Coping With Everyday Life


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.

PTSD: Are You Vulnerable?

A major source of anxiety for many of us occurs after experiencing some traumatic event. Normally, we think of horrendous events like rape, physical attacks, divorce, combat, car accidents, anything resulting in severe injury or property loss, etc. There are also, however, more subtle traumas in life, like serving on a death penalty jury, watching live events unfold on TV, flunking a driver’s test, being criticized by your boss, being “unfriended” on social media, etc. Theoretically, anything that gets you all stressed out and feeling anxious can potentially lead to post traumatic stress difficulties, what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Here’s the question: Are you likely to develop PTSD after you experience anxiety-arousing situations? Just the thought of developing a psychological “disorder” is enough to plunge you into anxiety, right? Well, relax because not everyone is vulnerable to PTSD, and even if you are, there are many techniques to help you deal with this type of anxiety.

Here are some of the things we know. If you have a history of psychiatric disorders in your family, you are likely more prone to PTSD. That increased vulnerability also exists if you experienced harsh childhood trauma like sexual abuse, or extreme psychological abuse like parental abandonment or rejection. Just as physical injuries leave the body vulnerable to later injury, so, too, do early psychological scars leave one vulnerable to later stress.

Some people have oversensitive nervous systems. Do you respond more intensely to loud noises, pain, and unexpected events? Do you easily become uncomfortable in new and strange environments? If so, not surprisingly, you are probably at higher risk of having PTSD following a traumatic event.

Are you one of those with a somewhat unrealistic view of the world? Have you lived a relatively sheltered, stress-free life? Do you believe adversity and danger primarily affects others, not you? If so, you’re probably ill-prepared for processing stress and trauma, and being able to confront and meet challenges. If a trauma occurs, you are likely to react with catastrophic thinking such as, “My world has ended,” a type of thinking that encourages anxiety problems and, by the way, PTSD.

“OK, great,” you say, “I fit a lot of those profiles. What can I do to make PTSD less likely in my life?”

Well, if you have an extensive and supportive social network, you will be much better equipped to handle trauma than are those who are isolated and feel lonely. Obviously, you have to be prepared to face the trauma squarely, not avoid it, but if you have the psychological support of others, you’re in a lot better shape.

If you have training about what to do when faced with trauma, you will fare better than those who don’t. Soldiers undergo extensive training before they are sent into combat; school children have drills to help them deal with emergency situations; some women take courses in self-defense to prepare themselves in case of personal attack. These and other types of preparation can give you a sense of control over the unexpected, and help you when the unexpected happens.

One thing for sure, when trauma strikes, PTSD is not inevitable. You can cope effectively with the excessive stress and anxiety and go on with your life. The coping principles we develop in this blog all come into play when you need to confront anxiety. In the context of PTSD, it is important for you not to accept any message that says exposure to a traumatic event will automatically make you fall apart. If you’re prepared, and have the confidence that comes with feeling empowered, you won’t disintegrate in the face of adversity. Consider the following exchange:

Interviewer: “Why are you so stressed?”

You: “I’m worried that since suffering that stressful event, I’m going to develop PTSD.”

What could be worse than developing a stress disorder because you’re worrying about developing a stress disorder? You have set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And then there’s the problem with the “PTSD” label itself, because it includes the word “disorder.” Having to deal with stress is one thing; having to deal with a psychological disorder is more frightening because “disorder” and “mental illness” go hand in hand for most people.

The progression of thinking is simple: “A disorder is an illness; if I get a disorder, I have an illness. I suffered some trauma. If I get PTSD, I will be mentally ill.” This sort of thinking will make it easier for you to suffer excessive stress following trauma, putting you in a vicious cycle leading once again to a self-fulfilling prophesy: Suffering trauma causes you to worry about developing mental illness, which brings you more stress, which causes you to worry about having a mental disorder, which increases your stress, which…..well, you get the idea.

In the context of everyday life stresses, when you think of PTSD, why don’t you just delete the “D” and think of “post-traumatic stress”? If you suffer a traumatic event, let’s say your 13-year old son is arrested for shoplifting, you may indeed have some bad dreams, experience trouble falling asleep, have difficulty concentrating at work, finding yourself losing your temper more easily, experiencing anxiety when sonny-boy is late getting home, etc., etc. Those symptoms, however, do not mean you have a psychological disorder or that you’re mentally ill; they mean you’re understandably stressed, and you must confront those aspects of the situation causing you stress that are under your control.

When thinking of PTSD, just keep things in the context of our important themes: If you are professionally diagnosed, do not choose to “live your diagnosis” and use it to form your personal pity party; focus on what you can control; determine what you need to accept; formulate a plan of action; and keep lines of communication open with your support group.

Seeds of Dependency

Recently (3.3.19) we posted about the dynamics of being overly dependent on someone else. The issue can be considered in a variety of contexts and relationships, but the context that seems obvious for most of us is the parent-child relationship. Narrowing our focus, most people seem to zero in on the teen years when kids begin experimenting with independence, spreading their wings, so to speak, and generating a lot of conflict with parents.

The fact is, however, parent-children conflict over dependent vs independent actions begins quite early in life, as early as the toddler stage (after walking begins, around 12 months), and it is an area that has been researched by psychologists, notably the classic studies by Ainsworth.

There are a couple of paradigms for studying this behavior. One is to have a mother and her child in a room, and they are playing with some toys. Suddenly mom says she has to leave for a minute, but will be right back. How does the child react when mom leaves? How about when she returns? The degree to which the child shows a lot of distress over mom’s absence will be sensitive to the level of dependency on mom.

In another paradigm, Mom and child are in a strange room with only a chair and an interesting-looking toy off in a corner, several yards from the chair. Mom and child enter the room and she sits down, holding her child’s hand. It doesn’t take long for the child to see the toy off in the corner, and mom answers any questions by telling the child that it’s OK to go play with it.

The question is: Will the child leave mom’s side to venture into new territory (independent action) and play with the toy, or will the child cling to mom’s side and beg her help to get the toy (dependent action)?

Some children are very hesitant to leave mom’s side, showing a behavior pattern that psychologists call “anxious attachment.” For whatever reason, the child acts like mom is not trustworthy as a caregiver, and seems to say, “I’m hanging on to her because she might leave me.”

Other children show confidence in leaving mom’s side to go investigate the toy and play with it, a behavior pattern called “secure attachment.” This child appears to trust mom and consider her a reliable caregiver, saying, “No worry here, I’ll go check out this toy because mom will be here if I need help.”

Extensive study of these patterns has shown that they can easily persist into adulthood and have a profound effect on relationships with others. That really shouldn’t surprise you. Consider Rick, 28 and in a serious relationship with Alison 27. Rick has a history of anxious attachment as a child, and this pattern shows itself in his adult relations.

For instance, when Alison wants to do things with her girlfriends and without Rick, he gets all bent out of shape, thinking she really doesn’t want to be with him. His childhood anxiety with mom is reawakened, and Rick gets all clingy, wanting to be present whenever Alison does something. Alison will tire of this dependency in a hurry, reinforcing Rick’s lack of trust in others, and the pattern will likely repeat itself in his future relationships.

But consider Angie, 27, who is in a relationship with Don, 28. Angie has a history of secure attachment as a child, and it gives her a confident feeling in her relationships. Her current “squeeze,” Don, wants to hang out with the guys tomorrow night. “Sounds OK to me,” says Angie. “Thanks for the heads up. I’ll give Nancy a call and see if she wants to get together.”

Angie is securely attached to Don; she trusts him and trusts the relationship. She is willing to let Don be Don, without being threatened and anxious that it means he will desert her.

Note that Angie’s behavior in no way guarantees the success of the relationship. All it means is that she and her partner are likely to get more satisfaction from the relationship than is the case with Rick.

These days it’s not hard to find adults showing inappropriate dependent behavior. How many young adults, for instance, are living with their parents? Are they demonstrating anxious attachment? Is this a behavior pattern you would want your kids to show? What about a husband or wife who seems incapable of doing anything without the spouse present? Is this pattern conducive to good coping?

We’ve all heard the term “helicopter parents,” and they are especially prevalent when the kids are in college. Are these parents fostering independence in their kids? What’s the motivation behind helicoptering? Are these parents themselves anxiously attached, and perpetuating a dependent family legacy?




Helping Others

An important of coping is being able to assist others in need. How do you handle things when someone reaches out to you for advice, or just wants to get a sympathetic ear? Being a listener can be challenging because you are likely to be concerned about saying the wrong thing and making things worse. With that thought in mind, let’s look at some general points when talking with others who are distressed:

“Listen” to what others tell you; don’t just “hear” them. Be uncritical to show them you understand what they are going through.

Remember, it’s not about you, but about them. “Here’s what I would do if I were you,” is not a helpful comment. You are not about “being them,” so don’t go there.

Demonstrate in your actions how important they are to you and what they mean to you. Offer to give them a ride, pick up their kids, stop by for a visit with some “food or goodies,” etc.

Do not label them (“Jane is bipolar, so I should offer to babysit her kids.”) The labels will stereotype them in your mind and bias your interactions with them.

Use caution when discussing medications. You may recognize that medications given for anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues only help to reduce symptoms, but you should not force that view on others. If they are dissatisfied with their meds, encourage them to talk to their provider. Focus your talks with others on their life conflicts, not on their medications.

If you are interacting with someone who has been in professional counseling for over six months, but who feels improvement has been minimal, raise the possibility of seeking another counselor.

Help others keep their expectations realistic.

Here are a couple of conversations that illustrate some basic principles to follow when talking with others. The idea here is not to memorize these examples and follow them to the letter; doing so would sound rather stiff and robotic. The point is to see the general strategies that psychologists have found to be effective when talking with others.

Comment:       “There’s nothing for me to live for any longer. I don’t care whether I live or die.”

Response:        “All of us need to change our purposes and goals as life goes by. You had meaning in life before; I bet you can do it again and find some purpose in what you do. What do you think is holding you back?”

Notice how the response does not criticize the commenter, but suggests a proactive strategy, and asks a question designed to distract the pessimist from self-destructive thoughts.

Comment:        “I’ve tried therapy, I’ve tried medication. None of it works. I might as well give up. My life isn’t ever going to be worth anything again.”

Response:        “Maybe you haven’t had a counselor or medication that is effective for you. You haven’t tried them all, right? Is there any harm in looking for a new counselor? Also, one thing for sure, people in counseling need to work at it to see positive change. Are you motivated to help yourself? Have you really given things a chance to work?”

The response points out that the commenter has not exhausted his/her search. Also note how both replies serve to re-direct the complainer from self-blame and self-pity, and re-examine his/her efforts in a more realistic way.

One important thing to note about both these examples is how they rely on posing questions. If you’re like most people, when you are talking to someone who is troubled, you will be tempted to express your opinions, forgetting that it’s not about you, it’s about the other person. Conversations with troubled folks will be much effective if you take yourself out of the equation and pose questions that encourage them to consider proactive options.

Think positively! But what else?

You’ve heard it many times, and stated in different ways: “You need to keep up a positive attitude if you’re going to succeed”; “Use the power of positive thinking when you’re faced with difficult challenges”; “If you have a positive outlook on life, you’ll be much happier”; “Focus on the positives and you’ll feel much better.”

Attitude, positive thinking, optimistic outlook, upbeat focus…you’re told that all of these positive mindsets will make your life much easier to manage. We don’t disagree that a can-do, confident, and proactive viewpoint can help with whatever is facing you and increase your odds of success. But is it that simple? Maybe not.

First of all, your optimism must be realistic. We have touched on that theme often in this blog. You can’t surround your attitudes with fantasy, illusions, and imaginary outcomes. You will head quickly toward failure, frustration, disappointment, and self-blame. Secondly, your positive thoughts and attitudes must be accompanied by actions. When unaccompanied by concrete, real actions, even positive thoughts vanish in the wind.

When based on positive thinking, actions bring thoughts into reality and allow you to see yourself behaving in productive ways. The best example of this process is when you serve others. Doing so is likely to give you feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness, emotions that are signals you are coping effectively through personal empowerment, and that you are giving substance to your optimism.

Notice the distinction here between “seeking” happiness, and “finding” happiness. “Seeking” makes you the main ingredient of the happiness recipe and lulls you into a kind of personal enabling where you see yourself as virtuous and righteous. In a coping context, this orientation is selfish, pompous, smug, and likely to fail.

“Finding,” however, allows happiness to emerge from your altruistic actions, and brings you feelings of humility, gratitude, and personal appreciation of your efforts as sincere, open, and authentic. This coping orientation will help you feel you are participating with life in ways that will give you confidence to face your stresses and challenges.

Here’s the coping lesson: Don’t look for happiness and other wonderful emotions and feelings. Rather, allow yourself to find them by acting in ways that don’t make you the center of attention. Depressed, anxious, adrift, lost, unfulfilled, frustrated? Stop cooking with life recipes that make you the main ingredient.


A recent post (March 9) discussed punishment, and we noted that 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, in your adult interactions, or when dealing with self-punishment, you’ll find the combination strategy is likely to produce satisfying outcomes.

There’s one more rule to remember when using punishment: If you punish behavior that is motivated by fear or anxiety, you are likely to increase the frequency of the behavior you are punishing. How can that be? Unless the recipient (and we’re including self-punishment here!) of your punishment is a masochist, how can punishing an action that is based on anxiety produce the opposite of the intended result?

Well, think about it. When punishment works, why is that? The answer is pretty obvious: punishment associates the behavior with the expectation of pain and anxiety, and most people (excluding those with sociopathic or masochistic tendencies) work to avoid those states. But when the response being punished is based on anxiety, all bets are off.

For instance, suppose a child is in a public place with mom and, for some reason, the kid gets scared and starts crying. Mom doesn’t want her child crying in public, and she says loudly, raising her arm in a threatening way, “Stop that crying or I’m going to give you a good whack on your behind!”

Wow! The child is still scared about being in public, but now also scared of being spanked. It’s a double whammy! Put yourself in the child’s place: How hard is it to stop crying when you’re frightened? Have you ever seen a scared child trying to stop crying? It’s a pathetic scene with the child gasping for air between uncontrollable impulses to cry.

People often do things because they’re anxious and scared. If someone threatens to punish them for the actions, their fear is merely compounded. Suppose you have a tendency to stammer and get tongue-tied when you’re anxious. Your boss tells you, “Now listen, this presentation you’re giving to the Board is extremely important, so don’t blow it with a lot of ‘uhs’ and stutters. I won’t be happy.” Or, suppose those are comments you give to yourself while preparing the talk. Either way, good luck with the presentation! Whether from the boss or your  self-comments, you’re adding to your anxiety level and making it more likely that you’ll stutter.

How about if you have a tendency to eat when you’re anxious? Suppose you’re on a diet, and a couple of miserable weeks into it you look in the mirror and say, “Omigod! I’m still fat! I so incompetent I can’t even lose some weight. [Anxiety increases!] I need just a little ice cream to calm me down.” Talk about being in a vicious circle: You’re anxious so you overeat, which leads to shame and self-criticism, which makes you anxious, which makes you eat, which……you get the picture.

So, remember, punishing or threatening someone (or yourself!) who behaves inappropriately because they’re afraid is likely to be ineffective because the threat will increase the fear, which will continue to drive the punished response. The real problem here is that the focus is on the action, when the focus should really be on the fear that is motivating the action.

Remember in our earlier post when you punished a child for drawing on the wall? If the child acted out of a creative impulse, your punishment does not provide any way for the child to satisfy that impulse. Same thing when an action is motivated by fear. Punishment does not deal with the fear, only the action. If you’re looking to become more effective in your coping efforts, when considering punishment, either for yourself or for another, it pays to consider the motivation behind the behavior you are punishing.



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.




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.