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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.

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.

 

FINDING SATISFACTION

One reason happiness is so elusive is that people tend to center their search around “me.” What do I need to do to make myself happier? The problem here is that you’re being self-serving and looking for a recipe that is defined by your needs, your frustrations, your anxieties, your difficulties.

“But,” you ask, “how can I possibly help myself if I don’t center my plans and actions around myself?”

Here’s a thought: Instead of putting yourself as the main ingredient of the recipe, take yourself out of the recipe. Consider the possibility that, whatever your difficulty, using the emotions it generates within you will increase your sensitivity to others who suffer from trauma and conflicts similar to yours. This empathy will not only help others, but yourself as well. That’s right, taking yourself out of the formula will encourage you to reach out to others. The bonus? You will discover that reaching out will bring you ample helpings of personal satisfaction, and help you cope better with your problems.

Empathy. We usually think of it in terms of helping others. If you have been previously victimized or are presently dealing with emotional upheaval in similar ways as another, who can understand their plight more than you?

The true human beauty of empathy, however, is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy than empathic service to others.

Whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties. The best way to facilitate your ability to cope is to make sure that, as you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you leave no one behind. In that way you will find yourself participating in the richness of the human adventure.

 

SUPPORT GROUPS

When we’re faced with the aftermath of a traumatic event, one of the greatest obstacles to coping is when we look inward and attempt a self-analysis. This process can compromise good coping because, more often than not, we enter the world of self-doubt (“Do I have the courage and strength to recover?”), self-blame (“I should have done things differently; the whole event is my fault.”), and self-pity (“I need to let others know how I have been victimized because I deserve their sympathy.”).

These self-intrusions make successful coping with the trauma difficult because you become unable to look objectively and accurately at the event and the challenges facing you. One excellent way to resist these ventures into a self-centered mine field is to join a support group for those who have suffered the same, or very similar trauma. Such groups are plentiful, and can be located by contacting a local mental health association, crisis hotline, or even local law enforcement.

When in the company of victims like yourself, interesting psychological dynamics unfold. Consider the words of support-group members, and note how so many coping lessons that we discuss in this blog can be found in their words:

“Telling my story to others, and listening to their stories, helped me organize the basic facts, the objective reality of the event.”

“I felt less alone.”

“I discovered it was OK to be nervous; OK to feel ashamed thinking I was the Lone Ranger, all alone in my turmoil.”

“I found it was OK to laugh, and talk, and share. There was a lot of all of that in my group.”

“We shared our secrets, our darkest days. I felt a sense of belonging because there was a bond of trust, of privacy, an unspoken understanding that our secrets would never leave the group. It gave me a sense of identity beyond myself, and the security that brought me was unreal.”

“New people would show up. It was hard for me to listen to them because I was reliving my own experience. But the long-term effect was acceptance and a feeling of personal strength.”

“I knew I was reaching an inner peace and strength when it occurred to me that I had become as much a helper in my group as one who needed help. When I shared my story with newcomers I could see it in their faces. There is life afterwards; it goes on.”

“I discovered sympathy and empathy, I mean to the point that I realized it was not all about me. We asked the same questions, faced the same demons, and found lifelines. Since joining my group I have felt more human than ever before in my life.”

We should all be so lucky.

So, what are some of the important coping themes we see in these comments? Organizing a plan to deal with the reality of your issues; realizing you’re not alone; accepting emotions instead of denying them; sharing secrets and trusting.

Two cautions: your group leader should be a professional with experience; and, the purpose of the group should not be to embarrass, badger, or intimidate members.

CRISIS SELF-COMMUNICATION

Roy is 62 years old and is finishing up his annual physical. His physician says, “Roy, everything looks great. Your blood work, vitals, weight, lifestyle…everything is in normal and healthy ranges.”

Roy smiled and said, “That’s always good to hear!” The physician looked at him and added, “Of course you understand that I can’t guarantee you’ll live to 80 or even 70.”

Roy, still smiling, nods and says, “Sure I understand that. But trying to live a long life is not why I exercise, keep my weight down, and all that other healthy stuff. I just want to feel good today! Isn’t that about the best we can do?”

Even though the staying-healthy odds are in his favor, Roy could easily suffer a health crisis at any time, even the next day. And here’s the coping question I want to pose: If it happens, will he be prepared for the crisis?  An unexpected event brings drastic changes to his life and arouses intense emotions that threaten to overwhelm him. Will he be able to keep his head above water? Will he be prepared to have a “crisis conversation” with life?

How about you? Are you prepared to maintain your coping conversations with life in the face of crises? Here are some things to consider when faced with events so intense that you feel you could very easily spiral out of control.

To organize your crisis plan, ask yourself some basic “what if” questions. The idea is not to make up a precise list of steps to take, like a family might do to prepare for a flooding river, tornado, hurricane, or some other natural threat. No, the idea is to formulate a general conceptual plan of basic principles to follow when suddenly confronted with unexpected coping challenges, such as when a loved one dies, sickness occurs, or there is a vital threat to your financial security.

First of all, assess the crisis by determining what features are under your control. A crisis tends to bring out strong emotional reactions, which put you at risk for blindly reacting and trying to influence events that really are far out of your control.

Remind yourself to be proactive using your intellectual abilities and not relying solely on sudden emotional tendencies. Fear, frustration, jealousy, anger and other emotions will tell you to run, avoid, and hide, and such avoidance is a sure recipe for devastation. A more rational approach will focus on how you can use your emotions to your advantage, not on how you can deny the presence of your unwanted emotions.

Bring in your trusted friends, your social network, to help. Communication is essential here, but again, it must not be based on panic and fear. Rationality, objectivity, and a willingness to listen to proactive suggestions from others is essential if your communication is to be productive.

Do not blame others for your crisis. Doing so will distract you from the task at hand. Convincing yourself that evil others are responsible for your travails will only elicit derisive laughs from life. Even your social network will recoil from your displaced blame because you will sound defensive and unwilling to move forward.

All these suggestions are explicitly developed throughout this blog, and they shouldn’t surprise you. The point here, however, is that if you are psychologically and mentally prepared when a “what if” question becomes real, you will be better able to put our blog principles into practice.