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Coping With Everyday Life

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What This Blog is About

Your hosts for this blog are listed under “Hosts” in the menu choices. We invite you to join the blog and participate in our discussions about psychology and stress. If you are interested in pursuing any topic we cover, email us 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.

This blog is about what psychology has to say about facing everyday stress. Anxiety, jealousy, anger, love, depression, grief – like everyone, you experience these emotions and the stress they can produce. You lose loved ones, you get bored with your job, you have kids, you care for elderly parents, the water heater breaks, you suffer a personal attack, a storm damages your house, your neighbor is a pain in the a……well, you get the idea. Stress surrounds you and sometimes you feel helpless to do anything about it.

Faced with life, you really have two choices: You can say the hell with it, decide to live with the stress, withdraw into a protective shell, and avoid trying to do anything about it. From a psychological perspective, this choice will turn you into a stagnant pool; you exist, but not in any productive or satisfying way.

On the other hand, you can decide to attack the stress in your life, to accept challenges and meet them as best you can. You can decide not to be ruled by your emotions, but to use them to your advantage. This choice requires more effort and focus than the first one, but the effort is well worth it in the long run. This choice, and how you can apply psychology to your life and become better at dealing with your everyday stressors, is what we talk about in this blog. Join us!

 

Coping Failure and Collateral Damage

Michael Church and Charles Brooks

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” How many people who suffer from adversities – like Type II diabetes, coronavirus infection from risk-taking or carelessness, family alienation related to their behavior, compulsive gambling, or drug/alcohol abuse – wish they paid more attention to preventing suffering to themselves and others? Unfortunately, far too many people are so self-preoccupied and self-absorbed that they are not worried about negative consequences until it is too late. The truth is, people have a remarkable capacity to deny, rationalize, and distort reality, thereby opening the gate to ignoring the need to make changes and blaming others for their self-destructiveness. Much of the time this amounts to “little white lies” they tell others or themselves. Other times, it leads to cascading and catastrophic effects. Often, by the time they see the troubled waters they have waded into, their habits create the difficulty of having to swim against the tide. And then they lament, “I wish I had done….”

For example, drug/alcohol abusers do not plan to cause so much havoc in their life and those around them when they first begin using. However, their refusal to accept that they are developing a problem leads to stress and complications with their mental and physical health. These complications impact their family and larger social systems, including health care professionals, police and judicial systems, and businesses. The collateral damage from self-sabotaging behavior patterns means students have to deal with teachers who are absent and vice-versa, homeowners have to deal with crime and drug-related offenses in their neighborhoods, businesses have to adapt to circumstances where their workers are absent because of preventable physical and mental health problems, and the list goes on and on. These reverberating effects on society reduce the quality of life of many people who had little or nothing to do with the individual who engaged in the self-destructive processes.

The fact of collateral damage from self-destructive behavior shows the importance of empathy when coping with your personal stressors. Being aware of, and sensitive to, the effect of your behavior on the welfare of others, can play a significant role in helping you accept reality and take more responsibility for your actions. Such awareness can also help you include others in your coping plan of action, an inclusion that brings you humility and acceptance of help from others, both of which will increase your odds of success.

How about you? Do you engage in selfishly-motivated actions that bring others down with you? Do your denial patterns and inability to deal with reality infect others who are innocent bystanders? The fact is, coping with stress has significance far beyond your personal betterment. Remember that fact when you seek to enhance your ability to cope with your stressors.

Moral Disengagement

Michael Church and Charles Brooks

We often change our minds about things. Early in the pandemic, many medical experts felt masks were of minimal use because the thinking at the time was that the virus was transmitted primarily from surfaces. Eventually it became clear that transmission was through the air, and social distancing and wearing masks suddenly became a primary defensive action. In this case, it was adaptive and wise for medical experts to change their minds.

Sometimes, however, we are neither wise nor rational, and we change our minds because of the indoctrinating influence of others. For instance, throughout the 1960s there were a variety of conspiracy theories that some people accepted. Marylyn Monroe died in 1962 of a drug overdose, but a few believed she was murdered by the government because of her alleged and nefarious ties to Jack and Robert Kennedy. Another belief grew that because of the counterculture, antigovernment movement of the 1960s – make love not war – the government flooded the food and water supply with LSD to pacify the population. My favorite was that United Nations troops would arrive on our shores in black helicopters to overthrow the US government.

From a psychological perspective, what’s fascinating about people who come to accept a conspiracy theory, no matter how bizarre or irrational, is how they hang on to the new belief in the face of contradictory evidence. I recently overheard a person say, “Of course, Obama wasn’t a legal president; he was born in Africa.” Good lord, even Trump eventually admitted that his birther argument was wrong. Someone also told me several days ago, “Did you see Biden? He looked different, didn’t he? That wasn’t him, you know. There are three or four doubles who fill in for him because he sleeps most of the time.”

Many people, once they make a decision – especially if publicly announced – are resistant to changing their mind because they want to see themselves as consistent, and appear that way to others. Also, the more emotional involvement they have in the decision, the more resistant they are to changing their mind. It is truly remarkable how people can justify and rationalize just about any decision, and do so without feeling guilt, regret, shame, or remorse, even if circumstances suggest they made a bad decision. Social psychologist Albert Bandura called this process Moral Disengagement. People can justify virtually any decision or action they take, even self-destructive actions that are also hurtful to others. Shame is irrelevant. You may think that shaming someone will encourage them to change their belief, but it won’t. In fact, it is likely to raise their defensive shields more strongly to resist facts that speak against their belief.

Challenging someone’s irrational beliefs – such as, by imposing a vaccine or mask mandate – can also lead them to verbal, even physical, violence. Imagine this conversation:

“Sir, why did you threaten that school board member?”

“Because she voted to require my kids to wear a mask in school. She is evil and trying to harm my kids.”

“But, sir, she says she wants to protect the children.”

No matter what he replies, he is thinking – possibly at a subconscious level but definitely revealing a bizarre display of twisted psychological machinations – “She is evil because I’m attacking her. I only attack evil people who threaten me and my family.” Note how he merges his belief with his actions. The board member is evil because, “I am threatening her, and I am threatening her because she is evil!” Ignoring the context of this example, the broader coping lesson here is that you could easily act in an inappropriate way to justify your beliefs. When your mind observes your action, it is straightforward to conclude that the action is justified; you attack someone because you believe they’re evil, and your attack confirms for you that they are indeed evil. The problem is, this moral disengagement is a lousy way to cope with stress because the process ignores the importance of personal values in the coping process. When you divorce what you say, do, and believe from the ethics, standards, and morals of society – doing the right things for the right reasons – your stability, social conscience, and autonomy are sacrificed. The damage to self-empowerment and your ability to cope with your stressors is significant. You discard critical thinking, ignore the advice of experts, and blindly follow the misinformed herd. Your honor, dignity, self-esteem, autonomy, and self-sufficiency are all sacrificed on an altar of dependency on others. You must constantly live in a world of denial to avoid realizing your inability to control how you live; you are now vulnerable to feelings of helplessness, followed by depression, followed by chronic self-damaging actions that rob you of your ability to cope with your stressors. All because your life is not guided by a stable set of personal values.

Moral Disengagement boils down to bullying. Values are cast aside to cover up one’s personal inadequacies and insecurities.

The Coping Hazards of Tribalism

by Michael Church and Charles Brooks

A sure way to find yourself burdened with excessive stress is to try and control things in your life that are beyond your control, such as others’ behavior. One key to mitigating your stressors is to stay centered on what you can control directly – your thoughts and actions. That process will be greatly facilitated when you recognize that your most important thoughts should revolve around your values, purposes, goals, and acceptances. Once you identify these thoughts, your task becomes ensuring that your actions are consistent with these thoughts. It sounds simple enough, but this process can be difficult because reality can be tough to accept, and values can be hard to identify. Why? Because others often try to construct your reality based on their agenda, and they work to convince you to accept their value system. To do so, they assure you that issues confronting you are emotionally based – that is, these false messengers try to trigger despair, frustration, anger, and hatred inside you. They console you that “our side” – the tribe – is right; “their side” is wrong, and must be rejected, defeated, overpowered, and crushed as evil. If you accept their emotionally-based foundation for your thoughts and actions, you are no longer listening to yourself and evaluating reality objectively; you are no longer identifying your values and coordinating your actions to those values. Instead, you have succumbed to a manipulative message of tribalism that makes you no more than a passive puppet.

The Survey Center on American Life reports alarming increases in depression and suicide in America over the past decade, and a similar increase in those saying they have no close friends. In a Facebook world that amplifies differences in values, beliefs, and opinions, psychologists note how acceptance of – and coping with – lifestyle changes is becoming progressively more difficult. Technological developments, social media, working at home, shopping online, barely knowing neighbors, and interacting more frequently with artificial intelligence instead of humans – all can have a depersonalizing and dehumanizing effect on you. The resulting frustration and anger can make you vulnerable to concocting a psychological coping strategy that is a recipe for disaster.

The progression to coping catastrophe is well-documented: Emotion-based coping strategies –> Acceptance of extremist autocratic false messages –> Rejection and hatred of targeted others –> Subordination of your values, purposes, goals, and independence to the “tribe,” aka the “clan” or “cult” –> Denial of objective reality –> Feelings of helplessness –> Increasing self-criticism –> Unhappiness and depression –> Self-damaging actions.

When subservience to false messaging and alternate realities becomes your pattern of coping with stress, in the long run you will suffer. Objective reality has a way of creating immense psychological pressure from this pattern, and the “self” – who you thought yourself to be – will crumble with dire consequences. On the other hand, if you commit to accepting objective and verified reality, if you learn to discriminate between what you can and cannot control directly, and if you decide to be guided by values and standards that you – not others – choose, life becomes less stressful and you will be better able to cope with change. You will find a corresponding increase in the energy you need to pursue independent and constructive pursuits that bring you satisfaction and contentment with a life well-lived. You will get along better with others because you will be able to accept their perspectives and individuality. In short, you will be guided by humility, empathy, a social conscience, self-actualization, and life satisfaction, qualities that cannot merge with who you are – your sense of self – if you are guided by tribalism.

Does Positive Thinking Work?

If you are suffering from low self-esteem, can you get yourself out of the doldrums by simply thinking positive thoughts? In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale’s book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” gave a definite “Yes” to that question. Peale said you do not need to be defeated by anything. You can achieve peace of mind, health, and energy by, among other things, picturing and thinking about yourself succeeding, minimizing obstacles when you think about a challenge, thinking positive thoughts to inhibit negative thoughts, and regularly reminding yourself of the respect you hold for yourself. Similar ideas have been presented recently by Rhonda Byrnes, author of “The Greatest Secret.” Read her books and you will come to see how you can have, be, or do anything you want; you will discover who you really are and the self-actualization that life can give you.

Wow! Think your way to happiness, contentment, serenity, and stability. Ah, but if it were only that simple. Think about it. If positive thinking had that kind of power, all of us would be able to raise our self-esteem to comfortably high and healthy levels just by thinking positive thoughts; we could erase a lot of mental illness, not to mention the need for psychoactive drugs. Realistically, though, dealing with pathological or even everyday emotional conditions is much more complicated than merely imagining how we want to be, and getting what we want.

“But wait,” you protest, “surely positive thinking has psychological benefits.” Indeed, it does. Research has revealed that people high in self-esteem who engage in repetitive practice in making self-affirming and positive self-statements do show temporary increases in self-esteem. Optimistic thinking has also been shown to strengthen the immune system, making one less susceptible to colds. There is, however, no evidence that such an outlook can increase longevity or cure one from an already-contracted disease. There is also no evidence we can permanently change our self-esteem level by simply thinking positively. Furthermore, positive thinking has been shown to lower self-esteem in those already low in self-regard. Apparently, they don’t “buy into” the positive self-statements, saying, “Nope, sorry. Those positive thoughts are not who I am.” In short, the positive effects of optimistic thinking are quite limited.

So where does that leave us? Simple. Forget the focus on thoughts; after all, they only exist in your head; in a sense, they are not real, unless you translate the thoughts into actions.

You must focus on optimistic actions, not thoughts, because without accompanying actions, thoughts remain fantasy. Before you decide your level of insecurity about life and yourself, take a good long realistic look at your behavior, not at your thoughts. Thoughts are cheap; actions reveal your essence and show you the path to better coping with stress.

Then there is the “happiness” card. People generally buy into the power of positive thinking because they want to achieve happiness. Unfortunately, attaining happiness is a false goal. It is not something you find, but something that emerges from actions you perform. Ironically, even those actions do not bring you happiness; they bring you feelings of contentment, satisfaction, and an appreciation of something worthwhile that you accomplished. Along those same lines, some people base their perception of reality on how “happy” they are. Please remember that effective coping does not require that you achieve “happiness.” Good coping means developing a realistic and optimistic lifestyle – not a momentary state of being, but a repetitive pattern of actions that empower you, and give you a sense of autonomy, personal control, and fulfillment.

Grief: Cognitive and Emotional Challenges. By Michael Church

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the example is a composite from multiple cases.

Katrina’s 20-year-old son, Trevor, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was 10.  By the time he was 18 he was also diagnosed with a drug addiction. By the time Trevor was 20, Katrina, married with a child younger than Trevor, had spent the past decade believing it was her job to keep him alive, even though – as early as 14 – he told her many times he did not want to live any longer. His actions were very self-sabotaging, and he was brought into the hospital many times very close to death, resulting from drug use, lack of exercise, poor eating habits, and refusal to adhere to medical recommendations. All led to a rapid decline in his physical and cognitive health, while his tolerance to drugs grew greatly over the years, as he increased dosages to get the “high” he craved. He told his mom that the only time he felt okay was when he was on drugs.

One night he overdosed and died just before his 21st birthday. It was never clear if the overdose was intentional. Katrina was plunged into guilt; she blamed herself for not being there with him when he died, and obsessed about how she could have saved him once again. Although she admitted feeling some relief that the family suffering was over, even this relief added to her guilt: “What kind of mother would be relieved by her child’s death?” she lamented. Her guilt grew into serious depression and she began psychotherapy.

Katrina had to face and accept several harsh realities, especially that her son did not value his life and there was nothing she could do to change that. His cancer and drug addiction were consequences of many factors that were beyond her control. She felt guilty she had not insisted on chemotherapy, even though doctors said that chemo would not work. It was a terrible decision to be confronted with, but Katrina and her husband did the best they could at the time. She needed to accept that she did what most parents would have done in similar circumstances.

Katrina was still mothering Trevor during his late teens, and he had not made any fundamental or positive changes to help himself. As a matter of fact, he deteriorated during these years even while many medical and mental health care providers and facilities did their best to improve the quality and quantity of his life. The bottom line was, he did not care. He believed his pathetic state of living could not change for the better, and his drug habit fostered a self-fulfilling prophecy. He had been telling his mom for years – in actions and words – that he was not afraid of death and did not want to live, and she somehow denied the significance of these statements. His mom became collateral damage even though he probably survived longer because of her heroic efforts.

Katrina entered therapy to help reinvent herself with renewed purpose and goals. She worked to close the gap between cognitive and emotional acceptance. As is commonplace, she accepted Trevor’s death rationally before emotionally. At first, she made the mistake of trying to control her feelings, even to the point of refusing to cry or talk about her loss. Unfortunately, these actions extend suffering and delay acceptance. With the help of her therapist, Katrina was able to learn how to use action to facilitate emotional acceptance. She stopped blaming herself and trying to control her feelings. Instead, she focused on controlling her actions and letting natural healing take its course. It takes a lot of time and effort to reach emotional acceptance of many harsh realities of life, and there is no timetable or road map to follow. Every situation is unique and must be handled creatively and courageously.

She progressed with letting go (acceptance) because she was willing to talk about and face her loss. She developed a legacy for her son, did not avoid going to his room, looked at his videos and pictures, visited his grave site regularly, talked about him with family and friends, and joined a support group for grieving parents. Most importantly, she let herself grieve in her own way.

 Katrina knows there will always be an emptiness in her heart for her son who is not at the table, but she is no longer mired in the stages of grief. She is living more fully and reveling in her role as grandparent and the success of her surviving child. Her relationship with her husband is healthy and stable, and they are looking forward to a future with renewed energy and meaning.

Katrina’s case reveals some important lessons about the need to synchronize emotional acceptance with rational acceptance, particularly when personal loss is involved. That is, you need to behave in ways congruent with facing the reality of a situation, and focus on living in the present. Life is for the living and that is what those you leave behind would want. In so many important areas of life, when it comes to enhancing your confidence and self-esteem to face challenges and overcome fears, there is no substitute for facing and acting in ways to better those psychological states.

Social Comparison Theory

(With co-author Michael Church)

I was chatting with an acquaintance recently. She was telling me about her 20-year old nephew who had recently returned home following 3 months in rehab for alcohol and drug problems. She said, “Unfortunately, his parents were soon enabling him again, and it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks that he was hanging out with his old buddies, the ones he always did drugs with. I figure he’ll be back in jail or rehab before you know it. He’s got three older brothers and they’re all rock solid. Good educations, good jobs, good judgment. But this kid, he just doesn’t measure up to them. I used to wonder why they weren’t a better influence, but sometimes I think he looks at his brothers’ success and gets down on himself because he just doesn’t have it.”

Social psychologists call it social comparison, a concept developed nearly 50 years ago. One aspect of people’s evaluation of themselves – “How am I doing?” – takes place when they watch and compare themselves to what others are doing. Take a look at your own behavior. Have you been positively influenced by observing a friend or family member? Have you used their example to track your own development? If you’re like a lot of people you can probably identify some role model who motivated you to improve your own life. Many young people are spurred to do better when they have positive examples in their life like parents, siblings, a teacher, or a coach. But the comparison can go wrong.

When can comparisons make you feel bad? Judging yourself against others is likely to make you feel bad if you regularly chose those who are shining examples of certain traits. There will always be those better than you, and those worse than you, so why restrict yourself to always choosing the former for comparison? For example, you might believe you have a less active social life than others, but you don’t realize you’re always comparing yourself only to the most social people you know. It’s also possible that your comparison itself is based on a faulty assumption. In the case we just described, for instance, was the woman’s nephew negatively affected by being around his successful brothers and comparing himself to them? Or, did he carry a faulty assumption with his comparison because he elevated his brothers’ success far beyond where it really was? Consider the case of a college freshman whose self-esteem and confidence were in the toilet. Seems he was convinced that all the other students in his classes – none of whom he knew – were geniuses and he was the one dummy in the class. His assumption was flawed.

In addition to family models, young people compare themselves against others they see – those in media sources, peers, and subcultures. What is the effect on our children and adolescents who witness on a recurring basis: over half of our population being obese; at least ten percent showing drug and alcohol abuse; a veritable epidemic of Type II diabetes; more recently, refusing to take preventive sickness measures like wear a face covering or get a vaccination; and, a precipitous increase in the daily use of medical marijuana? These influences can build up over time and diminish self-esteem and contribute to depression.

Fortunately, most people have the social skills and impulse control to keep their standards for social comparison appropriate; those who don’t – especially impressionable young people who spend too much time on social media – need to be helped to understand the dangers of social comparison, and how to focus on using the process to motivate themselves to improve, not bring themselves down. For instance, social comparison can reinforce self-esteem when people focus on reviewing their memories of good times with friends. In fact, this is one aspect of social media – sharing positive times and good memories – that contributes significantly to psychological well-being.

The coping lesson? Be realistic about your comparisons, and focus on those that motivate you to act better – with reality-based acceptance, purpose, values, and accountability.

Coping is Doomed When Self is the Center

I was corresponding with a colleague recently about how a simple act – putting on a mask – has become politicized, even weaponized. She also pointed out to me how this issue illustrates a trend in society that has metastasized in recent years into extreme levels of self-absorption. She said, “I find the general level of self-preoccupation in society today absolutely startling.” She’s correct, of course, and what’s sad about this obsessive fixation with self is that it is completely incompatible with being able to cope with the stressors in your life.

Followers of this blog see again and again how we emphasize a three-step coping model that requires acceptance of your emotions and core tendencies, accountability for who you are, and development of a coping plan that must include two essential elements: humility and empathy. A coping plan that revolves around you, to the exclusion of others, is destined to fail. You will never be sensitive to your true inner self if you cannot be sensitive to the needs of others.

I often wonder how we might view things if – when we correspond or speak with someone, or post something on social media – instead of using words like “Republican” or “Liberal,” we substituted the phrase “Those who agree with me,” or “Those who disagree with me.” For instance, suppose an extreme progressive posted on Facebook, “The country was falling apart over the past four years with the Republicans in office, but now that the liberals have taken over, we’re back on the road to recovery from madness.” Any staunch conservative would consider those “fightin’ words,” literally! But what if the post said, “The country was falling apart over the past four years with those who disagree with me in office, but now that those who agree with me have taken over, we’re back on the road to recovery from madness.” Hmm. Less emotionally inciting, perhaps? Less a condemnation of others? More an admission of your responsibility for the conflict, an admission of your self-preoccupation?

 If you resolved to use only the latter phrasing, – “Those who agree/disagree with me” –   would you begin to realize that you have been operating totally from a self-absorbed, egocentric point of view that encourages conflict? Would you begin to understand that you have created an artificial, but inevitable, dichotomy between “us” and “them” that is based on the uniqueness and superiority of “me”?  Might you begin to appreciate that saying “those who agree/disagree with me” puts “us” and “them” on an equal plane, where the opposing positions just might both be valid? Could you conclude, “I have an opinion, others have an opinion, and the resolution to the conflict just might be somewhere in the middle”?

Food for thought? Maybe. One thing for certain: When you see yourself and your allies as the only enlightened ones in the discussion, you will never successfully cope with your stressors because you are operating in emotional mode, not problem-solving mode. The emotional mode is inciting, inflaming, and provoking; you will eventually hemorrhage into depression and self-sabotaging actions. Why? Because reality dictates that you are not the center of it all, and reality has a way of popping up again, and again, and again.

Values are Essential for Effective Coping

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the examples are composites from multiple cases involving different topics.

Alice is 52 and appears to have withdrawn from life. Her youngest child just graduated from college and has gone off to another city to pursue her career. Alice feels like her usefulness in life has ended; for 30 years she has devoted her life to raising three children, running the household, and supporting her husband as he moved up the career ladder. But now, Alice thinks, “It’s gone, all gone. I’m not worth much anymore.” She begins seeing a psychologist “to try and get my life in order.” The counselor diagnoses her with persistent depressive disorder – dysthymia – and recommends she get a prescription for an antidepressant from her physician.

Many psychologists would say, “Hold on. Let’s not rush into medication. Alice’s problem is not depression. Depression is the symptom of being confronted with stressors in her life. Alice needs to confront these stressors and do realistic evaluations of how she might handle them.” From this perspective, the psychologist might help Alice develop a treatment plan that involves working toward a new sense of purpose in her life, and committing herself to actions that will help her face and work through her stress, not be immobilized by it. The goal will be to find actions that, when combined with motivation and purpose, will bring Alice to a greater sense of being worthwhile and productive. Note, the emphasis is not having Alice focus on changing the symptom – depression – or asking her to change her thoughts and fears, which are normal states of anxiety and sadness resulting from the “empty nest.” Instead, Alice needs to see that she can act in ways that will give her a renewed sense of purpose, and not rely on medication.

But first, Alice must examine her values. What things matter to her? “I like to help others,” she says. “It’s important to me to be a source of support and guidance to those who feel a little lost and looking for meaning in their lives. I always did that with my kids. I didn’t tell them what to do, but said to see what sorts of things are important to them, things that they value, and we’ll go from there.” Alice pauses. “Good lord, that’s where I am right now, isn’t it? I’m like one of my kids looking for guidance and help from others.” She chuckles. “How about that!”

Once Alice had a grasp on her issues, she worked with the psychologist on listing her values, and finding activities that would be a good substitute for her parenting, which was now minimized, at least on a daily basis. She focused on volunteer activities and came up with five programs that she felt would work for her: Big Brother/Big Sister; Be a Mentor, providing a role model for kids, just as she did with her own; Hospice volunteer, which required 12 hours of training, plus Alice liked the fact that she would be challenged by needs for those at the end of the road, not the beginning: JustServe community volunteer, where she could use her vast knowledge of her local community; Mentoring programs at local high schools, an activity that would also make her feel like a needed parent again. She contacted each one to determine which  would work best for her.

Laura is a recent high-school graduate who works at Walmart. She is unsure of what she wants to do with her future: College? Marriage and kids? Stay at Walmart? She admits that her uncertainty is affecting her self-esteem, and she gets a little depressed about it all. She found herself joining her friends and buying into all sorts of conspiracy theories about what was going on in the world. “I felt more secure living in a simple world.” When people outside of her circle of friends would challenge her about the conspiracy beliefs, she would justify those beliefs by criticizing them and ignoring their contradictory information.

At some level, Laura began to feel uncomfortable with so much denial, and she began to ask herself, “Is it really me and so many of my friends who are correct, and everyone else is wrong? Does feeling I’m a loser because I’m uncertain about my plans, does that make me a loser?” Laura began to dip her toes in the water of critical thinking. She will swim in those waters when she is able to say, “I am what I do. I am not defined by my thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. I won’t feel better by simply thinking or feeling my way out by following some of my friends’ beliefs. I must be guided by what I value.”

Maybe Laura will eventually realize a basic truth about coping and learning how to evaluate your life: “Your thoughts do not make you good or bad. They are natural for you and part of what makes you human. You do not have to feel guilty about your thoughts or feelings. Every person has some extreme, distorted, bizarre or self-centered thoughts from time to time. Your thoughts and feelings do not define you. Your freely-chosen actions define you. That is what you need to concentrate on – your actions, not your thoughts and feelings.” 

The Meaning of Acceptance

NOTE: Jessica is a composite from multiple cases.

Like everyone else, you have stress in your life, and you want to be able to deal with it. The first step is Acceptance. Many people hear that word and say, “You want me to quit? To give up? To admit I’ve been defeated?” A lot of people confuse acceptance with giving up, being passive, and resigned to the inevitability of stressful events swirling around them. Passivity and helplessness, however, are not at all what we mean by acceptance.

Think of acceptance as the opposite of avoidance, of running away from your problems. When you seek to avoid and escape your stressors, you get trapped by irrational thinking, denial, and passively accepting what others tell you. Acceptance, on the other hand, means empowering yourself, facing yourself and the reality around you. Sometimes those actions mean working through some pain and suffering, but that is often necessary if you are to grow. President Woodrow Wilson once told an assistant, “I have found that one can never get anything in life that is worthwhile without fighting for it.” (Cited from Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr.)

When you hear that acceptance is the first step in coping with stress, do not think for a minute that it means you must tolerate things or give up. In a coping context, acceptance means facing the stark realities of life. For instance, you can rationally accept something like your mortality, or the passing of a loved one. However, in many circumstances, acceptance can take a lot of time and work because you must engage in emotional, behavioral, and thought acceptance. It’s not unusual to hear people say they accept something, but their behavior does not coincide with their verbalizations or with their emotional reactions. When those elements are out of sync, there’s coping trouble ahead!

Suppose you’re anxious and fearful about something going on in the world. Someone tells you, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine. You’re worrying over nothing.” Does that comment make you feel better? It shouldn’t because it advises acceptance by denial – “Just deny what’s worrying you.” But you listen to this advice and say to yourself, “Yeh, you’re right, I shouldn’t be afraid. Everything will work out. I’ll just stay calm.” Do your words make you feel better? Probably not, and you continue to be bothered by troublesome emotions and thoughts in spite of your comforting words. This lack of synchronism is a warning to you that you are asking yourself to deny something, in this case, the part of you that is anxious and fearful. Denying yourself is a dangerous, self-defeating game that sabotages coping efforts and your mind senses it.

Jessica is a high-achieving college student. She says, “My parents always drilled in me the importance of doing things right. Sloppy work was just not an option. But I get so anxious and angry at myself when I fall short of perfection. Why am I like that? Why can’t I be like my brother who screws up but stays laid back, so cool, so in control? But me, I’m there biting my fingernails off!”

Do you see what’s happening here? Jessica refuses to accept her perfectionistic tendencies. That refusal makes her criticize herself; she is never satisfied with her work, even when it’s good, because in her mind it always falls short of perfection. She treats her traits like her enemy, and that treatment denies who she is.

What does acceptance mean for Jessica? She’s frustrated, anxious, and angry. How should she handle those emotions? How should she handle her perfectionistic thoughts that bring self-criticizing words upon her? Once she accepts that how she feels is a part of who she is, then she can think about her emotions a little differently. She’s mad at herself for being overly perfectionistic, but now – rather than deny her emotions by trying to eliminate them – she can pause and consider the positive aspects of her perfectionism: She is less likely to make foolish mistakes; she is showing others that she cares about the quality of her work; she is more likely to seek creative solutions to a task; she is less likely to depend on others for completing a task; she demonstrates how her actions are consistent with her values.

Jessica can disconnect her self-criticism by focusing on these points. She can also remind herself that her perfectionistic tendencies are consistent with how she was raised and taught by role models she respects. “I was always taught that I must act in ways that make me proud of the result. If I’m going to do something, do it right. That’s my value and it’s the principle I live by.”

As a general rule of coping, here’s what you can take from Jessica’s case: Instead of criticizing yourself for who you are, accept who you are and examine the benefits of your traits, even the ones you find troublesome. This analysis can increase your sense of control, personal empowerment, and autonomy, and allow you to adapt and synchronize those troublesome traits with accepting emotions and actions.

Are You “Hurt”? Or, Really “Injured”?

            Years ago, I remember a football coach say something like, “Many of our guys go on the field and play through pain and being hurt; but I won’t let anyone play injured.” Apparently, the coach was making a distinction between being hurt, and being injured. I figured by the former he meant something like a blister, a bruise, or a body ache that produced some discomfort, but that a real athlete was able to “play through.” This view would fit under the adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” On the other hand, the coach obviously saw being injured as more serious, like a pulled or torn muscle or ligament, or a bone fracture. In this case, playing would pose a real threat of further injury. (Of course, some might argue that the same could be said about playing hurt!)

            Could this distinction between being hurt vs. injured also be applied to mental anguish? For instance, you could be down in the dumps because the car repair is going to cost more than you thought, and it’s going to be a strain on this month’s budget. You’re bummed out, but certainly not clinically depressed. Would the stress about the car repair be analogous to being hurt? What if, on the other hand, your despondent mood persisted for months, disturbing your sleep and appetite, and giving you a general loss of interest and pleasure in life itself? Would this Major Depression, or even the less severe form, Persistent Depressive Disorder, be analogous to being injured? We might also ask, “Would awareness of this distinction be helpful when it comes to coping with stress?”

            Consider Carl, who recently completed his third tour of combat duty in Afghanistan, and is now home for good. He’s having a couple of beers in his friend’s backyard, and says, “You know, Dan, I had forgotten how much my kids expect from me. And now it’s worse than ever because they really don’t believe me when I say I’m home for good. They just demand my time and kind of cling to me. I’m not sure I can live up to what they want.” Is Carl “hurting,” and maybe in danger of more serious “injury”?

            Then there’s Haley, who just returned to the office after a full year of working from home. While having lunch with a co-worker she says, “Honestly, Gail, I forgot the stresses involving in getting to the office. I need to get up an hour earlier for the commute. And I have Fred around again. God, not having to put up with his distracting corny jokes during the day was a blessing. After that year of working from home, I really don’t look forward to work like I used to.” Is Haley “hurting,” and maybe in danger of more serious “injury”?

Carl and Haley are hypothetical composites of thousands of people in those situations. Simone Biles, however, is real. Following Simone’s withdrawal from gymnastics events during the Tokyo Olympics, USA Today columnist Nancy Armour cited an Instagram post from Simone 15 months earlier (April 2020) when the Olympic games were postponed for a year: “Mentally I was ready to go in three months and ready to be done. That’s what I was striving for. Now we have to take our foot off the gas. Not three months, now it’s going to be 15. For a lot of us athletes, that’s a big adjustment.”

            Simone’s post has a lot in common with the hypothetical comments proposed for Carl and Haley: All three are implying, “I’m mentally hurt and I’m not sure how long I can keep this up.” They’re not truly “injured” at this point, but sending out warning signals that the “hurt” they’re feeling has put them in a vulnerable spot, a susceptible condition that could eventually result in more serious mental anguish.

            We’ve all had experiences like this. You have surgery scheduled in two days and you get a call from the surgeon’s office: “The Dr. had a family emergency and we have to re-schedule for next week.” “Damn,” you think, “I was ready for this and now I have to psych myself up all over again next week.” Another example: You have a sleepless Thursday night anxious about your presentation to company executives on Friday, when you’re told Friday morning, “We have to move your presentation to Monday.” “Damn,” you think, “now I’ll have a sleepless weekend.” Anyone who has had experiences like these should know full well how Biles felt following the delay announcement in 2020.

            The lesson here for coping with stress should be pretty clear. When those relatively small setbacks – the hurt – bring you discomfort, don’t ignore the resulting distress and uneasiness, because those reactions are warning signals that without taking pre-emptive and proactive coping actions, the hurt could easily turn into more serious injury over time. “OK,” you ask, “what might some of those preventive actions be?” Depending on circumstances and the individual, there are potentially many. Here are four: Take some time off to give your mind a rest, and let it slowly and calmly process – on its own – the challenges ahead; talk about your concerns with others you trust, especially those who have had similar experiences and, like you, may be troubled; get outside yourself by immersing yourself in projects that serve others and bring you a sense of satisfaction and contentment. And through it all, maintain humility by remembering that it’s not all about you – you are not the primary ingredient in this recipe. These are examples of accepting, empowering, and emboldening steps for tending to “hurt,” – getting fit mentally and psychologically – and increasing your resistance to more serious “injury” down the road.