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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.

USING ALCOHOL TO COPE

If you cope with everyday problems by using alcohol, you’re on a dangerous path.  Sure, some abusers say, “I can be a moderate social drinker with no problem,” but they’re kidding themselves. Regular use of booze has a way of expanding and taking control of the drinker. Alcohol becomes a crutch, a necessity for dealing with life. Consider Henry’s case, related by Brooks:

Henry returned to college for his 10th reunion. I remembered him not only as a bright student who worked hard for his grades, but also as a student who partied hard and made no bones about it.  On several occasions at off-campus social gatherings, things like senior class socials, the homecoming dance, and other major social occasions, I had a chance to see him in action, so to speak. He always seemed mildly intoxicated, not to the point where he was staggering and slurring his words, but displaying reduced inhibitions and even silliness in his conversation. He was “buzzed,” and it was clear he had begun his partying several hours earlier. Again, he wasn’t falling-down drunk, but no one would dare get in a car he was driving! I often heard stories about his drinking exploits that circulated among the students. A common comment was, “Booze is Henry’s way of coping with college stress.”

In spite of Henry’s hard partying style, he always attended my class, arrived on time, and seemingly was none the worse for wear. If I knew there had been some social event the night before, I might ask him how late the party ran, and he would reply something like, “Oh, I don’t know. I think the last ones left around midnight. You know, class night and all that. I’m not sure when I went to bed. Maybe I didn’t!” I always felt his casual, joking style was serving to hide some inner demons.

Henry seemed to have a body chemistry that allowed him to overindulge in alcohol but not have to miss responsibilities like class the next day. What some students might see as a gift, for Henry this body chemistry was a curse.

Getting back to the 10th alumni reunion, I was chatting with him and noticed he was drinking soda. I almost jokingly asked him, “What’s up with the soda? Give up the sauce?” He proceeded to tell his story.

Henry’s parents met in Alcoholics Anonymous when they were both recovering alcoholics. They began dating, fell in love, and married. Dad was 42 and mom was 40. Mom quickly became pregnant and Henry was born normal and healthy. He grew up never seeing his parents take a drink because they maintained their sobriety for the remainder of their lives. Yes, they kept alcohol in the house, and when they entertained they offered alcohol to their guests, but they neither provided a drinking role model for their son nor did they preach to him about the evils of alcohol.

When Henry was old enough to understand, and the subject of alcohol came up, they willingly told him their stories. They explained they were simply unable to control themselves when it came to alcohol consumption; the booze was stronger than they were. As adherents to the 12-step format in AA, they decided they were powerless when it came to booze, and they chose to eliminate it from their lives.

Like many teenagers, Henry soon discovered alcohol for himself. He loved it! He thrived on the intoxicating effects. The “buzz” his friends experienced, the pleasure they felt from alcohol, was experienced a hundred-fold in his case. Henry found it very easy to deal with typical teenage stress and angst by slugging down a few beers or a few shots of “Jack.”            Gradually, staying at some level of intoxication became his way of coping with stress. He basically went through high school and college in an alcohol-induced fog. His youth and possibly inherited biochemistry enabled him to function through so-called hangover periods. If necessary, he quickly learned that a stiff shot could cure any hangover blues, although as we noted earlier, for Henry hangovers were usually not a big issue.

Eventually, Henry’s booze-infested world came crashing down. He had landed a good job out of college, but after about five years his work began to deteriorate. The thing that really brought him down, however, was the damage his drinking was doing to his romantic relationship.

One night Henry arrived at his fiancé’s apartment to take her out to dinner. He had obviously already been drinking (nothing new there!). She told him to sit down at the kitchen table. She put a bottle of booze in the middle of the table, and sat across from him. She looked him squarely in the eye and said, “There’s your choice. That bottle or me! Choose one right now. Not just for tonight. Forever! You will walk out the door tonight with one of us, and the other you will eliminate from your life. If you choose the bottle, we’re done. If you choose me, you’re done drinking. For good.”

“I had been drinking earlier, but something in her tone, something in her eyes, cut right through the fog and rammed me in my gut like a spear. I literally had to gasp for air,” Henry said. “I chose her,” he added, chuckling, pointing at her across the room while taking another sip of soda. “I decided she was more important to me than booze, so I quit. Right then and there, cold turkey! She made it clear to me, no half-way stuff; no social drinking or an occasional beer. She said I just couldn’t handle it so it was all or nothing.”

“Do you think you could drink socially?” I asked. “Could you exercise control to the point that you could drink in moderation?”

He smiled and said, “My folks would say ‘no.’ People in AA would say ‘no.’ I guess I’ll never find out. I look around this room and see some classmates who abused the hell out of alcohol when we were in college. Yet, here they are, having a couple of beers and then heading home. They made a choice to drink sensibly once out of school, and they could do it. Maybe I have my folks’ chemistry that gives me only one choice. One thing for sure……..why would I want to take a chance on trying to drink socially? The cost of failing would be way too high.”

What coping lessons can we take from Henry’s story? I guess the answer to that question is no mystery. If you’re anxious about life events, turning to booze will complicate your life tremendously because it’s an avoidance action. This statement is obvious, yet people fall into the trap again and again.

Look at it this way. You have a problem and you cope with it by getting buzzed. For the time being at least, you have reduced the anxiety caused by your problem, but you have also reinforced the drinking action to cope. Eventually, of course, drinking will bring you more problems: loss of job, loss of family, loss of self-respect and self-esteem. All of these negative consequences will raise your anxiety level. Now ask yourself, what action have you practiced again and again to deal with anxiety? That’s right! Excessive drinking.

So now you’re caught in a vicious cycle: Anxiety causes you to drink, which brings you more anxiety, which causes you to drink, which brings you more anxiety, which causes you to……well, you get it.

The only way to confront the drinking problem is allowing yourself to come to grips with problems when sober. The same can be said of all drugs. Cleanse your body of alcohol and other recreational drugs before you work on coping actions to meet the demands of life. Yes, that includes smoking!

Stopping drinking can be a very complex process, and many folks need professional help both through counseling and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. As a supplemental first step, however, if you decide that you are going to begin eliminating a bad habit like smoking or excessive drinking, a good way to start is to begin keeping a daily record of your behavior. We discussed that method last week for the case of smoking, and noted that keeping an accurate daily record and displaying it in a visible place can help with any behavior you are motivated to reduce: calories per day, ounces of alcohol per day, number of times yelling at someone per day, number of times you think negative thoughts per day, etc., etc., etc. The key here is to bring the undesirable action to your attention and accurately assess the frequency of the action. Then you have something to work with.

When you try to change behavior you are used to doing, awareness of what you’re doing and when you’re doing it is crucial. Only then can you focus on the problem and begin to organize your life around actions and situations that allow you to cope without engaging in those actions that are bringing you such pain. Try it!

 

DEVELOPING A COPING PLAN

Let’s say you are doing something that causes you emotional stress. For instance, you smoke and want to quit, but you’re having trouble doing so. What can you do to help you quit?

First of all you have to assess where you are. You need what’s called a baseline that tells you how many cigarettes you smoke each day, so you need to start keeping a record.

This is simple enough. At the beginning of the day, write down how many cigarettes are left in your pack. If you open a new pack during the day, simply add 20 to the original number. If you began with 8 in your pack, when you open a new pack, now you really began the day with 28. At the end of the day, count how many cigarettes are left and subtract that number from the starting number.

Begin a chart and post it in a prominent spot where you will see it each day. The chart will have the date, day of the week, and the number of cigarettes smoked each day as you dutifully record the numbers. For the first couple of weeks, don’t do anything else. Just keep recording those numbers.

Don’t be surprised if the number of cigarettes smoked each day begins to drop. This is a nice side-effect of the procedure. You are bringing your habit clearly into your conscious mind, and quite often that brings out some folks’ competitive juices. That is, as you approach the end of the day you realize that yesterday you had 23 cigarettes, and today you’re only up to 21. It’s almost 2 hours to bedtime, but if you manage to avoid having another cigarette, you can “break your record.” If you manage to forgo another cigarette, you can record that 21 total and 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. Realizing precisely the frequency of the action can have the positive effect of encouraging us to get a little competitive with ourselves. 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.

Another nice thing about the chart is that you can begin to discern trends. Maybe you smoke more on Saturday. What’s causing that? Maybe you smoke more at certain times of the day. What’s causing that? The point is, the record makes you aware of your actions and can help you get a handle on specific events and locales that are strongly associated with smoking. Once you’re aware of them, you can reduce your exposure to them, plus be more on your 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 really bring on your urge to smoke, and then you can take corrective action aimed at appropriate targets.

The next steps to reduce your smoking are up to you. Find techniques that work for you, whether it’s the patch, chewing gum, snapping a rubber band on your wrist when you feel the urge……..whatever works. Remember that one size does not fit all. What worked for your neighbor 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.

And remember, 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. For instance, you may try skipping a meal to help you cut down on smoking. Will this technique be a permanent change in how you live? How about wearing the patch? Are you going to do that for the rest of your life? Hypnosis? Come on, are you really that stupid? Behavior change results from you taking charge of your life, not from someone else waving a magic wand and chanting, “You will never smoke again!………That’ll be $49.95 please.” Choose your methods carefully, and make sure they are compatible with lifestyle changes, not just a temporary adjustment.

And drop the BS excuses and comments:

“I want to quit so bad…..I’m so motivated…..I don’t know why I’m having trouble.” Motivated my ass. You’re weak! Admit it, accept it, and challenge the weakness.

“I’m afraid I’m gaining weight. That’s even worse than smoking.” If you’re gaining weight, reduce your caloric intake and increase your exercise. And quit being a wimp with the weight whining.

“It’s tough to overcome an addiction to nicotine.” Oh, please, pin a sign to your sleeve, “Addicted to nicotine. Treat with care and sympathy,” so others can join in your pity parade. Opiate drug addiction? OK, we’ll give you that one. Nicotine? Cop-out!

There’s only one way to win this fight: you must 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 winning the war, a war that is likely to persist for the rest of your life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DIGITAL EMOTIONS II (by Dries & Brooks)

Last week we shared some comments from folks who were critical of social media platforms like Facebook. The concern was about whether these platforms, by monitoring our activities and our friends’ activities, are somehow redefining how we should express our emotions.

One young lady was concerned that if we don’t post our personal emotional expressions (such as birthday greetings, condolences, etc.) can we claim that our feelings are truly sincere? A middle-aged man was irritated that Facebook was intruding into his life and telling him how and when to convey his emotions to others.

A day after our post, Brooks heard from someone who seemed to verify some of these concerns. Brooks’ correspondent told him that one of her friends posted a picture from a wake showing a deceased relative lying in an open coffin! Is this “sharing gone wild”? Whether they wanted to or not, the friends of the posting woman “attended” the wake.

Only time will tell where the issues we raised last week will go. One thing for sure is that any agent that threatens our autonomy when it comes to expressing our emotions poses a potential threat to our coping efforts. When it comes to our emotions, one set of guidelines will never fit all. Without the freedom to exercise the choices we deem as most appropriate for ourselves, we will definitely suffer psychologically.

All is not evil with Facebook and other social media platforms, however, and in this post we want to balance the ledger a bit and point out how social media can, under certain circumstances, assist us in our coping efforts. To set up our story, let’s go back to the early 1960s when Brooks was in college:

“Over Spring break I was working on a paper about treating alcoholism, and my uncle, a member of AA, got wind of it. He offered to let me ask him questions, and I eagerly accepted. One of the first things I wanted to know was how he managed during early recovery to get through those many lonely nights when he couldn’t sleep, and desperately wanted a drink. He told me about his sponsor, a person he could call at anytime, night or day, and the sponsor would talk on the phone with him or immediately come to his home, even in the middle of the night. He told me he never would have made it through the early stages of his recovery without that sponsor.”

Now let’s fast-forward to the early 1980s, when Brooks’ wife was working for a crisis intervention program called Helpline. This was a 24/7 phone service that provided professional psychology case workers for callers to talk with about any problem at all. The calls ran the gamut from everyday (a blind gentleman asked if he could take his seeing-eye dog to Veterans Stadium to a Phillies game) to life-threatening situations like suicide.  The point is, if you had a problem, question, or needed professional help, it was all there at your fingertips.

Fast forward to 2018. A counselor shared the story of Jennifer, a woman who was struggling with self-doubts because she had recently lost her job. Jennifer was so upset she was having trouble motivating herself to jump into the job-search market, and also felt she was neglecting her husband and children because of the hit to her self-esteem. The woman related how late one night, unable to sleep, she went on Facebook and posted, “I lost my job and am devastated. Anyone out there I can talk to and maybe feel better?”

Within seconds she had three replies, two from “friends of friends,” and one from a friend who lived across the country. She immediately struck up a conversation with them, and one “friend of a friend” in particular was especially supportive and helpful.

Facebook, a modernized “sponsor” and “crisis-intervention service” was there for this woman. The example is one reason why many counselors and mental health professionals are discussing how social media can be of great help to those struggling with psychological issues that pop up in their everyday lives. Under the right circumstances, social media can give troubled folks a boost to confidence and self-esteem, and provide them with suggested actions that have helped others.

Of course there are always the potential threats like those we talked about last week, not to mention the problems of cyber-bullying and talented sexual predators who are quite adept at manipulating youngsters. That potential, however, should not lead us to overlook the positive aspects of reaching out on social media.

Many young people report at least one friendship that developed exclusively online. Teens also report that the very act of developing and updating their profile makes them feel better about themselves. Both teens and adults say that the social support received online reduces their anxiety, guilt, and anger.

Online social support is a wonderful benefit of social media, and we talked about it in an August 12, 2017 post. As with most things, however, one must always be vigilant to possible danger. Parents should communicate with their kids about the dangers, and monitor their activities and exactly how much they share. For instance, everyone should be leery of sharing potentially compromising information that could be viewed by a potential employer. And if someone is already in formal counseling, the social support received online should be shared with the counselor, and be viewed as a supplement to their treatment, but never as a substitute.

If you carefully read last week’s post and the present one, you might notice an important message between the lines. And that message is, there’s no need to search for online support as a totally dependent and helpless individual. No matter how much you feel the need for someone to talk to in the middle of the night, you must always remember that you still have a lot of control in the situation. Keep your guard up and resist making yourself more vulnerable to someone who may be interested in controlling you, and that includes the media platform.

 

 

DIGITALIZING EMOTIONS I  (by Dries & Brooks)

Robert is a 69-year old retiree. He recently opened his Facebook page to check on the latest pictures of his grandchildren. A message appeared that stunned him. “Facebook informed me that one of my friends had a birthday and I should contact him and wish him the best. The problem was that this guy was indeed a very special long-standing friend and business colleague, but he had died eight month ago! I saw that message and for a split second I thought, ‘Jim is alive?’ Once reality hit I was really irritated because this electronic monster had awakened some really unpleasant emotions I had managed to tuck away in my mind.”

Is there any doubt that the ubiquity of social media has changed a lot of things, including challenges to how we cope with daily life? Psychologically, is that good for us?

Recently, Dries provided mental health support for a community experiencing the sudden loss of a local student. During a small group session with several of the deceased student’s teammates, one young woman asked her for direct advice on how to handle an “awkward” decision.

As a fundraiser, the woman’s community created apparel for purchase, with all proceeds going to the victim’s immediate family. The shirt had a large picture of the student, and the young woman said she would be uncomfortable wearing the shirt. She would gladly donate to the cause but felt a more “subtle” item should be sold to help the cause.

She went on to say that she was also feeling discomfort because her classmates were posting to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc., pictures of the deceased and messages of sorrow for their loss. Her next comment, though, was something we had not heard or considered before: “If you don’t post a picture of you with [the deceased]……like…… are you even really sad?”

This fascinating question raises many other questions about social media. Topics like bullying and sexual predators are already in the public discussion about social media. We wonder, however, if there is an even more pernicious threat posed by this platform, a threat that goes to the very fabric of our psychological essence.

Consider the following questions: Is posting on social media the new definition of sincerity? If we don’t post a picture and song of appreciation to our spouse on our anniversary, do we really love him or her? If we don’t have a litany of adjectives describing our child to caption the birthday photo, do we really care?

Are people judging us for our social-media posts to the point where we may be “guilted” into adding something just to be accepted? Are we now judged by how we promote our emotions to the point that keeping our feelings private is not an option? Are we being forced into displaying our emotions for all to see?

Dries told the young woman that there is no right or wrong way to express herself as long as she does so in a truthful, honest manner. If she finds it insincere to purchase the commemorative shirt or post a picture of her with the deceased, then she should choose some other action. If others comment on her lack of public sharing, that is more a statement of their needs than hers.

Dries also noted that we should not judge those who like public postings for being too showy. Yes, some people might be hanging their emotions out there in order to draw attention to themselves; others, however, might be reaching out for more help.

The problem remains that Robert and others get upset by the almost unavoidable presence of social media in their lives. How about you? You open the platform and come face-to-digital-face with people sharing their experiences. What are your reactions? Are you irritated at the intrusion? Do you feel calm? Do you scroll away immediately?

What might your reactions suggest? For example, if irritated, perhaps you should consider temporarily hiding that person’s page. If you scrolled, you might be denying or avoiding an emotional response. Give yourself the opportunity to try something more meaningful and personal so you don’t have to deny your feelings. The choice, as always, is yours.

From a psychological perspective, emotional expression as a form of coping with daily life is highly individual. Social media posting may help some folks move through their emotions. Perhaps they choose that forum as the outlet because they get “comments” and “likes” that validate how they feel. Others, however, like Robert, might want to keep their thoughts to themselves. Robert says, “If I want to visit the gravesite of my friend, is Facebook telling me that my grief is not sincere unless I invite the neighborhood along?”

But here’s the real problem as we see it. Is Facebook taking the first step on a very slippery slope that will eventually replace the suggestion to Robert, “Send a birthday message to your friend,” with a declaration that, “Facebook sent your friend a birthday message in your name”?

Should that fateful day ever arrive, social media will have hijacked our personal autonomy and psychological freedom. The only two things we can bring under personal control are our thoughts and our actions. Should social media think and act for us, will we passively allow ourselves to be stripped of our essence as humans? Will we lose the ability to change how we think and act?

Social media can be a real asset for us. We must, however, remember to keep it under our control and not let it control us. Stay vigilant, stay true to your feelings and express them in ways you choose, and, above all, stay human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A GOLD MEDAL FOR THE GYMNASTS

Dr. Larry Nassar, physician for United States Olympics and Michigan State University, pleaded guilty in November2017 to sexual molestation of female gymnasts over more than 10 years, some as young as 13. His trial is in the final stages and the judge, Rosemarie Aquilina, has allowed his victims, numbering well over 100, to give personal impact statements in the courtroom before she delivers final sentencing to Nassar. The statements have already taken more than three days as victims come forward and speak their peace.

This trial, and especially the victim-impact statements, has been somewhat underreported, although it has received generous coverage on ESPN. Today, January 19, 2018, I heard excerpts from several statements on an excellent ESPN show called “Outside the Lines,” hosted by Bob Ley.

I was astounded and awe-struck, listening to these young women excoriating not only Nassar, but also others who were complicit in varying degrees of hush-hush, along the lines of the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State molestation case. Officials of the United States Olympic Committee, and the current President of Michigan State University, Lou Anna Simon, were singled out by several of the victims for shameful cover-up efforts that neglected the victims of Nasser’s heinous actions while “treating” young female gymnasts for injuries.

Why have I been astounded and awe-struck by these young women delivering their statements? For one thing they are remarkable statements of personal courage, honesty, confidence, controlled anger, and empowerment. Never have I heard such perfect examples of what it means to cope with adversity.

These women looked directly at their tormentor, who usually looked down, unable to match their courage, and said things like, “You are learning that kids grow up to be strong women who can destroy your world.” “I used to consider myself a victim, but now I am a survivor.” “We are the voice. We have the power now.” “We are a force and you are nothing.” “How dare you ask any of us for forgiveness?” Directing a comment at the MSU President, one strong woman said, “Guess what? You’re a coward, too.”

From a psychological perspective, can you imagine being 13-years old and having a trusted medical professional violate you on the examining table? Can you imagine the challenge these 100+ women have already faced, and will continue to face? Can you imagine how hard it was for them to write their impact statements and deliver them in a court of law while being recorded for the record? To call these women strong is probably an understatement for the ages. They are role models for what it means to face adversity that challenges self-identity, one’s emotional core, and the ability to resist the inevitable question, “Was it my fault?” I hope many of these young women deliver their message of survival and coping to young people around the country. Their stories are inspirational.

When I was listening to these women give their statements I thought, “I need a blog post about this coping strength, but how can I ever find the words to convey their power?” I have decided the best I can do is say, “What these women are doing is precisely what my wife and I raised our two daughters to be able to do.” These women gymnasts have set an extremely high bar! Remember them the next time you fear facing a challenge.

 

 

FLEXIBLE GENDER ROLES FOSTER GOOD COPING

There’s a lot of talk these days about how men and women should relate to each other. The “Me-Too” movement, although focused primarily on empowering women who are disabused by powerful men, also has a strong message for men and their self-esteem. It’s a simple message: Men should not define themselves as competitors with women who need to demonstrate their superiority by being pigs.

This is hardly a new message. In 1974, psychologist Sandra Bem published the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI). The test measured where one’s sex-role trait falls on a scale ranging from “Traditional Male” to “Traditional Female,” with “Psychological Androgyny” falling in the middle of the scale.

Traditional Male sex-roles are characteristics like competitiveness, aggressiveness, assertiveness, and domineering. Traditional Female sex-roles include traits like sensitivity, emotional, caring, and passive. The post-WWII childrearing culture of the US identified good parenting as teaching boys traditional male sex-roles (“You need to be tough, kid! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.”), and teaching girls traditional female sex-roles (“Remember, honey, you must always nurture your children and support your husband, and make sure your household is well-run.”)

Bem’s message was that forcing children into rigid sex-roles limited their ability to cope well with everyday life. For instance, what if a situation requires caring, sympathy, and displays of emotion? Well, the traditional male is lost; he doesn’t know how to behave without sacrificing his masculinity-dependent self-esteem. Similarly, what if a situation requires assertiveness and an aggressively competitive spirit? In this case, the traditional female is lost because to act in those ways would be a threat to her femininity.

What a shame! Rearing children to display traditional sex-roles severely limits their ability to adapt and cope with a variety of situations. The traditional male learns he cannot display female traits because to do so would show him to be a sissy or wimp; the traditional female learns she cannot show male traits because to do so would have others judge her to be a penis-envying b…ch, or some similar pejorative.

This dilemma is where psychological androgyny comes in. The androgynous woman is caring and sensitive, but if the situation demands it, she can also be aggressive and competitive. By the same token, the androgynous man is dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, he can also be emotional, sympathetic, and soft. And here is the key: Both the androgynous woman and man can show this flexibility without compromising their respective identities and self-esteem as being feminine or masculine.

Bem’s work was really a logical extension of a book published a decade earlier (1963) by Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique argued against the prevailing view of women best fulfilling themselves by being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. The cultural norm said the psychologically healthy woman will display traditional female sex-roles.  Her appropriate careers were nurse or elementary/ school teacher, although wife and mother were always the best “career” options.

As Friedan saw it, the problem for women was simple. Faced with this rigidity of options available to them, women were submerging their identities in a male-dominated world. Women were being told that their only road to fulfillment was as housewife and mother. In Bem’s context, being an androgynous woman was inappropriate.

I find it remarkable that 55 years after Friedan’s book, and 44 years after Bem’s work, American society is still subjugating women. We’re still, seemingly in vain, fighting the realities of unequal pay for equal positions, and still allowing misogynistic men to mistreat women with impunity. In the 1970s I heard the Oprahs of that day, joined by many emotionally-secure men, raise their voices against the injustice of it all. And yet, here we are, decades later, still listening to those voices.

The problem remains the same: The voices of reason and fairness are fighting an insidious foe, an unconscious bias that, to one degree or another, is instilled in all of us through our childhood and into adulthood. I’ll illustrate the bias by describing a psychology study done in the 1970s.

Young mothers served as the participants. They were chosen because they described themselves as “liberated” women when it came to childrearing. That meant they intended to raise their children to be comfortable with non-traditional sex roles regardless of their gender. Thus, they were raising their boys to be competitive and assertive, but also sensitive and caring if the situation required it. Similarly, they were raising their girls to be nurturing, supportive, and domestic, but also assertive, demanding, and achievement oriented if necessary.

In the experiment itself, each mother was taken into a room and an infant sat on the floor with a caretaker, playing pat-a-cake. In one condition the infant was introduced as “Sarah,” and the mother was encouraged to join in the play using a toy from a nearby box.

In a second condition, everything was the same except the mother was introduced to “Adam.” The same infant was used in both conditions.

The toy box had three items in it: Doll, plastic fish, and a truck. The results showed that most of the mothers pulled out the doll for Sarah, and the truck for Adam. Automatically, without any conscious deliberation, the mothers made what psychologists call an implicit association, pairing a traditional female toy (doll) with Sarah and a traditional male toy (truck) with Adam. (The plastic fish was included as a neutral control toy.)

Do you get it? We can give lip-service to our belief in equality and fair treatment of people irrespective of their gender, but the implicit associations in our minds have trouble overcoming the subtle societal messages preaching inequality that we are all saturated with as we mature. So don’t get all confident a new day is here. It isn’t.

Sure, we have moved beyond that time when the fear of women in medical school was not of failure but of too much success, lest they be judged as less than feminine. We have moved beyond the time when women go to college to find a husband. But the presence of all those pathetic and pitiful men (adolescents, really) who prey on women to subjugate them are alive and well.

Is there a coping lesson in all this? Of course there is, and probably more than one. A major lesson, however, would certainly be that if we are to cope effectively and interact successfully with others, we need to dig deep into our hidden implicit association, our unconscious prejudices, and examine those biases that compromise our ability to relate honestly and genuinely with each other.

 

 

 

IDENTIFY YOUR TRANSFERABLE SKILLS

Many folks complicate their coping efforts by selling themselves short. Joe may not apply for a new job because he feels he doesn’t have the specific skills required. Sally has trouble “selling” herself in an interviewer because she has not thought about her skills in a broad context. The key words in those two sentences are “specific skills” and “broad context.”

To illustrate what I’m talking about, consider a recent newspaper column by Karen Gregory, a 20-year military veteran. She decided to move to civilian life and start her own business. Now you might be tempted to say to her, “Wait a minute. You’ve made a career in the military. How can you possibly be prepared to enter the business world?” Karen no doubt asked herself that question often as she prepared for the change.

She realized she had to ask herself what specific skills she had learned in the military that prepared her for tackling her business dream. So she decided to take a personal skills inventory, and not limit herself to thinking about those skills only in a military context.

Karen’s self-inventory led her to focus on three skills she had acquired and was good at: (1) The ability to be flexible, creative, and persevere when forced to deal with the unexpected; (2) The ability to manage and resolve conflict; (3) The ability to build a productive team.  She also thought long and hard about how these skills would serve her well in a business context. She thought outside the “military box,” so to speak.

Her personal assessment gave Karen the confidence to pursue her dream from, as she put it, “Boots to the Boardroom.” She is now President and CEO of a consulting firm, and a mentor to other women looking for ways to benefit their career decisions.

There’s really no secret to coping by taking a personal inventory of your skills. The problem is, it’s easy to overlook the usefulness of such an inventory. Too often folks define themselves in ways limited to their current job. If you systematically assess your abilities in a broader context, however, like Karen did, you can discover that what you considered to be limited abilities really have wide-ranging applications.

Years ago I knew a professor of English, Russ, who was tired of teaching. A family member who ran a small human resources consulting firm wanted Russ to join him in the business, which involved helping clients create a more employee-centered work culture and increase worker productivity. Russ was hesitant about the career move, doubting that a college professor of English would have much to offer. Once he did a personal skills inventory, however, his outlook changed quite a bit.

Russ discovered that he had exceptional communication skills, both oral and written. He could transmit his ideas in clear and easy to understand language. When his relative gave him a client’s company employee handbook, for instance, he found he could revise it into a more user-friendly document that increased the likelihood of employees developing a sense of ownership in their job. Russ also discovered his outstanding critical-thinking skills gave him many insights into the dynamics of client companies his relative described. He could critically analyze their needs and translate them into employee policies that encouraged worker loyalty and excitement. In short, Russ discovered that he brought a lot of skills to the table that would help his relative’s company.

Many times during my academic career I advised students who were unclear about what major field of study would be best for their career. I would tell them to stop obsessing about their major as an indispensable step for career success. First of all I told them that more than likely they would change jobs, and even careers, multiple times before retiring. Second, I reminded them that their career success would be determined not so much by their college major, but by their transferable skills, such how well they could write, read, speak, think, work with others as a member of a team, and resolve conflicts in productive ways.

I said to them, “If you have those skills then they will be the driving force behind your career and determine your likelihood of success. Your college major will not be that driving force. I know an accounting major who is a dentist, a psychology major who is a VP of a major corporation, a Theology major who is a clinical psychologist, a biology major who works with autistic children, an English major who is a surgeon………….just to name a few career examples that we don’t automatically associate with a particular major. So choose a major because you enjoy it, not because you think it will prepare you for a career. Career preparation is what second majors, minors, and elective courses are for. Pick a major you find fun, and also focus on developing those transferable skills.”

These business and academic examples also apply to coping. Don’t sell yourself short by assuming you have limited skills. Think broadly, outside the box, and do a personal abilities inventory. You will likely discover that you have strengths and abilities that apply to a broad spectrum of employment areas. You will also feel better about yourself, and feel empowered to follow a work path that allows you to be productive and brings you a sense of satisfaction.