September 11, 2001

Nations, like individuals, must cope. Nations must develop empowerment strategies to help them confront challenges to keep moving forward, or, like poorly coping individuals, they will stagnate and drift aimlessly. In the history of the United States, I see four dates that posed especially harsh challenges to our country, challenges that had to be met and overcome if the country was to survive.

March 4, 1789. A new government under the Constitution — officially ratified on June 21, 1788 — began. This great coping experiment in democracy for the new republic began with three simple but elegant words: “We the People….” What an empowering concept! The experiment, however, was anything but easy out of the gate, and required considerable coping skills from the Founders. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson became bitter political enemies, reconciling only in the twilight of their lives. Ironically, both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Among Adams’ final words were, “Jefferson lives.” Alas, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.

April 12, 1861. The Civil War– or, depending on your perspective, The War between the States — began. Under the specter of the death of our country, American fought American, brother fought brother until, at the end, estimates say between 620,000 and 750,000  lay dead. These figures are incomprehensible when you realize that in terms of percentage of the US population, the equivalent deaths today would be between 6.5 and 8.1 million. A generation lost to a stupid war.

December 7, 1941. “A date,” FDR reminded us, “which will live in infamy.” Our country galvanized itself, and our parents and grandparents, children of the great depression, prepared to fight two wars simultaneously, one in the Pacific and one in Europe. Faced with annihilation and the end of America, they pulled it off with great effort and sacrifice, and earned their title, “The Greatest Generation.” Those still with us deserve our veneration, as do all veterans, who are the primary coping agents for our country.

September 11, 2001. This horrific day on which nearly 3,000 people died plunged our country into grief and fear. Today, 15 years later, we commemorate the memory of those who lost their lives and those who were connected to the victims through friendship and love. Those of us who endured that terrible day and the uncertain days that followed have many memories seared onto our brains, mostly sad memories, but some that are strangely uplifting.

One of my memories that falls into the uplifting category is watching TV and seeing a fairly large group of legislators from both political parties assemble on the Capitol steps. They were not grouped according to any designation like party, gender, race, ethnicity, or other such divisive nonsense. They were a group of Americans. And then they began singing God Bless America. I was so moved I stood as if I was in the presence of the national anthem. I would have joined them in singing but I was pretty choked up, not only with tears of grief, but also with tears of pride and gratitude for having the great privilege of being a citizen of the United States of America.

And to think, it all began those many years ago with those simple words that continue to remind us that it’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about “We the People.”

Charlie Brooks

ACCEPT YOUR EMOTIONS

            In this blog and our previous books we are generally guided by a couple of major themes. First of all we constantly warn about the dangers of avoiding challenges when they come your way. Getting into the habit of turning away from confrontation inevitably will get you into trouble psychologically. Secondly, we repeatedly emphasize the idea of acceptance. That is, you need to be more accepting of certain realities in life that simply can’t be changed. For the next few blogs we want to apply those themes to a general consideration of emotional life, and then look closely at ways of dealing with anxiety.   

We bet there have been times you have told yourself, “I should not be so anxious (or afraid, angry, sad, etc.) in this situation.” Maybe so, but your self-criticism misses the point that you are anxious and you need to do something about it. Anxiety, like grief, anger, sadness, and other emotions can be crippling and a major cause of avoiding facing challenges in your life. You can, however, learn to put emotions to good use.

Doesn’t it make sense that your emotions are quite natural? Shouldn’t it be normal to be anxious about being evaluated, grief-stricken when losing a loved one, fearful when confronting others, or sad after being rejected? Is it not reasonable to assume that normal emotional states can be used to your advantage? For example, anxiety can motivate you to prepare for tests and emergencies, bring you closer to significant others, confront criticism, work harder to improve performance, and a host of other effective actions.

Suppose you find yourself in a dead-end job but are afraid to look for a new one because you feel you will be anxious during the job interview and just experience rejection. The safe thing, of course, is to quit looking for a new job, avoiding the interview and all the other stresses that go along with a job search. In the long run, however, this strategy puts your life on hold.

Instead of quitting the job search, you could be empowering yourself by developing strategies and practicing actions to prepare yourself for interviews. First of all you need to remember that you have no control over the interviewer and the types of questions you will be asked. That being the case, it’s reasonable for you to assume and accept that you will probably be anxious during any interview you get. So prepare! Learn about the new company and develop knowledgeable questions to ask during the interview. Evaluate how your skills will mesh with the stated job requirements. Prepare to be honest if you fall short in some areas, but also prepare to describe how you can compensate. (See August 22, 2016 blog.) And remember, your anxiety is a natural emotional state that can be a positive motivator for you. It need not be your enemy.

The same can be said about other emotions. How about intense grief after the loss of a loved one? Depending on the circumstances of the death, you can become quite debilitated as a result of grief. Usually, however, intense grief signals how important others were to you, and how much they taught you about living. Wouldn’t the best way to honor their memory be to demonstrate that they left you with an inner strength that allows you to honor them in positive ways? So seek out those positives that will allow you to honor them: Share with others what they taught you; establish a memorial to them; write about them; find their influence manifest in your life.

Our next three blogs will discuss anxiety in more detail, and will be devoted to presenting specific actions to take when dealing with anxiety.

 

PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE: KAEPERNICK VS TRUMP

An acquaintance familiar with this blog recently asked me (Brooks): “Who is dealing with life better, Kaepernick or Trump?” Wow! Not often does one hear those names together – an NFL quarterback who sits or kneels on the sidelines when the national anthem is played (an action protected by the Constitution), and the Republican nominee for President. But the question got me to thinking how would I evaluate their coping skills solely on the basis of these actions.

As for Kaepernick my answer would depend on his motivation for sitting or kneeling. If he wants to increase the sales of NFL team jerseys with his name on them, then he is doing a great job with his protest. According to news reports, sales of Kaepernick jerseys have greatly increased. Of course maybe he just protests to draw attention to himself. If so, then once again he is coping beautifully because his protest has received a lot of media coverage.

If, on the other hand, the motivation behind his protest is to encourage a dialogue and spur action to improve race relations and social justice in the USA, I would say his protest is a dismal failure. To be sure his action has produced a lot of discussion, but unfortunately the discussion has centered on his protest method, and not on the issue he is protesting. In my opinion, a far better coping strategy for this young man with considerable financial resources would be to put some of those resources behind proactive social programs to bring warring parties together to develop positive ways to solve the racial injustices he is protesting.

My bottom line: If Kaepernick is protesting social justice inequities and is going to leave it at sitting or kneeling during the national anthem, his coping efforts are a dismal failure.

Trump? I think he’s simple to size up. In my opinion, if you boil him down to his essence you’re left with one thing: EGO. His overriding motivation for everything he does is self-glorification. He cares not for me, not for you, and not for the country. He cares only for himself.

Running for president is an exquisite and successful coping action for a narcissist like Trump because for many months he has enjoyed the adulation of thousands of mesmerized fans at live rallies. They literally worship his words and hope many of those words are distasteful and insulting. He readily accommodates their hope, and their positive reactions allow him to nourish an insatiable ego. This is quite an ego trip and in coping terms, I believe Trump is wildly successful in obtaining what he needs for feeling productive and satisfied – a well-fed ego.

Of course, voters must decide if Trump’s coping actions are what they want in a President of the United States. For me, a Republican of 48 years, the prospect of his being in the Oval Office floods me with intense anxiety. That is why I must visit the coping blog on a regular basis!

THANK GOODNESS FOR THE OLYMPICS

If you’re like us, you found the 2016 Summer Olympics to be nothing short of a God-send, a refreshing respite from the harsh negativity of Presidential politics. How long has it been since the political primary season began? Seems like a couple of years! At last, August came and we were down to only two candidates to insult each other, bicker like spoiled kids in the sandbox, and toss grenades with the hope of character assassination. How depressing.

But then, like a desert oasis, the Olympics descended on us, giving us a refreshing look at what really is best about humans: hard work, striving for improvement, reaching out to others, and relishing above all the intrinsic joy and satisfaction of participation, all without the guarantee of a trophy. Oh, sure, human flaws were there: PEDs, stupid indiscretions fueled by alcohol, and mind games energized by petty jealousies. But these scars paled in comparison to so many expressions of humanity at its best.

We think the juxtaposition of presidential politics and the Olympics provides a good analogy to the psychology of effective coping. You are often faced with all sorts of negativity in your life, from seemingly overwhelming stresses to feeling out of control while unpleasant events spin around you. These troubles are your political season. But you resolve to face your issues, to work hard, to empower yourself and initiate actions that bring you feelings of personal satisfaction from living a more productive life. This resolution is your Olympics.

As we note again and again, however, there are rules you must follow if your coping actions are to be successful. First of all, you must determine if you’re dealing with something you can control. Remember, there are only two things you can directly control: your thoughts and your actions. If you take on things beyond your control, you’re going to be frustrated. If you’re stressed out at work because of an overbearing boss who regularly criticizes your work, can you change the boss? Probably not. But can you take steps to improve the quality of your work? Of course. Is there a guarantee the boss will become more reasonable? No. But will you feel a greater sense of personal satisfaction? Yes.

You also need to remember that if you seek help with your life issues, whether that help is informal (friend) or professional (counselor), you must approach the help in the correct way. Consider the comments below:

“I’m so stressed out! Please help me!” This comment sounds like you’re looking for someone to wave a magic wand and magically free you of your troubles. Not good and it won’t work. You’re still in the political arena.

“I’m so stressed out! Please give me some guidance on how to take better control of my life.”  This comment suggests you’re looking for assistance in becoming more autonomous, more empowering, and better able to initiate independent actions in confronting your problems. This approach to seeking help is much more appropriate and more likely to bring you success. Welcome to the Olympics!

IT’S OK TO ADMIT A WEAKNESS

            If you’re a high-profile celebrity you probably avoid divulging any of your weaknesses to others. Problem is, for those who live in the clear fishbowl of fame, hiding is tough to do and eventually some embarrassing things can end up on public display. Just ask the partying US swimmers!

If you’re like most of us, however, you live in a more opaque world where it’s easier to hide some of your less desirable traits from others. Still, we bet you have often faced a situation where you wondered, “Should I ‘man up’ here and admit to a shortcoming?”

There’s no hard and fast answer to that question but there are definitely some situations when honesty can serve you well. Of course, we are not advocating that you bare your soul for all to see, but sometimes admitting to a weakness can lead others to evaluate you more favorably.

For example, imagine yourself in a job interview that goes like this:

Interviewer: “This job will require you to stand in front an audience from time to time and speak to them for about 30 minutes. Does that present any problems?”

Now suppose you really do suffer some anxiety when you are in front of an audience. We don’t mean you faint or tremble uncontrollably and have to run out of the room; we simply mean you get nervous, self-conscious, and would prefer not to speak in front of people unless absolutely necessary. With those conditions in mind, let’s consider two possible replies to the interviewer’s question.

Reply A: “Funny you should ask that. I have to give presentations for my present job and the truth is, I do get a little nervous and anxious when I’m speaking in front of people. Because of that, I try to do a lot of preparation. I try to practice and rehearse what I’m going to say. When I really prepare, I find I’m less likely to stutter or forget my train of thought. So as long as I know in advance about having to give a presentation, I would say public speaking is not a major problem for me, although it wouldn’t be my favorite part of the job.”

Reply B: “No, that requirement of the job doesn’t present a problem.”

Are you secure enough to give Reply A, or will you fall back to Reply B and worry about your problem later? You may be really torn here because you figure that if you give Reply A you might not get the job; if you give Reply B and get the job you’re screwed down the road when you have to give those speeches.

In many situations, when it comes to divulging a weakness, honesty is probably the best policy, a statement backed up by a variety of psychological research. For instance, psychologists asked people to evaluate the application of a hypothetical college applicant. For one group of evaluators, the application included statements from both the student and guidance counselor that some of the applicant’s grades should have been better, that in a few courses he simply did not live up to his potential. For a second group of evaluators, no such statements occurred in the application materials. The results showed that evaluators who read that some of the applicant’s grades should have been better actually rated his grades overall more favorably than did evaluators who did not have the negative observation about the grades.

In another interesting study, college students had to read a paragraph and rate it for clarity. For one group, the material was preceded by a statement that the paragraph was somewhat confusing. For two other groups, an identical statement either came after the paragraph or was never given. The results showed that the first group (statement preceding) rated the paragraph as clearer than did the other two groups.

One final study is worth mentioning. Students listened to a taped lecture by a speaker with a heavy Austrian accent. For half the students, before beginning, the speaker admitted that he had a strong accent and hoped the audience could follow him; no such statement occurred for the other half of the listeners. The results showed that the students who heard the apology rated the speaker as clearer, more likeable, and having more years of speaking English than did the students who did not hear an apology.

One thing is very important to note in these studies: admission of a weakness concerning some ability led to more positive evaluations of the individual being described, but the positive evaluation was specific to that ability. For instance, in the college applicant case, whereas grades were judged more favorably when the applicant admitted they weren’t always the best, SAT scores and other measures of performance were not rated more favorably. Similarly, the apologetic Austrian speaker was judged to have more experience with English, but not someone necessarily fluent in other languages. Thus, admitting a weakness is not necessarily going to have someone see you as a better person in general. Therefore, if you’re going to be honest about a weakness, keep it specific to a particular trait or action.

When it comes to managing the impressions that you give off you, keep in mind that whether you’re talking about a group audience, or a one-on-one interview, others will always be influenced by their expectations. You need to look at these times as opportunities to use those pre-existing expectations to your advantage.  In a job interview, for example, many interviewers probably expect a candidate to deny weaknesses and shortcomings.  Therefore, by admitting to a weakness you are capitalizing by disconfirming the interviewer’s expectation, which might set you apart in a positive way and show your uniqueness.

Furthermore, if you go beyond the simple admission of a weakness and show how you deal with it in a positive way, you transform your weakness into strength. Read reply A again and note how the answer includes initiatives taken to confront and compensate for the weakness. The candidate did not simply say, “I really get anxious when I have to speak in front of others.”

You should also realize that it is not accurate to assume that most people believe that keeping a “stiff upper lip,” and not admitting to weaknesses, is always a good thing. As the studies mentioned show, very often it is the case that admitting weakness is actually perceived as strength. Think about it. Your admission shows that you are not a robot; that being susceptible at times to weakness and mistakes makes you more human; and that you are realistically self-aware and do not see yourself as superior to others.

There are some clear lessons here: a little dose of humility can go a long way. Your honesty may get you that job, or make your audience more receptive. “Thanks for your introduction, Mr. Brown. You make me sound like some kind of expert here, but the truth of the matter is I don’t have all the answers to these complex issues. What I’m going to present today is really a work in progress, and I hope some observations from the audience can help point us in fruitful directions.” Beginning your presentation in such a way shows you are a team player and is likely to make you more likeable right from the start.

So remember:

–When you admit to a weakness, you are likely to be given a break because of your honesty. Other people have their own personal doubts and weaknesses. When you show some of your own, you become more like them in their eyes, and more likeable.

–Accept who you are; don’t try to present yourself to others as someone different. You will experience much lower stress than if you kid yourself and others about your characteristics.

–You do not need to bare your soul to strangers. But when a situation allows you to be honest about a characteristic, don’t be afraid to admit to it and show how you deal with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EFFECTIVE COPING REQUIRES REALISTIC OPTIMISM

Our previous blog (8/4/16) noted that a search for happiness does not give you an effective path toward effective coping with life. The fact is, you will be happier only when you are realistically and optimistically focused on attainable goals that are consistent with your values. If the search for happiness is futile, can an optimistic approach to life enhance your coping? The answer is yes. Psychological research shows that a positive outlook can strengthen both your body and your mind. Optimists tend to develop a “can-do” attitude about life’s obstacles; stress is not all it’s cracked up to be! An optimistic outlook and having positive emotional states at your side are great psychological support systems. Therefore, you should work to cultivate optimistic attitudes and actions to guide your living.

Optimism must, however, be realistic. Do you ever hear yourself saying (or thinking), “Don’t worry, everything will be OK and work out. Things will get better.” Says who? We once heard a world-renowned psychologist say that when he was growing up his parents told him, “You can be anything you want to be if you are willing to work hard enough.” The psychologist said, “I bought into that for a long time until one day in high school the reality hit me that I could never be what I really wanted to be….a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs! It wasn’t going to happen! My dream was just that….fantasy.”

Optimists are more likely to see problems and difficulties in life as challenges that can be met and overcome; they are more likely to be liked by others; they are more likely to look for realistic, external explanations for negative events, and not automatically blame themselves. Pessimists habitually blame themselves or “bad luck.” When unrealistic and inappropriate, this self-blame translates into personal stress that compromises coping.

            You must also focus on optimistic actions, not words. Thoughts without actions tend to remain fantasy. Negative thoughts can also lead to depression. For instance, do you tell yourself, “I’m too much of a pessimist; I need to be more of an optimist”? Such comments can cause you to underestimate yourself. For instance, at the end of a summer course we asked students to reflect on what they had learned and what, if anything, the material had taught them about themselves. One student really put himself down for not being more optimistic. We took issue with his self-disparaging comments:

“You say you’re a pessimist, but consider the fact that you took this course during the summer. That behavior, that action, is a very optimistic choice. You chose to take on extra responsibility during summer vacation; you took a risk, faced a challenge, and took it on squarely. If that’s not optimistic behavior, we don’t know what is!”

Before you decide your level of pessimism about life and yourself, take a good long realistic look at your behavior, not at your casual spoken comments. Talk is cheap. Actions reveal your essence. Words reveal character when accompanied by concordant actions.

You must evaluate how you respond to reality. If you’re a downer, you’ll find yourself in conflict with others, and eventually alone. Your emotional approach to life will influence your social network and the number of supportive friends you have. Ask yourself: “How do I explain my life circumstances?”

We all experience failure and have setbacks; we are all rejected at times by others. How do you interpret these events in general? Are you to blame? Sometimes of course you are! But if self-blame is your habitual pattern of approaching setbacks, you’re setting yourself up for future problems.

For instance, how would you react to a job interview? If you have prepared for the interview and see it as a chance to demonstrate the skills and qualities that will make you a desirable employee, you are viewing the interview as a challenge you can meet successfully. Your preparation and optimistic frame of mind will put you in a relaxed and confident state that will make you appear to be a desirable candidate. But if you view the interview as threatening, as something that will expose your weaknesses and shortcomings, your pessimistic outlook will almost guarantee that what you fear will indeed happen. Your pessimistic demeanor will make you more defensive, less likeable, and a less desirable candidate to the interviewer. The interview will be just what you thought – a disaster.

When our famous psychologist realized he couldn’t become a Cubs shortstop did he quit life? Absolutely not. He focused realistically and positively on his strengths, things he was good at, and worked hard to develop those skills. So must you focus on doing a realistic appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses and base your actions on them.

–Do a behavior inventory of daily activities. Are they actions that make you feel more adequate and bring you satisfaction?

–Cultivate those actions that make you feel productive and bring you personal satisfaction.

–Remember that praise from others is nice to hear, but actions that bring you personal fulfillment are much more important in enhancing psychological growth.

–Make efforts to interact with people who complement your personally satisfying actions.

Do things for yourself. Independent action increases personal satisfaction.

–Don’t get obsessed with material things and happiness. If material rewards come from actions that make you feel productive, consider them icing on the cake, not the reason you’re baking the cake.

–Exercise caution about using mood-altering prescription medication until you have done a thorough behavior inventory.

–Appreciate and enjoy the little things….a smile from a child, a quiet walk in the park, contacting a friend, a good movie or book, helping others in need….those things that bring you satisfaction.

–If you are spiritual, use faith to give you confidence and remind you everything is not for you to control, but you can receive the courage to change the things under your control.

Coping with your life from a realistic optimistic perspective will spur you to empower yourself and initiate autonomous actions that will give you feelings of personal control. Coping with your life from a pessimistic perspective will encourage you to turn sheepishly to others to manage, direct, and control your actions. This fundamental principle applies not only to individual psychology but also to group psychology. Some politicians understand the principle only too well, as witnessed by recent words painting a terribly bleak picture of a doomed United States, followed by reassurance:

 “I am your voice”; “I alone can fix [a rigged system]”; “Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”

 These are pessimistic messages designed to remind you how helpless you are. The words focus on the speaker, not the listener, and are analogous to a psychologist saying, “You must do what I tell you if you are to improve your life.”

Contrast this approach with words spoken by Ronald Reagan:

 “We must realize that no arsenal….no weapon, is as formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women”; “Let us be sure that those who come after us will say of us in our time, we did everything that could be done; we finished the race; we kept them free.”

 These are optimistic words, with the focus on the listener, not the speaker. From a psychological perspective they are analogous to a therapist saying, “I can help you improve your life but you must be willing to work hard to modify your thoughts and actions in ways that satisfy you, not me.”

So it must always be with your personal struggles to cope with everyday life. The focus must be realistic, optimistic, and directed at you and your capabilities, not pessimistic and directed at others to save you.

I’M IN THE MONEY!

We often hear from both clients and students, “All I want is to be happy. Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?” Unfortunately, happiness is one of those elusive states; seek it and you’ll probably find only frustration. It is subjective and emerges from how you live, and is not an end in itself. Making happiness a goal in your life is not an advisable step toward effective coping. You will fail and develop thoughts and actions designed solely to help you avoid future frustration.

Outcomes simply are just not responsible for happiness. One of our clients was awarded a huge sum of money in a personal injury suit involving the wrongful death of one of his children. Unfortunately, he said, “I threw it away on dumb things because I felt guilty about receiving ‘dirty money’ that wasn’t earned.” The real tragedy here is that with some guidance and thought, he and his wife could perhaps have developed a plan to use the money more wisely.

We also know a couple who were in a car accident and received a sizeable settlement out of court. They went on a spending spree: a new house, all the latest modern appliances, new furniture….you name it. The money ran out, of course, and stresses on their marriage began. They had regular arguments on who was to blame for the sudden turn in their “happiness.” They lost the house and filed for divorce.

We all hear people say, “If I win the lottery I will be rich and happy!” Rich, maybe — happy maybe not! Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert notes that in one study, a year after winning the lottery, winners were less happy than were paraplegics one year after their accident. How can that be? When we ask that question we forget that we are considering the lottery winner and the paraplegic from the perspective of our present state, which probably doesn’t include being a lottery winner or a paraplegic. Thus, winning the lottery looks pretty good to us and being confined to a wheelchair looks pretty bad. For the people who actually live in those circumstances, however, their current estimates of happiness are seen in comparison to their earlier life and to the anticipated future.

The lottery winners have learned that the anticipated happiness of winning the lottery was unrealistic; the paraplegics have learned that the challenges imposed by the injury need not be overwhelming or impossible. In both cases it was not the outcome (good luck vs. severe injury) that determined their state of happiness; rather it was the state of mind they had about their life conditions. Overnight wealth can be squandered and lead to long-term problems; paraplegics can choose to find meaning and purpose in their lives through spiritual, artistic, athletic, and other types of pursuits.

These psychological dynamics are by no means limited to things like sudden wealth or severe injury. The same principles apply to loss of loved ones and any other traumatic experience in life.

OK, if the search for happiness is not the key to effective coping, what is? Login tomorrow and we will look for the answer in the flip-side of happiness: Optimism.