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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!

 

Honor and Coping

Is personal honor something that can help you cope with stress? I bet you don’t usually associate honor with coping. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m having such a hard time coping with the stress in my life. I guess I need to be more honorable”? Probably never, right? Well, maybe it’s time to make personal honor a part of your coping plan.

What is honor anyway? The Cadet Honor Code at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY, reads simply: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

The Honor Concept at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD states: “Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They tell the truth and ensure that the truth is known. They do not lie. They embrace fairness in all actions. They ensure that work submitted as their own is their own, and that assistance received from any source is authorized and properly documented. They do not cheat. They respect the property of others and ensure that others are able to benefit from the use of their own property. They do not steal.”

Honor. It’s easy to think of in military terms, and that is why the notion plays such a large role in the mission of our military academies.

But honor can also be an integral part of living your daily life because it will help you cope with everyday challenges. How so? Personal honor will help you to critically evaluate information that comes to you each day. Honor will also help you make a plan of action that will allow you to live your life interacting with yourself and with others in a way that helps you to avoid narcissistic actions, and look in the mirror with satisfaction at the end of each day.

“Wow!” you think, “That sounds great. But how do I make those things happen?” It’s simple, really. Just remember that effective coping rests on a tripod: Acceptance of what you do, Accountability for the consequences of what you do, and taking Corrective Action to improve the quality of what you do. Living a life of Honor will help you build that tripod as you critically examine your daily life.

To conduct a critical examination of yourself, consider some basic questions – ones that deal with honor – you might ask yourself on a regular basis:

“Do I try to deceive and manipulate others for my own selfish ends?”

“Do I care when I see others being deceived?”

“Are my actions based on selfish entitlement to gain unfair advantage of others?”

“Am I able to understand how others feel when they are troubled?”

“When I consider my actions toward others, do I ask myself how I would feel if I were at the receiving end of those actions?”

Keep in mind that you also have a right to challenge others so you can vaccinate yourself against excessive dependency on them. Thus, you should also ask “honor questions” about actions others direct at you:

“Do they try to deceive and manipulate me for their betterment?”

“Do they seem to care about my feelings?”

“Are their actions based on selfish entitlement to gain unfair advantage over me?”

“These things they ask of me…how would they feel if I asked the same of them?”

Asking such questions can engage you in the critical thinking required for resisting excessive dependence on others, and facilitating your self-actualization.

Effective coping with stress requires personal empowerment, independent thought and action, personal autonomy, empathy and sensitivity for others, and service to others. Blind obedience and dependency on others will make such coping impossible. In the final analysis, only you can challenge and judge yourself.

And remember: When it comes to effective coping, traits like honor, integrity, and character are always “in”; narcissism is always “out.” When you see the latter, whether in yourself or in another, reject it like you would any other poison.

Why don’t you run?

Laura is 30 years old and periodically physically abused by her husband. She never knows when she will be hit, slapped, pushed to the floor, or thrown against a wall. There are other times when her husband is affectionate, helpful, and caring.

A part of Laura’s problem is that her husband’s behavior is unpredictable. Sometimes she is rewarded with kindness and warmth, but at other times she is yelled at, threatened, or physically attacked.

Psychologists know that such unpredictability can produce strong submissive behavior from victims. When you think about it, that makes sense: Victims become agreeable, polite, and solicitous toward “the enemy” in the hope of avoiding attacks. In short, they develop strong dependency actions in a desperate attempt to avoid harm.

This sort of dependency pattern is seen in many circumstances: The bullied kid on the playground tries to join his tormentor’s group; a kidnap victim admires and identifies with her captor; an abused child affectionately rushes to her abusive daddy’s side when he comes home from work; sex-trafficking victims make no effort to escape their “handler”; Laura displays the role of an adoring spouse.

Well-meaning friends and relatives who sense Laura’s problem often ask, “Why don’t you leave him?” Laura would like to end her marriage but she says, “I have no job and nowhere to go. Even if I did, he’d find me and beat me. And I’ll never go to the cops because he said he’d kill me. I’m just totally helpless.”

Laura does not see any options other than enduring the abuse and trying to avoid it. She sees her only hope as trying to stay at peace with her husband. She fears that if she runs, threats against her children and other loved ones will be carried out. She may also be uncertain about her financial future if she strikes out on her own. In short, she is completely dependent, helpless, and at the mercy of her spouse.

Similar dynamics are at work in cults, authoritarian governments, and terrorist groups. Like the abusive husband, the cult leader has a firm hold over followers because the leader has destabilized them. The leader controls information and tears down psychological anchors like family and social norms, convincing followers that they are helpless to act without the leader’s guidance. Combining flattery, deception, and coercion, the effective cult leader forms a trauma bond with adherents: “Only I understand your pain and can relieve it; you can depend only on me. There’s nowhere else to turn but you can count on me.”

But let’s return to Laura. What is she to do? What actions can she take to break free? She has no control over her husband’s behavior, and being nice, subservient, and trying to placate him simply don’t work.

There are alternatives for Laura, but without help she can’t see them. “Without help.” That’s the key. Only with the help of others can she muster the strength to plan her escape using resources available to her. She can contact women’s resource centers and legal aid organizations for advice on how to proceed. If children are involved, she can contact child protective services. She can get an attorney and involve the police. She can call on friends for support, and discover the strength in numbers and resources available to her.

As a general principle, remember that when you feel you have no direct control over the source of your troubles – and often you don’t, whether it be a spouse, criminal, supervisor, or acquaintance – there are always options available to you that allow you to exercise control through other agents. The key is to develop a plan that includes those options, a plan that focuses on specific aspects – financial, personal safety, legal — of situations to attack, making sure you have resources backing you up. To do so, you must reach out and develop a social network of people who are committed to helping you.

The one thing you must not do is descend into apathy, ambivalence, and dependency. You must determine your “circle of control” and, operating within that circle, fight! Otherwise, you may eventually fall victim to depression. The best antidote to depression is action. The key, however, is to understand that actions must not be obvious to your tormenter, who is stronger and holds all the cards in the “home arena.” An effective plan will involve deception, subterfuge, trickery, and clever maneuvers that take you outside your persecutor’s circle of control, into arenas where you have supportive resources and more control.

Good coping requires humility

Why would humility be an important part of coping effectively with stress? The answer is simple: Psychologically, humility involves much more than simply admitting your mistakes and weaknesses; much more than not allowing yourself to be an egotistical braggart when you do well. Yes, such actions are a helpful part of coping, but they serve you best when you allow the humility coping circle to play to completion.

What exactly is the humility coping circle? Imagine five progressive actions placed around a circle. First, humility encourages you to admit that you should not be the primary ingredient in your life recipe. That is, life is not all about you; there are always others involved. Second, this admission can help release you from your personal pity parade, give you a sense of freedom that is uplifting, and instill you with an optimistic spirit. Third, continuing the progression around the circle, strengthened with your new-found positivity, you will be more likely to “share yourself” with others who are also fighting stress in their lives. Fourth, sharing your struggles with others not only requires you to talk to them, but it also requires you to listen to and learn from them. Thus are the seeds of empathy planted in your mind.

That brings us to the fifth and final phase along the humility coping circle, the actions that close the circle: Talking to, listening to, and learning from others will inevitably show you the essence of effective communication: Optimistic Empathy.

The circle is now complete. Can you see it? You begin with reducing a focus on yourself as the center of it all, and end with an empathetic understanding of others who are wrestling with similar life challenges as you are. But now, released from the prison of self-absorbed ego, you are able reach out to help others because you understand their plight. Purged of considering yourself special and deserving of pity, you cope with your stressors by helping others with their difficulties. And you also enjoy the benefits because you are participating in the fullness of the human experience.

As Mike Church and I said in Using Psychology to Cope with Everyday Stress:

“Empathy. We usually think of it in terms of helping others, but it’s more. If you have been previously victimized or are presently dealing with emotional upheaval in similar ways as another, who can understand their plight more than you? The true human beauty of empathy, however, is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. Whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties. The best way to facilitate your ability to cope is to make sure that, as you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you leave no one behind.”

 

Is it time for a dependency audit?

You have a friend, Ron, and you think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. He always seems to have the answer. He knows how to handle situations that make you feel uncomfortable; he knows how to handle people; you feel comfortable, secure, and safe when you’re with him.

You hang around with Ron a lot, and he starts to “rub off” on you. When Ron laughs, you laugh; when he’s angry, you get angry; when he explains something, you accept it as truth; when he tells you something is false, you believe him and discount it; you ignore criticism of Ron.

You may not realize it, but you have become inappropriately dependent on Ron. This is OK, of course, if you’re 3-years old and Ron is your dad, but it’s not so good if you’re an adult. Such total dependency makes it impossible for you to evaluate and cope with reality in any objective way because you are compelled to see reality as your idol wants you to see it.

In a sense, you belong to the cult of Ron. He is your unquestioned leader and you are his loyal follower no matter what. If you ask Ron about information that seems to contradict his teachings, Ron will explain why you must avoid false facts that only mislead and deceive you. Over a period of time, again and again and again, Ron will remind you of the false messages and saturate you with his truths. This pure repetition will literally re-wire your brain to accept what Ron says. If you deviate from his “correct path,” he will distract you and substitute convenient scapegoats to correct your inappropriate thinking. You come to think like Ron, act like him, incorporate his standards into your thoughts and actions, and sacrifice your self-worth and self-respect.

In the context of coping with stress, excessive dependency on another is incompatible with developing self-empowerment, critical thinking skills, and self-confidence. Such dependency prevents you from developing self-efficacy and being able to initiate independent action. You will not be in touch with your thoughts and your actions; you will likely blame other people or events for your current problems; your optimism will not be grounded in reality but on your leader’s version of reality; you will withdraw from stressful situations, waiting for your leader to handle things. In short, psychologically you become a dependent, helpless child.

Do you want someone else to tell you how to think and act? Do you want someone else to tell you what is true and what is false? Are you so insecure that you need to cling to another out of fear of abandonment by a metaphorical parent? If you feel uneasy about your unquestioned allegiance to someone who dictates your life to you, then it is time for you to audit your relationship and check for excessive dependency that will rob you of personal autonomy, and the ability to cope with everyday stress on your own. The choice is yours.

Why Resolutions Fail

“My New Year’s resolution is going to be the same one I made a year ago: find a new job. This time I’m serious. Plus, the economy is good and employers are looking for workers; it’s a workers’ market. Wages are up so I can expect more pay in a new job. What do I need to do to be successful?”

These words, written to a newspaper columnist who advises job seekers, illustrate how not to cope with a challenge. Note the excuse for last year’s failure: He wasn’t serious last year, but “This time I’m serious.” This excuse suggests he has not truly accepted the reality of his situation. If he did, he would not need to say he’s serious.

Also, note how the writer focuses on external factors like the economy and having no advisor to explain his earlier failure, rather than focus on what he may have done wrong. In other words, he has not taken accountability for his actions. We’ll never know, of course, but like last year he is unlikely to be successful this year. He’s got a lousy strategy based on chance external factors, and he believes a columnist can take care of him. In other words, he has not worked on a plan of action that corrects previous mistakes.

When failure occurs, effective coping requires taking action to correct errors, not focusing on external factors. The former is under your control; the latter is not. After a loss, coaches say, “We’ve got to correct our mistakes, and that’s what we’ll be concentrating on in practice. We can execute better if we work hard.” Coaches do not say, “We need to petition the league for better refs, and make sure we don’t get that crew again. They screwed us!”

New Year’s Resolutions generally don’t last. Why not? First, the very fact that you pick a specific date to begin your transformation into a better person shows that you are procrastinating, and are really not motivated. Picking a date is artificial and means you are just kicking the can down the road.

Second, many folks use overly general resolutions to motivate themselves. “I’m joining a gym on January 2nd and that will help me lose weight.” You’re putting the cart before the horse. Resolutions must be the result of motivation to do something, not the catalyst for generating motivation.

Third, resolutions are usually unrealistic. You make grandiose, unattainable resolutions (“Be able to run a marathon by Spring”; “Lose 30 lbs. by February.”) and you also believe that you’re reinventing yourself, creating a new you. That’s unrealistic thinking.

To have any chance of success, a resolution must involve specific actions and specific goals: “I will eat a piece of fruit, an apple or a pear, for lunch instead of a sandwich”; “I will do a 30-minute workout at the gym 3 days a week”; “I will walk my neighborhood (or my treadmill) for 30 minutes every day.”

It also helps to connect your resolution to a specific motivator: “Warm weather will be here soon and I want to look decent at the pool”; “That wedding I’m in is only a few weeks away and I want to look sharp”; “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I have to be able to keep up.”

Your resolution must also involve your values as well as your actions. Specifically, you must engage in values-oriented thinking and make your actions consistent with that thinking.

Consider these disconnects: you say, “I care about my health” (your value), but you put off investigating diets (an action); you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value) but you put off joining a gym (an action); you say, “I love being with my family” (your value), but you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action). If you truly value those things, then you must admit to yourself that your actions are inconsistent with those values, and you must work to correct that problem. Connecting actions to values requires a much deeper commitment than does making a simple resolution. To cope with everyday life more effectively, identify your values, the things that are important to you. Then devise a plan that will help you coordinate your values with specific actions that are compatible with those values.

To summarize: (1) Accept your current situation and be accountable for it; (2) make a plan of action that results from your motivation to change, not a plan designed to motivate you; (3) include realistic, attainable, and specific actions and goals in your plan; (4) connect your plan to your values; (5) begin now, not at some future date.

Whataboutism

Every parent has heard it: You ask your 9-year old son why he cheated on his test in school. His answer, “Well what about Johnny? He cheats all the time.” What about…? This desperate attempt to avoid accepting accountability is hardly limited to children. Few politicians can complete their tenure in office without pleading, “You criticize me for this action, when it was shown again and again by my predecessor. What about her?”

Whataboutism is a close cousin of rationalization. You got caught and you can’t accept responsibility for your action. You screwed up big time but to admit it would be a serious blow to your fragile ego. So, you shout out, “I only did what everyone else does!”

When it comes to coping, whataboutism is just another one of those exercises in denial. How can you be to blame when everyone else does it? Your denial protects your ego, but it is damaged, weaker than before, and vulnerable to severe consequences next time. Eventually, you will fall into whirlpool of increasing anxiety, helplessness, and depression.

When you make a mistake, and the fault is yours, face up to it. Accept it and take responsibility. But most importantly, develop of correction plan to make sure the mistake is not likely to occur again. That’s what we mean by effective coping – not attacking and trying to subdue your anxiety or other negative emotions that result from your mistakes, but charting a new course of action that makes your mistakes less likely in the future.

Remember, we’re talking behavior patterns here. Defense mechanisms like Rationalism are chronic, not now-and-then actions. Making excuses is a sign of personality dysfunction only when you do it all the time.

Imagine a student who received an uncharacteristically low grade on a test. She tells her roommate, “Something’s wrong here. I know it’s not my fault I got that low grade.”

Her roomie says, “Oh, cut the crap and stop rationalizing. You’re not perfect so face up to it and dump the excuses.”

The student, however, persists and discovers that the test covered text chapters 6-12, when in fact, according to the course syllabus, it was supposed to cover 6-10. “I never read chapters 11 and 12 because they weren’t supposed to be covered. The prof screwed up big time and that’s why I got the low grade.”

The student went to the professor, pointed out the problem, and he adjusted the test scores with questions from chapters 11 and 12 eliminated.

Here’s the coping lesson. When you fail, it is totally appropriate to examine why. Carefully and objectively collect evidence to determine if you, or someone else, is at fault. If it’s you, accept it, take responsibility, and take corrective action. If it’s someone else, confront them or an appropriate third party to make sure the blame is correctly placed. In this case you are not being ego-defensive; you are coping well.

 

Rationalization

Did you ever give an excuse for a mistake you made? Of course, you did – we all do it.

Your spouse asks, “Why are you late?” You say, “The traffic was insane.” (What you should have said: “I lost track of time and was late leaving to get you. Sorry. I blew it. Next time I’ll leave earlier.”) Your boss says, “You’re the project team leader and I have to say the proposal you presented leaves a lot to be desired.” You say, “Some of the team members just dropped the ball and didn’t tell me.” (What you should have said: “I didn’t monitor the team on a daily basis to make sure we were on schedule. At the last minute I had to throw stuff together to get the report in on time. I’m to blame. If you’ll give me an extension, I will personally correct the flaws.”)

In the examples above, the “you say” excuses are a poor way to cope. They are pure avoidance of accountability, plain and simple. Sure, you may temporarily escape some direct criticism from others, but in the long run you have made yourself vulnerable to doubts from others: “Is he reliable? Can I really depend on him to be on time?” “Does she really have the leadership skills to run a team? Should I replace her?”

On the other hand, the “what you should say” responses show excellent coping. First, you take responsibility and admit fault; second, you say you know why you’re at fault; third, you ask for a chance to demonstrate how you will correct your mistake. These steps are the essence of good coping: acceptance of your actions; accountability for the outcome; a correction plan for the future.

Obviously, when things go wrong it is not always your fault. But if you get in a chronic, habitual pattern of making excuses when you fail, you are practicing the ego-defense of Rationalization. Your default mode does not include taking blame for failure or apologizing for failure. “I am responsible for this mess and I apologize for it.” Such a combination of words is simply not in your vocabulary.

What does Rationalization signify? Insecurity about your ability to handle challenges; fear of failure; low self-esteem; feelings of helplessness and incompetence when faced with an obstacle. Rationalization shows weak ego strength that must be hidden from both others and yourself, especially the latter.

Faced with failure, without excuses your fragile ego will crumble and you will be plunged into anxiety. You must, therefore, avoid facing the possibility that you are responsible for the failure by making excuses to deflect the blame elsewhere.

The coping lesson is simple: When you fail, do an honest examination of what happened. What parts of the situation were under your control and what parts were not? You need to revise your concern about the latter because there’s not much you can do about things you can’t control. As for the former, if you were at fault, you need to take responsibility and examine how you can change your behavior to make failure less likely in the future. That’s called being accountable and taking steps to correct your mistakes!

Acceptance, Accountability, Correction Plan – make these character-driven traits a part of your everyday approach to life and you will reap unexpected benefits.