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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.

CHILDREN WITH AUTISM, PART I

This post, the first of a series, is courtesy of Dr. David Jenkins, Sr., a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology and Lead for Psychological Services at Lubbock, TX. Dr. Jenkins has provided psychological services to school districts in Lubbock, Texas and surrounding school districts for over 25 years and has served on the Texas Education Agency statewide networks for autism and behavior.

Sensory Reactions in Children With Autism

 When evaluating the presence of autism you should think of various characteristics on a continuum. Children with Autism tend to either be over-stimulated or under-stimulated, to over-react or under-react, be hyper-aroused or under-aroused to a variety of things.  Putting actions on the continuum is especially helpful when you think of autism and the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Sensory reactions in autism can vary widely in different children. 

Children with autism may be bothered by certain kinds of lights, or they may like to stare at lights while waving their hands or fingers in front of their eyes.  Some may look at things out of the corner of their eyes rather than directly looking at it. Some may like to watch things spin, any object that can spin, such as wheels on cars (real or toy), plates, a frisbee, a ceiling fan, a top, a coin, etc. Children with autism tend to be better visual than auditory learners.  Temple Grandin, a famous woman with autism, talks about how she thinks in pictures rather than words.  

 It is not unusual for parents to tell me they thought their child was deaf because the child did not always respond when their name was called. A 4th grade student I evaluated asked if I could get the teacher to stop “ticking” (as in “tic-toc”) because it was distracting him. The source of the ticking was the teacher’s pacemaker that he was able to hear! Other children, however, completely ignore sounds. One task often used during an evaluation is to ring a bell while the child is engaged in a task.  Many times, children with autism never turn toward the sound; they appear not even to notice it.   

Children with autism can be particular about the clothes they wear.  They may never wear blue jeans, preferring the softer feel of other materials.  I’ve known children who wear the same shirt every day because it is the only type of “feel” they will tolerate.  One little boy liked the feel of nylon stockings, causing his mother to warn visitors about wearing stockings. 

Sometimes children may like to play with water or sand, letting it run through their fingers. Sometimes they may not like the feel of shaving cream or pudding, which is often used in pre-school settings for finger painting.  Sometimes they like the feel of human hair, smooth surfaces, cool feeling objects, carpet, etc., and the list goes on. The continuum is wide.

 It is not unusual for children with autism to be picky eaters. They may prefer only soft foods, or only crunchy foods, or no meat of any kind, or no veggies, or only foods of a certain color. A mother told me her child would eat an apple, but only if it was whole and unpeeled.  Another told me her child would eat an apple, but only if it was whole and peeled.  Others have told me the apple had to be peeled and cut, or cut and unpeeled. Children with autism may only eat a limited number of foods and will only eat those every day, never trying anything new. The food-preference continuum can be extremely varied. 

The last of the senses is smell. Teachers and parents have told me about how their child can detect when a new perfume or deodorant is used and at the same time do not react to the smell of a skunk near the house.

When it comes to sensory sensitivity and reactions, one size does not fit all. Children with autism can fall anywhere along a wide continuum of sensitivity.

 

ARE YOUR BELIEFS AND ACTIONS CONSISTENT?

Syndicated columnist Paula Dockery wrote about her consternation with the seemingly illogical behavior of the American voter in the 2016 election. For instance, polls showed that approval ratings of Congress at election time were around 20%, and yet virtually every Congressional incumbent was re-elected. Crazy, right? If we disapprove of Congress, why do we re-elect them?

Dockery also cited a Quinnipiac poll taken just before the election that showed 67% of Americans agreed with Roe v. Wade; 60% supported allowing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship; 68% were concerned about climate change and 59% supported regulations to curtail it; and 85% of voters felt those on the no-fly list should not be allowed to buy guns. These were sizeable majorities from a respected poll. And yet, the man who disagreed was elected President. Huh?

Dockery raises a very logical question: If we feel government isn’t working for us, why don’t we vote for those who share our views and shun those who hold different positions?

There are explanations and coping lessons from a psychological perspective that we can apply to Dockery’s contradictions. First of all, inconsistencies between beliefs and actions are not limited to voting behavior. Why would an abused woman stay with her abuser? Why does the bullied kid suck up to the bully and seek to join his gang? Why would someone like Jack (11/27 blog) refuse to face a life-threatening health problem? Why would someone waste away in a dead-end job instead of looking for another position? Why would Dad passively ask the family therapist when the anti-depressant for his 17-year old daughter will “kick in” so she will become normal again? Why would a parent hover over a child and protect him or her from failure? These actions appear to make little sense.

To answer these questions let’s note a basic psychological principle: When you commit to a set of beliefs and a course of action, your mind tends to engage in all sorts of questionable thinking to justify your commitment. About 60 years ago Leon Festinger formally developed this idea in his theory of Cognitive Dissonance, and illustrated it with the following case.

In the 1950s a small cult gathered on a hillside on a date specified by their leader as the day the world would end. According to the leader, God would save them and destroy all else. In preparation for this day, these folks sold all their belongings….their houses, cars, clothes, everything. They made an incredibly strong commitment to their belief.

When the end did not come, the group did not turn on their leader as a false prophet. Instead, they joined him in praising God for rewarding them for their great faith and saving the world because of them. Talk about reality distortion! These folks decided the world continued to exist because of them; their faith saved the earth. Extreme self-congratulatory thinking to be sure, but it worked. Faced with the possibility that they were a bunch of knuckleheads who fell under some idiot’s spell, they kept their mental balance with perceptual distortions and irrational thinking, and continued to worship their leader. That’s not a recipe for psychological stability.

Festinger’s theory is based on the belief that the human mind strives for consistency and harmony. Our minds don’t like disharmony resulting from contradictory beliefs and actions. We would add that dissonance kicks motivational forces into gear because dissonance arouses fear. Consider our questions raised earlier: the abused woman and bullied kid fear retaliation unless they stay close to the enemy (the old Stockholm Syndrome); Jack fears abandonment and his inability to confront challenges (symbolically, his father); the job hunt brings fear of rejection; dad and the helicopter parent fear they will be seen as parental failures if their kids fail. Fear, fear, fear……….In each case it drives the irrational behavior.

Fear also plays a role in voter behavior. You hate Congress but you see your representative as fantastic, someone who brings your district lots of money. When things go south it is obviously the fault of the other party. Voting for your guy, is safe, familiar, and shows your wisdom. Congress sucks because of those other members, especially those in the opposition party. Hardly logical or critical thinking, but it makes sense to you.

The coping message here is clear: No matter what beliefs and actions we’re talking about, when they appear illogical, inconsistent, and contradictory, they are often servicing some inner conflict based on fear that makes it difficult to take a hard and honest look in the mirror. And that is why you must be vigilant and willing to face inner conflicts that can lead you to reality distortion and irrational thinking. You simply cannot cope effectively if your mind is otherwise engaged in making your perceptions consistent with your beliefs. That house of cards will eventually fall because it is based on avoidance and fear.

This posting is not about an election or about your political persuasion; it is about coping poorly by failing to confront your fears (whatever they may be), including the ones beneath your consciousness. If you run from your fears you are digging yourself a deep psychological hole. If it gets too deep you may not be able to escape. Again and again, our postings try to make these fundamental points.

 

COPING WITH FERTILITY PROBLEMS, PART III

In Parts I and II of this three-part series, we discussed the difficulties Sue and Dave were having in producing a successful pregnancy. In Part II we focused on specific steps that Sue could take to cope with the various emotions she was facing concerning their, so-far, unsuccessful pregnancies. In Part III we want to shift the focus to Dave, and ask what coping steps he can take to deal with the stress he and Sue are facing.

—-Dave must maintain totally open and honest communication with Sue. The golden rule of any relationship is, when difficulties arise, communication, negotiation, compromise and acceptance are absolutely necessary to facing challenges in constructive ways.

—-Dave must likewise share his viewpoints. They must discuss how they feel about various options they can choose, and work toward finding a common ground from which to proceed.

—-Dave must reassure Sue that her welfare is his primary concern; conceiving and delivering a child is secondary in his mind to her well-being.

—-Dave must also realize that it is Sue’s energy and resources that are more proportionally focused in the direction of having children. It can be quite natural for him to feel that he is in a secondary position in the relationship, and potentially no longer the primary love object. If Dave has these feelings he must voice them, and he and Sue must come to the mutual understanding that Sue’s focus on having a child does not mean replacing Dave in her heart.

—-Dave must assure Sue that she is not to blame for their situation. He must make it clear that he understands and finds it quite natural that she may feel some guilt. He must help her examine this guilt and critically challenge it as without foundation.

When lines of communication and cooperation are open and functioning, true sharing can take place between Sue and Dave. Eventually, that sharing will lead to acceptance of many truths. For instance, Sue and Dave must consider that pregnancy may not be in the cards for them, and that adoption is their best option. Perhaps Sue should concentrate on her career. Both she and Dave have successful careers and maybe they should focus on just being happy with each other. Some folks willingly accept that what they don’t have in life is far less important than what they have and appreciate.

Sue and Dave’s situation shows us that stress can lead either to deterioration or enhancement in a relationship. By pulling together as a team and confronting any anger, guilt, jealousy, and anxiety in positive ways, Sue and Dave can become more loving, cooperative, understanding and helpful with one another. Earlier (Blog of 9/16/16) we discussed the distinction between stress management and stress enhancement. Sue and Dave can focus on stress enhancement to produce outcomes that will lead to increased personal and emotional growth. Such focusing is precisely the strategy any of us must pursue when we face coping challenges.

 

 

           

 

 

COPING WITH FERTILITY PROBLEMS, PART II

From a reader responding to Part I: “I can’t imagine asking someone how old their kids are without first asking if they have kids! How insensitive. As for Sue’s dilemma, if you’re not able to get pregnant maybe it’s not meant to be. I know that sounds uncaring, but there is always adoption. People like Sue and Dave would be wonderful parents for some poor kid without a home or family.”

Another comment: “Sue could concentrate on her career. Maybe Sue and Dave should consider just being happy with each other. Would that be acceptance? Remember, it’s not what you don’t have in life that matters. It’s what you have that you should be happy with and appreciate.”

Here are some coping suggestions from your blog hosts:

It seems the easiest way for Sue to cope across situations is probably also the hardest. If she could learn to be direct, people would probably stop offering suggestions or digging too deeply. Being direct would make it easier for her to interact with her immediate family (who do not know about the miscarriages or that she and Dave have been trying to conceive for years).  Sue has never discussed the issue with her parents. She feels as though she is letting them down; she fears they will judge her. Unfortunately, avoiding a problem is not effective coping because avoiding makes problems bigger.

So, step one for Sue is to come clean, especially with her family and close friends. She also needs to make it clear how their comments make her feel: “What you think are helpful suggestions don’t help me at all and really upset me. I know you’re trying to help, but please wait until I ask for it.”

Other situations might not require being so blunt. Humor or canned responses can be helpful. “We are just enjoying hanging with Dave’s sister’s family – plus no diaper duty!” or “You’ve met Dave – I can only handle one child!” Then she gracefully redirects the conversation to something else, such as asking about their family.

Sue can find strength in numbers. There are many support groups for would-be mothers and fathers. A quick Google search yielded 45,200,000 results for “child loss support forum.” Sue can learn that she is not alone in her struggle, which might help to reduce some of her guilt and self-blame.

Sue is Catholic. She is limited in what she can to avoid her Church’s teaching. She can, however, talk with Priests from her own or another Parish. She may find herself surprised at how sensitive they can be, and the spiritual guidance they can offer.

How about Dave? What can he do to help his wife? Again, we would like to hear from our readers. In a week we will post Part III of this issue and include your comments.

 

 

COPING WITH FERTILITY PROBLEMS, PART I

Recently, over dinner with a long-time friend, we got into a discussion about some not-always-obvious double standards. This friend (I’ll call her “Sue”) has been with her husband (we’ll call him “Dave”) for about 12 years. When the relationship became serious and it looked like they were headed down the aisle, people started asking her when he would be popping the question. She would calmly and humorously refer them to her boyfriend, saying, “Guess you should ask Dave.”

Well, they got married and as soon as they returned from their honeymoon, people started asking Sue if they were trying to conceive. “When are you going to start a family?” Dave, on the other hand, rarely got such questions. If he did they were often in the context of his wife’s wishes, e.g., “So, is Sue about ready to start a family?”

Both Dave and Sue worked at full-time jobs. Over the years, both changed jobs and found themselves with work colleagues who knew little about their personal lives. Most of Sue’s new co-workers seemed to assume she had children because she would often get questions like, “How old are your kids?” Dave’s co-workers, on the other hand, tended to ask, “Do you have kids?”

Fast forward to their tenth wedding anniversary; Sue and Dave still have no children. Sue still gets the “How old are your kids?” and now answers that they do not have children. Almost invariably she sees bewildered uncertain looks and hears comments like, “Why not? Don’t you want kids? You’d be such a good mom.” As for Dave, whenever he tells someone they don’t have kids he usually gets a response like, “Oh.”

The different questions posed to Sue and Dave show a clear double-standard. Dave is treated almost as a bystander waiting for Sue to make the decision; Sue gets the direct attack, with questions implying, “No kids yet? What’s wrong with you, honey?”

Even though people may just be trying to make conversation when they ask Sue about kids, she still gets upset over what she considers very personal questions. The fact is she and Dave have been trying to conceive for years. She has endured three first-trimester miscarriages and one intentional termination for health reasons. She can’t even recall all the invasive procedures and home remedies she has pursued in an effort to get pregnant.

Sue’s gynecologist is stymied, and fertility specialists have no answers. The Psychic Network gives vague platitudes. The few friends and relatives in whom she has confided typically do the same, e.g., “It will happen when it’s time.” Others tell their own hardship-turned-success stories, e.g., “Bob and I were trying for like a year and then one day when we weren’t even planning on it – pregnant!” Many offer suggestions, e.g., “What about adoption? My cousin couldn’t get pregnant but then adopted a kid and suddenly she was pregnant too!” “Have you tried [random ‘miracle’ fix]?”

Dave tries to be supportive and sympathetic toward his wife, but the bottom line is that he just doesn’t understand the physical, emotional, and social anguish she suffers. He can’t quite grasp that Sue is wracked by guilt and shame, and is rapidly losing hope.

Sue has stressors coming at her from various directions: Others upset her by prying into her personal life; well-meaning friends and relatives frustrate her with their advice; she has suffered multiple miscarriages; the medical experts have no answers. What can Sue do to cope?

We invite our readers to offer their comments on coping strategies for Sue. We will post them plus our own suggestions.

PREPARING FOR SUCCESS AND FAILURE

As we noted in our post of 2/16, success and failure are the two great imposters in life. Success would have you believe you are better than you really are; failure would have you believe you are worse than you really are. Success fosters arrogance, narcissism, and lack of perseverance. Failure fosters low self-esteem, bullying, and social withdrawal.

Parents like to insure success for their kids, believing that the more success they experience, the more confidence and self-esteem they will have as adults. Thus we see “helicopter parents” hover over their kids keeping a watchful eye and working to shield them from failure and having to face the consequences of bad decisions.

The fact is, children who only experience success actually develop low self-esteem and a low tolerance for frustration. They believe they are above rules and rationalize their failures as the fault of others.

A student was fired from his work study position as a cashier in the university cafeteria. Seems someone saw him pilfering cash from the register. The kid was also suspended from the university for a semester. He appealed and he and his father showed up in the Dean’s office to make their case. The kid denied everything, claiming someone was out to get him. Dad said, “I believe my boy!”

The Dean played security camera footage for them, clearly showing the boy swiping the money. Incredibly, the father said, “OK, he took some money because he was a little short. But he intended to pay it back.” Are you kidding us dad? Seriously?

The Dean replied, “Your appeal is denied. Young man you are suspended for one semester. Considerate yourself fortunate that we will not press charges with the police.”

Sheltering yourself and others from failure does not foster psychological growth. Virtually all people who experience a psychological disorder spend a lot of time trying to avoid unpleasant events, which gets them into a lot of trouble, psychologically speaking. Avoidance of challenges and issues facing you will lead to ineffective coping.

One reason you can get into self-defeating avoidance actions is because when you’re faced with conflict, your fears and anxieties are aroused. These negative emotions are very discomforting and it is natural to want to avoid them. Who wants to experience negative things? Positive things are much more fun! The ironic thing, however, is that negative experiences have more powerful effects on you than positive experiences. Simply put, you learn more from negative than from positive events.

Consider some of these research results:

—-It is more devastating to lose $1,000 than it is pleasant to gain $1,000.

—-Quality of a marriage is linked more strongly to negative actions than to positive ones.

—-Sexual problems have a greater effect on marital satisfaction than good sexual functioning.

—-The bad effects of negative social interactions with others are stronger and last longer than the good effects of positive social interactions.

—-Poor health has a strong negative impact on life satisfaction; good health has little influence on how happy we feel.

Trying to avoid unpleasant events can be counterproductive because you can potentially learn a lot more from these events than from events in your comfort zone. For instance, you may be more comfortable avoiding a stressful job interview, but in the long run that interview may teach you a lot about yourself.

Avoidance of psychological pain is at the core of most psychological problems. Furthermore, people who suffer from chronic psychological conditions try to change or control others to avoid pain. The only reasonable alternative is accepting the reality of life while choosing life paths that have meaning and purpose. Many life problems have no perfect solution. Your best option is to accept life, yourself, and others even when these things can be unpleasant. It is important to remember, however, that this type of acceptance does not mean giving up or quitting; it means taking a realistic orientation to life that is focused on what you can directly control: your thoughts and behavior.

Nancy, a middle-aged woman, came to counseling saying she was depressed and her marriage was failing. She complained about her pessimistic outlook on life, and dependency on many psychiatric medications. Nancy said her life was pretty stable until ten years earlier, when one of her children was burned in a house fire. Both her in-laws died in the fire. During this time her husband also had periods of unemployment.

Nancy began seeing both psychologists and psychiatrists. The latter prescribed a “cocktail” of prescription medicines including Trazadone, Celexa, Klonopin, and Seroquel. The psychological counseling encouraged Nancy to understand that she had been engaging in a futile effort to escape and avoid her difficulties.

She began to accept both her past and present psychological suffering, and to realize that her life was pretty good overall. She saw that her guilt over making her family suffer was adding to her burden, and she needed to forgive herself. She worked to develop a clearer sense of her personal values, and decide what was important to her now. She realized she was choosing to be depressed and pessimistic, instead of appreciating her husband, children and other positive things in her life.

Nancy decided to become more positive and accepting in her life. Just because she had suffered some personal traumas, she could not expect the corners of her world to be padded for her. She was mired in self-pity and was dependent on medications. As she became more accepting of her life and focused on her values and priorities, her husband and children began to spend more time with her. The entire family became mutually involved in everyday activities, discussion, and planning. Eventually she was weaned off all her medications, and she said she felt more alert and more emotionally focused than she had in years.

 

 

PSYCHOLOGICAL DIAGNOSES OF TRUMP. TAKE CAUTION.

Is Donald Trump emotionally unstable? In the psychological community there is far from a consensus on this issue. On the one hand are psychologists who say Trump displays unmistakable signs of narcissistic, paranoid, and antisocial personality disorders, and they have issued public pronouncements saying this toxic combination puts America at great risk.

But, and this is a big but, making professional diagnoses without any face-to-face contact, or without evaluating results from formal psychological testing, is problematic, if not unethical. In fact, the American Counseling, Psychological, and Psychiatric Associations follow the Goldwater Rule: It is unethical to give a professional opinion about someone who has not been examined and tested in person.

Many mental health professionals maintain, however, that Trump’s spoken record is filled with such extreme indications of pathology, and the consequent danger to the country is so great, that they have an obligation to inform the public.

Other professionals say public pronouncements bearing on Trump’s stability are inappropriate. Professionals should not be applying emotionally-laden labels in the absence of valid diagnostic data. Also, just because someone fits the general profile of a personality disorder does not mean the person is a danger to others. Many effective leaders are narcissists, a trait that can be essential to their leadership abilities. Some of us also have colleagues who say that many college students would score high on antisocial scales, but do not pose a danger to the institution.

When considering this issue and evaluating the different opinions, we believe you should be very cautious. There is an important distinction between offering a formal diagnosis vs. saying that particular ways of acting are characteristic of particular diagnoses.

We believe that psychological diagnosis should be based on hours of face-to-face therapeutic contact, and on data from formal measuring instruments with documented reliability and validity. Professional opinions based on indirect observation, such as visual and print media, are impressionistic and opinionated. While perhaps a step beyond pure speculation, such opinions should be considered at best to be educated guesses.

And remember, if a professional were privy to formal assessment data, that information would fall under doctor-client confidentiality and could not be shared.

The bottom line is this: It is one thing for the citizen counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist to send a letter to a newspaper or magazine and complain about Trump’s confrontational interpersonal style. It is quite another thing, however, for that writer to extrapolate from those observations and declare publicly that Trump is mentally ill.

We believe Trump’s fitness for office should be discussed in a political, not a psychological, context.