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.

A COPING PLAN FOR SELF-CRITICISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A LESSON FROM COLLEGE

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

“I’m a professor at King’s College.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

FEAR OF FAILURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

FEAR AND AVOIDANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMALS

The cartoon Peanuts had a character named Linus who was often depicted as dependent on his security blanket. Today, Linus would be more likely to have an emotional-support animal constantly at his side. They seem to be everywhere, and also appear to represent a trend in society to treat our young people like sniveling, helpless, dependent creatures.

Consider these real-life examples: Parents of an entering freshman asked the university to give their daughter a single room because she was not emotionally ready to live with a stranger. The school complied but charged them the higher single-room rate. The parents said their request was based on a disability, and threatened to sue because the higher charge was discriminatory and in violation of government regulations. Here’s another story: More and more first-year college students insist on bringing their emotional-support pet with them to live in the dorm. All sorts of problems can arise for other students, but there are those pesky government regulations about discrimination that face the institutions.

How do you feel about “emotional-support” (as opposed to “service”) animals? Does this concept have a solid empirical foundation in the discipline of psychology? In a coping context, are such animals good for you? The answer is “Yes” if you’re talking about psychological crutches. In the example above, for instance, one could argue that 18-year old kids who need Fido at their side to face the challenges of college should stay at home with mommy and daddy.

How about airplanes? Should passengers who suffer anxiety when flying be allowed to bring their emotional-support animal to help them cope? What if the animal is a snake, or a tarantula? How about a parrot or an iguana? At what point does the animal cross a line from emotional support for the owner to emotional discomfort for others in the vicinity?

In the context of this blog, needing to have an emotional support constantly by your side is simply an avoidance strategy that interferes with effective coping. Time and again, entries in this blog argue that trying to avoid the stress in your life is a poor way to cope. Remember, avoidance actions are based on stress, which comes from fear and anxiety. If you develop a pattern of avoiding your fears and anxieties you will be consumed by stress, become helpless, and increase your risk of depression.

When it comes to coping, instead of seeking ways to manage (which is trying to reduce or avoid entirely) your stress, you should seek to be empowered by the stress of challenges facing you. You must accept challenges that you can realistically confront with actions under your control. You can turn short-term stress into long-term positive outcomes. Stress cannot and should not be avoided so make the best of it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

There’s no secret to maximizing your physical and emotional health. These states evolve and emerge from those parts of your life that are under your control: the actions you perform, the thoughts you maintain, and the perceptions and interpretations you make about events and people around you. A sense of coherence and purpose to life, and the confidence to meet the challenges of life, evolve from these lifestyles.

There are no anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs, or any other type of prescription or recreational substance, that will have such positive, long-term psychological consequences. And that goes for animals, too. Of course, you may have a pet you love and that brings you comfort and security. But when you believe that you cannot venture forth into life without that pet, then you enter a world of avoidance, passive dependency, and psychological weakness.

 

THE BLAME GAME

Gregory awakened Sunday morning and his first thought through a pounding head was, “Damn, how much did I drink last night?” He looked over at the night table and there was a half empty bottle of bourbon. “I don’t even remember what I did last night,” he lamented.

Gregory was in pretty bad shape. His problem drinking was out of hand. His wife had left him and taken their two kids aged 9 and 12. His boss had warned him earlier in the week that if he didn’t shape up he would be fired. He was in and out of rehab and counseling but neither was going well. He was constantly being told by other patients and counselors that he needed to stop blaming others for his problems.

Gregory had a long list of those who were to blame for his ills, beginning with his parents, his brothers, a couple of emotionally-abusive high-school coaches, numerous unfair high-school and college teachers, his wife, a lineup of insensitive supervisors and bosses, and rebellious kids. The only one he overlooked was the Devil! Gregory’s pattern of coping with his difficulties was consistent: find others to blame.

But now, here he was lying in bed on that Sunday morning, and he finally said to himself, “I have to face up to the fact that no one is to blame for my misery but me. I am at fault.” Sounds like a breakthrough, doesn’t it? At last, Gregory is taking a look inside rather than outside. Well, yes, that’s a positive step, but there’s still a fundamental problem with his approach: he’s still hung up on blaming someone, in this case, himself.

Coping with life is not about assigning blame; it’s about moving forward. Self-blame for your problems, even when true, is not a step forward; it’s stagnation, forming a pity parade that stands still because you feel you have justified your destructive behavior by blaming someone. As long as you’re obsessed with the blame game, you will never move forward.

So, what does Gregory need to do? First of all, drop the self-pity and accept that no one is going to cushion the corners of his world for him. He needs to assess his current situation and focus on actions and thoughts he can take, things under his control, to improve his situation. Imagine if Gregory called his wife that Sunday morning and said, “Honey, I understand now. It’s all my fault, not yours or the kids’. It’s all on me.”

She would best reply, “Well good for you, Greg. But I’m not interested in who’s to blame for where we are. It really doesn’t matter at this point. I’m interested in seeing what you’re going to do about where we are! Give me some actions, some positive changes in how you behave that will help this family move forward.”

Next time you find yourself trying to cope by deciding it’s all your fault, face the fact that self-pity is not going to improve your life. You must decide how you are going to change your behavior to cope. Choosing the best actions will require a lot of honesty, commitment, hard work, communication with others, help from them, and facing  up to what you can and cannot control.

 

 

DEPRESSION PART III

It may be the dog days of August, but some people are already worrying about winter. Later sunrises and earlier sunsets are already upon us, and once late Fall kicks in, reduced sunlight becomes very noticeable. Some people develop SAD, an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Seasonal Adjustment Disorder. This depression hits them in the winter when there is reduced sunlight. In fact, some professionals say SAD results from reduced sunlight, which causes biochemical imbalances in the brain.

A few victims treat SAD by sitting in front of a special lamp for an hour or so each day before sunrise and again after sunset. The idea is to extend the amount of time your brain is bathed in light each day, and thus maintain an appropriate biochemical balance to be blessed with a good mood. Others prefer to take anti-depressant medication to correct the presumed imbalance. Still another approach to SAD is in line with themes we try to develop in this blog. This approach focuses on personal empowerment, autonomous action, and taking control of your behavior during the winter months

There’s no doubt winter brings a special set of depression-inducing stressors. You’re cooped up in the house (quite a bit if you live in the North) and it’s tough to take those enjoyable strolls around the neighborhood after dinner. You exercise less and gain weight, which further depresses you. You’re more likely to get sick during the winter. You worry about road conditions when there’s ice and snow, and what to do with the kids if there are school delays and cancelations. And in the middle of it all are the dreaded holidays.

But, hey, maybe SAD need not be such a big deal, at least if you approach winter the right way. Why not use some coping techniques to reduce some of that down-in-the-dumps feeling? As always, you need to assess what you can and can’t control.

One thing you can’t control is winter weather. How do you deal with that? The answer is, stay active. Is it possible that you might develop mood swings in the winter months because you change your routine and give in to the darkness and cold? All those worries about the dangers of bad-weather driving, flying home for the holidays, becoming snowbound in an airport, getting the flu, or a host of other self-imposed concerns just tie you up in knots, so you curl up on the couch and become more likely to avoid life.

Here’s our non-pharmaceutical take on SAD: the key to a good mood during the dark months is to maintain a steady “diet” of activity, just like during the summer months. You should schedule special events and activities that you’ll look forward to. Sure, you have to bundle up in January to take that walk, but doing so is better than sitting on your butt.

We know a serious outside walker who is also a serious winter hater! Still, she never lets the winter weather defeat her when it comes to walking outside. During the winter she bundles up in layers of sweat clothes, scarves, and windbreakers. Then, armed with her music device and earphones, out she goes. Her only concession to winter weather is the route she takes. If there is snow on the ground, many of her summer walking paths are just not accessible, so she changes the route accordingly. She always returns home about an hour later moaning and groaning about the evils of winter, but she is invigorated and feels good physically and mentally after these winter walks.

Perhaps the fundamental idea behind SAD is flawed. As winter approaches and the days get shorter, if you believe you are doomed to get depressed because of reduced sunlight, that’s your choice. But remember: darkness is not necessarily going to make you depressed; it’s what you do during the darkness that makes the difference. The winter months can be viewed as a challenging time to continue with those activities that give you pleasure and a sense of control in your life, not as a time to hibernate! What you do is under your control; the weather is not! We believe you will be much better “inoculated” against winter psychological dangers if you continue your regular exercise and other activity routines during the winter. Spit in winter’s face!

If you tend to get down in the dumps during those long winter months and want to purchase an expensive lamp to bathe your brain in artificial sunlight, fine; that’s up to you. If you want to take anti-depressant medication, well, that’s your choice, too. But you can also be open to that third alternative, and not be afraid to find new strategies to maintain your warm-weather activity routine. Plus, you can take on new things in spite of winter. Remember, the winter months bring special challenges to many people. Do things for others; get involved in charity projects during the holiday season; volunteer at a homeless shelter during the coldest time of the year. In general, do things, hit the road, get out there and be with people. And before you know it, you’ll be venturing outside to be bathed in that warm April sunshine!