Whenever I covered Pavlovian Conditioning (you know, bell rings and dog salivates) in a college course, I spent a lot of time trying to show that the process was much more than a salivating dog; this conditioning is a fundamental learning process by which stimuli in our lives become meaningful for us.

I always asked students for personally meaningful stimuli, and I remember one class when a student said, “I was in a Little League game and there was this one guy in the stands who was a real idiot. He must have been the father of the opposing pitcher, who by the way was striking out all of us. Starting with our leadoff hitter the parent yelled out stuff like, ‘Give it up, kid. You’ll never touch him.’ ‘Go home, kid. You’re gone anyway.’ I batted fifth and when I came up in the second inning every teammate before me had gone down swinging. I walked to the plate and heard the bozo yell, ‘You’re history, boy. You’re going down big time, boy.’ That word, ‘Boy,’ it cut me like a knife. I felt so ashamed, dirty. Every batter before me was ‘kid,’ but I was ‘boy.’ I struck out on three pitches and started crying walking back to the dugout, not because I struck out, but because of the racial slur.”

Another student raised his hand and started talking, “If I had been you I….” I immediately interrupted and literally yelled out (a couple of nappers in the back row were jolted awake!), “What are you saying? Stop it!” I yelled. “If you had been James? How can you possibly know what he was feeling? You wouldn’t have his memories, his experiences. And most of all, how can you, a White kid, possibly put yourself in James’ place? How can you know what it’s like to be Black and hear the word ‘boy’?”

Silence. I returned to a normal tone and said, “OK, I apologize for yelling, but I wanted to make a point. Let’s talk about what just happened here. Let’s talk about communication, calm communication. Can we ever really know how others see a situation? Should we try and see things from their point of view if we are to have meaningful conversation? Let’s talk about how stimuli that are meaningful to you are very personal, and when we forget that, productive discussion falls apart. Let’s also talk about how my emotional tirade threw everything off balance and made civil discussion hard. In fact, my outburst led to silence. Can we ever really reach an understanding if we throw a lot of emotionality into the mix?”

And off we would go, never fully resolving things, but, to one degree or another, depending on the “class personality,” achieving some insight into the dynamics of what makes good conversation and why communication often breaks down.

If you want to cope effectively in social situations, during conversation you must be sensitive to the perceptions of your listener. A word may be harmless to you, but may be filled with surplus meaning to someone else. “Monkey,” for instance. To African Americans it can connote racism, demeaning them as being like a monkey. A White says to a Black, “Stop monkeying around.” To the speaker it means, “Stop misbehaving and focus”; to the listener the phrase is an insensitive racial insult.

If you were the White speaker would you be tempted to say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake. It’s a common expression. I can’t believe you’re offended. I sure wouldn’t be.”

Note several features of this reply: You are saying to your listener, “Your hurt feelings are not valid, they are silly.” As far as your listener is concerned, however, you are being arrogant and condescending by implying your way of looking at things is the only reasonable way; and, you are totally ignoring the fact that your listener likely has a set of life experiences that have produced the negative attitude toward the offensive word. Any way you look at it, you are showing that you have lousy interpersonal skills, and that deficiency will hamper effective coping, which requires communication, cooperation, compromise, and consensus when interacting with others.

The coping lesson here is that you must try and understand how others see things, and accept that it might be quite different than your view. You must be sensitive to others’ perceptions, not belittle them. That’s called empathy. You must move from egotism to altruism, from condescension to respect, from confrontation to compromise. You should defend your opinion, of course, but always remember that your view is not the only one, or always the correct one.


Any advice on coping with everyday life will eventually use some variation of the phrase “move on.” For example: “This situation is not under your control so it’s time to move on to other things bothering you.” “You’ve confronted the problem and done all you can do. Now the ball is in someone else’s court. It’s time for you to move on.” “This is not a time for you to be ruminating about yesterday. What’s already happened can’t be undone. Time move on and deal with the present.”

The interesting thing is, we all seem to assume we know what is meant by the words “move on,” and that moving on is the best course of action. This assumption, of course, begs the question: “What do you think ‘moving on’ means?”

We asked some folks this question and, not surprisingly, the answers generally revolved around a common idea: “Moving on means putting something behind you; it means realizing that you can’t do anything about something so you should put it out of your life, out of your thoughts, and forget about it.”

In most cases, we disagree with this interpretation of what “moving on” truly means in the context of effective coping. Let’s consider the case of Dorothy, a 35-year old university assistant professor of mathematics. One evening she worked late in her office, 10:30pm, and decided to walk from her building to the nearby parking lot by herself. This practice was discouraged by the university, and all Dorothy had to do was call the switchboard and within 10 minutes she would have an escort. But she was tired and didn’t want to wait those extra minutes.

Dorothy was only 20 feet from her building when an assailant jumped from behind some shrubbery, hit her on the head (rendering her semi-conscious at best), and proceeded to rape her.

For the next 6 months Dorothy dealt with her trauma with the help of a devoted and understanding fiance’, an effective counselor, and trusting, supportive friends and colleagues. Her adjustment to the event was excellent. Her earlier symptoms of PTSD (nightmares, anxiety attacks, fear of strangers, etc.) subsided, and she had returned to her normal routine, although with one exception: she never worked in her office after dark.

When asked how she was doing, Dorothy replied, “Great. I’ve put the trauma behind me. It’s like it never happened. I don’t think about it and I’ve moved on.” Most would say, “Good for you, Dorothy.”

However, we detect a problem in Dorothy’s reaction to her recovery, and it’s shown in her comment, “It’s like it never happened.” Yes, it’s true she is really doing fine, but there’s an element of denial in those words, and denial of the past is not what is meant by “moving on.”

Here’s the problem: If Dorothy has denied in her mind that the event never really happened, she has left herself vulnerable. As one example, note that she never works in her office after dark. Sure, this move may seem wise, but consider that she has allowed the event to compromise her actions and limit her to what she can do after dark. What if there is a departmental meeting after dark in the early evening?  Will she skip it because she has not confronted a painful part of her reality?

Moving on does not mean you cope best when you put an unpleasant event behind you, never again look at it, and reflect, “It’s like it never happened.” You cannot undo or rewrite the past; it happened; it’s real. Following a traumatic event, sometimes that recognition, plus reflection on the past trauma, can help you put current challenges in perspective.

Rather than suppress memories of the trauma and act like it never occurred, a frank and realistic evaluation of the reality of the trauma can encourage Dorothy to be proactive and take some control. For example, she can work late in her office, but call for an escort when she is ready to leave; she can take self-defense classes; she can consider learning how to carry and use a weapon. These actions should not be taken to give her a false sense of security, but to give her feelings of self-empowerment and confidence. Thus “armed,” both physically and psychologically, Dorothy will be more likely to make wise and realistic decisions to help her face the prospect of danger. The past did happen, and recognizing that fact will help Dorothy remain vigilant, proactive, and empowered to take actions to control those things she can.

Putting trauma “behind you as if it never happened,” carries two dangers: First, it makes you vulnerable to self-pity, feeling that the corners of your world should be padded because you suffered the trauma. Second, you become vulnerable to self-blame. Dorothy, for instance, must not let the past dominate her thinking; she must not feel that others should join her pity parade, or moan, “Why didn’t I do things differently?” Such obsessive thinking is dangerous and will interfere with effective coping in the present; both self-pity and self-blame will hinder her proactive efforts to exercise some control.

In this context, “Moving on” means not letting conflict and trauma define you. It means remaining vigilant and being able to recognize the forces responsible for the conflict and trauma so you can deal with those forces as a rational, critical thinking, civilized adult. It means putting the past trauma in a box, wrapping it up with some string, and placing it on a shelf in your mind.

Placed on that shelf, the event can now collect dust in the corner of your mind. However, it is always there, in sight, but situated so it doesn’t dominate your thinking or define you. So, you move on, knowing full well that the event happened, but also knowing that you will not allow it to consume you by monopolizing your physical and psychological life.





Print, broadcast, and social media are filled with all sorts of advice on things you can do to help you cope better with stress in your life. Problem is, most folks find that many of the suggestions do not help them at all. The reason, of course, is pretty simple: we’re all so different, with different experiences, genetics, and preferences, what works for your friend or family member just may not be your cup of tea.

I know people who swear by yoga. The say a session really unwinds them, puts their mind at ease, and helps them keep the pressures of the day in perspective. I know others who say they couldn’t get through the day without taking a few minutes midday to meditate. I also know folks who say stuff like meditation and yoga is nonsense to them, and they deal with their daily stresses by running two miles every evening.

Individual differences! If there is one truth in psychology, it is that people differ, not only in their physical appearance but also in their psychological make-up. It’s a good thing there are so many choices when it comes to coping with stress because that means we can each choose our personal stress weapons.

Just remember, the next time you see one of those lists that proclaim, “Ten ways to cope with _________ (fill in the blank: boss, spouse, kids, family, holidays, etc., etc.), none of them may be for you, and that’s OK. To be effective, any coping technique must fit within your personal “limits” established by your experiences and genetics.

In a recent newspaper column, Florida attorney Cindy Bishop highlighted the book, “Younger Next Year for Women,” by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge. The authors discuss seven rules that help folks grow psychologically and cope more effectively with life. Their list captures many of the general themes we try to develop in this blog.

The first three rules deal with aerobic exercise and strength training with weights. Just remember that when you decide to follow aerobic and strength routines, you must apply these routines within the limitations of your body. One size never fits all and you must guard against injury. Begin with small steps and gradually work your way up to more challenging routines.

Rule four is financial and says you must spend less than you make. As my mother told me on many occasions, “Son, it’s not how much you earn; it’s how much you spend!” Furthermore, whenever spending habits enter the coping picture, you are wise to “pay yourself first.”

Rule five stresses diet, both quality and quantity. Remember that when monitoring “what goes in,” you must also monitor “what goes out.” We know lots of folks who exercise, exercise, exercise, but then eat, eat, eat.

Rule six focuses on caring for others. From birth, when infants thrive on skin-to-skin contact with primary caregivers, to the teen years and beyond, interacting with and caring for others can involve you in the adventure of life and help put your own problems in perspective.

Rule seven says you must commit to your world by reaching out to your community and developing productive connections with others. Becoming a part of a group, from sporting and civic groups to volunteer activities, will put you in touch with supportive others who will help you thrive.

As I said, these rules fit well with the coping principles we discuss in this blog. Just remember that when you see lists like these, one size does not fit all. You must adapt coping advice to the conditions imposed by your body, mind, and unique environmental circumstances. Also, before applying general advice to your life, you must decide what is under your control and what is not. Whenever applying any coping program to yourself, always focus on your thoughts and actions, and do not try to control those of others. Always consider words of advice within the limits imposed by your circle of control.



I am boarding a plane to New Orleans—a perfect time to think of my mortality. I keep a list of all the important accounts in a drawer—life insurance, my retirement accounts, the password to an inherited account I received when my uncle died. I told my husband where they were, though I’m not sure he was listening.

I suppose on a plane it’s natural to contemplate tragic crashes, but, in honesty, I spend a lot of time thinking about death—I would think more than the average 42- year old, anyway. It might be because of my day job. I write and edit articles for a magazine for cancer patients and survivors—a vocation I love for a lot of reasons, one of which is helping people get through their diagnosis. Brushing shoulders with people who stare squarely at their mortality admittedly serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change.

Still, I find it comforting to talk to survivors and patients at all stages of their diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. So many, while struggling, are grateful. They feel the presence of the day in a way that comes with the heaviness of knowing it might be the last. Many survivors have plans of what will happen if treatment fails them. If drug A stops working, says one, I can try drug B. If insurance doesn’t cover drug B, one says, mentioning how her daughter will be getting ready to go to college the following year, she may decide to stop treatment completely. In their stories, I find sadness, but also strength. I don’t mind sitting in this space where others might shield their eyes.

One day, at a local diner in Philadelphia, I remember telling my dad, emphatically and non-emotionally, that I don’t expect to live another day—a revelation, which I thought was profound, but caused him to look up from his Ruben with alarm. Seeing his concern and trying to explain further, I added that I didn’t expect to actually die tomorrow, but I also didn’t expect that tomorrow was a given. I guess, in real time, these words were alarming because he went home and called my sister and asked her to check in on me.

A few months ago, a friend of mine died after a tragic fall down a flight of steps at a neighbor’s house. They were celebrating the Super Bowl, and our hometown Philadelphia Eagles would go on to win it all. As I, along with all of Philadelphia, celebrated in the streets, my friend, Alicia, was admitted to an emergency room with trauma to her head. I have yet to make sense of how a 42-year-old person who I had just gone to lunch with the month before can be no longer on this planet. And I have yet to come to peace with the months of machines that kept her alive after that fall—the infections, dialysis, intubation. Some days, I can almost fool myself that she is here, being a mom to two young boys. It is, I guess, my way of coping.

Alicia had no idea the day before she’d suffer that slip that she would only get 42 years. To make it all worse, she had suffered such tragedy in those years. Her father was shot years earlier after a wedding celebration in Washington D.C. Alicia’s sister and mother both witnessed his murder. I remember days after learning of my friend’s father’s death being terrified to walk outside—the randomness that something like this could happen—giving me some kind of episode of mild post traumatic stress disorder. It could happen anywhere, right? A fall. A robbery gone bad. Even the headlines of our day remind us—as shootings occur on a regular basis these days.

In life and at work, I’m acutely aware that death happens every day—as sure as birth. Each morning when I send my daughter to school, I give her a hug, a tender embrace that tries to bottle that warmth, the delicate way my three-year-old bends into me—in case, like so many around me know, bad things happen. She doesn’t know that I pray each day she will return safe, but I do.

But there is also good from all of this sadness. During days when I am rushed and frustrated by the always piling dishes in the sink, I remind myself, “What would Alicia give to wash these dishes after supper with her boys?” I stop and feel the water roll over my hands, the suds and grease all mixed in. I’ve also started writing letters to my daughter in a journal, a tradition that Alicia had, as well as her father before, for their own children. I am also picking the best of three years of pictures for three albums: one for each of my daughter’s magical years.

Sometimes, my daughter and I pray to our angels: my mom, my aunt, my uncle, the boy killed in a motorcycle accident, two sons of friends who died of cancer. Every now and then I call out their names: Angel Aidan, Angel Jake, Angel Luke, so my daughter can hear. Whispering these names is a way to remember them, and also to make the concept of death familiar. I don’t do this to break her, but to help prepare her if tragedy does strike.

After my mom passed in 2009, I have had plans to clear out a back area at the edge of my property line that runs along a stream behind our house. I have always wanted to make a memory garden back there. It’s a small space, but quiet. Nine years ago, I thought I’d just need a bench and some bird feeders for my mom, but since her passing, more mass cards have accrued: My godfather. My aunt. And, shockingly, my friend Alicia.

And if this plane lands, as I am sure it will, what a gift it will be to clear out those vines, to put my hands in the dirt. If this plane goes down—a statistical improbability but a chance nonetheless—I can recognize even in the tragedy of a 42 year old dying along with all those surrounding me right now, there was such joy in the moments leading up to now: The surprising wonder of being a mother later in life when doctors said we probably wouldn’t be able to conceive; the obstetrician who delivered my miracle child, pointing to a locket she wore around her neck, in memory of her own grandmother who “watched over all the babies I deliver” and who just happened to have the same name as my grandmother—the same name I would go on to call my daughter. All these experiences, and countless others, somehow seem more than left to chance. And this, even in grief, allows me to just believe.

And now the plane is safely on the ground. I am home and thinking about the future with no guarantees. But that is no matter. I am looking online to find plants that grow well in the shade. I am looking forward to spring.


Even adults need security blankets. Of course, depending on them exclusively to cope with the pressures of everyday life will compromise personal autonomy and empowerment. In moderation, however, our “blankets” can be a great source of comfort as we navigate life’s mazes.

Note that I said security blankets (plural). We often need different ones for different situations. For instance, when my “government and politics” world goes haywire, which seems to be the norm lately, I like to turn to George Washington for security. Yeh, the big guy, President #1.

I was born in Washington, DC in 1944 and lived there for the first 12 years of my life. As a kid I walked the stairway to the top of the Washington Monument…twice. My friends and I could walk into the National Archives (no security checkpoints in those days) and marvel at the Declaration and Constitution on display. We were especially fascinated at the model showing how the documents descended into a vault far below ground at the end of each day. We could join tour lines for the White House and Capitol. At the Smithsonian, seeing Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis dangling from a roof triggered boyhood dreams of ascending to the sky like a bird.

I often heard my parents and grandparents talk about local politics, but “local” in DC meant The President, Senators, and House members. Very early I learned the President was someone special and important, and I was thrilled when, as a boy of eight, I shook Truman’s hand. Oh, sure, I heard adults criticize and even make jokes about the President, but there was always an undercurrent of respect for his office. I also learned he was subject to the whims of fate and voters every four years. DC residents could not vote, but my grandfather owned a farm in Virginia and was registered to vote there. My first exposure to voting took place in November 1952 when he took me with him on the drive into Virginia to vote.

“Are you voting for General Ike like everyone else, granddaddy?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, “I’m voting for Stevenson.”

“But isn’t Ike going to win? All my friends say he will.”

“Maybe so, son, but it’s important to be a good citizen and vote for your choice. That’s why we fought Hitler.” (I knew who Hitler was. On the playground we would often chant a little ditty: “Whistle while you work/Hitler is a jerk/Mussolini bit his weeny/Now it doesn’t work!” That was cool stuff for an 8-year old boy, although I was never quite sure whose weeny he bit, Hitler’s or his own!)

I never forgot that conversation with grandad, and it’s pretty much all I remember about the trip. But I guess it’s the only part that was important to remember. Maybe it’s why since 1968, when I was finally old enough to vote (21 in those days), I have voted in every election, whether presidential, midterm, primary, or special-local. I think deep down I feel if I didn’t vote I would be letting granddad down.

Lately I’ve been wrapping myself in my George Washington security blanket. Reflecting on him gives me some reassurance and comfort in these chaotic political times. He helps me cope with the anxiety the current president piles on me. I mean, Washington was far from a perfect man, but he had tremendous character, honor, and dignity. Once the war for independence was won in 1783, he went before Congress (the Articles of Confederation Congress) and resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Historian Harlow Unger says, “For the first time since ancient Rome, a commanding general with absolute power in his grasp, in future president Monroe’s words, left ‘sovereignty vested in the people.’ It was unprecedented in modern civilization.” Think about that for a minute: “The people must rule, not me. I’m going home.” Are you kidding me?

Here was this guy who was so revered and glorified by the people he probably could have proclaimed himself King and nary a word of protest would have been uttered. No wonder that George III of England, upon hearing that Washington was planning not to take over the country but to retire to his plantation and resume his life as a farmer, is reputed to have said that if Washington followed through with that plan, “He will be the greatest man in the world.” Indeed.

Washington’s retirement lasted four years. In 1987 men like James Madison pleaded with him to join the constitutional convention to help construct a new government that would correct the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. After a lot of arm twisting, Washington reluctantly agreed to join. Not surprisingly, he was elected President of the convention.

Amazingly, however, during the convention deliberations he did not join in the debates. He probably understood that if he did so, debate on that issue would end and the convention would choose whatever side he was on. Such influence would be inappropriate because he no doubt knew most members of the convention were more learned than he was, and they, not he, should determine the final product. He also was no fool, and knew that he would be chosen to hold the executive office in the new government, and he didn’t want to engage in a conflict of interest. Put that in today’s context and think about it: He had a chance to design the government he would be running precisely to his liking, but he said, “No, that wouldn’t be right.” Damn, that’s integrity!

In confirmation of the safest sure bet in history, once the new constitution was confirmed by state legislatures, Washington was elected our first president and took office in 1789. After four years he longed for his Mount Vernon home but succumbed to the pleadings of others to serve another term so the new government could stabilize further. It’s no exaggeration to say that Washington was the glue holding the fragile house of cards together, and many founders felt that should he leave after one term, their experiment would crumble.

At the end of his second term in 1796 he put his foot down and said, “No,” repeatedly, as others once again asked him to continue in office. His firm decision established an informal precedent that presidents not serve beyond eight years, a tradition that was observed for 150 years! (After Roosevelt broke the ice in 1940 and 1944, the 22nd amendment to The Constitution was approved in 1951, limiting Presidents to two full terms.)

Imagine if Washington had surrendered to the lure of presidential power, and had chosen to continue until he died in office. Imagine if he had designated a specific person to be his successor. Imagine if he had treated the office like a throne. Would our executive branch have evolved into a monarchy? Would the constitutional experiment have even survived? Would the states and other territories on the continent have been gobbled up by Britain, France, and Spain, all waiting for this insane experiment giving sovereignty to the people to fail? Scary thoughts.

Even scarier – imagine if Washington had a completely different personality profile than he did. Imagine if he had been an insecure, antisocial, immature, domineering narcissist. Who knows what mischief he might have produced!

Given those scary possibilities, why does thinking about Washington give me comfort in 2018? Certainly because he rose above those possibilities; but also because I believe his monumental spirit, his lifeforce essence, like a majestic indestructible mountain, lives on in the Oval Office. I have faith that the civility, respect, honor, and dignity he bequeathed to the Executive Office under the Constitution are stronger than any individual who would undermine those qualities. As that young boy who roamed Washington nearly 70 years ago, I have to believe it. Failure to do so would destroy that young boy and rip me of my patriotism, not to mention my sense of self.

In the final analysis, I desperately hold on to the hope that Washington’s “gift” to us will carry the day. For me, he embodies the character and soul of the presidency and the nation. In 1796, at last free to go home, his departing message to his fellow Americans transcends time and still resonates 222 years later: “Think of yourselves as a single nation; subordinate your regional and political differences to your common identity as Americans.” As historian Gordon Wood said, “If any single person was responsible for establishing the young Republic on a firm footing, it was Washington…There has been no president quite like him, and we can be sure that we shall not see his like again.”


            This week’s guest post comes from Sandy. She shares with us the challenges that arise when a spouse has cancer. She also offers some excellent advice about attitudes and actions that she finds helpful in making a devastating situation more tolerable and manageable.

 This is probably one of the more, if not the most, difficult life experiences to write about.  Effectively coping with my husband’s cancer, plus being a positive influence on him, are challenges that I did not expect nor sign up for.

For both of us, this is our third marriage.  We met as teens in an ice rink in a mall in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  We “dated” as best as we could with a 25-mile distance, no car, and old Ma Bell as our communication tool.  Over time we drifted apart and saw less of each other.  He invited me to his Senior Homecoming as he was nominated “King,” and had one other “date” a few years later; that was it. 

About ten years ago, at this time of year, I was single and began an internet search for him. It was five months before I found a list of people from high school that included email addresses, and he was listed as Senior Class President.  I contacted him and asked if he was the same guy who rode his bike 25 miles on a day to see me.  He replied, “it’s me!”  He was living in Missouri at the time and going through a divorce.  I had given up all hope of ever finding true love after two failed marriages.  Our first phone call after over 25 years of not speaking changed all that.  We have been together ever since.

Before he moved down to Florida, he had a cold/virus that affected his tonsils and while the one on the left side went away, the one on the right did not.  It swelled and grew larger over a span of 9 years.  Eventually we learned it was cancer.  It has now ulcerated to the point where it must be covered up 24/7 as it protrudes outwardly on the right of his neck.  He is in pain all day and sleeps very little.

I have learned that patience is key to supporting someone you love who has cancer.  Learning how to react to them is important.  Go with the flow, ask what they need, and how you can help.  They are the best one to tell you what it is and what they want/need at that moment in time.  The pain they experience is situational and can vary.  When you ask, be careful of the timing of the question as this can either be positive or hurtful to then.  Do not interpret their response as something that is meant to be anger toward you personally. Remember, they are in constant pain and need to be approached with the utmost care and love that can be given.  Respect their wishes, regardless how they may seem to you.  This attitude is how I cope with what he is going through and it helps both of us immensely.

How to cope is defined by the person who is unfortunately going through these situations.  Their decisions on how they wish to be treated must be respected.  Encourage and uphold what they want and support them.  You would want the same in return.  Although you may not agree 100%, this is their decision.  When they search for ways to deal with the illness, be aware of what they are doing and educate yourself about the strategies they want to pursue. This is especially important when it involves non-traditional and non-Western medicine.

Another coping method during this time is to find time to vent your feelings about what you are going through.  Talk to someone you can trust, keep a journal, and do not keep your emotions trapped inside, only to explode later, possibly at the one who has the cancer.

And, of course, read this blog. The terrific hosts and writers can be excellent resources to lean upon, especially in time of emotional need.

 Some resources:







Dean challenges Barb with a question: “Why do you feel so strongly about that? Your position is totally illogical!”

Later Barb finds herself ruminating on the exchange with Dean. “Why do I feel so strongly about it? Am I being unreasonable? Am I illogical? My position makes sense to me and I’m totally comfortable with it but maybe Dean is right. Maybe I should change my opinion.”

A student once told me, “You know what I hate? Having someone ask me why I do something! ‘Why do you get up so early? You should sleep in.’ ‘You don’t want to go out tonight? Why not? It’s Friday.’ Or I’m sitting in the cafeteria with some guys and one of them says, ‘Why do you eat all of one thing on your plate before you eat the other stuff?’

“I mean, what the hell, what business is it of his how I eat? Can’t I eat my food the way I want to? Am I here to please others or to do things the way I like?”

That last question really says it all and gets to the heart of the issue: You really aren’t here to live up to the expectations of others and they are not here to live up to yours. You have a responsibility to be authentic and true to yourself. Will you be satisfied with your life if you try to be someone you are not, someone another person insists you be? If you accept that the answer is “No,” resisting pressure to be what others want you to be will be easier. You will feel more personally authentic and be better able to work through the down times.

Let’s return to Barb’s example above. When confronting negative emotions, does asking yourself, “Why do I feel this way?” automatically produce insight and growth? Most people go into counseling seeking an answer to why questions: “Why I am feeling this way? Why do I have these negative emotions? Why do I get so anxious around others? Why can’t I be more decisive?” Common sense says answering those questions should lead to greater insight, learning, understanding, and positive growth. Research, however, says focusing on why questions can be unproductive and even harmful.

Ethan Kross of Columbia University asked undergraduate students to recall an experience when they felt intense anger toward someone. One group was told to vividly reflect on the experience in their minds; another group was told to imagine they were simply an observer watching themselves get angry at the other person. Only students in the second group showed lower anger when thinking about the original experience.

The lesson is clear: Dwelling on, “Why do I feel this way?” is not effective because you are focusing on the emotion and the person who aroused the emotion in you. Instead, you must view yourself more objectively, not as a victim of the emotion but as someone who can exercise some control over how you view your emotion. You must restructure your thinking about yourself (“I can control my thinking”) and others (“I cannot control what others say”). You need to understand that control is something best exercised on yourself, not on others. You need to understand that positive growth requires posing not the question of “Why?” but posing the question of “What,” as in, “What can I do to develop thoughts and actions that bring me more personally satisfying outcomes?”