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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!

 

Wondering if your recovery is not working?

Trisha is 27-years old, married, no children. Fifteen months ago, she suffered a miscarriage while pregnant for the first time. She was devastated as only women who have had a similar experience can understand. She was in counseling for a couple of months, and eventually joined a support group of women who also experienced miscarriage.

“The problem is,” she says, “I have been in the group for 11 months. The girls are great and give me a lot of support, but whenever I tell my story, like when a new member joins, I break down and cry like it happened yesterday. It’s been over a year and I’m still a mess sometimes. I don’t know why I can’t get over this.”

People usually go into counseling or other types of support programs expecting positive results within a reasonable period of time. The problem is, what is a “reasonable time” is not etched in stone. After more than a year in treatment, should Trisha be able to relate her story without crying? Another question clients often ask is, “What actions mean I’m not coping well with my trauma?” Is Trisha’s crying, for instance, a sign of poor recovery? Should she be able to relate her story calmly and objectively to consider herself on the road to recovery?

Trying to answer these questions “yes” or “no” is difficult because the answers are usually, “It depends.” People come to recovery with different experiences, current circumstances, perceptions, attitudes, expectations, biological sensitivities, and genetics, and any one of those factors can influence recovery time and post-trauma behavior.

Trisha, for instance, may be a histrionic, emotional type who dramatizes events. Note that when she criticizes herself for being too emotional, she is focusing on her emotions as bad things, and not on them as a natural part of who she is. Instead of letting her crying suggest to her that she is a failure and not coping well with her experience, Trisha might say something like this before telling her story: “Please understand that I’m an emotional person and it’s always hard for me to talk about it. I may start crying. But that’s OK, because all of us here understand the pain, and we focus on that understanding, not on how we express our pain.”

“I need to focus on understanding my pain, not on how I express it.” That’s where Trisha should be 15 months after her experience.

When recovering from trauma – or dealing with other types of stress – don’t let self-criticism and self-absorption become part of your coping plan. Rather, accept who you are, be accountable for how you express yourself, and let communication with – and listening to – others guide you in your recovery.

I talked once with a marine who was in his 80s. As he told me he “island hopped” during WWII, he paused at one point to wipe away a tear, then said, “Lost a lot of buddies over there.” More than 50 years after his trauma, he still shed a tear, not because he was unable to cope with the memory, but because the memory was a part of him, and a tear was how he expressed the memory.

Trisha need not be concerned that she still gets emotional over a year after her trauma. Maybe one day she will be able to talk about it without crying, maybe not. That’s really not the coping issue. Of more importance is how Trisha answers questions like: “Does the memory of the event continue to generate emotions that interfere with your day-to-day living?” “Does the memory make you feel guilty, believing the event was your fault?” “Is the event straining your marriage because you are afraid to get pregnant again?”

Perhaps most important is how Trisha would answer a question like this: “Are you so wrapped up in your experience – in your needs and emotions – that you are unable to feel empathy for the others in your group?” Trisha will not resolve her issues without that empathy for others, because that empathy will show her that she is not alone in her struggle. Trisha may cry, but that’s not necessarily a sign that she is coping poorly. If she has reached an empathetic understanding of the pain others in her group are experiencing, she is well on the road to recovery because she can offer help to – and receive help from – the others in her group.

Reopen now? Lessons for personal coping.

Pandemic “stay-at-home” policies stretch into weeks, and the psychological and financial strains on those who are unable to work bring many to the breaking point. They take to the streets to demonstrate their frustration and displeasure.

From a coping context, one’s work can be a strong psychological component of one’s identity. Those who bring home a paycheck are able to look in the mirror and see a “breadwinner,” someone who is responsible, productive, and capable of caring for others. When a job is taken away, those traits are taken away. Workers also often develop intense loyalty to their place of employment, and the workplace becomes an extension of self. Losing one’s job can be a vital threat to that sense of self.

In her book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Pulitzer Prize historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talks about the noted journalist, Ray Baker. His father wanted him to join the family business after college, but Baker had discovered that business was not consistent with his sense of self. To honor his father, however, he gave it a try and returned home to learn the family business.

Baker soon realized how miserable he was: “I felt as though I were being crowded back into a kind of cocoon from which I had long ago worked free, and flown.” This rich prose captures how he could never hope to actualize himself with a career in business; the work was simply not who he was. He ended up with a productive and satisfying journalism career at McClure’s, a popular magazine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Had he ever experienced a layoff like that experienced by many today, like them, he would have been psychologically devastated.

Prior to joining McClure’s, Baker worked for the Chicago Record. One of his assignments was to report on the plight of the unemployed during the depression of 1893. He interviewed scores of jobless men, and interacted with them on the streets. He learned their stories, their misery, and how their poverty was compounded by few opportunities for them to work. He wrote, “I have seen more misery in this last week than I ever saw in my life before….The miserable living conditions, the long hours, the low wages, the universal insecurity, tended to tear down the personality, cheapen the man.”

“Tear down the personality”; “cheapen the man.” Those words eloquently capture the anxiety, the helplessness, the depression, the attack on self-esteem that being without a job launches on the psyche. The once-secure breadwinner looks in the mirror and sees “cheap.”

The current demonstrations against stay-at-home restrictions are painful to watch. Many viewers fear for their health if reopening occurs too soon, yet they are empathetic with the jobless demonstrators, understanding their psychological pain. Stress is in ample supply all around.

From a coping perspective there’s no simple answer, no magical formula that will solve the issue quickly. I think it’s worth noting, however, that a part of everyone’s stress results from the either/or manner in which we frame the issue: close or reopen; the president or the governor; liberal or conservative; medical or financial; my needs or my neighbor’s needs; us or them.

Some of the personal conflicts you face in life are either/or: Have knee surgery or don’t. If you have it, and then have regrets, too bad – the deed is done. Other conflicts, however, are more subtle: “Should I assign Pete or Joan to lead the project team?” When you see the issue as an either/or, Pete or Joan dilemma, you are putting yourself in a decision-making straitjacket that is almost guaranteed to maintain your stress level, no matter what you do. So, why not assign Pete and Joan as co-leaders? If one obviously shines, you slowly elevate that one to leader. Notice how you have removed the either/or stressor, and made the conflict data driven: “I will let their performance determine which one emerges as leader.”

As a general rule, to mitigate your stress over a conflict, change your thinking from, “Choose A or B” to, “Pick the best features from each choice.” Then you can design your plan of action around that middle ground, and continually measure (test) how well the plan is proceeding. The resolutions to most conflicts are usually most successful when they include features from all possible options, and allow for feedback (data) to evaluate their effectiveness.

In the case of reopening a state, county, city, or a town, for instance, political leaders should make the process gradual. First this business opens, next this one, and so on down the line; embedded in the plan are protocols requiring objective features, such as crowd size, social-distancing, and masks. Finally, the plan must include provisions for continuous data collection to assess what’s going on, and make adjustments if needed. Apply this model to your personal conflicts and you will likely find significant mitigation of your stress.

Is Personal Honor Dead?

“Ethics, honor, accountability, integrity, honesty, and character are dead in American society.” Now there’s a wild statement. Could you, however, look around and find examples of behavior that support the statement? How about the following:

*Many parents today enable and indulge their kids by keeping them on a tight cyber-leash. When kids get in trouble, parents “bail them out.” Are those kids learning accountability?

*What do you think about the major league baseball scandal of stealing signs? Honest? Playing fair? How about the college basketball scandal where agents offered parents bribes so their kid would choose a particular school? Honorable?

*What about forgiveness of student loans? Some argue that doing so goes against the American work ethic that expects one to compete, work hard, achieve, overcome obstacles, learn from failures, and adapt to an ever-changing environment. Is college loan forgiveness consistent with that work ethic? Why not tie forgiveness to service work completed?

*How about Presidential pardons of felons who contribute to the re-election campaign of the pardoner? Ethical? Honorable?

*How many college admissions officers would agree with this statement? “We know some kids in our entering freshman class are unprepared for college-level work and will likely flunk out in their first year. But we accepted them because we need all the tuition money we can get.” Honest? Ethical?

*Have you ever heard about someone spreading lies on social media about an ex? How about posting compromising pictures to get back at someone? Social values?

*Then there are those high-profile cases of sexual abuse of young people by college employees. The Nasser case at Michigan State involving gymnasts, and the Sandusky case at Penn State involving young boys – both show shameless attempts by high-ranking university officials to cover up the misdeeds. Ethics, honor, accountability, integrity, honesty, and character all seem to have been discarded by those officials in both these cases.

*I saw a news report of a woman protesting social distancing restrictions. She said, ” I would rather die than live like this.” Putting aside the personal pity parade going on, let’s note that the translation of this comment is, “I would rather live, even if it means infecting others.” That, my friends, is what we call narcissism, and that character trait is incompatible with having a social conscience. Is this the new America, one devoid of empathy for our neighbor?

*How many physicians in America work for a medical conglomerate? How many are told how much time they get to spend with a patient, and how many patients they are expected to see daily? Is it ethical to force physicians to work within the confines of the “bottom line,” even if that potentially compromises the physician’s efforts to be a “healer”?

“Wait a minute,” you protest. “Sure, there’s a lot of unethical stuff going on out there. But that’s always been true. For every item on your list, I could find several examples of people doing great things, helping others, and showing they really care.”

I agree. The point I wanted to make is that examples of dishonorable behavior in American society are not hard to find, and that fact has major significance for coping actions. If you want to cope effectively with challenges in your life, you need a solid foundation of personal standards, values, morality, and ethics to guide you. Without that foundation, you will drift into denial and avoidance, actions incompatible with effective coping. With so much dishonorable behavior in society, it is easy to be influenced by it, which can make establishing a moral foundation more difficult, and compromise your coping efforts.

With that danger in mind, let’s ask a simple question: “What can I do to decrease my risk of getting snared in these ethical lapses?” Think back to our dishonorable actions above. Imagine that you are the President of the University where abuse accusations have been made; that you are a player on a team with some teammates cheating; that you are protesting stay-at-home orders to protect the populace from sickness; that you are a physician who wants to heal, not just meet quotas; that you work in an admissions office that has ignored your “Do Not Accept” recommendation.

In each case, assuming you have moral standards, you are being asked to act in a way that is inconsistent with those values. Will you be guided by your standards, or by the “bottom line”? If the latter, you may suffer legal consequences, rejection, or shame by others. That’s bad enough, but failing to coordinate your actions with your values can also damage your personality, disrupt your emotional stability, and compromise your identity. You will be at risk for serious psychological difficulties, such as anxiety, helplessness, and depression.

Behaving in ways that go against your morality is definitely hazardous to your psychological well-being. So, what can you do to make it easier to choose to be guided by your ethics, character, and integrity? Here are a few suggestions:

*Give up the search for happiness.

*Examine what you value and accept those things as important to you.

*Harmonize your actions with your values. Let something like happiness emerge as satisfaction from those actions.

*Cultivate humility by taking yourself out of the equation now and then.

*Allow a focus on empathy for others to take priority over a focus on “me.”

*Listen to others’ stories before you tell them your story.

*Your legacy is how you make others feel each day. Actualize yourself by establishing positive daily legacies. Engage in actions that make others feel worthwhile.

I don’t mean to suggest that instead of acting as ordered by a superior, acting in accordance with personal values is easy to do and without risk. In many of the examples we gave, for instance, the risk would be getting fired! Still, the fact remains that being untrue to your values – untrue to the person you perceive yourself to be – also carries great psychological risk.

Only you can decide which path to take. Just remember, if your actions bring you emotional distress – you feel anxious, frustrated, helpless, “burned out” – the odds are that you chose the wrong path. Take corrective action, seek help, and consider the suggestions above.

Pandemic Masks and Psychology

Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, and whether or not to wear a safety mask covering one’s nose and mouth in public has become a highly politicized issue. Let’s put politics aside, however, and – in a coping context – look at some psychological speculations about why some people will not wear a pandemic mask.

To get a feel for some of the dynamics I am proposing, let’s take an extreme example, a narcissistic personality disorder. Extreme narcissists have very fragile self-esteem and need regular “booster shots” of praise from others. On the outside, narcissists are the self-proclaimed omnipotent ones who claim to know best, but inside they are filled with self-doubt and feelings of incompetence, being unloved, and worthlessness. These inner core impulses are very threatening to the narcissist psyche, and must be suppressed and kept hidden or else they will flood the holder with anxiety.

Narcissists must constantly fight against letting these impulses out and having to face them. Thus, they need continual praise, support, and validation from others. Those who disagree with them, or who challenge them, must be bullied, subjugated, and defeated to provide reassurance that, “I am in charge.”

The narcissist mind is like a balloon filled with “I-am-perfect” air. If it develops a small leak that threatens the self-perceived perfection, the leak must be quickly plugged or psychological chaos will ensue. Any circumstance that threatens that I-am-perfect air must be quickly dispatched.

The pandemic mask. For a narcissist it is a leak in the balloon. The mask signals vulnerability – a need for protection. Vulnerability means weakness, and weakness is a dire threat to the narcissistic psyche: “Wearing a mask tells me and everyone that I am not perfect.”

According to this analysis, the macho bravado of going without a mask is simply to cover up the fact that, deep down, perhaps at an unconscious level, feeling incompetent, inferior, and unworthy makes the narcissist fear that wearing a mask would put those insecurities on display for all to see. For the extreme narcissist, that would be a fate worse than death.

Am I suggesting that all those who do not wear a pandemic mask in public are narcissists? Absolutely not. I am suggesting, however, that there is a strong likelihood that wearing the mask can activate internal conflicts in insecure people: the macho guy who fears showing any sign of weakness in himself; the son, daughter, or spouse who fears family criticism; the young person anxious about being ridiculed by peers; the vain woman who fears looking older or less attractive; the member of a group who fears ostracism. All these people are tormented by insecurities at some level of their mind, and the mask makes these self-doubts visible to oneself as a mirror, and visible to others as a projector.

There is, of course, a coping lesson here: Accept your emotions and your insecurities. Do not let them dominate you and point you toward denial of who you are, and toward avoidance of facing your life challenges. Rather, let your emotions guide you to making empowered decisions based on solving a problem at hand. In short, be “secure in your own skin.” Choose actions not because you want others to judge you on their terms, but because you judge your actions to be in your best interest. Knowing your limits is not weakness; it is an enormous strength.

Wearing a pandemic mask is not succumbing to your demons; it is demonstrating personal empowerment, autonomy, and confidence in being able to face risk in an intelligent way. That’s what we call coping with stress!

Information vs. Emotions

Your boss has sent you to represent your company at a social function, with reps from other companies, to hear a presentation on improving employee morale. You’re uneasy about this assignment because you get anxious when you’re around a lot of strangers. “Damn,” you think as you pull into the parking lot, “Let’s stay calm this time.”

Let’s stay calm? That comment is called Denial, and when you go down that road you’re doomed, like a student taking a test without studying for it. When confronted with a situation that has always made you anxious in the past, never tell yourself, “I won’t be anxious this time.” You will be anxious, but now you will be totally unprepared to deal with it.

Back to the social function. You walk into the room and fear strikes your heart as you look around and realize you don’t know anyone. And then the self-criticism begins: “I’m going to look and sound like a total idiot. They’re all going to wonder, ‘Who’s that poor soul without a friend in the world?’ I’ll never make it through this thing. If this gets back to the boss I’m screwed! I’ll just grab a drink, hang out at the food table, and wait for the program to begin. Maybe staying in the restroom until then would be better.”

Can you identify your focus? You’re obsessing about your anxiety; you are focusing directly on the emotion you’re feeling, and desperately wondering what you can do to get rid of the emotion. You’re anxious about being around all those strangers, and all you can think of is how to escape. This is a self-defeating focus that just adds to your anxiety.

You’re also focused on putting yourself down by assuming you will be the laughing stock of the room. You create a pessimistic, self-fulfilling prediction that you will be helpless in the face of your anxiety. You’re focusing on your undesirable emotion, thinking irrationally, assuming that you are not living up to the expectations of others, and seeking an avoidance strategy so you don’t have to confront and accept your fear. That is a recipe for coping disaster; you make yourself the primary ingredient in your thinking, and form a pity parade just for you.

How can you turn this agonizing situation into a challenge and not a threat? First of all, note that your task has been complicated because you began with denial: “Let’s stay calm.” Had you accepted the inevitability of your anxiety – “I’m going to walk in there and feel anxious as hell. But that’s OK; it’s who I am. What I need is a plan to work through the anxiety” – you could have prepared yourself in advance, instead of working on the fly, so to speak.

So, what can you do in your anxiety-laden situation? Various techniques are often suggested, such as deep breathing, or challenging the irrationality of your thinking. The latter would involve self-talk like, “Let’s face it, no one is paying the least bit of attention to me and my anxiety, and if they are, so what? Am I going to die? Hell, they might even know someone at my company if I bother to tell them where I work. Just head for the food and ask some folks where they work and let things go from there. Ask if they know the presenter, have ever heard her before, or ever been to an event like this. Simple stuff, small talk. These people are not here to judge me.”

Rational self-talk like that can indeed be helpful. There is, however, another technique that may work for you, one people seldom hear about it. First of all, note that your discomfort is caused by specific characteristics of the situation. In this case, it is a crowd of strangers, and when you enter the room, you automatically default to interpreting what you see as threatening. What if – instead of focusing on crowd and strangers – you focused on using additional information provided by the people in the room to speculate about them?

For instance, you survey the room and think, “I’ll use their manner of dress – color of clothing, and accessories like lapel pins and jewelry – to guess what office they work in at their company. Could be human resources, payroll, budgeting, distribution, sales…places like that. Then I’ll strike up a conversation and ask them.”

It’s simple to do, and it will help. Why? Because focusing on analyzing information helps you concentrate on a task, a problem to solve, and gets you away from focusing on your anxiety. This latter focus is emotion-based, and sets you up as a self-perceived martyr to be pitied. The former focus is task-based, and allows you to take yourself out of the equation and solve a problem.

So, you pick a guy standing over at the food table. He’s alone, not talking to anyone, and looks like he’s trying to decide on what kind of cheese to put on his cracker.

You decide that with his flamboyant tie he’s got to be in sales. You walk over next to him, stab a piece of cheese with a toothpick, and say, “How’s it going? Are you with Amalgam Products? You look familiar.”

“Amalgam? No, sorry, I’m with Fairfield.”

“Fairfield. I’ve heard it’s a great company with a quality sales department. You in sales?”

The game is on! What happened to that anxiety?

Reaction Formation

Karla’s best friend, Tara, texted: “K, stop by on your way home so I can show you my new outfit!” When Karla visited later, Tara was wearing the new clothes and said, “Don’t you just love it?”

Truth be told, Karla thought Tara looked hideous. Karla thought, “Omigod, they don’t even match. Plus, the shoulders droop on the blouse and the slacks make her look 20lbs heavier. Crap. What do I say?”

“Is this a knockout outfit or what? On sale, too, so I got a great buy.”

Karla decided she didn’t want to deflate Tara’s balloon. “She’s on such a high over this stuff I can’t bear to tell her what I think. I’ll bring her down gently later,” Karla thought to herself.

“It’s nice, Tar,” Karla said weakly. “I’m really glad you found something you like, and at such a price. You always were good at finding the bargains!”

Karla lied, right? Yes, but some might call her lukewarm praise diplomatic, tactful. She didn’t want to ruin her friend’s happy moment by being brutally honest, so she fudged a bit with a “white lie.” No harm, no foul, right?

We all do it now and then…a little deception out of respect for someone’s feelings. They treated you to a movie you hated, bought you dinner at a restaurant you hate, or gave you a present you can’t stand. In each case, you bite the bullet, thank them, and say how enjoyable it all was. Nothing to lose sleep over, as long as eventually you find a way to correct the lie.

Correct the lie. Karla could do that by waiting a couple of days and saying to Tara, “I’ve been thinking about that new outfit you got. It’s nice and you’re really good about picking clothes, but it just doesn’t bring out your natural good looks. Something’s not right…maybe the color. Hey, let’s go shopping tomorrow where you got it and see if we can get something even better!” Karla corrected the lie, complimented Tara, and involved her in improving things. That’s good coping!

Note that originally, Karla acted and spoke the opposite of how she really felt. When done in moderation, and to spare hurting someone’s feelings, we call it diplomacy, being considerate. But what if this behavior is chronic, habitual, your customary way of dealing with others to make them think you are something you are not? In this case, we have what psychologists call the ego-defense of Reaction Formation.

For instance, what if Karla didn’t feel comfortable correcting her lie? What if she was worried that doing so would make Tara mad, and jeopardize their friendship? What if she didn’t have the self-confidence and personal empowerment to suggest to Tara that the outfit really wasn’t the best choice? She sure wouldn’t suggest that they shop for something better.

But now Karla would have a problem: feeling guilty about lying to Tara, even if it was well-intended. She could be aware of the guilt or not, but either way she has created a stressful situation for herself. What to do? She could engage in reaction formation, which would involve praising Tara regularly – excessively, in fact – about her good taste, especially to others. Friends may even begin to notice: “Karla, why are you constantly reminding us that Tara should be a fashion designer because she has this incredible taste in clothes? I mean, OK, we believe you. Just let it go.”

Shakespeare said it succinctly in Hamlet, when he had Queen Gertrude comment on the insincerity of a character in a play: “The lady doth protest too much.” Karla’s friend is basically saying, “You know, Karla, the way you praise Tara all the time makes me wonder if you really mean it.” And that’s what reaction formation means: Behaving outwardly the opposite of how you feel inside, in order to hide those inner feelings that cause you anxiety.

George is 38, shorter than average, was often bullied in high school. College went OK, and after graduation he landed a job in a brokerage firm. Even though his performance was decent, he was insecure and lacked self-esteem and confidence. At work he kept a low profile so he wouldn’t stick out. He stayed in his safe zone to avoid facing his insecurities.

One day a colleague said, “Come on, George, get out of that shell. You know the market but you never put that knowledge into action. Go for it! Take some risks!”

George did just that and luck was on his side. His investment gamble brought millions into the firm almost overnight, and he went from a drone to a shining star. His whole demeaner changed. He pranced around work like the head rooster in the farm yard. He boasted about his prowess and criticized his colleagues often. He wore the best clothes, bought a super expensive car, and moved to an apartment well beyond his means. He became an arrogant snob who acted like he was better than everyone.

George’s behavior became extreme, well beyond what he could logically justify. Yes, he had his share of successes at work, but he also had failures. The fact that he continued to ride the success reputation in spite of the failures showed that he was trying to hide something from others and from himself: Inside, he remained insecure and afraid of failure. His extreme overt displays of confidence were reaction formation, smoke screens – ego defenses – designed to hide those fears.

George’s actions became extreme, beyond showing moderate self-confidence. His displays of competence and independence became so extreme, so intense, and so chronic, they betrayed in him a desperate attempt to hide his anxieties and weaknesses from others, and especially from himself.

When used as a defense mechanism, reaction formation – habitually, and with great exaggeration, overtly acting the opposite of how you feel on the inside – is like all ego defenses – a form of denial. George goes by a mirror and sees an immaculately-dressed man smoking a king-sized cigar. That vision allows him to deny what is truly inside him: A frightened, insecure wimp who finds the slightest hint of failure a dire threat to his psychological stability.

In our earlier example, Karla was not showing reaction formation when she told Tara she liked the new outfit. She was simply showing some empathy, and she corrected the deception later. We noted, however, that if she failed to make that correction, she becomes George: deceiving herself by taking on extreme actions to hide insecurities.

Keep an eye on your actions, and ask yourself if you have become George. The original Karla dynamic is an example of coping successfully with a stressful situation. The George dynamic is one of denial, avoidance, and instability, a pattern that will end up causing a lot more stress.

Success and Failure

Are you devoted to seeking success and avoiding failure? Do you believe that achieving success is absolutely essential to building your self-esteem and sense of personal empowerment? Do you believe that failure will rob you of confidence, autonomy, and feelings of competence?

Success and failure are the great imposters of life. Think about it: Success tempts you into believing you are special, the best, the unerring captain of your ship. Failure tempts you into believing you are unworthy, incompetent, and incapable of managing your life. These false messages will make you believe that if you’re going to lead a productive and satisfying life, you must increase your odds of success in everything you do. By the same token, if you are in a situation and detect the slightest hint of failure, these imposters will have you run away, and avoid that situation in the future.

If those beliefs about success and failure describe you, you’re in trouble when it comes to coping. You have totally missed the point about success and failure: Experiencing them is irrelevant; what counts is how you react to them.

For instance, success is a terrible teacher because it doesn’t tell you what changes, corrections, and adjustments you need to make for the future. Success implies you should just keep doing what you’re doing. That can be OK until the situation changes, and situations always change.

Failure, on the other hand, is a tremendous teacher, at least when you make an effort to examine it. For instance, examining your failures will show you that blaming others will not help you improve, that you must be accountable for your actions, and that you must find solutions for your failure. Furthermore, honest examination of your failures will teach you to look for solutions that are task-based – “Next time, I need to prepare and practice before facing this challenge.” – not emotion-based – “My report would have been right on the money if my lousy boss had given me more time.”

Nearly every day you see people who, when criticized and backed into a corner, claw their way out by blaming someone or something else for their failures. Don’t model your actions after them. Doing so will make you weak and insecure, unable to accept personal responsibility for an outcome. You will focus on the emotions brought on by failure, and overreact emotionally. You will develop avoidance patterns of behavior that lead you into denial of who you are, and make you excessively dependent on others. In short, your emotions will not allow you to analyze failure as a learning experience.

Success makes you happy; failure makes you sad. If you focus solely on those emotions you will only seek easy tasks because you are more likely to succeed, and you will avoid difficult, challenging situations because you may fail. Both those cases are emotionally-driven. They lead to psychological stagnation and outward displays of narcissism, to cover up inward low self-esteem and self-confidence. You are neither coping nor growing; you are simply existing.

Rather than being emotionally-focused when experiencing and analyzing your successes and failures, you must be task-focused, solution-focused. This emphasis requires examination of what happened. Then you must develop resources by consulting with and reaching out to others; you must focus on being realistically optimistic and willing to change your behavior. In short, whether you have experienced success or failure, you must develop a workable plan of action to help you improve your performance the next time.