A SELF-DESTRUCTIVE LIFESTYLE

Alice’s father drank heavily and used his belt on her often. She was obviously afraid of him. She describes her mom as psychologically abusive, an unstable woman who had a psychiatric history of her own. More than thirty years after these disturbing childhood experiences, Alice still has nightmares about school and her early home life. Thus, she shows symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) along with unresolved anxieties caused by fear of abandonment. For a number of years, Alice has been a client in psychiatric counseling, including medications, although without much success.

Alice has a long history of abuse with alcohol and drugs. She says nothing in life gave her the relief and pleasure she received from alcohol. She knows drugs and alcohol do not mix well with psychiatric medication, so she tries to avoid taking medication as much as possible.

She has trouble sleeping, complains of issues in areas of anger, anxiety, and depression, and shows pessimism and marked sensitivity in relating to life and people. She cannot handle criticism from others, and takes it as a personal attack and sign that she is incompetent and worthless.

During adolescence and early adulthood, Alice developed a strong indifference to her health and survival. To put it bluntly, she didn’t care if she lived or died. Drugs and promiscuity became the major players in her life. Although she never went to jail, she was routinely involved in drunk and disorderly episodes. Remarkably, she avoided major setbacks for many years.

Although she never tried to kill herself, Alice is intensely ambivalent about living. She took many risks and rolled the dice many times in her life and never seemed to care what the outcome might be. She trusts no one. The built-in will to survive keeps her alive, barely, but overwhelmingly negative thoughts and emotions produce a risky, self-defeating, and self-destructive lifestyle.

Alice’s life shows unmistakable signs of subtle suicide, characterized by a steady descent into a black hole of self-sabotaging behavior. After thirty years of practicing this lifestyle, her prognosis is not good because her core conflicts are so well established.

In the past her counselors have tried to help her attack her alcohol and drug abuse, but those are just symptoms. Alice needs to confront her core conflicts: fear of abandonment; inability to trust others; anger and self-blame for the psychological abuse she suffered as a child; and internalizing criticism from others as symbolic parental attacks on her competence and worthiness.

Alice’s case is an excellent example of the importance of what she and her counselor need to attack. Too often, the treatment emphasis is on symptoms, which ignores the deep-rooted conflict that causes the symptoms. Unfortunately, with Alice this core has been ignored so long, her personality dynamics and action patterns designed to service the root conflict have become entrenched. Replacing them will not be easy.

MODIFY YOUR ACTIONS

Effective coping requires adjustment and adaptation to changing circumstances. You can often get into difficulty by constantly repeating behavior that has worked in the past while overlooking the fact that the situation has changed.

Kelly Therrion specializes in Organizational Behavior Management, and consults with clients in a business context to help them perform more efficiently at their workplace. Viewed in a broader perspective, however, her suggestions are relevant to coping with everyday life in a wide variety of situations. We make the same points many times in this blog, but what she has to say is worth repeating.

Imagine yourself during one of those frustrating, stressful times. You feel like you’re ready to explode at another person who is making your life miserable at this particular time. What do you do?

First, remember that you can’t control the other person’s behavior; you must focus on your own actions and thinking. Second, find a way to “vent” some steam. We don’t mean you need to lash out at someone, yell at them, or insult them. Such behavior would be counterproductive. As we noted in our June 29, 2016 blog, however, there are appropriate ways of venting. Take a timeout; talk things over with a friend who will listen; go to the gym for a vigorous workout or jog/walk for a mile or two; write down your frustrations in private (see blog from August 1, 2016).

Three, think about the specific aspects of your situation that seem to trigger your frustration and emotional upheaval. Once you make yourself aware of such situational causes, you can be on your guard in those situations and make yourself less vulnerable to disruptive emotional arousal (see blogs of September 16, 2016, and February 10, 2018).

Four, try and understand the other person’s perspective. When someone says something totally at odds with your opinion it is easy to forget that there are two sides to every story, and the truth is often in the middle. Also, as we noted in the October 14, 2018 blog, once you have achieved some empathetic understanding of others, the clarity, rationality, and effectiveness of your communication with them will be greatly enhanced.

Five, use your communication with others to help you adjust your thinking. You may need to modify your opinion in order to find new ways to be proactive in the situation. No matter what your situation, it is generally worthwhile to find a good “fit” between your beliefs and preferences, and the needs and opinions of those with whom you interact. Doing so may require some compromise on your part, but that’s a good thing. When confronted with conflict and challenges, the object is not to win by destroying your opponent; your goal should be to reach an appropriate resolution that makes everyone function better as a team.

 

FORGET THE NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

“My New Year’s resolution is going to be the same one I made a year ago: find a new job. This time I’m serious. Plus, the economy is good and employers are looking for workers; it’s a workers’ market. Wages are also up so I should be able to expect more pay in the new job. What do I need to do to be successful?”

These words, written to a newspaper columnist who specializes in advice for job seekers, illustrate how not to cope with a challenge. First of all, note the excuse for last year’s failure: “I wasn’t serious last year.” Secondly, note how the writer focuses on external factors like the economy and having no advisor to explain his earlier failure, rather than focus on what he may have done wrong.

When failure occurs, effective coping requires correcting mistakes, not focusing on external factors. The former is under your control; the latter is not. Any athletic coach understands this principle. After a loss, coaches say, “We’ve got to correct our mistakes, and that’s what we’ll be concentrating on in practice. We can execute better if we work hard.”

The coach does not say, “We need to petition the league for better refs, and make sure we don’t get that crew again! I’m also bringing in a new morale coach so we can be in a better frame of mind before our next game.”

We’ll never know, of course, but I would not bet the farm that our letter writer is not going to have more success this year than last. He’s got a lousy strategy based on chance factors and reliance on someone to take care of him.

One recent Christmas holiday an acquaintance was bemoaning the fact that her gym would soon see hordes of “resolutions nuts” descending upon her and other gym regulars. “These jokers don’t know the first thing about gym etiquette and they’re just a royal pain. The only good thing is that by the end of February most of them will be gone. They dump those resolutions in a hurry.”

Bingo! Resolutions don’t last. That just about says it all. The fact is, resolutions like those made for the new year are a lousy way to cope with things bothering you, whether it’s being too heavy, smoking, lack of exercise, being inattentive to family, etc., etc., etc.

Why don’t resolutions work? For one thing, the very fact that you pick a specific date to begin your transformation into a better person shows that you are procrastinating, and are really not motivated. Picking a date is artificial and just means you’re kicking the can down the road.

Another problem is that many folks use resolutions to motivate themselves. Well, that’s just putting the cart before the horse. Resolutions must be the result of motivation to do something, not the catalyst for generating motivation.

If that’s not enough, resolutions are also usually unrealistic. You make grandiose, unattainable resolutions (“be able to run a marathon by Spring,” “lose 30 lbs. by February,”) and you also believe that you’re going to be involved in reinventing yourself, creating a new you. That’s unrealistic thinking.

To have any chance of success, a resolution must involve specific goals involving specific actions: “I will eat a piece of fruit, an apple or a pear, for lunch instead of a sandwich.” “I will do a workout at the gym 3 days a week.” “I will walk my neighborhood (or my treadmill) for 30 minutes every day.” “Every Monday I will weigh less than, or at least the same as, the previous Monday.”

If you want to change something about yourself, don’t wait until some future date to begin; start now. It’s important to remember that there is often a huge disconnect between “will” and “want.” You may indeed “want” to change your behavior, but you can’t quite muster the “will” to make a step towards that new end. Many problems like smoking, weight loss, exercise, and getting in shape all fit this distinction.

So, how do you begin your attack on such actions? First of all, you must connect your resolution to a specific motivator: “Warm weather will be here soon and I want to be able to look decent at the pool”; “That wedding I’m in is only a few weeks away and I need to look sharp”; “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I have to be able to keep up.”

Second, your resolution must involve your values as well as your actions. Specifically, you must engage in values-oriented thinking and make your actions consistent with that thinking.

The following examples show the disconnect between values and actions that gets you into trouble: you put off investigating diets (an action) that may work for you even though you say, “I care about my health” (your value); you put off joining a gym (an action) even though you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value); you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action), even though you say,  “I value family” (your value); you put off signing up for a course at the local community college (an action), even though you say, “I want to become more educated” (your value). Well, if you truly value those things, then you must admit to yourself that your actions are inconsistent with those values, and you must work to correct that problem.

A key to successful resolutions is to use them to connect actions and values. Identify those things that you really value, the things that are important to you. Then resolve to coordinate those things you value with specific actions that are compatible with those values.

Once you identify constructive actions and begin engaging in them, they will tend to become a part of your routine; they will become automatic and it won’t take much effort to maintain them, making your resolutions successful. And in the future, definitely resolve not to wait until January 1st to put them into action!

 

I was reading one of those annual letters many families send out during the Christmas season. This particular one provided an excellent example of coping with grief at this special time of year. The writer’s family would be having Christmas for the first time without a woman who was a mother, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother for various members of the family. The writer noted how much the deceased loved Christmas, so the family would proudly celebrate her memory over the holidays.

The word that caught my eye was “celebrate.” Most people do not associate this word with loss of a loved one, especially at this time of year. In fact, they might expect to see the word “mourn” instead: “We will mourn her memory over the holidays.”

Mourning is indeed an important part of the grieving process, but in the long run, we will cope much better with personal loss if we resolve to honor departed loved ones by celebrating their memory, focusing on how much they contributed to our life, and considering ways to honor their memory.

With that message in mind, we’re re-posting a piece that Dr. Carlea Dries wrote that we put on the blog December 12, 2016. (You can find Carlea’s bio in the “Hosts” link on the homepage of this blog.)

HOLIDAY GRIEF

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… except when it’s not. 

The holidays usually mean the coming together of family members. Ordinarily this is a welcome time of festive gatherings, exchanging of presents, and special memories made near a roaring fireplace. For some, however, this Norman Rockwell image is drastically different from reality, particularly when recent loss of a loved one is involved. Let’s note that “loss” is not limited to the death; it can also include divorce, hospitalization, incarceration, active duty without a holiday leave, or a family member who moved away. 

Recently, I attended the funeral for my great aunt. Though Marge was 93 and in failing health, her death hit our family rather hard, especially her daughters and sister (my grandmother, who is now the only one left of the original 11 siblings). The sermon during the church service (paraphrased herein) highlighted how this first holiday is going to be different: “You’ll notice the quiet. You’ll notice the missing [specialty food]. You’ll notice the missing chair at the table.” 

While I was at the repast, a good friend of mine texted to say that her parents are getting divorced after more than thirty years of marriage. This news was unexpected and rendered her numb. She just kept asking how it could be real and why, if it had to happen, it had to come so close to Hanukkah. This was supposed to be the first time she would be hosting her family, and now everything was changing. 

How do you cope with the first holiday season in the “next normal” or “new normal”? How do you hold on to a sense of control when things are clearly out of your control?

The most important thing to do, as we’ve discussed in other blog posts, is to recognize what is in your circle of power. My grandmother can’t bring her sister back. My friend can’t convince her parents to stay together. So, they must try to do what they can: accept what it is and move forward from that point. Yes, that’s easier typed than done.

Some feel consoled by leaving a place at the table for the absent person, but many others find that much more discomforting because it is a visual reminder of the vacancy. You may, therefore, choose to remember the person in a smaller way. I have made ornaments with pictures of departed relatives, reminding me of times we spent together. Every year for Thanksgiving, my mother makes her aunt’s stuffing (though Aunt Petronella called it “dressing”). My mother-in-law uses a picture of her mother as the angel for her crèche. A friend video-chats with her husband who is stationed overseas. For the past 14 years, my father brings homemade goodies to the staff at the nursing home where his parents finished their earthly stories. A colleague mentioned that she has a “moment of reflection” during which everyone present shares a memory, story, or image of those who cannot be with them – one even sings a favorite song!

These simple gestures become meaningful traditions that do not overwhelm us with intense feelings of loss. Rather, they celebrate the lives and connections we had to those who are absent. 

Other coping suggestions include planning a totally new activity that literally takes you away from the familiar reminders of the absent one. Go on a mini-vacation. Celebrate with a different group of people.

Volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter. Service to others is probably the most effective way of coping with personal loss.

Keep your mind and body distracted, not to the point where you are ignoring, denying, or detaching from the loss, but to keep you focused on something productive instead of painful. 

No matter what options you are comfortable choosing, you must give yourself permission to feel. There will be moments when you want to do nothing but sit in silence. Other times you will want to do nothing but scream. You might even find yourself smiling or laughing and then feel guilty because how dare you be happy when you are missing someone?! Have “the big, snotty cry” if that is what you want to do. Let yourself feel. Take the time you need. As we said in another posting, it’s okay to say “no” to invitations; just be sure you don’t let your mourning stop you from living.  

There was also a message of comfort in the sermon for my Aunt (again paraphrased): Marge lives on in your hearts and memories. If you listen in the quiet, you can hear her. If you feel in the still, you can sense her. Remembering means no one ever leaves.

You might not feel better today. You might not feel better tomorrow. But at some point, you will feel that you have moved to the next normal and that will be the next best thing.

 

WHAT’S IN A WORD?

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.

WHAT SHOULD “MOVE ON” MEAN?

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.

 

 

 

STAY WITHIN YOUR LIMITS

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.