BATON ROUGE, DALLAS, MINNEAPOLIS, AND PSYCHOLOGY

 “I went to high school at a college prep school in New Jersey. I remember talking with a classmate in his room one day during our senior year, 1961. We were comparing our perspectives on race relations in the United States. I made a comment that sometimes it seemed to me that blacks and whites were learning how to get along. My buddy went over to his desk, and pulled out a small paperback book. He said – ‘My parents drove me up here from Louisiana. This book lists, by state, the names and location of restaurants and motels that will serve black people. My dad made sure to map out our route so we always knew we would have a place to eat and sleep during the long trip.’ I looked at this book and the first words out of my mouth were “Your father is the President of Grambling University! He shouldn’t need that damn book!’”

In the aftermath of the recent shootings, our nation is involved in a collective coping effort as we struggle with many disturbing realities. The TV networks are in full swing providing us with information, analyses, and opinions. One observation we hear from commentators about racial relations in the United States is, “We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

Indeed we have come a long way since the early 60s. Today, my prep school buddy wouldn’t need that book; there are no more “whites only” drinking fountains and restrooms; colleges and universities have inclusive admissions policies; the military is multi-racial; interracial romance and marriage hardly raise an eyebrow; multiple races and ethnicities are highly visible in many professional vocations. We have indeed come a long way, miles, when it comes to civil law and equal rights. But, and this is a huge but, when it comes to individual attitudes — the attitudes of individuals from the small-town diner on main street to the large-city bodega — moderation of personal bias in racial attitudes has progressed barely an inch in the past 50 years. And this fact is a concern to many psychologists. The psychology literature is filled with studies documenting racial prejudice in today’s world, and unfortunately it often occurs unconsciously. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink to see how so many of our unconscious biases express themselves in our actions.

Events today are also painfully visible through technology. There are security cameras everywhere, even on our police. Horrific events from these cameras contradict what we all want, including the police, and that is to be treated with dignity, fairness and decency.

Unfortunately, technology reinforces the bigotry and prejudice so many of us harbor within. The fact is, our psychological development has not caught with the rapid advance of technology. Families of victims look at a cell-phone video of police subduing a suspect and see an uncaring, hate-filled attack; police officers look at the video and wonder why everyone is against them as they try to do their job. When the Dallas Chief of Police, in charge of one of the most inclusive police forces in the country, says in a national interview that every day his officers go to their jobs feeling little support from the community, something is vitally wrong. The police have earned and deserve our support and respect. But deep within many of us is a raw bigotry that we mistakenly think we have long dealt with and put to rest. “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” are great rallying cries, but they tap into our prejudices and only serve to divide us. And to make matters worse we are in the midst of a presidential campaign that further ignites this prejudice and anger, and legitimizes aggression with cute, catchy, time-worn phrases like “law and order candidate.”

Dr. Brian Williams, trauma surgeon at Dallas Parkland Hospital, answered a question at a news conference shown on CNN recently. He noted the conflict he lives with every day: He supports the police and respects what they do, but he also fears them from his experiences as a young black male who quickly learned that he would always be viewed with suspicion. Dr. Williams admits to and accepts his fear and negative views of police, but he refuses to be dominated by those impulses and emotions within him. He even described how he performs random acts of kindness for police officers, especially when he is with his young daughter. He says he wants to teach her that negative feelings do not have to be translated into hateful actions.

Dr. Williams is a model for all of us, and an example of what psychology says is the only answer to racial conflict: Each of us must confront our racial biases, and we must look within ourselves and admit that there are certain realities about life that we must accept. We must accept responsibility for our actions and be held accountable with due process and justice. Bad police and bad citizens must be punished, just as bad politicians, bad psychologists, and bad lawyers must be punished. We must accept diversity, change, and the uncertainty that goes with them; we must accept that peaceful protests expressing disgust and frustration is part of the process by which we learn to move forward together; we must accept the fears, biases, and prejudices that lurk within us, but vow never to be defined by them; we must accept that others need our understanding, even when we dislike their actions; we must accept that love is never enough unless it is expressed in actions; and we certainly must accept that we are part of a grand and continuous thread from helpless infant and dependent child to an adult who both receives and gives. These are our realities and whether we accept them or not is our ultimate choice. So far, we are not choosing wisely.

 

Share a comment about whether you think racial bigotry is primarily an American problem.

For an individual, what purpose do you think is served by expressing prejudiced attitudes toward others? Comment on what positive things you think we get from showing our bigotry.

Does this blog sound to you like it was written by a black or a white person? How about a relatively young or old person? Do your answers tell you anything about yourself?

 

THE MOTIVATION/WILLPOWER DILEMMA

 “I don’t understand…………Why can’t I [lose weight, stop smoking, stop yelling all the time, cut back on drinking, smile more – choose one or any one of a thousand other possibilities you are looking to change]? I’m so motivated to change but I just can’t seem to do it.”

Whether from clients or students, we have heard this question time and time again: “I’m motivated to change. I want it so badly but I just can’t make it happen. Why?” If you ask yourself the same question and find yourself in the same dilemma, it might help to recognize that you are implying your inability to change some undesirable action is something outside your control, and you really shouldn’t be blamed for continuing the bad behavior. You want to change so much that it can’t be your fault for being unable to do so. You’re eager to pass along the blame because it makes you feel so much better.

The problem here is that you are deceiving yourself about how motivated you are. You are giving casual lip service to motivation and making things easier on yourself by being able to place blame for your failure elsewhere. Next time you find yourself down a blind alley because you don’t seem to be able to accomplish your behavior goals, and you plead innocence because you are so motivated to change (let’s use smoking as an example), challenge yourself with the following scenario:

 

You’re getting ready to light up again when suddenly God appears right in front of you. God speaks: “I’m fed up with you. You’re always praying about holy you are and how you’re going to quit that filthy habit. I give you this magnificent body and all you want to do is poison and defile it with toxins. Well, the party’s over. I have blessed you with a wonderful spouse and three beautiful children. Here’s the deal — Beginning right now, right this moment, if you have one more cigarette, just one more, I’m going to take your children from you and bring them to their heavenly eternal home. Have another butt and you will never see them again.”

 

Would you be motivated to forego lighting up? Would you be motivated to toss the whole pack away? We certainly hope so!

The point here is you may think you are motivated, but you’re probably kidding yourself. So drop the lame “I’m so motivated” routine, face up to the hard work that’s involved in changing your actions for the better, and begin to focus on the difference between wanting to do something and having the will to do it.

It’s easy get caught up in procrastination, willpower, motivation etc., to tell yourself that you want something so badly, and then express disbelief that it doesn’t happen. It helps to remember that there is 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. Smoking, weight loss, exercise, and getting in shape all fit this distinction quite well. You may “want” to be able to fit in your clothes better, but you also “want” to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. There is a real push (get off your duff!) vs. pull (I need to take it easy!) inside you, and unfortunately the pull (in this case Netflix) generally wins. So how do you move from focusing on the push rather than the pull?

Find a specific motivator and place it squarely in front of you. “Summer is coming 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.”

Summer, the wedding, a promotion……….finding that specific motivator will spur you to put actions that will move you toward your goal at the top of your list; irrelevant actions will be sent to the bottom. “I will get off my duff and do an hour of solid exercise!”

Remember that you can bring yourself to the point when a “want” shifts to a “will.” That point is highly personal and varies from person to person, and even moment to moment. But it’s only in that window when “want” shifts to “will” that true change in your behavior can begin.

There is, of course, another side to this coin: You may be one who doesn’t wonder why your motivation seems to get you nowhere, but instead one who admits to a total lack of motivation. You tell yourself and others, “There’s no way I can possibly work hard to change any of my lousy actions. I have no willpower, no motivation.”

It’s ironic how people make comments about procrastination and willpower when the simple truth is that it is usually only in a given area that they don’t have sufficient motivation. We see people all the time who work hard at their job, pay their bills, take care of their home and kids, etc., but who totally lack the motivation to exercise routinely, eat healthy, cut down on their alcohol consumption, quit smoking, etc. These folks apparently lack sufficient motivation concerning only particular actions in certain situations; their problem is not a general lack of willpower. If this description sounds like you, the key is to work on increasing your motivation and identifying specific situations for the desired specific actions.

Also, you must remember that you may need to change your thought patterns with respect to motivation. You may need to confront thinking that is inconsistent with your actions: 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).

Ask yourself, “How do I really see my motivational conflict, the disconnect between my actions and my values?” Don’t put the focus on what you are against; put your emphasis on what you are for. Your task is to identify those things that you really value, the things that are important to you. You must then coordinate those things you value with specific actions that are compatible with those values. Once you identify with and begin engaging in those constructive actions, they will tend to become a part of your routine; they will become automatic and it won’t take much effort to maintain them.

 

Share a comment with us about when you found a specific event that moved you from wanting to do something to willing yourself to do it.

Comment on what you should do if your values are not consistent with those of someone close to you?

“I’m going on a diet.” “I’m going to stop eating when I watch TV.” Which strategy do you think is more likely to result in weight loss? Why?

 

 

 

THE CAR ACCIDENT

 Andy was already running late for work and now he was stuck in city rush-hour traffic. To make matters worse, he was so preoccupied thinking about a project he was working on, he was in the wrong lane while waiting at a traffic light. He was in the right lane and needed to be in the left lane so he could make a left turn just a few yards past the traffic light. “No sweat,” he thought. “I’ll just gun it when the light changes.” The guy to his left must have been late, too, because when the light changed, both he and Andy floored their accelerator and went screeching away from the light. “Damn! That SOB is not going to let me over,” Andy growled to himself. “Screw him!” Andy veered left, trying to force the guy on his left to slow down. In a fit of dual road rage, however, neither gave in and suddenly Andy’s car was flipping over and over down the street, careening directly into a concrete post on Andy’s side. The post rammed into Andy’s body, breaking his arm, several ribs, and knocking him unconscious. Andy awakened in the hospital with a severe concussion in addition to the broken bones. “You were lucky,” the doctor told him. “Just a couple of inches and your skull would have been crushed.”

Andy recovered nicely and before long was driving to work again. The first time he headed out for work, however, he was anxious and uneasy, and he decided to avoid the fateful intersection where the accident happened. In fact, as time went on, Andy found that he simply could not manage to get near that intersection. Just the thought of driving through it caused him tremendous anxiety. His heart pounded, he was sweating, and images of the accident flashed before him. For a month Andy avoided the intersection. He got pretty angry at himself because doing so added a good ten minutes to his normally thirty-minute commute. “What the hell am I doing?” he wondered. “I’m letting that intersection ruin my life!”

Question: What do you think Andy should do to deal with his anxiety about the intersection? Just post a comment with your thoughts. In a week or so we will post the actions Andy actually took and how they worked out.

RAGE ROOMS – HARMLESS FUN?

Next time you’re feeling the need to vent, get rid of your stress and anger, and just let it all hang out, if you’re in Houston or some other city that offers Rage Rooms, you’re in luck, although you have to fork out $50 for 15 minutes of action (that’s almost 6 cents a second, by the way!). A rage room is a relatively small enclosure with a variety of breakable objects like glassware, dishes, an old TV or computer, etc. You have a bat in hand and wear goggles and a helmet for protection, and spend 15 minutes smashing all this stuff.

Fun? You betcha! And if you do it a couple of times for kicks or curiosity it isn’t going to change your life. But are rage rooms a good way to learn how to cope with anger? Probably not. Based on some sound research, psychologists generally recognize that aggressive venting of anger, stress, frustration, and other emotions that tend to make us uncomfortable – well, the venting just doesn’t work. In fact, it’s likely to backfire.

Think about it. You’re in this room and start smashing things. You begin to get worked up and swing harder and harder, breaking everything in sight. When you’re all done, you feel  really good, relieved (except you’re out fifty bucks). There’s no doubt that aggressive venting of emotions generally has a satisfying effect, but – and here’s the problem – that satisfying effect is short-lived, very temporary. Those nasty emotions will return. Now ask yourself, in the rage room what type of action did you experience that had a satisfying result? You got it – energetically letting it all come pouring out. That’s fine if you’re in a rage room, but what if you’re with your boss, your spouse, your kids, a friend, or whomever? An excessive display of rage may not be in your best interests!

One of the biggest flaws of rage rooms is that they do not help you resolve an issue or learn how to transform frustration and hostility into constructive anger. Thus, although probably harmless when done occasionally and with realistic expectations and perspectives, rage rooms can potentially allow you to practice and enjoy aggressively acting out your anger. That’s great in the rage room, but what are you going to do when you’re really furious and the room isn’t there?

Rage rooms remind us of a fad used in marital therapy 30-40 years ago. During a counseling session couples were given harmless foam or balloon-type bats and told to vent their anger and hostility on each other using the bats. This was supposed to be a safe way to get conflicts out in the open and allow them to vent their feelings by harmlessly lashing out at each other. Well, it didn’t work, and in some cases escalated the conflict to the point where an actual physical altercation broke out in the therapist’s office! The harmless bats led to emotional arousal, awakened a lot of underlying negative emotions between the spouses, and encouraged them to get physically aggressive.

A major part of the problem here is that you probably feel you should not be angry. How many times have you told yourself that? From early childhood, you were told you must avoid and manage your anger. You were not supposed to get angry at home, school, in public, or at work. You grew up believing it is wrong to be angry and it should be avoided. This is an irrational belief.

Coping effectively with anger requires you to remember that, like all emotions, anger provides you with information. You must use that information to determine the best direction your actions should take. Should you withdraw from the situation (a co-worker made you angry and you want to tell him to go to hell), or should you confront it (a misbehaving child made you angry)? You should not try to get rid of anger when you experience it. Rather, you should seek constructive social interactions for transforming the anger, such as becoming appropriately assertive, determined, competitive, achievement-oriented, or persistent, depending on the situation. There are also physical activities like boxing, walking, running, martial arts, and weight lifting. These activities can produce endorphin (natural) highs, a sense of personal control and pride, distraction from what is bothering you, and better health. They are also more appropriate than convenient and simple “middle-finger” actions that, at best, produce mostly childish behavior and waste energy, or at worst, lead to additional anger and harmful confrontations.

SOCIAL MEDIA: THE GOOD, BAD, AND UGLY

We live in a world where our interconnectedness almost never goes away.  Our phones tell us we have a new message on a social media platform; we get a friend request; someone likes (or dislikes) a posting we did; and on it goes.  Social media has many positive aspects by drawing us together and helping us interact even when far apart. But there is also a dark side, the side that brings us cyberbullying, psychological harassment, and all sorts of anxiety and emotional drama. This side also gives us a sense of anonymity that encourages us to do or say things we typically would avoid in normal face-to-face interactions.

The downside of social media can have tragic effects. In 2009 18-year old Tyler Clementi’s roommates at Rutgers University exposed him on the internet as gay. Tyler’s subsequent mortification and stress eventually led him to jump to his death off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler’s case is not isolated. We hear about these tragic cyber incidents too frequently.

Social media has a tremendous influence on our youth. The Pew Research Center finds nearly 70% of social media-using users encounter intense stress and anxiety from content on the platforms. Psychologists have also linked internet use with depression. If you are a parent with children under the age of 25 you probably struggle with anxiety over how to insulate them from harmful social media, and how to guide them through it when the negative influence takes hold.

Discussing social media in the context of depression may seem kind of strange, but the fact is that “the ugly” aspects of this part of modern life often causes and complements psychological issues like depression. Imagine those experiencing sadness, self-doubts, or anxiety.  They scroll through their phones and see so many of their friends and peers having fun and enjoyable times.  Now remember, on social media they usually see only a positive “highlight-reel” from others, entries that highlight the good times. The problem is, watching these “highlight-reels” too much can make those struggling with depression think less of themselves. They may also be motivated by their depression, jealousy, and anger to start online fights, or bully others.

We have had many conversations with students after they break-up with their significant other, and how they turn to social media to deal with their hurt. They often become obsessed with “cyber-stalking,” looking at what their ex is doing; they begin to distort items their ex posts and interpret those items as attacks directed at them. Then they begin to lash out at the ex and others. This is today’s social reality, often a difficult, frustrating, and confusing reality that adds to the emotional upheaval when relationships end.  In fact, often the partner’s use of social media is the cause of a relationship ending!

Cyber-dramas are frequent, and in the extreme they foster and strengthen serious psychological problems like depression. They also have significant effects on the psychological development that young people go through as they try to navigate through their daily lives.  To a great extent, how they view themselves, how they interact with others, and the lens through which they see the world is greatly influenced by social media. This reality presents quite a challenge to young folks, and to parents and family who are trying to assist them in their growth.

WHAT CAN USERS OF SOCIAL MEDIA DO?

  • If you are struggling with sadness, depression, anxiety, or other emotional upheavals, it is likely a good idea to stay away from social media’s highlight-reel as much as possible.  Remember that everyone has struggles, but most people do not post them for the world to see. It’s more likely that they display their happiness, which just gives you a false comparison to make against your own problems.
  • Find ways to limit your use. Yes, social media is a way to stay connected when people are not in front of you, but be aware that the “real” is much more important. There is something to be said for face-to-face communication.
  • Do your socializing in the “real world” by getting active, involved in new things, and finding new challenges.  Do not dwell on what you are not doing.  Begin making your own “highlight-reel.” Assess your habits and actions.  Be aware of how your own personality works and how you react to things. There may be some inappropriate things that you need to avoid. Find positive actions that allow you to take charge of yourself.
  • When conflict arises between you and someone else, try to take the high road.  You have no control over what another person says or posts about you. Why escalate the hostility by responding and trying to “one-up” them? You are then playing on their home court and dealing with things out of your control.
  • Remember that your post is out there forever for all to see.  Even if you post only to your “friends” you never know who will do something potentially harmful to you with that information.  Follow the sage advice: “If you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see it, Don’t Post It!”  Your online reputation can account for much of your overall reputation.  Remember, innocent until proven guilty does not happen on social media – you are guilty in the eyes of public opinion much faster and it sticks!

WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?

  • Have an open dialogue with your kids about their social media and internet activities.  Communication helps monitor activities and postings without secretly spying.
  • Know the platforms and stay on top of the trends. Facebook and Twitter are not the only games in town. Snapchat, Kik, and other apps continually appear, grow in influence, and constantly change. Talk to other parents and put your heads together to stay on top of things.
  • Be your kids’ “friend” on every app.  Following them as they navigate this social media world is important and you will catch things a lot quickly being in the inner loop. If you have the chance, follow some of their friends to keep even further in the loop. Remember, the goal is not to spy; the goal is to help your kids become more sophisticated users.
  • What is posted is forever!  Teach your kids about their online reputation and image by monitoring what they post. Also, remind them that prospective employers are going to check them out online.
  • Privacy settings or “parental controls” really are on your side.  You can set these as strict as you want. Just be open and honest with your kids about it.
  • There are “watchdog apps” and sites out there to help you monitor internet and social activity usage.  Notable apps are NetNanny, My Mobile Watchdog, Bark, Norton Family Premier, and Qustodio.
  • Accept the reality that you will never know everything, which is probably the hardest aspect of social media for parents to accept. But it’s true, and that brings us back to our first tip above. If you have good communication with your kids, you really are not fighting a battle, but are working with an ally to use social media in a productive way.

 

 

TV News Makes Lousy Counselor

Anyone over 60 will remember the saturation TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination in 1963. For four days, the networks covered nothing else, and there were no commercial breaks. Thirty-eight years later, September 11, 2001, another shocking event produced saturation TV coverage. Most Americans found these events to be quite disturbing and even traumatic.

In a psychological study, analysis of college students’ dreams before and after 9/11 showed that post-9/11 dreams were different than pre-9/11 dreams. After 9/11, dreams contained more threat and danger themes and images, and more negative emotions. More interesting, these qualities increased as the amount of time watching TV coverage increased. Thus, to the extent that dreaming can reflect efforts to process and resolve trauma and conflict, we can conclude that extensive viewing of TV coverage of the 9/11 events served to increase that trauma and conflict. It is also interesting to note that the students who spent more time talking with friends and relatives about the events of 9/11 did not have the threatening themes and negative emotions in their dreams.

Reporting an event is one thing; saturating coverage with repeated replays over an extended period of time is quite another. Furthermore, if that coverage makes talking with friends and relatives less likely, then the negative effects of the saturation coverage are greatly compounded. This makes sense because it is well-known that when faced with stress and challenges, talking it over with a good friend or trusted members of a support group is really helpful.

The next time someone says, “I got so sick and tired of watching the news stories about [whatever], I had to turn it off before I went crazy,” you can explain to them why they were wise to do so. Emotional stability is unlikely to be found by excessive watching of traumatic news on TV.

 

Coping With Everyday Life

post

What This Blog is About

This blog is devoted to discussing how to cope with everyday life, and your hosts (see menu listing of your four blog hosts) will post information from the world of psychology, counseling, and education. Our message revolves around three basic themes: First there is acceptance. There are certain basic truths in life that we simply must accept before we can decide how to act. Second is the notion of meeting challenges. Unfortunately, too often we avoid challenges that confront us because it’s the easy thing to do. Successful coping, however, requires us to take a more difficult road and meet life head on. Third, we must learn what things are under our control. We get in all sorts of difficulties when we try to control things we can’t. The truth is there are only two things we can control: Our own thoughts and our own actions.

We invite our readers to join in our discussion and share their own insights. This blog is not an advice column, but a forum in which to share ideas.

If you are interested in pursuing the psychology literature on any topic we cover, feel free to contact us by email at charlesbrooks@kings.edu. We also encourage you to visit our website (www.subtlesuicide.com) to learn about our published books on subtle suicide, dysfunctional giver/taker relationships, and research on how psychology applies to everyday life.