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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.

POLITICIANS ARE LOUSY COPING MODELS, PART 2

OK, in Part 1 we saw how our politicians are just a bundle of defense mechanisms. They can get away with it, I guess, given their jobs. Blame the other side and then proceed to act in precisely the way you’re criticizing. That kind of behavior will no doubt get them re-elected. But for us, habitually blaming others for our difficulties, or using some of the other defenses we noted, is a terrible way to cope effectively with the challenges of everyday life.

Why do so many politicians take the defensive road? I’m sure our congressional Representatives and Senators are patriotic Americans. They also seem to understand that as members of the Legislative branch of our government, co-equal to the Executive and Judicial branches, it is incumbent on them to treat each other with respect and civility, even when they disagree on issues. To top it off, they are bright, educated, and fairly well-to-do.

Why, then, do they submit to the hazards of ineffective coping? Why, for instance, do they have such a hard time compromising? Why do they often support proposals they really don’t accept? Isn’t that hypocritical? Why do they seem to favor partisan issues over their own principles and values? Why does anyone do such things? One answer to those questions is, “To avoid facing anxieties and fears.”

What might our legislators be afraid of? Well, how about getting re-elected! That fear is particularly acute for Representatives who go through the cycle every two years. But, you ask, “Why would such educated people, who can easily find other and probably more lucrative work, worry so much about being re-elected?” Good question.

Could the answer be that politicians define themselves by their position? The accolades, respect, and admiration that come to nationally-serving folks can easily go to their head. They succumb to a dangerous temptation of concluding, “I am a United States Representative who happens to be [an attorney, an entrepreneur, a former CEO, a war veteran, etc.]”

A more modest and grounded identity would be along the lines of, “I am [an attorney, an entrepreneur, a former CEO, a war veteran, etc.] who happens to be a United States Representative.” There is a world of difference between the two identities. Are you first and foremost an elected politician, or are you first and foremost a spouse, parent, physician, entrepreneur who decided to give politics a whirl? If the former, your whole world will revolve around staying in office.

I remember serving on a college faculty panel as part of Parents Day activities. We were there to answer questions about academic life at the College. I was a youngster, mid-thirties, and was seated next to a far more experienced and learned colleague from the history department. I’ll never forget how he introduced himself: “Hello, I’m [name] from the history department. But I don’t teach history; I teach your sons and daughters.”  It took me many years to understand that he had discovered the secret that made him such an effective teacher: He defined himself appropriately, not as a teacher of history but as a teacher of life who used history as his instructional vehicle.

So what coping lessons can we take from all this? Number one, be careful how you define yourself! Your self-definition determines those things you see as under your control. If your definition is faulty, you will try in vain to control things you can’t, and then you’re living in a fantasy world. Second, stop making excuses for your actions. Take responsibility. Live in the present and don’t use past events to explain yourself to others. So you have it tough? Who doesn’t?

Finally, make your words and actions consistent. (More about that in an upcoming blog.) Don’t play “mind games” with yourself and others. You’re not here to live by others’ expectations! Determine your values, speak to them, and let your actions be guided by them. Doing so will help you treat others with respect and courtesy, and you will more likely receive the same in return. Being in touch with and honest about your inner self — now isn’t that what a good coping life should be all about? Unfortunately, however, while you may cope nicely you will probably not get elected to Congress. Sorry about that.

POLITICIANS ARE LOUSY COPING MODELS, PART I

I have to admit I’m kind of fascinated with watching politicians these days. Not so much because it’s like being in the monkey house at the zoo trying to figure what’s going on in the minds of the inhabitants…….OK, that may be involved a little bit. But my fascination is really because  I see actions unfold that violate every principle of good coping we try to develop in this blog.

I mean, we’re talking lousy coping techniques using personality defense mechanisms, suspension of reality, avoiding life……..you name it, they’re all there in a beautiful psychology lab for viewing. Want some examples?

Listen carefully to how supporters respond when they hear criticism of 45. Typically their response will include one of the following words: Obama or Hillary. That’s right! They behave like the 18-year old brought before the judge for drunk driving. The kid says, “But Your Honor, you should see all the laws my old man breaks when he’s behind the wheel!”

Dad’s behavior is your best excuse, kid? It’s great rationalization that helps the kid avoid admitting he was wrong. But the fact is, when we justify our behavior by pointing out the terrible actions of others, we are showing we have no defense for what we did, but we sure aren’t going to admit it.  That’s pure denial, self-defeating avoidance, lousy coping, and a firm step down the road to depression.

How about this for avoidance: The Democrats got so mad that the Republicans worked in private on a health bill (precisely what Dems did in 2009), that they took steps to obstruct regular business on the Senate floor. This action is like spreading rumors about a co-worker who is working privately on a project and won’t tell you about it. So you go on the attack: “Hey, Joe, is there any truth to the rumor that [co-worker] is in trouble for lying to the boss?” Yeh, displace your hypocritical guilt onto others. Get the rumor mill started against your enemy. Lousy coping!

Here’s projection avoidance. Have you ever heard a reporter ask a Democrat or Republican why nothing is getting done? The reply is totally predictable: “Nothing is getting done because the other side of the aisle is not willing to work with us.” Wow, it must be comfortable living in a world that is so simplistic. Good luck in coping with the real world! Why not admit that what you’re criticizing in others is precisely what you don’t like seeing in yourself?

The adolescent Tweeter-in-Chief? All he wants to do is campaign, not govern, in an endless search for self-glorification. That’s the ultimate denial of current reality: “I must keep my ego strong to hide my insecurities from others. I must stay in my comfort zone or I might fall apart.” Perpetual campaigning in the comfort zone might work for him, but for us mere mortals, if we lock ourselves in our comfort zone we’re asking for problems down the road. Imagine parents afraid to act like parents, so instead they interact with the kids like they’re college buddies. “My kids love me!” Lousy parental coping and everyone is going to suffer.

Don’t emulate these people because they are terrible role models. As a first step, don’t be nasty to those who disagree with you when you’re on Facebook or Twitter. Express your opinion but show some respect for others. My wife recently saw a post with a profanity-laden speech supporting 45. She posted a reply objecting to the profanity and received a nasty reply belittling her for having her head in a hole. Why so nasty? What would be so hard about writing a reply more like, “I agree that the profanity did not add anything and was unnecessary. Still, the speech was good because it pointed out the problems we have and I believe DT can solve them.” Civility, courtesy, and respect for others are always conducive to self-respect and good coping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEWARE “THE SCREAMERS”!

OK, who are these “screamers”? In a nutshell, they are the folks who are convinced that their opinions, actions, and beliefs are totally correct. In fact, they are so certain their way is best, they become obsessed with trying to convince you to join them in taking the life pathway of personal enlightenment! “My way is best! Join me so you can share in the joy!”

I remember a time in graduate school when my wife and I went to a student party. The year was 1967 and the place was Syracuse University. The times were ripe with student rebellion against…….actually, against just about everything in conventional society. The Vietnam War was kicking into high gear; John F. Kennedy was dead from an assassin’s bullet; his brother, Robert, and Martin Luther King had only a few months to live before they, too, would be murdered. A few college students were really pissed off about the war and some were even taking to the streets to tear apart the American system. Some joined Dylan saying the times, they were a-changin’!

Me? Hell, I was just interested in getting my PhD in psychology and moving on with my professional life with my chosen partner. I had a nice paid assistantship with an eminent psychology professor, Joyce had a job and was earning her own “PHD” (Putting Husband Through,”) and we really weren’t interested in tearing down “the system.”

I say all this just to give you the cultural context present when we were enjoying ourselves at the student party. A few cold brews hit the spot after a week of slaving away in the classroom and the research lab. But a couple of guys I knew decided for some reason that my recreational life was incomplete. They cornered me and began extolling the virtues of “grass.”

“Man,” one of them said, “dump the alcohol. Pot is the way to go. You have to……” And they went on and on and on preaching to me about the benefits and glories of getting stoned. They were totally unwilling to let me do my thing, which was get a Bud buzz!

I told them I was fine with alcohol as my recreational drug of choice. They were wasting their time trying to convert me to their drug. Before turning away I added, “Plus it sounds like you’re trying to convince yourselves of your drug choice. To me, seems like you’re pretty insecure about that choice.”

These guys were “screaming” at me with their excessive attempts to proselytize me to their way of thinking about marijuana. The fact that they were trying so intensely and obsessively suggested to me that deep down, they were insecure and unsure about their actions, and were trying to convince themselves of the wisdom of their choice by getting me to join them.  Psychologists call it Reaction Formation, which means acting on the outside the opposite of doubts and insecurities you feel on the  inside.

A couple of examples: Those who are guilt-ridden on the inside yell long and hard to convince you how pure and sinless they are. Of course, they’re really working to convince themselves. Or, how about those who have strong dependency needs but fear rejection? They are desperate to depend on others and long for their support, but they display to others how self-sufficient and independent they are. They strut around like the chief rooster, proudly screaming they are totally self-sufficient, when inside they are a quivering mass of insecurity and anxiety.

Screamers deny their true feelings; they wear a protective armor when around others to hide those inner feelings. Their actions are designed to do one thing: Avoid facing what is inside them because those feelings are saturated with fear and anxiety. What better way to deny and avoid them than to act precisely the opposite!

It’s a beautiful strategy designed to protect a fragile ego, right? A strategy, yes! A beautiful one? No way! Once folks get on that road of avoiding their fears, frustrations, anxieties, guilt, anger, or any of a number of negative emotions, they are heading in one direction: Depression.

There’s only one way to get off that road, one way to feel secure in your own skin, one way to be able to stop presenting a “false you” to others, one way to stop “screaming.” That way is to attack your inner demons! Confront them, meet them head on, accept them as real for you, deal with them, and resolve them. That, my friends, is coping, and throughout this blog we suggest specific actions to accomplish the coping task!

 

 

ACHIEVING WORK-FAMILY BALANCE

Scottie Davis Winslow is VP of Optum Consulting. In a recent newspaper column she wonders how best to achieve that balance between the demands of the workplace and the obligations of everyday life outside the workplace. Those obligations could be as simple as grocery shopping and picking up the cleaning, or more involved like finding time to be with spouse or children and caring for elderly parents. No matter what the obligation, when work interferes with everyday life we can suffer significant stress. How should we handle it?

Identify your goals and values and make sure family, friends, or anyone depending on you understand where you’re coming from.

Communicate the various parts of your life, your priorities, and seek others’ help in achieving them to everyone’s satisfaction. For instance, if your kids understand and accept that you are not available all the time for them, they will be willing to work with you to find that quality time with them on a regular basis.

Do not get into the perpetual “apology” mode.

Constantly monitor and adjust your daily priorities to meet unexpected situations. Communicate your efforts to others.

Include yourself in your priorities. Ignoring your physical and mental well-being to serve others will self-destruct in the long run.

Winslow makes offers some useful and proactive suggestions. The first one is especially important. We often forget that effective coping requires us to have standards, values, and a moral compass to provide us with a framework for our actions.

For an additional piece of reassurance to working moms, let’s not forget one other important thing; Women who work are often better off psychologically and physically than women who don’t. We should not take that statement as criticism of stay-at-home moms. Many such moms are perfectly happy, and some working moms are miserable.

The problem is that the media often casts the working mom in a pressure-cooker environment, and someone who is just too tired at the end of the day to devote quality time to her family and other domestic issues. This is an unfair characterization that just puts needless pressure on many women when they run across it.

There are some interesting research findings in this area. Compared to non-working women, working women show lower cholesterol levels; have a lower incidence of general illness; are less depressed; say their jobs help serve as an outlet for the stresses of home and childrearing.

What these findings suggest is that working moms have no need to fear playing multiple roles in their life. Comfort level is the key. In fact, heading home on Friday for a weekend with the toddlers after a particularly tough week can be very pleasant and invigorating; by the same token, heading to work on Monday after a weekend of dealing with diapers, tantrums, and crying might be equally pleasant and invigorating!

 

LIVING TO EAT

When Rodney graduated from college he weighed about 440 lbs. Ten years later he tipped the scales at 525 lbs. He was 31 years old. Two things happened that made him come to grips with his weight problem. First, he was hospitalized with a variety of physical problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood sugar, plus blood clots in his legs. All these difficulties were directly attributed to his weight. Second, his mother experienced medical problems and had to be hospitalized.

His mother’s illness proved to be quite a shock to Rodney. He suddenly realized his weight could hurt her if he was unable to help her get through her sickness. He was so incapacitated by his excessive weight that he could not support her in her time of need. He couldn’t even tie his own shoelaces! “That did it,” he said to himself. “I’ve got to lose weight.”

Rodney’s motivation to change his eating behavior was concern for his mom. “I was basically comfortable with who I was. Sure I was fat, but I was enjoying my life and I had a good circle of friends. But suddenly it hit me – I can’t take care of mom in this condition. How can I take care of her if I’m sick, or if I can’t do some basic physical things?”

It was also clear to him that his life expectancy was not exactly promising. How could he care for mom if he died? He came to see his weight as a symbol of selfish indulgence that was a threat to his mother’s health. He decided to place her well-being first and foremost in his mind, and that proved to be a tremendous source of motivation for him.

Within three years Rodney shed 305 lbs. He now maintains a healthy weight and regular exercise regimen, is at the low end of the scale for cholesterol and triglycerides, has a resting heart rate of 55 (it was nearly 100 when he weighed 525), and is training to run in the NYC Marathon. His mother is now deceased, but he has three new motivators to keep himself healthy – a wife and two boys.

What did Rodney do to completely change his life and lose all that weight? First of all he had to determine his options and then develop a plan of action. Initially he thought his only option was stomach surgery. Many people experience success with this surgery, and the physicians he consulted tried to convince him that he would never be able to lose sufficient weight on his own.

“Three physicians and some other medical people told me I needed gastric bypass surgery. I’m not sure why,” Rodney says, “but I didn’t want to do the surgery. I just couldn’t relate to it. Maybe I saw that option as depending too much on the surgeons. I had spent most of my life just drifting from one meal to the next; I wanted more control over myself. So I kept looking for ways to lose weight on my own.”

He educated himself about nutrition, basic body biology, and exercise by going on various web sites. He slowly designed a diet for himself that was healthy, but limited in calories. He also designed exercise routines, each one corresponding to movements he could make within the limits imposed by his size.

Rodney empowered himself, exercised control, and acquired ownership of his diet and exercise plans. He knew his plans would be difficult to endure and carry out. He knew he would be hungry much of the time and tempted to cheat on his diet and exercise program, and that a lot of frustration lay ahead. He knew he could not control these consequences, so he reconciled himself to them. He accepted the things he could not control while taking control of those he could.

Rodney stopped making excuses for his weight problem. He would not blame genetics, even though his mother was severely overweight; he would not blame McDonalds for supersizing his order of fries and loading them with fats. He simply focused his thoughts around one unavoidable truth: His choices, not genetics and not McDonalds, were making him fat.

It took some time but Rodney’s plan was successful. Over a three year period he completely changed his lifestyle. As noted earlier, he lost 305 lbs, his blood and other medical readings reached the normal range, and he slowly began to enjoy an active and productive family life.

“Forgive the pun,” he told us, “but the whole process began to feed on itself. As those pounds began to melt away and as I could do more and more things physically, I was like a runaway train. I used to look forward to a pizza; now I was looking forward to weighing myself and knowing I would be rewarded. It was just awesome. I had never gotten such positive results from things I was doing myself. The feeling of self-control was incredible.”

Note the features of Rodney’s case that we believe are essential to successful coping:

He took control of his thoughts and actions. He did not automatically listen to people who told him to do things their way. He considered advice but ultimately made his own decisions. He armed himself with knowledge, found the methods for change that fit his personality, and put those methods to work for him in a specific plan of action. He was intensely motivated to change. He took personal responsibility for his pitiful state and poor diet and refused to say he was “addicted” to food, or had “bad genes.” When you play the addiction card or the genetic card as reasons for your problems, you are avoiding them, and they will persist and worsen.

Rodney’s weight stabilized around 190lbs. He was six feet tall so this weight was just right for him. In addition to his day job, he became a motivational speaker, spending a couple of evenings a week talking to various businesses, civic groups, weight-control programs, and health professionals. When he spoke he delighted in having a pair of pants with him, the pants he wore when he had topped out at 525lbs. He laughed as he showed how his entire torso fit into one of the legs.

 

 

 

IS SOCIAL MEDIA ENOUGH SOCIAL SUPPORT?

January 2017 we had a posting on working moms. Recently I saw a piece in the local paper dealing with this issue, but the article also got me to thinking about some other things. The article was written by Jennifer Sugarman, President and CEO of the Cocoa Beach Regional Chamber of Commerce. She is a new mom and wanted to share some of the personal issues she faced about motherhood and career. What do you do when these life paths collide?

Sugarman notes how new moms face a full spectrum of emotions about being a new mom: “Pure love, terror, apprehension, victory, elation, joy, and anxiety.” That last one can come from several directions, including post-partum mood complications sprinkled with some guilt about being absent from work.

With the right strategy, Sugarman says new moms can cope with those negative moods and emotions and steadily return to an adjustment equilibrium and back to their former selves. How? She mentions staying busy, getting out of the house into the fresh air, exercising, watching the diet, joining post-partum support groups on social media, and reaching out to family and friends for support in all those activities.

The last two items caught my eye because they stress the need for support from others. Do you want your post-delivery strategy to succeed? Well, you must enlist other people to help you do so. That social support also extends to a new guilt feeling once returning to work. Now it’s guilt over leaving your child. Sugarman felt it, but imagine how she felt when she walked into her office and discovered her co-workers had built a nursery in her office. Talk about social support!

Sugarman ended her piece with a challenge to women in her community to support each other in the area of maternal leave. Sharing experiences and mentoring can go a long way to helping new moms and women who want to go down that road. Men can also be a part of the equation by providing a work environment “conducive to career-driven mothers.”

Sugarman’s advice is fantastic and is largely based on social support. Whether we’re talking about a stay-at-home mom or a career-driven one, providing support to them as human beings will bring us all a sense of “coping fulfillment.”

But again, as I said at the beginning of this post, Sugarman’s comments got me to thinking in a broader context. Specifically, how much social support can be provided through social media? Can Tweets, Facebook, etc. do it all, or is face-to-face, touch-to-touch interaction essential? Can Skyping with a friend work just as well as having that friend stop by your house?

Did you see the recent story of the teenage girl on trial for sending Tweets to the teenage boyfriend encouraging him to follow through with killing himself? This was not a one-time Tweet, but a series that went on and on over a period of time. The boy eventually killed himself. The girl was put on trial and found guilty of manslaughter.

The merits of the case will be debated, of course, but that’s not my point. My question is this: “Is social media so powerful that it can substitute for good old-fashioned human contact?” I mean, after all, the girl didn’t have to be physically present to drive the kid to kill himself. Well, if that’s the case, why would a friend have to come over to your house to help you adjust to the issues of being a new mom? Let’s just Skype or meet on Facebook.

You know those birthday greetings we send out on Facebook? The platform, of course, lets us know it’s a “friend’s” birthday, so we dutifully send out one of many electronic birthday wishes. Tell me, is there something a little artificial about this? Do you feel the same whether someone you know sends you a Facebook greeting, or calls you on the phone and you hear their voice say (or sing!), “Happy Birthday”? Does seeing a birthday wish on Facebook have the same effect on you as receiving a card in the mail with a note attached?

Social media is certainly our new reality. Do we, however, sacrifice a bit of social support for each other when we rely on it? Should we go out of our way to call or visit someone, or can the Facebook post have the same supportive effect? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I would like to hear others’ opinions.

DEPENDENCY

A father of a 17-year old girl said, “We’ve had a lot of trouble with our daughter for about 3 years now. So far counseling hasn’t changed her so we agreed to put her on anti-depressants. She’s been on them about a month now and she’s still giving us a hard time. How long does it take for these drugs to kick in so our daughter will be back to normal?”

A newspaper article last November commented about a local store that was cutting back on decorating the store for Christmas and, unlike previous years, was no longer having employees wear Santa hats and other Christmas accessories. Employees were also cautioned to greet customers with neutral expressions like, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” so as not to offend anyone. The reporter interviewed several customers about these new policies and one gentleman said, “It’s ridiculous. I’m disgusted with all this PC stuff. Donald Trump says we can now say ‘Merry Christmas’ if we want and that’s what I’m going to do; if I offend someone well too bad.”

A first-year student came up to her prof after class and said she was having trouble on his tests because he didn’t post lecture notes on the course website. He showed her his lecture notes for that day: ‘Punishment. Go over the VCB rat study. Discuss real-life examples — basic principles. Should we spank our kids? Abusive moms study. Discuss.’

Obviously, these ‘notes’ were of no help to her. The prof explained to her that he uses prompts to himself to present material. He also reminded her that the VCB study generated so much interest and discussion that it was the only thing he covered that day. Finally, he pointed out that she also does poorly on those sections of tests that cover textbook material!

OK, so what do we have here: A father of a 17-year old girl; a man fed up with PC rules at Christmas time; a student who wants lecture notes posted on the course website. What do these three people have in common? The answer is pretty straightforward: They are all looking for something or someone to depend on to take care of them. That something is different in each case – drugs, an OK from the US President, and professor lecture notes – but they’re all sought after because the person believes “they will take care of me and make things right.” They want a surrogate parent to help them cope.

Bummer! If there is anything that is the enemy of effective coping it is dependency. Developing a sense of personal empowerment is virtually impossible if you are psychologically dependent on others to fulfill your needs and wants.

In the examples above, notice how the father of the teenager does not resolve to examine their family dynamics, to assess his own actions, to reach out and communicate with his daughter about how he and other family members can help her navigate the difficult waters of the teen years. Instead, he places his trust and hopes in medication, desperately waiting for some miracle to occur.

Notice how the PC-hating gentleman apparently has endured years of polite and sensitive Christmas greetings to others while seething with anger and frustration toward those requiring him to do so………until his rescuer comes along with the message, “Depend on me, I will care for you and show you how to proceed.” Now this gentleman will never learn how to communicate and interact with either those hated others or with his own inadequacies. When challenged he is lost and can only plead, “Show me what to do now.”

Notice how the student must always seek her agent of dependency so she can justify her failures by noting the absence of the crutch on which she must depend. Poor test scores? Of course! There are no class notes on the course website.  Like the others, she is crying out for help because she has developed no sense of autonomy, no confidence, and no ability to fortify her character to cope independently with her challenges.

            On the other side of the ledger, consider a gentleman who entered AA to try and deal with his alcohol problem. He met and fell in love with one of the AA members, a woman who was far advanced in dealing with her alcohol problem. With her help and inspiration he developed the courage to fight his demons. She eventually accepted his proposal of marriage but made one thing crystal clear to him: “In the end, you have to carry your fight, and it’s a fight that will last the rest of your life. I cannot and will not do it for you.” He stayed dry and they stayed married until he died 26 years later. How cool!

Always remember, it is your thoughts and actions that bring you effective coping.

When evaluating your coping skills, remember that you can learn to accept the realities of life both intellectually and emotionally; you can learn how to meet and cope with those realities in satisfying and productive ways. You cannot do so, however, by depending on others to do the work for you.