ACHIEVING WORK-FAMILY BALANCE

Scottie Davis Winslow is VP of Optum Consulting. In a recent newspaper column she wonders how best to achieve that balance between the demands of the workplace and the obligations of everyday life outside the workplace. Those obligations could be as simple as grocery shopping and picking up the cleaning, or more involved like finding time to be with spouse or children and caring for elderly parents. No matter what the obligation, when work interferes with everyday life we can suffer significant stress. How should we handle it?

Identify your goals and values and make sure family, friends, or anyone depending on you understand where you’re coming from.

Communicate the various parts of your life, your priorities, and seek others’ help in achieving them to everyone’s satisfaction. For instance, if your kids understand and accept that you are not available all the time for them, they will be willing to work with you to find that quality time with them on a regular basis.

Do not get into the perpetual “apology” mode.

Constantly monitor and adjust your daily priorities to meet unexpected situations. Communicate your efforts to others.

Include yourself in your priorities. Ignoring your physical and mental well-being to serve others will self-destruct in the long run.

Winslow makes offers some useful and proactive suggestions. The first one is especially important. We often forget that effective coping requires us to have standards, values, and a moral compass to provide us with a framework for our actions.

For an additional piece of reassurance to working moms, let’s not forget one other important thing; Women who work are often better off psychologically and physically than women who don’t. We should not take that statement as criticism of stay-at-home moms. Many such moms are perfectly happy, and some working moms are miserable.

The problem is that the media often casts the working mom in a pressure-cooker environment, and someone who is just too tired at the end of the day to devote quality time to her family and other domestic issues. This is an unfair characterization that just puts needless pressure on many women when they run across it.

There are some interesting research findings in this area. Compared to non-working women, working women show lower cholesterol levels; have a lower incidence of general illness; are less depressed; say their jobs help serve as an outlet for the stresses of home and childrearing.

What these findings suggest is that working moms have no need to fear playing multiple roles in their life. Comfort level is the key. In fact, heading home on Friday for a weekend with the toddlers after a particularly tough week can be very pleasant and invigorating; by the same token, heading to work on Monday after a weekend of dealing with diapers, tantrums, and crying might be equally pleasant and invigorating!

 

LIVING TO EAT

When Rodney graduated from college he weighed about 440 lbs. Ten years later he tipped the scales at 525 lbs. He was 31 years old. Two things happened that made him come to grips with his weight problem. First, he was hospitalized with a variety of physical problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood sugar, plus blood clots in his legs. All these difficulties were directly attributed to his weight. Second, his mother experienced medical problems and had to be hospitalized.

His mother’s illness proved to be quite a shock to Rodney. He suddenly realized his weight could hurt her if he was unable to help her get through her sickness. He was so incapacitated by his excessive weight that he could not support her in her time of need. He couldn’t even tie his own shoelaces! “That did it,” he said to himself. “I’ve got to lose weight.”

Rodney’s motivation to change his eating behavior was concern for his mom. “I was basically comfortable with who I was. Sure I was fat, but I was enjoying my life and I had a good circle of friends. But suddenly it hit me – I can’t take care of mom in this condition. How can I take care of her if I’m sick, or if I can’t do some basic physical things?”

It was also clear to him that his life expectancy was not exactly promising. How could he care for mom if he died? He came to see his weight as a symbol of selfish indulgence that was a threat to his mother’s health. He decided to place her well-being first and foremost in his mind, and that proved to be a tremendous source of motivation for him.

Within three years Rodney shed 305 lbs. He now maintains a healthy weight and regular exercise regimen, is at the low end of the scale for cholesterol and triglycerides, has a resting heart rate of 55 (it was nearly 100 when he weighed 525), and is training to run in the NYC Marathon. His mother is now deceased, but he has three new motivators to keep himself healthy – a wife and two boys.

What did Rodney do to completely change his life and lose all that weight? First of all he had to determine his options and then develop a plan of action. Initially he thought his only option was stomach surgery. Many people experience success with this surgery, and the physicians he consulted tried to convince him that he would never be able to lose sufficient weight on his own.

“Three physicians and some other medical people told me I needed gastric bypass surgery. I’m not sure why,” Rodney says, “but I didn’t want to do the surgery. I just couldn’t relate to it. Maybe I saw that option as depending too much on the surgeons. I had spent most of my life just drifting from one meal to the next; I wanted more control over myself. So I kept looking for ways to lose weight on my own.”

He educated himself about nutrition, basic body biology, and exercise by going on various web sites. He slowly designed a diet for himself that was healthy, but limited in calories. He also designed exercise routines, each one corresponding to movements he could make within the limits imposed by his size.

Rodney empowered himself, exercised control, and acquired ownership of his diet and exercise plans. He knew his plans would be difficult to endure and carry out. He knew he would be hungry much of the time and tempted to cheat on his diet and exercise program, and that a lot of frustration lay ahead. He knew he could not control these consequences, so he reconciled himself to them. He accepted the things he could not control while taking control of those he could.

Rodney stopped making excuses for his weight problem. He would not blame genetics, even though his mother was severely overweight; he would not blame McDonalds for supersizing his order of fries and loading them with fats. He simply focused his thoughts around one unavoidable truth: His choices, not genetics and not McDonalds, were making him fat.

It took some time but Rodney’s plan was successful. Over a three year period he completely changed his lifestyle. As noted earlier, he lost 305 lbs, his blood and other medical readings reached the normal range, and he slowly began to enjoy an active and productive family life.

“Forgive the pun,” he told us, “but the whole process began to feed on itself. As those pounds began to melt away and as I could do more and more things physically, I was like a runaway train. I used to look forward to a pizza; now I was looking forward to weighing myself and knowing I would be rewarded. It was just awesome. I had never gotten such positive results from things I was doing myself. The feeling of self-control was incredible.”

Note the features of Rodney’s case that we believe are essential to successful coping:

He took control of his thoughts and actions. He did not automatically listen to people who told him to do things their way. He considered advice but ultimately made his own decisions. He armed himself with knowledge, found the methods for change that fit his personality, and put those methods to work for him in a specific plan of action. He was intensely motivated to change. He took personal responsibility for his pitiful state and poor diet and refused to say he was “addicted” to food, or had “bad genes.” When you play the addiction card or the genetic card as reasons for your problems, you are avoiding them, and they will persist and worsen.

Rodney’s weight stabilized around 190lbs. He was six feet tall so this weight was just right for him. In addition to his day job, he became a motivational speaker, spending a couple of evenings a week talking to various businesses, civic groups, weight-control programs, and health professionals. When he spoke he delighted in having a pair of pants with him, the pants he wore when he had topped out at 525lbs. He laughed as he showed how his entire torso fit into one of the legs.

 

 

 

IS SOCIAL MEDIA ENOUGH SOCIAL SUPPORT?

January 2017 we had a posting on working moms. Recently I saw a piece in the local paper dealing with this issue, but the article also got me to thinking about some other things. The article was written by Jennifer Sugarman, President and CEO of the Cocoa Beach Regional Chamber of Commerce. She is a new mom and wanted to share some of the personal issues she faced about motherhood and career. What do you do when these life paths collide?

Sugarman notes how new moms face a full spectrum of emotions about being a new mom: “Pure love, terror, apprehension, victory, elation, joy, and anxiety.” That last one can come from several directions, including post-partum mood complications sprinkled with some guilt about being absent from work.

With the right strategy, Sugarman says new moms can cope with those negative moods and emotions and steadily return to an adjustment equilibrium and back to their former selves. How? She mentions staying busy, getting out of the house into the fresh air, exercising, watching the diet, joining post-partum support groups on social media, and reaching out to family and friends for support in all those activities.

The last two items caught my eye because they stress the need for support from others. Do you want your post-delivery strategy to succeed? Well, you must enlist other people to help you do so. That social support also extends to a new guilt feeling once returning to work. Now it’s guilt over leaving your child. Sugarman felt it, but imagine how she felt when she walked into her office and discovered her co-workers had built a nursery in her office. Talk about social support!

Sugarman ended her piece with a challenge to women in her community to support each other in the area of maternal leave. Sharing experiences and mentoring can go a long way to helping new moms and women who want to go down that road. Men can also be a part of the equation by providing a work environment “conducive to career-driven mothers.”

Sugarman’s advice is fantastic and is largely based on social support. Whether we’re talking about a stay-at-home mom or a career-driven one, providing support to them as human beings will bring us all a sense of “coping fulfillment.”

But again, as I said at the beginning of this post, Sugarman’s comments got me to thinking in a broader context. Specifically, how much social support can be provided through social media? Can Tweets, Facebook, etc. do it all, or is face-to-face, touch-to-touch interaction essential? Can Skyping with a friend work just as well as having that friend stop by your house?

Did you see the recent story of the teenage girl on trial for sending Tweets to the teenage boyfriend encouraging him to follow through with killing himself? This was not a one-time Tweet, but a series that went on and on over a period of time. The boy eventually killed himself. The girl was put on trial and found guilty of manslaughter.

The merits of the case will be debated, of course, but that’s not my point. My question is this: “Is social media so powerful that it can substitute for good old-fashioned human contact?” I mean, after all, the girl didn’t have to be physically present to drive the kid to kill himself. Well, if that’s the case, why would a friend have to come over to your house to help you adjust to the issues of being a new mom? Let’s just Skype or meet on Facebook.

You know those birthday greetings we send out on Facebook? The platform, of course, lets us know it’s a “friend’s” birthday, so we dutifully send out one of many electronic birthday wishes. Tell me, is there something a little artificial about this? Do you feel the same whether someone you know sends you a Facebook greeting, or calls you on the phone and you hear their voice say (or sing!), “Happy Birthday”? Does seeing a birthday wish on Facebook have the same effect on you as receiving a card in the mail with a note attached?

Social media is certainly our new reality. Do we, however, sacrifice a bit of social support for each other when we rely on it? Should we go out of our way to call or visit someone, or can the Facebook post have the same supportive effect? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I would like to hear others’ opinions.

DEPENDENCY

A father of a 17-year old girl said, “We’ve had a lot of trouble with our daughter for about 3 years now. So far counseling hasn’t changed her so we agreed to put her on anti-depressants. She’s been on them about a month now and she’s still giving us a hard time. How long does it take for these drugs to kick in so our daughter will be back to normal?”

A newspaper article last November commented about a local store that was cutting back on decorating the store for Christmas and, unlike previous years, was no longer having employees wear Santa hats and other Christmas accessories. Employees were also cautioned to greet customers with neutral expressions like, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” so as not to offend anyone. The reporter interviewed several customers about these new policies and one gentleman said, “It’s ridiculous. I’m disgusted with all this PC stuff. Donald Trump says we can now say ‘Merry Christmas’ if we want and that’s what I’m going to do; if I offend someone well too bad.”

A first-year student came up to her prof after class and said she was having trouble on his tests because he didn’t post lecture notes on the course website. He showed her his lecture notes for that day: ‘Punishment. Go over the VCB rat study. Discuss real-life examples — basic principles. Should we spank our kids? Abusive moms study. Discuss.’

Obviously, these ‘notes’ were of no help to her. The prof explained to her that he uses prompts to himself to present material. He also reminded her that the VCB study generated so much interest and discussion that it was the only thing he covered that day. Finally, he pointed out that she also does poorly on those sections of tests that cover textbook material!

OK, so what do we have here: A father of a 17-year old girl; a man fed up with PC rules at Christmas time; a student who wants lecture notes posted on the course website. What do these three people have in common? The answer is pretty straightforward: They are all looking for something or someone to depend on to take care of them. That something is different in each case – drugs, an OK from the US President, and professor lecture notes – but they’re all sought after because the person believes “they will take care of me and make things right.” They want a surrogate parent to help them cope.

Bummer! If there is anything that is the enemy of effective coping it is dependency. Developing a sense of personal empowerment is virtually impossible if you are psychologically dependent on others to fulfill your needs and wants.

In the examples above, notice how the father of the teenager does not resolve to examine their family dynamics, to assess his own actions, to reach out and communicate with his daughter about how he and other family members can help her navigate the difficult waters of the teen years. Instead, he places his trust and hopes in medication, desperately waiting for some miracle to occur.

Notice how the PC-hating gentleman apparently has endured years of polite and sensitive Christmas greetings to others while seething with anger and frustration toward those requiring him to do so………until his rescuer comes along with the message, “Depend on me, I will care for you and show you how to proceed.” Now this gentleman will never learn how to communicate and interact with either those hated others or with his own inadequacies. When challenged he is lost and can only plead, “Show me what to do now.”

Notice how the student must always seek her agent of dependency so she can justify her failures by noting the absence of the crutch on which she must depend. Poor test scores? Of course! There are no class notes on the course website.  Like the others, she is crying out for help because she has developed no sense of autonomy, no confidence, and no ability to fortify her character to cope independently with her challenges.

            On the other side of the ledger, consider a gentleman who entered AA to try and deal with his alcohol problem. He met and fell in love with one of the AA members, a woman who was far advanced in dealing with her alcohol problem. With her help and inspiration he developed the courage to fight his demons. She eventually accepted his proposal of marriage but made one thing crystal clear to him: “In the end, you have to carry your fight, and it’s a fight that will last the rest of your life. I cannot and will not do it for you.” He stayed dry and they stayed married until he died 26 years later. How cool!

Always remember, it is your thoughts and actions that bring you effective coping.

When evaluating your coping skills, remember that you can learn to accept the realities of life both intellectually and emotionally; you can learn how to meet and cope with those realities in satisfying and productive ways. You cannot do so, however, by depending on others to do the work for you.

GETTING USED TO PROBLEMS IS BAD FOR COPING

I’m beginning to hear news commentators suggest that the proliferation of attacks around the world, and the saturation coverage of those events in the media, may be dulling us to the dangers of terrorism. Psychological research shows us the effect is real. Continually seeing and hearing horrific events sends our brains into protective mode: “Oh, well, there’s another one. Terrible! Is it time for NCIS? I hope they don’t pre-empt our favorite show!”

Psychologists call it habituation, becoming used to something presented again and again. The villagers learn to ignore the smart-aleck kid who keeps yelling, “Wolf! Wolf!” Habituation can be very adaptive. Let’s face it, how useful would it be for us never to learn that many of the things we experience can best be ignored? On the flip side, habituation can lower our defenses, as in the boy crying “Wolf.”

I remember a story from an eminent psychologist at a convention in the early 1970s. Paraphrasing:

“I was watching the evening news. As usual the lead story was Vietnam. The report covered napalm attacks by American jets on suspected Viet Cong areas. The film was vivid, showing the flames that spread across the jungle as the projectiles hit. My 4-year old son came walking through the room but he paused when he saw the jets. He loved anything having to do with planes, especially jets. But he heard this new word and asked me, ‘Dad, what’s napalm?’ I casually began explaining the flames and how they destroyed all the trees and plants so the enemy couldn’t hide. I said if any people happened to be in the way, the napalm would eat away their skin, giving them tremendous pain and leaving them scarred for life or burnt to a crisp. I must have been pretty vivid because I heard a whimper and looked at him. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. I had terrified him with my casual description of napalm. I had seen film of napalm attacks for so long I didn’t realize I had habituated to the horror of this weapon. Another napalm attack? Ho-hum.”

There’s no doubt that saturation coverage of real events ( mass shootings, suicide bombers, local murders, street riots, a mean-spirited political rally or town-hall meeting) over a long period of time can dull us to those events as we become used to seeing them. And it’s hard to avoid the coverage. The ubiquitous presence of cell-phone cameras, police body cams, and security cameras make “catching” real-life violence and mayhem highly likely. Your children could easily catch a murder, a horrific accident, a break-in, or a street riot simply by entering  your TV room while CNN is on.

Here is where we have a problem, though. The kids are not habituated like you are and they’re likely to be upset by what they see. What, you wonder, is the emotional effect on your children of seeing this reality? Will your sons and daughters buy into the belief that the world is a violent place, and that meeting violence with violence, fighting fire with fire, is the only way to navigate through life?

The effect of repeated news reports on habituating us to violence and terrorizing our kids is bad enough. On June 14th I saw an even more pernicious problem. In the aftermath of the heinous attack on Republican Congressional members on a baseball field, I heard a survivor say in an interview: “We must tone down our political rhetoric. We do not hate our colleagues in the other party but it must sound to the public like we do. We’re out of control with how we’re presenting ourselves with such vitriol directed at others.”

Sounds good but look between the lines of this comment. It says we’re getting so nasty that we don’t even realize the negative fallout. All of us, from political leaders to citizens having lunch at the corner diner or a few beers at the corner bar, we’re getting used to nasty talk. Habituation is creating a new norm in social discourse: “Go to hell!” Need proof? When was the last time you heard a White House Communications Director engage in an on-the-record expletive-laden barroom diatribe with a reporter against a White House Chief of Staff?  At least we can be reassured that the frequency of crude profanity in one’s social discourse is negatively correlated with one’s intelligence. Scaramucci may be a smart guy because he made a billion dollars, but he’s not too intelligent. Remind your kids of that distinction. Also remind them that anyone who is polysyllabically-challenged and can’t construct a grammatically-meaningful sentence will rely on the monosyllable world of Twitter.

How many of us recognize the new and evil norm that profane insults are OK in our public discourse? How naïve and self-absorbed are we? Can we not look in the mirror and say, “Enough is enough! I may have differences of opinion with adversaries, but I must be guided by certain absolutes in my interactions with them, absolutes like the inherent value of a human life, the importance of courtesy, respect, and understanding, and the importance of carrying myself with class and dignity.”

On June 14th, some politicians and news commentators said they were taking that hard introspective look in the mirror. Let’s hope they get concerned over what they see.

My biggest disappointment, however, is that in the aftermath of June 14th I heard no one deal with the elephant in the room: Courtesy, respect, dignity, virtue, and civility begin at the top. Courtesy is not pushing a world leader out of the way to get a better position at the front, and respect is not insulting others with barroom talk in tweets. No dignified leader sets an example by pouring gasoline on the flames of hatred that already exist in ample supply in America. A virtuous American leader realizes that because actions have consequences, “I must not perpetuate crude and disrespectful behavior in myself and make it easier for others to justify such behavior in themselves.”

I have heard members of the Legislative branch of government, and also media commentators, publicly express that awareness. Tragically, I have yet to hear a similar sentiment from the Executive branch, whose ignorant classless bullying continues unabated.

Is there a coping lesson in all this? Yes, indeed! When psychological habituation in us fosters negative actions in others, we must accept some responsibility. We must look inward and objectively examine our values, social conscience, and life purposes. We must ask ourselves, “How do I define myself? Are my actions consistent with my self-definition, with who I believe I am?”

If you define yourself by your negative emotions – your anger, anxieties, fear, and sanctimony — you are on a self-destructive coping road. Effective coping requires you to apply your values and standards to your roles as spouse, parent, friend, co-worker, son/daughter, etc. You must determine if your actions in these roles are consistent with your conscience and purpose. If not, you must work to correct the inconsistencies. That, my friends, is effective coping.

 

 

 

COPE WITHIN YOUR LIMITS

In a recent newspaper column, Florida attorney Cindy Bishop highlighted “Younger Next Year for Women,” a 2005 book 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 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  said 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. You should also remember that when monitoring “what goes in,” you must also monitor “what goes out.” I 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.

These rules fit well with the coping principles we try to illustrate in our blog posts. It helps to remember, however, 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.

AMERICA’S MENTAL HEALTH THREATENED

The entries in this blog are about psychology. I have to confess, however, that many current political events make me want to apply psychological coping principles to them. I mean let’s face it, the Tweeter-in-Chief is a psychological gold mine! Still, I try to resist because I don’t want to drift into partisan political discussions.

A recent conversation with a friend who works in the mental health field, however, is causing me to rethink my position about politics and psychological coping. My friend mentioned that conversations with her colleagues — counselors, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, etc., — reveal a disturbing trend. The professionals are finding a mushrooming of anxiety-based problems that are driving more folks to therapy and to psychiatric medication. International pressures, health insurance, suspicious shenanigans of a partisan election fraud committee, the emotional stability of our leadership…….these and other issues are weighing heavily on a growing number of people.

Worse yet, as the anxiety infects more and more on a daily basis, professionals find their clients are beginning to disengage, give up, and withdraw. Any undergraduate student of psychology, and readers of our blog entries, will recognize that this sequence of fear, learned helplessness, and withdrawal inevitably leads to serious psychological consequences, notably depression.

Should this psychological descent into despair and depression continue to expand at a national level, we will have a serious problem. Not only will our fellow citizens be troubled with personal crises, but they will also become more vulnerable to messages from powerful others who tell them, “I have the answer.” They will succumb to the most convincing propaganda, and our government of checks and balances bound by Constitutional laws could be damaged.

We’re not really talking partisan politics here, folks. That has been a reality since the days of Adams and Jefferson and the other Founders. No, we’re talking about facing up to, coping with, pressures being put in place to sow psychological distress in the populace and make people more malleable.

You might wonder, “If this psychological undermining is so manifest, why aren’t the TV ‘talking heads’ and others talking about it?” Good question! All I can say is, as events continue to unfold I will more readily offer possible psychological explanations for what is going on, in the hopes of giving readers specific coping possibilities to combat tendencies to feel helplessness and to refuse to withdraw from it all. Many of our previous blog entries, of course, provide such coping suggestions.

There is absolutely no reason, psychologically speaking, that any of us cannot find appropriate coping actions to determine the aspects of any situation that we can control, and develop actions to effect change. That may be our new challenge at a national level. I bet many of you have some suggestions to make along these lines.