Featured

Coping With Everyday Life

post

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.

GENDER TRANSFORMATION

This guest post is provided by a person in the process of transitioning from male to female. The story is frank and powerful in its openness and honesty. The story also touches on many coping themes and principles that we talk about in this blog: the perils of denial and avoidance; the importance of, and satisfaction that results from, acceptance of truths about oneself; the need to develop empowerment actions that remain within one’s circle of control; and, the vital support that can come from others. We are grateful to the writer for this contribution to our coping discussion.

According to Psychology Today, Gender dysphoria is defined as strong, persistent feelings of identification with another gender and discomfort with one’s own assigned gender and sex. Dysphoria can manifest in many forms, and not all transgender individuals experience dysphoria in the same fashion. I have been asked many times what dysphoria feels like.

Think about your shoes. You have a right shoe and a left shoe. Now imagine that you only know how to wear your shoes on the wrong feet. It’s not comfortable, it can be painful, but you can still get around, walk, drive, and live your life. This is all you know. Then one day you realize if you switch your shoes, not only is it more comfortable, but it’s easier to get through the day; you can move around better, and you begin to get involved in the world and people around you. You’re Happy.

Since I was young, I’ve felt different. I enjoyed a lot of the typical boy things. I played sports, I built forts to play army, and enjoyed my matchbox cars. Yet, I still didn’t completely relate to the other boys. I found my interactions with the girls much easier and more comfortable.

It was during these early years that I started to experience depression, although I didn’t have the word for it at that age. I remember going to my mother when I was around nine telling her how I had been feeling sad. Her response is burnt into my memory. She told me she also felt like that sometimes, but it goes away and I shouldn’t worry about it. I didn’t have the ability to explain that I felt this way more often than not. I accepted that what she told me was how everyone always felt, and chose to ignore it.

As time went on it never really went away. Until one night in my early teens, while waiting for the shower to get warm, I tried on a pair of my mother’s underwear. It felt right and I was happy. The first time this happened I was enjoying it so long my Dad knocked on the door to tell me I was in the shower long enough. I got my head wet, dressed and shamefully left the bathroom without saying anything to anyone. Shower time was my new favorite time of the day.

Eventually, wearing my mother’s underwear wasn’t enough. Looking in the mirror with them on there was still a visible reminder that I wasn’t a girl, a bulge in the front. This led to my experimenting with tucking my genitals to prevent the bulge and standing on the edge of the tub (because I was too short) to see myself naked in the mirror. There were many nights I cried in the shower because I knew I would never be a girl. I started to push these feelings away and ignore my impulses to dress.

I did well putting the feelings out of my head. I even forgot all about them for a long time. The impulses were still there, though. When in high school chorus, the men’s chorus was going to sing “Pretty Woman,” by Roy Orbison. Someone thought it would be fun to dress one of us up in a dress and have the others sing to them. My hand was the first one up, although I didn’t really know why or remember the times in the bathroom. I borrowed a dress from one of the girls I knew. Cute white dress with blue polka dots, and a cute dark navy-blue trim. It was form-fitting and it felt really nice to wear. I told myself I enjoyed it so much because I thought it was going to be funny. I also had to walk around before the performance so everyone could see me in it, because it felt so good.

High school and college were tough times for me. I had several girlfriends throughout that time. I did truly care for each of them, but I was never faithful. I couldn’t stay still. I was constantly depressed and the only solution I came up with was sleeping around. At least until I discovered alcohol and started experimenting with drugs. I spent many years in this cycle. I dropped out of college. I associated with less than reputable people. I contemplated suicide. One thought kept creeping up in my mind: “Wouldn’t it be great if reincarnation were real and I could come back as a woman?” I did not like me.

Somehow during this time of self-loathing, I met and became involved with the woman I now call my wife. She saw a lot more in me than I ever did and I slowly began to pull myself out of the self-destructive behavior. We married, moved to NH, and started a family. I didn’t have thoughts of suicide or self-harm anymore. My only specters were the nagging depression, which was no big deal because everyone feels that way, and the constant thought of wishing for reincarnation to be real.

I kept busy. Often, I worked two or more jobs. I told myself it was because we needed the money. I can recognize now it was to keep my mind busy and distracted. Eventually I decided to go back to school. I completed my bachelor’s degree from King’s College in 2010. I then continued on for an Associates in Nursing. Nursing school was very demanding and my depression became worse. I started on antidepressants for the first time in my life. Once I was done with nursing school, I stopped taking the medication, convincing myself it was only due to the stressful situation of school and work with minimal family time.

My depression continued. A few years ago, I almost slipped back into my old behaviors. I began to fantasize about being with other women and had reached out to an old friend from high-school. This was a very low point in my life and marriage. I realized at this time I needed the antidepressants for long-term use.

It took several tries of multiple medications until my provider was able to help me find the right combination. I started to feel better, happier, and less anxious (I didn’t even realize I had been anxious). It was around this time that the aha moment occurred for me. One night watching YouTube videos I came across a male to female transformation video and watched it.

She had such an amazing transition. She was pretty, she wore lovely clothes, her eyes were bright and happy, and her smile was so much bigger in her after pictures. I wanted to watch more. As I kept watching a switch flipped for me. Videos led to blogs on line. Blogs led me to numerous subreddits. Then the flood gates opened: The feeling of wishing I had been born a female and the sadness I had as a child; the memories of wearing my mother’s underwear; tucking and looking at myself nude in the mirror; the constant wishing for reincarnation.

I began to question everything I knew about myself. I panicked. I took any online test I could, validity be damned. It wasn’t possible. I’m not Transgender! Finding a therapist who specialized in gender dysphoria was difficult. It took several months to find one and to set up an appointment. Work was no longer a distraction. I spent my spare time on my computer researching article upon article on gender dysphoria, gender identity disorder, and treatments for transgender individuals.

I finally saw my therapist for my first appointment. I was shaking and sick to my stomach. I sat in her office hunched forward in my chair, legs crossed in front of me, wringing my hands. I burst open. I spilled my guts and cried like I don’t ever remember doing so (men don’t cry). It was so hard for me to finally verbalize to my therapist my truth — I AM TRANSGENDER.

I was free. The stress, worry, anxiety just left me. I acknowledged me. My therapist told me that was great; she was pleased that I could finally verbalize it. Then she said, “Now you have to tell you wife.” Good bye freedom, hello stress, anxiety, and nausea. She wasn’t wrong, though. I went home that night exhausted and spontaneously hugged my wife for the first time in too long. I kept hoping she would ask me about my appointment so I could tell her, but she never did.

New Hampshire winters are cold, very cold. Every year since we moved to NH in 2000, I have grown a beard. Not a cute little trimmed pretty-boy beard, but a bushy, lumberjack make-a-sea- captain jealous beard. This winter was no different. Now that I admitted my truth to myself, my dysphoria began to grow. I began to recognize things that triggered intense episodes, such as facial hair. A week after my appointment I couldn’t take it any longer and shaved my beard off completely. My wife was very surprised because it was just the beginning of winter. That is how I told her, two days after her birthday. We’ve been through counseling together and each have our own individual counselors. We told our son together as well as our close friends and our families. I am truly blessed to have the people I do in my life. I was met with so much unconditional love. I’m almost ashamed because it has been so hard coming out for others.

After several months, I came out publicly. I am still not presenting female full-time yet. It is very important to me to be able to “pass” as a woman. I don’t have the confidence for this yet, but I’m making efforts to get there. I’m learning how to do my make-up. I am starting voice lessons. I’m getting laser hair removal for my beard. Finally, I am currently 2 months into my hormone replacement therapy. The hormones have been the best change for me. My mind is much calmer than it used to be and although it is a process that takes years to complete, I am noticing some small early changes, such as softer skin and tender nipples from breast growth.

This is a long journey for any transgender individual. Not everyone takes the same path. There are many options for transgender people for their transition. Female Facialization Surgery, breast augmentation, orchiectomy, and vaginoplasty are all options., and not all male to female transformation people go through them. It is a very personal decision, one that should not be discussed unless the individual opens the door to that conversation.

Since coming out publicly I have had many people ask me to forgive them ahead of time for accidently misgendering me or using my “dead name.” Many transgenders hear this. Most would just appreciate a quick correction and then move on with the conversation. The last thing we want is to bring attention to the change. I fully expect misgendering to happen. Truth be told, I do it to myself. Not because I’m unsure, but because I have 44 years of programming to overcome. If can I make mistakes, why wouldn’t I expect others to as well? The key is to remember, we just want to be treated as our correct gender. We never changed our gender; it was always there. We’re simply changing our shoes so we can be more comfortable.

 

 

PUNISHMENT: BE CAREFUL USING IT.

We’re going to train a male rat in a maze. Our simple maze is shaped like the letter T, and we’re going to place the rat at the bottom of the stem and allow it to run forward to the point where it must choose to turn into one arm of the T, either right or left. To make the choice easy, we’re going to use a rat that hasn’t eaten for 24 hours, and we’re placing 10 food pellets (a good size reward) at the end of the left arm of the maze. The right arm? For now, that arm is blocked off. So, we’re telling the rat, “Want food? Turn left!”

It won’t take the rat long to learn that once placed in the maze, it is appropriate to run to the end of stem and turn left because food is at the end of the left arm. Turning left is reinforced.

For the next phase of the study we’re going to electrify the floor in the left arm. In other words, we’re going to decide that turning left in this maze is inappropriate, and we’re going to punish the rat for doing so. Turning left is the only choice for the rat, but that action will now be punished by giving a painful electric shock to the paws. So, now we have a hungry rat who “knows” there is food at the end of the left arm, but we don’t allow it to get to the food because the shock is too painful.

The rat no longer turns left. Success! Our punishment has worked; we have eliminated the undesirable behavior.

But has the punishment really worked? When you reach in to remove the rat from the maze you better have a glove on because the rat is likely to attack your finger or hand. Similarly, if you place a totally innocent rat in the maze, the punished rat is likely to attack the innocent one.

In short, punishment has produced one pissed-off rat and we have generated the unintended consequence of causing aggressive outbursts in our punished rat. It’s kind of like if your child draws on the hallway wall, you punish him by throwing away his crayons. The poor kid wants to express some creative impulses, but you tell him, “No!” So now he hates you, goes to his room and trashes it, and kicks the cat on the way.

So, what’s missing here? What’s the secret to the effective use of punishment? Simple answer: Punish inappropriate behavior, but also provide for and reinforce an alternative action that can satisfy the motivation behind the punished action.

In the case of our rat, we have decided that we don’t want it turning to the left, so we punish that response. But now, in addition to the punishment for turning left, let’s open up the right arm of the T-maze, and place 1 food pellet at the end of that arm. Granted, 1 pellet is a lot smaller reward than the 10 pellets in the left arm, but there’s no punishment for going after the 1 pellet, and some food is better than none. The cost-benefit ratio of turning right is much better than turning left. What happens? The rat quickly learns to turn right.

The great thing about combining punishment with rewarding an alternative action is that those undesirable aggressive side-effects are greatly diminished. Not only does our rat make the desired response, but he is also less likely to attack your hand or the innocent bystander rat.

By the same token, if you scold your child for drawing on the wall and threaten to take his crayons if he does it again, but follow the threat by giving him coloring books or rolls of newsprint to draw on, you’re giving him a creative outlet while keeping your walls clean. Providing the alternative allows you to say, “No drawing on the walls or there will be consequences; use the coloring books or the newsprint instead.” You can even provide reinforcement by praising his creativity and displaying his artwork on the fridge or in your office.

Punishment by itself is a poor method of behavior control because it says, “Don’t do this!” Punishment by itself doesn’t provide information about what is an acceptable and appropriate action that can still, even if only partially, satisfy the motivation driving the punished action.

So, remember the punishment rule: Combine, “Don’t do this,” with, “Do this,” and remember to reward the latter action when it occurs. Whether in a childrearing context, or in your adult interactions, you’ll find the combination strategy is likely to produce satisfying outcomes for all concerned.

Too Dependent?

Being dependent on someone has its benefits, as long as your caregiver is reliable. Consider yourself as an infant, for example. You were totally dependent on your parents for virtually everything you needed to thrive: nourishment, safety, comfort, stimulation, and a sense of security. Even as a toddler and beyond, you continued to rely on adult caregivers for your survival, and dependency on them was quite appropriate. It is unlikely that someone said to you when you were 4 years old, “You know, you are really over-dependent on your parents. You need to spread your wings and begin to make your way in the world.”

At some point, however, that comment became very appropriate. At some point you needed to be able to do many things for yourself, to behave and think autonomously and independently, and not always depend on others as if you were still a child. Moving in this direction, of course, can be facilitated or impeded by parents.

I remember my college course on Adolescent Psychology, when one day the professor said, “Being a parent is a full-time job, but a job that must be dedicated to becoming unemployed. Successful parents will work themselves out of a job.” I thought that was pretty cool.

Some parents, however, don’t want to be unemployed. For a myriad of psychological reasons, they feel compelled to monitor, dominate, and direct their children’s activities, sometimes continuing to do so even after their kids become adults with children and families of their own. Such domination and interference can present significant coping challenges; adult children want to be independent and live their own lives, but they don’t want to hurt or offend the parents they love.

In many respects, cult leaders try to establish in their followers the sort of dependency we’re talking about. The idea is to turn followers into blind adherents who will accept as truth whatever the leader says, reject criticism from outsiders as false, and lose all sense of personal empowerment. Coping with challenges becomes virtually impossible without the guidance and direction of the leader. We’re not saying that overbearing parents are the same as cult leaders, but the dynamics and adverse effects on coping are similar.

We can say the same thing about troubled people who enter counseling looking for the quick and magical fix for their problems. They may feel that somehow the counselor is going to wave a wand and, bingo, they will be cured. This type of thinking ignores the fact that counseling is a partnership between client and counselor, and the client must do considerable work if there is to be improvement.

Clients can be guided, but ultimately, they must do the heavy lifting, must believe that what they are doing is worthwhile and will produce success, and must take responsibility for their actions. Many folks fail in counseling because they are unwilling to take autonomous action and work hard to implement suggestions from the counselor. They want the counselor to take care of them, so to speak, to make them better.

Psychology is relevant for people who are emotionally adrift and looking for purpose and meaning in their lives. And, psychology teaches us that if they seek the easy road of total dependence on someone else to show them the way, they will sacrifice the development of the personal empowerment and autonomy needed to take charge of their life. Whether in a cult or in counseling, the result will be ineffective coping.

Note that the dependency does not have to be on a person; it could also be on a substance. A father took his “troubled” 15-year old daughter to a psychiatrist, who prescribed an anti-depressant for the girl. Four weeks later the father called the psychiatrist’s office and complained, “My daughter still won’t listen to me or cooperate. I can’t seem to get through to her. How long does it take for this drug to kick in?” With apologies to Shakespeare, perhaps, dear father, the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves! This father has basically surrendered his parenting to a drug.

How about you? Have you surrendered your coping autonomy and independence to another person, or to an artificial agent? If so, what are you going to do about it?

 

Case Study: Lacking Purpose

Joe is a young adult who has been in outpatient psychotherapy for some time. In the past he has seen two other counselors and two psychiatrists, and taken numerous prescriptions for antidepressants and mood stabilizers, all without much success. He said the psychiatric medications helped somewhat with his depression, but not his unhappiness. His comment reminds us that depression and unhappiness are relatively independent states, although they overlap. Yes, people can be unhappy without being depressed, but clinically depressed people are invariably unhappy.

Joe’s statement that separates his depression from his unhappiness is typical of those who are ambivalent about living. Joe, for instance, describes himself as “smart, funny and attractive,” yet says, “I can’t get myself to feel these ways.” This a very telling verbal signal that anyone having coping problems should watch for carefully: You feel you have many positive traits, but you don’t really experience them in your daily living.

Joe recalls being, in his words, “normal” until reaching the teen years; at this time in his life he remembers becoming unhappy and introverted. “High school was miserable. I’m glad it’s over.”

During his teens Joe was unable to assert his individuality and identity. Independence frightened him and he found it increasingly hard to make decisions and take responsibility for his actions. He felt alone, and reacted with self-defeating and self-destructive actions. He withdrew from others, became dissatisfied with himself, and developed very low self-esteem. “I really felt guilty because I wasn’t growing normally.”

Joe was adrift and had no clear purpose in life. He admitted to never having any dreams or future goals. He said, “I don’t see myself living a normal life.” During one counseling session he blurted out, “I want to be struck by lightning or have some kind of freak accident.”

When asked, “If you didn’t wake up tomorrow would that be okay?” He replied; “Well, yeah, I’d be dead so it wouldn’t matter.”

Asked, “At the end of a tough day, who can you relate to and reach out for comfort?” he replied, “My cats.”

The thing to note here is that Joe’s drift into a purposeless life began in his teen years. Now in his 30s, he has had nearly two decades of approaching life in this lackadaisical way. A lot of habits have had a chance to strengthen, and they will be difficult for him to confront and modify.

The hard thing about Joe’s case is that there are no glaring early childhood issues that seem to have set things in motion. Joe himself said that until adolescence, his life was fairly conventional, “normal.” However, it is clear that during his teen years, a tough period of storm and stress for nearly everyone, he had no guidance from role models who helped him develop some achievement motivation, purpose, and social adjustment.

There are things to work with, though, notably Joe’s description of himself as “smart, funny, and attractive.” His counseling tasks will involve helping him coordinate these beliefs with his actions, and become more assertive in confronting his life challenges.

As a general rule, remember that effective coping requires honest self-discovery and awareness of your strengths. Unfortunately, if you don’t work at translating those traits into productive actions, you will have no anchor to reality. This process is crucial: If you cannot “translate yourself” into concrete actions, you will feel you have nowhere to go.

Conversion Therapy

The young man had the rapt attention of his college classmates when he spoke:

“I was 8 years old, a long way from puberty. I was watching an episode of the old Star Trek TV show from the ‘60s. There was a scene when Captain Kirk had no shirt on, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I didn’t feel any sexual attraction, but I just wanted to wrap myself around that chest. Years later as I moved past puberty and into my teens, I realized that I was sexually attracted to guys, not girls. I remember thinking back to my Captain Kirk episode and being surprised; I guess my brain realized I was gay before my body did.”

For two reasons, this classroom comment was not as surprising as you might think. First of all, the student was well-known on campus as gay because he made no attempt to hide his orientation. Second, in class that day we were discussing the psychology of sexual attraction, and had begun talking about whether our attractions were based on conscious choice or an inborn nature present at birth. The question I had posed to the class was simple: “Do you think a therapist could use psychological persuasion techniques to change your sexual orientation?”

After telling his Kirk story, the young man answered my question: “Absolutely not. I did not choose to be gay. It’s who I was at 8 and it’s who I am now. No therapist could possibly change that.”

I asked that question in class many times over the years: “Think about what gender you find sexually attractive. If you decided you wanted to change because the attraction was causing you anxiety, depression, and all sorts of coping difficulties, do you think a psychologist could change you? If you are attracted to the same sex, could the therapist change you so you would be attracted to members of the opposite sex?” In 41 years of teaching college psychology, I asked that question many times, and never did a student say, “Yes.” A fair number said, “No,” but most just sat there, perhaps afraid they might divulge something about themselves. Never, however, did a student say, “Yes.”

To give the class discussion some concrete psychological basis, I would then proceed to describe examples of “conversion therapy” for sexual attraction. Conversion therapies are based on fundamental conditioning principles, and were used on those who were bothered by their sexual preference and wanted to change to conform better to larger society. The basic model was simple: For a homosexual male, combine images of attractive men with pain, and images of attractive women with relief. Unfortunately, even when conducted on a willing participant, the pain part often bordered on torture.

One version of this therapy was called “Playboy Therapy,” and was used in the late ‘60s and into the 70s. A homosexual man would sit in front of a screen. At times, a photo of a naked attractive man would appear on the screen, and be accompanied by a very painful shock to the client. The shock would end when a new picture, a relief stimulus, appeared, a naked Playboy centerfold woman. The idea was to condition the client to consider the naked male disgusting and the naked female pleasing.

Variations of conversion therapies were widespread in the ‘60s and ‘70s when general behavior modification models of psychotherapy were growing and leading to modern-day cognitive-behavior therapy, a technique that is extremely effective for a variety of psychological problems. When applied to sexual preference, however, conversion approaches were, at best, “behaviorism gone wild.” Plus, and most importantly, they didn’t work in changing one’s sexual preference. I repeat: conversion therapies did not work.

Why should they work? Try my classroom introspective thought experiment on yourself: Could you be tortured with pain into changing your sexual preference? I feel pretty confident that whereas torture could help me develop an intense aversion toward my tormentor, there’s no way torture would make me disgusted at the sight of an attractive women, and all tongue-hanging-out-gaga over the sight of an attractive guy. No way.

On the other hand, could mild conversion techniques help me curtail a bad habit (e.g., smoking, alcohol abuse, cursing, driving too fast, not using a seatbelt, etc.)? Probably so, but only if I was strongly motivated to change. But, like it or not, sexual preference moves us to a different arena (born that way) than bad habits (learned, not inborn), and conversion therapies do not produce change.

When used on minors (“Dr, Dr! Help! My 12-year old son says he likes boys more than girls! Change him, please!”), a good case can be made that we’re talking child abuse. As of 2018, fourteen states and D.C. have laws prohibiting therapists from trying to changing a minor’s sexual preference.

Here’s the coping lesson to take from this discussion. If you feel out of the mainstream when it comes to sexual attraction, and if that status causes you anxiety, identity problems, or other emotional difficulties, you would do best to confront your reactions to your natural inclinations. If you deny and try to change those inclinations through counseling, you may be heading down a blind alley that will cause you more problems in the long run. You might do better to go into counseling not to change, but to adjust your thinking about who you are to help you move toward acceptance of that reality. Also, remember that joining an appropriate support group can supplement counseling and be helpful in the acceptance process.

Major themes of this blog site are that you must deal with your problems within a context of acceptance of who you are, deal with those issues that are within your circle of control, and be motivated to develop personal empowerment. Conversion therapy is unlikely to help you with any of those processes.

 

PLACEBO EFFECT

If you take a pill and expect it to reduce your headache pain, you have increased the odds that the pain will indeed subside. This effect can be so strong that even if the pill you take is simply an inert sugar pill, a placebo, and not a pain-killing medicine, your headache may still go away. This “placebo effect” shows how expectation can have powerful physical effects.

How about a psychological condition that is being treated by counseling? Can the placebo effect operate in this case?

Let’s create a hypothetical situation where two guys, Joe and Bill, live in parallel universes. They both suffer from social anxiety; put them in a room full of strangers and they fall apart, overwhelmed with insecurities, fear, and dread. They each have a friend who has a similar problem and is undergoing counseling for the problem.

In their respective universes, the friend says, “Why don’t you sign up for some sessions with my psychologist? She’s really helping me and might be able to help you.”

Joe says, “That sounds good. If it works for you I bet it’ll work for me. Give me her number. Thanks for the tip. I really feel good about this.”

Bill, in his parallel universe, says, “Just because she helps you doesn’t mean she will help me. But what the hell, just to get you off my back, give me her number and I’ll schedule an appointment. Believe me, though, it’s going to be a big waste of time.”

Note that right out of the gate Joe and Bill have different expectations about how well the counseling might help. Joe is optimistic, Bill is pessimistic.

In their separate universes, Joe and Bill go off to their respective sessions. Afterward, each is on a bus heading home and a stranger sits down in the next seat and starts reading his paper. Joe and Bill each think, “OK, the Dr. says I might try to give a casual greeting to a stranger, just to show myself I won’t drop dead from fear. Here goes.”

Optimist Joe turns to the guy reading the paper and says, “Really hot weather we’ve been having, isn’t it?” The guy turns to him and says, “Yep, sure is,” and goes back to his paper. Joe thinks, “Well I’ll be damned. I actually got a response. I started a conversation and got a reply. This counseling is really working!”

In pessimist Bill’s universe his action and result are identical. He turns to the guy reading the paper and says, “Really hot weather we’ve been having, isn’t it?” and the guy replies, “Yep, sure is,” and goes back to his paper. Bill, however, thinks, “Well I’ll be damned. I reached out and got a big three words from him. What a waste. I tried to start a conversation and basically was ignored. This counseling is nonsense!”

Joe and Bill have identical experiences, but their reactions are quite different. How come? Do we have a placebo effect here? Remember, Joe believed the counseling was going to work. Is it that belief that makes him give such a positive reaction to the three words the stranger gave him? By the same token, Bill never really did believe the counseling would work. Did his negativity dispose him to put the 3-word reply in such a negative light?

When it comes to increasing the likelihood of successful counseling, let’s note that several preconditions are important. First of all, the client must be willing to take an active role in counseling and work hard to produce needed changes in his/her behavior. The client must also trust the counselor and be willing to “open up” to the counselor, and follow recommendations made by the counselor. Perhaps most importantly, the effectiveness of counseling is helped enormously if the client truly believes it will be helpful.

Obviously, this last precondition brings us into placebo-effect territory; that is, believing counseling will work makes it more likely to work. However, I don’t mean to suggest that successful counseling is simply a placebo effect. Notice, for example, that if a client believes there will be a positive outcome, then the client will also be more willing to work hard, stay optimistic and confident, trust the counselor, and persevere when the going gets tough. It is those qualities and actions that result in successful counseling, not some sort of magical placebo effect.

The point here is simple: Counseling is not like taking an aspirin, lying down, and waiting for your headache to subside; counseling requires you to take an active role in your treatment. If you sincerely believe that it can bring you positive benefits, you will be more likely to engage in actions that will bring those benefits.

There is no magic wand when it comes to stabilizing yourself psychologically and coping with life more effectively. You are the agent of change; only you can control your thinking and actions; only you can decide to empower yourself and develop an effective coping strategy. Your success, however, will begin with the belief that you can change.