Readers of this blog know that the first step in effective coping is understanding that there are only two things you can control: Your thoughts and your actions. You can get into all sorts of coping difficulties when you venture out of that personal control circle, such as trying to control other people.

Time and again we have seen students whose preparation strategy for an upcoming test is to try and influence the professor. “Can you ask mostly multiple-choice? The material seems best for that.” “Can you give me extra time? I’m really swamped with other courses.” These students head down a futile blind alley trying to control what they cannot………..the professor’s behavior! If they focused on what they can control, their preparation for the test, they would be in a lot better shape.

You might be nervous about a job interview because you have no idea what questions the interviewer will ask you. Of course you don’t! That’s something out of your circle of control, so forget about it. Focus on how to prepare, which is in your control circle, for all sorts of questions. That preparation might require you to do research on the company, and to think creatively about your strengths and how they would fit the characteristics of this organization.

One thing you should not do is rely exclusively (the key word in this sentence) on positive thinking for your preparation. “There’s really no need to sweat it. I can handle myself.” Trust us, folks, the power of positive thinking is not all it’s cracked up to be, UNLESS that thinking is based on results from positive actions.

It’s great to be optimistic about life, but there’s a danger in being unrealistic in your optimism. We know a famous psychologist who said that growing up he truly believed he could be a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. “Sometime in college I realized it wasn’t going to happen. Contrary to what my folks always told me, I came to the realization that living in America did not mean that I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be. No dream was too big, they always said. Well, playing for the Cubbies was too big.”

The power of positive thinking is limited. The power of positive actions, however, is unlimited. One of the secrets to effective coping is to engage in positive actions. By positive we mean actions that bring both you and others satisfaction and comfort. Seeing yourself perform these positive actions will give you a sense of empowerment, and will also invest you with optimistic thinking that is based on reality, not on a pipe-dream.

How often do you get caught up in irrational thinking? Examples would be: “I must succeed in everything I do or I’m a failure.” “I must be admired and respected by everyone or I’m worthless.” “That mistake I made at work today is going to cost me my job. I’m better off quitting.” “I struck out three times in our game today. That does it. I’m batting .268 but it’s clear I’m a burden to the team and I’m quitting.” “The boss gave the project to my colleague. She obviously thinks I’m incompetent.”

Such thoughts are demoralizing and make you vulnerable to depression. Telling yourself, “I’ve got to stop thinking this way” is futile. Instead, focus on actions you can take. “I need to talk to my supervisor about how I can guard against making a mistake like that in the future.” “That pitcher really fooled me with his curve ball. I need to study the tapes plus take more batting practice against that kind of pitch.” “I need to let my colleague know I’m available to help should she need it. I also need to share with the boss some ideas I have for other projects.”

There’s never any guarantee you will succeed. But by focusing on positive actions you can take, at least you’re teaching yourself to persevere even when frustrated; you’re showing yourself that you are self-sufficient enough to engage in some proactive actions; and you’re doing things that give you a chance to feel good about yourself. Such positive possibilities certainly outweigh marching in your personal pity parade.


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