will look for the answer in the flip-side of happiness: Optimism.

 

COPING THROUGH WRITING

You may know someone who keeps a daily diary. Usually, we don’t think much about diaries because they typically involve just reporting on a day’s activities and events. We bet, however, there have been times when you felt hurt or angry, sat down and wrote about it, and almost miraculously felt better about things. Sounds like a rage room, although on paper and certainly less destructive.

Let’s also note we’re not talking about writing a “hate letter” to someone who did you wrong. That sort of aggressive reaction aimed directly at someone really solves little and, like being in the rage room, tends to teach you that lashing out with verbal aggression is a good way to deal with emotional upheaval (see blog of 6/29/16). No, we’re talking about the kind of writing that lays out how you feel as the result of some event. Examples might include the breakup of a relationship, death of a loved one, being in an accident, being a victim of crime, etc.

There is solid evidence from psychology research showing that such writing has definite positive effects and gives the writer a feeling of dealing with the challenges of stress better. Writers feel psychologically stronger and more empowered.

What’s going on here? Does putting your thoughts on paper function like being in a rage room? Does writing give you some sort of energy release of negative thoughts and feelings, “getting it off your chest,” and cleansing yourself of negative emotions? Probably not. In fact, researchers in this area stress writing as a process that allows you to restructure your thinking about troublesome issues. That is, as you write about things bothering you, you’re actually dealing with conflicts at some intellectual and cognitive level, and allowing yourself to see things in a new perspective while thinking things through.

Writing does not have to be about things bothering you in order to bring you positive outcomes. In fact, research also shows that when people write “to themselves” about a committed relationship they’re in, and describe their deepest thoughts and feelings concerning this relationship, their subsequent email communication with their partner contains more positively expressive phrases that elicit similar phrases in return. Putting positive thoughts and feelings about a relationship down on paper actually influenced, for the better, the nature of communication with the partner. There was measurable improvement in the stability of the relationship.

Consider what we’re saying here: Put your thoughts down on paper; write down how you feel about emotional issues in your life, how you deal with them, and how you react to them. Doing so can potentially benefit you psychologically and enhance communication in your interpersonal relationships. This is called effective coping! If you’re in a committed relationship, now might be a good time to take a break and email or text your significant other. Share some positive emotions; in that positive context perhaps even share some things that have been bothering you emotionally. That’s called “communication.”

Once again, just like we mentioned in the rage room entry, keep in mind the common “release-of-emotion” explanation often mistakenly given for positive effects. Sure, getting things off your chest can feel good in the short run, but you run the danger of learning to be aggressive toward others in getting your way. For long-term benefits, use writing as a way to help you restructure your thinking about an issue, or remind you to reach out to someone who really means something to you.

Imagine a couple of college friends having a “tiff.” Judy yells at Mary for forgetting to join her the previous day for a study session as planned; Judy says she’s hurt that Mary would “blow her off” in such a way, especially when she told Mary she needed help with the material.

“Well,” Mary says, “here I was sitting in my room waiting for you to call and say you were ready to study. When you didn’t call I figured you got hung up or maybe ran into Bill. So I just decided to do something else.” Judy says, “I figured you were blowing me off and didn’t care about how I do in the course. Some friend!”

For the next few minutes, they talk and Judy shows her a letter she wrote that expressed some of her frustration and hurt when she thought Mary was no longer interested in helping her. The letter helped Judy feel better in getting her frustration out, but the reason she felt better after writing it was because venting her emotions allowed her to reconstruct her thinking that Mary had deserted her. “You know, as I read this letter again and again last night I began to think that maybe I had misinterpreted the situation. Now I see that’s exactly what happened and that we’re still friends.”

Now that’s communication! Use it and your coping efforts will be much more effective.

 

THE CAR ACCIDENT REVISITED

In our posting of July 14, 2016 you will recall how Andy was in a severe car accident and had some post-traumatic stress symptoms that made him unable to drive through the intersection where the accident occurred. Unfortunately, avoiding this area meant a significant increase in Andy’s work commute, plus his avoidance bothered him a lot and made him feel like some kind of coward. That feeling kind of disgusted him and goaded him into action.

First of all, let’s note that Andy had to enroll in a safe-driving class (it was that or lose his license). The class helped him confront the impulsive road rage he let get out of control on the fateful morning, and he vowed he would never again let his car become a kind of rage room. (See our post of June 29, 2016). Still, Andy knew the class alone was not going to be enough to get him through his anxiety and avoidance actions, and he decided to take some action on his own to deal with the anxiety attacks and difficulty in getting near the intersection. This was a good first step: Confront the issue. He then made a general plan and reached out to a trusted friend to help him fine-tune the plan. They decided that Andy should gradually take a series of steps.

First Andy rode as a passenger in his car while his friend drove through the intersection again and again. At first they took this step very early on Sunday mornings when there was virtually no traffic. Under these conditions Andy’s anxiety was minimal.

While his friend did the driving, Andy took good hard looks at the area where he made his foolish mistakes. He visualized exactly what went wrong and relived the reality of the accident. “It was amazing,” Andy said. “The first time we did it I actually saw the paint stains from my car on that damn concrete post. I couldn’t believe they were still there.”

As Andy became more and more comfortable going through the intersection his anxiety attacks and flashbacks went away. Eventually, when he felt comfortable doing so, Andy took the wheel and drove through himself, although still very early on Sunday morning and with his buddy in the passenger seat. Over a period of several weeks, Andy moved the drive through later and later in the day until he was driving through the intersection under traffic conditions close to those during his commute.

Soon Andy was taking his normal route to work. He made sure, however, to leave the house about ten minutes earlier than usual so he would not feel overly stressed about being late for work. Thanks to the classes, he was also a changed driver. When he got in the car each morning, he cleared his mind of everything work-related. He also mentally rehearsed the steps he would take well before reaching the intersection to make sure he would be in the proper lane. He kept to a reasonable speed and was content to let the raging masses charge past him in a frantic attempt to make up for their lost time.

We might note that, with the exception of the driving class, Andy took these steps on his own. He did not go to professional counseling, and he did not go to his physician to get a prescription for anxiety or sleeping medication.

 

 

 

BATON ROUGE, DALLAS, MINNEAPOLIS, AND PSYCHOLOGY

 “I went to high school at a college prep school in New Jersey. I remember talking with a classmate in his room one day during our senior year, 1961. We were comparing our perspectives on race relations in the United States. I made a comment that sometimes it seemed to me that blacks and whites were learning how to get along. My buddy went over to his desk, and pulled out a small paperback book. He said – ‘My parents drove me up here from Louisiana. This book lists, by state, the names and location of restaurants and motels that will serve black people. My dad made sure to map out our route so we always knew we would have a place to eat and sleep during the long trip.’ I looked at this book and the first words out of my mouth were “Your father is the President of Grambling University! He shouldn’t need that damn book!’”

In the aftermath of the recent shootings, our nation is involved in a collective coping effort as we struggle with many disturbing realities. The TV networks are in full swing providing us with information, analyses, and opinions. One observation we hear from commentators about racial relations in the United States is, “We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

Indeed we have come a long way since the early 60s. Today, my prep school buddy wouldn’t need that book; there are no more “whites only” drinking fountains and restrooms; colleges and universities have inclusive admissions policies; the military is multi-racial; interracial romance and marriage hardly raise an eyebrow; multiple races and ethnicities are highly visible in many professional vocations. We have indeed come a long way, miles, when it comes to civil law and equal rights. But, and this is a huge but, when it comes to individual attitudes — the attitudes of individuals from the small-town diner on main street to the large-city bodega — moderation of personal bias in racial attitudes has progressed barely an inch in the past 50 years. And this fact is a concern to many psychologists. The psychology literature is filled with studies documenting racial prejudice in today’s world, and unfortunately it often occurs unconsciously. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink to see how so many of our unconscious biases express themselves in our actions.

Events today are also painfully visible through technology. There are security cameras everywhere, even on our police. Horrific events from these cameras contradict what we all want, including the police, and that is to be treated with dignity, fairness and decency.

Unfortunately, technology reinforces the bigotry and prejudice so many of us harbor within. The fact is, our psychological development has not caught with the rapid advance of technology. Families of victims look at a cell-phone video of police subduing a suspect and see an uncaring, hate-filled attack; police officers look at the video and wonder why everyone is against them as they try to do their job. When the Dallas Chief of Police, in charge of one of the most inclusive police forces in the country, says in a national interview that every day his officers go to their jobs feeling little support from the community, something is vitally wrong. The police have earned and deserve our support and respect. But deep within many of us is a raw bigotry that we mistakenly think we have long dealt with and put to rest. “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” are great rallying cries, but they tap into our prejudices and only serve to divide us. And to make matters worse we are in the midst of a presidential campaign that further ignites this prejudice and anger, and legitimizes aggression with cute, catchy, time-worn phrases like “law and order candidate.”

Dr. Brian Williams, trauma surgeon at Dallas Parkland Hospital, answered a question at a news conference shown on CNN recently. He noted the conflict he lives with every day: He supports the police and respects what they do, but he also fears them from his experiences as a young black male who quickly learned that he would always be viewed with suspicion. Dr. Williams admits to and accepts his fear and negative views of police, but he refuses to be dominated by those impulses and emotions within him. He even described how he performs random acts of kindness for police officers, especially when he is with his young daughter. He says he wants to teach her that negative feelings do not have to be translated into hateful actions.

Dr. Williams is a model for all of us, and an example of what psychology says is the only answer to racial conflict: Each of us must confront our racial biases, and we must look within ourselves and admit that there are certain realities about life that we must accept. We must accept responsibility for our actions and be held accountable with due process and justice. Bad police and bad citizens must be punished, just as bad politicians, bad psychologists, and bad lawyers must be punished. We must accept diversity, change, and the uncertainty that goes with them; we must accept that peaceful protests expressing disgust and frustration is part of the process by which we learn to move forward together; we must accept the fears, biases, and prejudices that lurk within us, but vow never to be defined by them; we must accept that others need our understanding, even when we dislike their actions; we must accept that love is never enough unless it is expressed in actions; and we certainly must accept that we are part of a grand and continuous thread from helpless infant and dependent child to an adult who both receives and gives. These are our realities and whether we accept them or not is our ultimate choice. So far, we are not choosing wisely.

 

Share a comment about whether you think racial bigotry is primarily an American problem.

For an individual, what purpose do you think is served by expressing prejudiced attitudes toward others? Comment on what positive things you think we get from showing our bigotry.

Does this blog sound to you like it was written by a black or a white person? How about a relatively young or old person? Do your answers tell you anything about yourself?

 

THE MOTIVATION/WILLPOWER DILEMMA

 “I don’t understand…………Why can’t I [lose weight, stop smoking, stop yelling all the time, cut back on drinking, smile more – choose one or any one of a thousand other possibilities you are looking to change]? I’m so motivated to change but I just can’t seem to do it.”

Whether from clients or students, we have heard this question time and time again: “I’m motivated to change. I want it so badly but I just can’t make it happen. Why?” If you ask yourself the same question and find yourself in the same dilemma, it might help to recognize that you are implying your inability to change some undesirable action is something outside your control, and you really shouldn’t be blamed for continuing the bad behavior. You want to change so much that it can’t be your fault for being unable to do so. You’re eager to pass along the blame because it makes you feel so much better.

The problem here is that you are deceiving yourself about how motivated you are. You are giving casual lip service to motivation and making things easier on yourself by being able to place blame for your failure elsewhere. Next time you find yourself down a blind alley because you don’t seem to be able to accomplish your behavior goals, and you plead innocence because you are so motivated to change (let’s use smoking as an example), challenge yourself with the following scenario:

 

You’re getting ready to light up again when suddenly God appears right in front of you. God speaks: “I’m fed up with you. You’re always praying about holy you are and how you’re going to quit that filthy habit. I give you this magnificent body and all you want to do is poison and defile it with toxins. Well, the party’s over. I have blessed you with a wonderful spouse and three beautiful children. Here’s the deal — Beginning right now, right this moment, if you have one more cigarette, just one more, I’m going to take your children from you and bring them to their heavenly eternal home. Have another butt and you will never see them again.”

 

Would you be motivated to forego lighting up? Would you be motivated to toss the whole pack away? We certainly hope so!

The point here is you may think you are motivated, but you’re probably kidding yourself. So drop the lame “I’m so motivated” routine, face up to the hard work that’s involved in changing your actions for the better, and begin to focus on the difference between wanting to do something and having the will to do it.

It’s easy get caught up in procrastination, willpower, motivation etc., to tell yourself that you want something so badly, and then express disbelief that it doesn’t happen. It helps to 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?

Find a specific motivator and place it squarely in front of you. “Summer is coming 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.”

Summer, the wedding, a promotion……….finding that specific motivator will spur you to put actions that will move you toward your goal at the top of your list; irrelevant actions will be sent to the bottom. “I will get off my duff and do an hour of solid exercise!”

Remember that you can bring yourself to the point when a “want” shifts to a “will.” That point is highly personal and varies from person to person, and even moment to moment. But it’s only in that window when “want” shifts to “will” that true change in your behavior can begin.

There is, of course, another side to this coin: You may be one who doesn’t wonder why your motivation seems to get you nowhere, but instead one who admits to a total lack of motivation. You tell yourself and others, “There’s no way I can possibly work hard to change any of my lousy actions. I have no willpower, no motivation.”

It’s ironic how people make comments about procrastination and willpower when the simple truth is that it is usually only in a given area that they don’t have sufficient motivation. We see people all the time who work hard at their job, pay their bills, take care of their home and kids, etc., but who totally lack the motivation to exercise routinely, eat healthy, cut down on their alcohol consumption, quit smoking, etc. These folks apparently lack sufficient motivation concerning only particular actions in certain situations; their problem is not a general lack of willpower. If this description sounds like you, the key is to work on increasing your motivation and identifying specific situations for the desired specific actions.

Also, you must remember that you may need to change your thought patterns with respect to motivation. You may need to confront 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).

Ask yourself, “How do I really see my motivational conflict, the disconnect between my actions and my values?” Don’t put the focus on what you are against; put your emphasis on what you are for. Your task is to identify those things that you really value, the things that are important to you. You must then coordinate those things you value with specific actions that are compatible with those values. Once you identify with and begin engaging in those constructive actions, they will tend to become a part of your routine; they will become automatic and it won’t take much effort to maintain them.

 

Share a comment with us about when you found a specific event that moved you from wanting to do something to willing yourself to do it.

Comment on what you should do if your values are not consistent with those of someone close to you?

“I’m going on a diet.” “I’m going to stop eating when I watch TV.” Which strategy do you think is more likely to result in weight loss? Why?