Coping With Everyday Life


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!


Linkage With Others Facilitates Coping

In his biography of Ulysses Grant, Ron Chernow describes the surrender discussions between Grant and Lee at Appomattox Court House. At one point, Lee took note of Grant’s aide, a Seneca Indian, Ely Parker. Shaking Parker’s hand, Lee said, “I’m glad to see one real American here.” Parker replied, “We are all Americans.” Parker’s comment is an example of the coping strategy of linkage between people. When people are linked, connected, they are more likely to engage in teamwork, more likely to trust one another, and more likely to put a group goal ahead of individual needs.

Cooper works in the Human Resource Management division of his company. This division consists of 23 employees, and every September the director of the division takes the entire office on a one-day retreat. They assemble at 7am at an isolated recreational and meeting facility in the country. They plan the day’s activities, which consist of both outdoor games and indoor group discussions; all of it is designed to link employees together in a bond of trust, shared identity, and common purpose. They divide into three small groups for the morning activities. After lunch, the entire division assembles for a two-hour discussion of what they discovered in the morning session, and how they could increase productivity on the job by working with each other.

Here are some comments from one retreat:

“Sharing my ideas with others, and hearing their ideas, helped me learn a lot about the company and how each worker could contribute to production.”

“Getting together like that and having others actually listen to my ideas gave me a sense of ownership, that I really was appreciated.”

“I found it was OK to laugh, and talk, and share. The bosses really did want to hear what we had to say. It said a lot about how they valued the workers. It seemed to make most of us more committed to the company.”

“I felt a sense of belonging because there was a bond of trust and respect.”

Always remember that when evaluating your place in a group, you are not the primary factor in the equation; it’s not all about you, and others must be given their place. Equally important, keep in mind that others remember you for how you make them feel. Make them feel worthwhile and important in your life, and they will be there for you. These attitudes foster linkage with others, and it is essential for good coping. When troubled with stress and anxiety, don’t always try and work it through on your own. Sometimes that works, but there’s no doubt that a reliable and trustworthy support group can provide inspiration, confidence, and a sense of purpose.

Emotionally Vulnerable: A Weakness?

When we hear the word “vulnerable,” we automatically think of weakness, exposed, at risk, even helpless. Can it also, however, be a source of strength for someone?

Alice is 26. She’s a college graduate and has a good job in sales with a software design company. She’s been in counseling for the last 4 months for, as she put it, “low self-esteem, terrible confidence, and generally feeling like I’m a big loser. It seems I take everything to heart and it makes me so emotionally vulnerable to any guy who comes along. Any guy who says he likes me, enjoys being around me……well, I’m just a puddle of jello in his hands. Forget it. I grow so dependent on him that he finally gets disgusted and drops me. Like I said, I’m the queen of rejects.”

There’s a positive side to Alice, though. She’s a popular employee who is described by her supervisors as “loyal, and someone you can count on to get the job done.” She has a wide circle of friends who are always there for her – as she is for them. She does charity volunteer work, and is extremely well-liked. As one of her close friends puts it, “Alice is a joy to be around. She’s really modest…almost to a fault, and she will walk through fire to help a friend. Alice’s problem is when some guy comes on to her. When that happens, he becomes her world. We warn her how she gets too involved too fast, but she can’t help herself. So, we kind of wait for the rejection and try and be around to help her pick up the pieces. One of these days she’ll meet a real guy who is interested in her, not in what she can do to keep him happy.”

Alice’s counselor points out one thing to her on a regular basis: Her vulnerability gets her into emotional turmoil in her romantic ventures, but in most other aspects of her life that same vulnerability is the source of her empathy toward others, her amazing ability to understand their ups and downs, and how she can be with them in a positive way in both their emotional highs and lows. In short, her vulnerability is one of her strengths because so often it directs her to act in positive, constructive, and socially helpful ways.

Bridget is 29. She’s a college graduate and has a good job with a company that designs websites. All her work is done at home online. That’s probably a good thing because Bridget has poor interpersonal skills. She is harsh, tough, unemotional, guarded, and untrusting. She cuts off relationships – whether they be with a potential friend or a romantic interest – before they get serious. Bridget fears exposing herself to others because she believes they will use her and take advantage of her. Not surprisingly, she has no real close friends

Unlike Alice, Bridget is not at all vulnerable to emotional entanglements. When it comes to emotional expression or involvement, she has the ultimate weapon: Avoid, avoid, avoid. Bridget has never been emotionally scarred because she keeps her emotions hidden away in a psychologically defensive vault.

Alice and Bridget represent to some degree extremes of the emotional spectrum, one at the neurotic end (emotional Alice), the other at the sociopathic end (emotionless Bridget). Everyone occupies a position somewhere between those two extremes. One thing to take away from this example is the fact that being at either extreme end can be fraught with danger because the person is less likely to adopt more moderate actions to satisfy their emotional needs. Alice has successfully done so with her other-directed social activities. Her behavior is fairly flexible – unless men are involved. Then her coping strategy is rigid and unchanging. Bridget’s lack of flexibility, on the other hand, is not limited to a particular type of social interaction; her inflexibility permeates all her social interactions, which makes her coping skills limited and unsuccessful. She has only one strategy in her interpersonal relations – avoidance, a strategy that brings her isolation and few opportunities for psychological growth.

Another lesson in this example is that emotional vulnerability, per se, need not make you weak when it comes to coping with stress. One of Alice’s close friends was killed in a car accident. Alice was grief-stricken. A friend was trying to comfort her and said, “Don’t you wish we could avoid grief.” Through her tears, Alice answered, “No. That would mean I had never loved.” Bridget would probably find that answer difficult to comprehend.

The Coping Gang of Eight

  1. Accept who you are, even those traits and emotions you may not like.
  2. Keep your perceptions of events around you independent of your wants.
  3. Take responsibility for who you are and the actions you take.
  4. Communicate with others calmly, coherently and honestly.
  5. Be flexible when different situations require different emotions and actions.
  6. Develop a core base of values that includes traits like integrity, honor, honesty, morality, and a social conscience.
  7. Use your values to cultivate humility, and recognize that life is not always about you.
  8. Allow your humility and communication with others to blend into empathy for others.

Donna had an alcoholic, lazy father, and a co-dependent mother who generally lived in denial about problems in the family. The mother was very good at making Donna feel guilty if she did not help out around the house. She also sought sympathy from Donna for being a martyr in putting up with Donna’s no-good father.

Donna remembers her father as an alcoholic since she was twelve years old: “He was a lawyer but was unemployed much of the time. He sat around and watched TV all day. Mom basically enabled this behavior by acting like nothing was wrong or that he just wasn’t even around. It was weird. I’ve often wondered why I felt unemotional during my high school years. I figure it was because we were ‘guilted’ into not expressing ourselves; saying anything about dad’s alcoholism was an unspoken ‘no’ at home. In our house, emotional expression in general seemed to be stifled. I learned to be a self-sacrificer – put my needs below peace and harmony at home.”

Donna met Phil while living at home and enrolled in college. He was a student at a different college, but close to Donna’s. After they had been dating for about a year, Donna began going to counseling sessions because she was having problems in the relationship. Phil came from a family that had a lot of money, and he got pretty much whatever he wanted. His entitlement expectation grew and continued into adulthood, and he developed many narcissistic tendencies. Donna felt Phil was trying to control her life, watching her every move, and making considerable demands on her. For instance, he was calling her on the phone several times a day, asking what she was doing, not in a casual, “How is everything?” tone, but in a confrontational, “Are you behaving?” tone. When asked about the obsessive calling, Phil said he could not stop himself. He said, “I heat up. I can’t control myself. I just have to know what you’re up to.”

Donna stayed with Phil for more than three years. In spite of the rough moments, she found him mostly sweet, fun, and romantic. It took her a long time to realize that his kindness was usually serving a purpose for him: he was simply a very manipulative, controlling, dominating type. For instance, after a big fight he would be sweet to her, crying and saying, “I’m sorry, I love you so much.” At other times he would threaten to end the relationship. He would constantly demand that she prove her feelings for him. Donna says, “He was the best boyfriend, and the worst boyfriend.” The bad times with Phil were really bad, but the occasional good times gave her hope and kept her going, avoiding the reality that she was in a losing battle.

Finally, encouraged by a supportive counselor and group of friends, Donna gave Phil an ultimatum: Change his ways or she was walking. Phil kicked the manipulative moves into high gear, but she stuck to her guns, although only with great effort and help. She eventually had to have her friends next to her to help break up with him over the phone. She said, “I would not have been strong enough to break up with him alone and face-to-face. He was just too strong.” Free from Phil, Donna continued in counseling and gained insight into her own actions, and those of her mother and father, whose influence put her on the road to becoming a self-sacrificer. In the context of our “Gang of Eight,” Donna had to fight multiple attacks on her coping efforts: Her reality was based on submission to her father’s dysfunction, and later to Phil’s, whose domineering personality perfectly fit the father’s model. She could not communicate with Phil in a productive way. Her humility was based on weakness, not empowered ego strength. Her values were submerged in Phil’s dysfunctional control. In the end, however, Donna broke away from Phil’s influence by turning to a support system that could be objective about Phil and his negative effect on her. That support system helped her re-build her Gang of Eight, and begin coping with her stressors in constructive and productive ways.

I’m Such a Failure

People generally treat you like you’re a successful person. They compliment you on how much you accomplish, and how you help others. But no matter how much they praise you, you still feel like a failure. And you let yourself know it with ample helpings of self-criticism. If these words describe you, let’s ask that obvious question, “What can I do to give myself some credit and stop being so self-critical?” Our entry of June 25, 2021 described a technique used by therapist Michael Church to help his clients improve their self-esteem. Could you adapt that technique to reducing your self-criticism?

Church’s exercise is pretty simple. He asks clients to draw a circle and divide it into pie-like slices that represent the main areas of their life. He says, “Clients eventually section off spaces relevant to job or school, friendship, family, girlfriend/boyfriend, intelligence, physical attractiveness, morality, and health. I discuss their choices with them to make sure that they are comfortable that all pertinent aspects of self-concept in their life are included. Then, I ask them to shade the areas where they see themselves with at least a modicum of self-esteem. I have never had anyone fail to shade in at least a few areas, even those who claim to have ‘no self-esteem.’ This part of the exercise helps them realize that contrary to what they believe, their low self-esteem does not pervade all aspects of their life. Then, we work on identifying actions they can take within productive and proactive goal-setting guidelines.” Church’s exercise stresses action. As he puts it, “The best way to increase self-esteem is not by positive thinking, but by doing things that bring about positive results.”

Sounds good, but could you adapt this technique to your feelings that you are a failure? Once again, draw a circle and divide it into slices. Now let each slice represent an action you perform on a regular basis – activities might include time with your kids, spouse, or friends; projects at work; home maintenance; hobbies. Next shade those areas in which you feel that you do pretty well. Be objective about it. If you build something as a hobby, do others look at it and say, “That’s pretty nice”? Do your kids seem to enjoy doing things with you? Does the boss compliment you now and then with “Good job”? The point is, you’re likely to discover that everything you do is not a disastrous failure; in fact, many things you do probably bring you satisfaction, and enjoyment to others. In other words, your tendency for excessive self-criticism might not be justified by the “data” right in front of you.

The first step in dealing with a tendency to be overly self-critical is to understand that it’s easy to inadvertently teach yourself to be self-critical. In fact, each time you put yourself down, the tendency to do so gets stronger. John says he’s an angry person, and it’s ruining his marriage. “When I get into a spat with Eva [his wife] I usually storm out of the house and head to the corner bar to have a couple of pops and cool down. I sit there chugging my beers and telling any of my buddies who might be there, or Al [the bartender], what a jerk I am. I have this great wife and all I do is upset her. I’m such a loser.”

Two things are happening here. First, John is teaching himself to drink and put himself down when he’s angry, because those are the actions he practices when he’s angry. Second, John is also teaching himself to be angry and criticize himself when he’s drinking. This is an especially dangerous association when it comes to coping with stress because it creates a self-fulfilling prophesy. Imagine one afternoon when John and Eva have some friends over for a cookout. John is in a jovial mood but when he hits his third beer, he begins to express the emotions he has been inadvertently practicing at the bar – being angry because he’s a lousy husband and doesn’t understand why Eva puts up with him. This pity-parade cookout is not going to end well.

John, of course, is trapped in an emotion-based approach to his self-criticism. Anger, self-blame, and drinking have all become associated in a two-way street where each action and emotion causes, reinforces, and results from the others. What John needs to do is take a more problem-based approach that involves analyzing his actions more objectively: Work with Eva to keep open lines of communication that do not involve alcohol; identify his values and clearly-stated goals that enhance those values; and practice positive behaviors when angry and frustrated that bring him a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, not self-humiliation.

Remember, coping is all about the actions you perform. To cope well, you need to evaluate objectively how appropriate those actions are, and to focus on the conditions under which you practice – and strengthen – those actions.

Observation, Imitation, and Coping With Stress

Any parent knows that children learn a great deal by observing others, and then they show this learning by imitating what they observed. I (CB) will never forget a time when my daughter was playing with her Barbie Townhouse, and apparently Barbie did something that was against the rules. My daughter began scolding Barbie and I was stunned as I realized, “Good lord, that’s me!” Yep, I heard exactly what I say to my daughter when I’m scolding her. She had me down pat: same voice tone, same words, same articulation, same everything!

            In the 1970s, American society – and Congress – took notice of psychologist Albert Bandura’s research on social learning by observation, and began to question the appropriateness of violence in TV and movies, especially when likely to be viewed by children and teenagers. For instance, Bandura’s work showed that aggressive tendencies in children can increase after watching films of aggressive behavior in an adult.

            The relationship is not simple, however. Additional research showed that we cannot merely place children in front of a TV, let them watch violence, and turn them into bullies or worse. Whether or not a child imitates violent behavior on TV depends on a host of other factors: Did the child see the TV depiction as real, or enacted? (If real, imitation more likely.) Did the child identify with the aggressive characters, and see them as heroes to be admired? (If yes, imitation more likely.) Was the violence rewarded? (If yes, imitation more likely.) Was the child’s current home environment relatively cold, unloving, unsupportive, and rejecting, with harsh physical punishment used by parents? (If yes, imitation more likely). Similar findings occurred with adults. That is, adults were more likely to imitate violent portrayals in realistic settings like news and documentary programs; when the violence was justified; when it was graphic and realistic; and when the viewer closely identified with the perpetrator, and saw them as similar to the viewer.

            There are important lessons in these results that are relevant to coping with stress, and learning how to live a life with purpose and a social conscience. First, it’s clear that we’re not going to show a young person a violent movie, or give them a book about transgenders, or assign homework about racism, and produce a violent adult, or a person who will question their gender identity, or a racist. There are multiple other factors that must be present and, in fact, factors that provide teaching moments for supportive parents, mentors, teachers, coaches, etc. about the value of critical thinking. As we discussed earlier (2.3.2023), many parents bypass the teaching moment and decide to keep controversial material from their kids by banning books and controlling the local school board. Doing so, however, robs those youngsters of the chance to develop flexibility in their perceptions, attitudes, and behavior, flexibility that is essential to coping with the challenges that life inevitably presents. Restricting a child’s learning opportunities also makes it tough for enlightened parents to instill flexibility by grabbing onto those teaching moments provided by controversial material.

            Second, the data on social learning through observation show us the importance of empathy in understanding and interacting with others. If we can’t see things from another’s perspective, how can we hope to communicate with them in positive and productive ways? If a White, male, heterosexual high-school senior has never been exposed to the history of racism and misogyny in the US, or read about the dynamics of fluid sexual identity in a few individuals, or the inner conflicts driving bullies, how can he relate to individuals in those groups? Educational exposure to those other perspectives is not designed to make our senior student want to become a female, or a bully, or a racist, or a homosexual; it’s designed to increase understanding and empathy, so he can realize that those with other perspectives do not pose a threat to him, and may themselves suffer from emotional turmoil.

            The coping lessons here are clear: flexibility in your attitudes and actions is essential to coping successfully with stressors in your life; without that flexibility, you will have a difficult time relating to and interacting with others in productive ways. You will always be confronted with options when you are conflicted. If you are rigid and unbending in your beliefs about what’s going on around you, it will be impossible to choose the options that are best for you in the long run. Also, if you cannot understand others, you will be forced to limit your contacts to those who reinforce your rigid beliefs. Over the long run, that strategy will bring you discomfort, negative emotions, and self-sabotaging actions that can compromise your physical and emotional well-being.

Unconditional Positive Regard

Psychologist Carl Rogers is generally associated with the concept of unconditional positive regard. The concept means acceptance and support of a person even when the person’s actions are inappropriate. You may not approve of someone’s behavior, but you can still approve of them as a human being. Parents often make this distinction to a child: “I will always love you, but I disapprove of this behavior and will not allow it in this house!”

 Rogers believed that success in counseling was more likely if the counselor provided the client with unconditional positive regard. He felt that the “no-strings” acceptance attached to clients would provide them with the confidence and support needed to obtain insight into their problems, and the motivation to pursue personal growth, greater self-understanding, and self-direction.

During my (CB) years as a college professor, I had many occasions when a student came to my office to discuss some “problem.” Sometimes the issue was critical – even emotionally dangerous – for the student, such as a rape, alcohol/drug abuse, concern over suicide, or physical bullying. In those cases, I referred the student to the Counseling Center, and I sometimes immediately accompanied them to make sure they followed through.

 On other occasions, the problem – while quite troubling for the student – was relatively less serious, such as, “How can I tell mom and dad I want to change my major?” “If I drop this course, am I a quitter?” “I got an F on the test and I’m afraid to see the teacher. Can I just email him?” “My boyfriend dumped me. I’m worthless.” In these cases, I learned over the years that the students generally knew what I would say, but they still needed to hear someone tell them it was OK to be feeling like they did. They were looking for some positive regard. Over the years they had heard parents and others tell them, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” In these cases, it was generally pretty easy for me to assure them that, “How you’re feeling is totally normal. In fact, I remember how I felt exactly the same in my freshman year in college when I faced a similar situation.” I could almost hear an audible, “Thank, God, I’m not weird,” from the students when I gave them such reassurance. And, the great thing about this relief was now they had the confidence to attack the problem. We would chat about the importance of meeting the issue head-on (such as, “No, do not email the professor. Go see her about the F and ask her straight up for suggestions on what you need to do differently to improve your performance.”), and in some cases I would point out for them resources the College provided to help them confront problems.

Providing unconditional positive regard definitely has its usefulness. There is, however, a danger in overdoing it. Some parents, for instance, become determined to make sure that their children never experience failure. They keep a close eye on the kids, and structure their environment to build self-esteem and trust by filling their kids’ lives with success. Unfortunately, this childrearing strategy is a corruption of unconditional positive regard because it’s unrealistic, and doesn’t build self-esteem and trust over the long run. Failure experiences are inevitable in life – and that’s a good thing because learning to cope with failure instills the learner with persistence, determination, dedication, and endurance, qualities that help the learner build a life of autonomy, purpose, meaning, humility, and satisfaction. Indulgence, on the other hand, instills one with dependency, passivity, helplessness, and self-loathing. And, these principles apply whether we’re talking about childrearing, friendships and romances, or any situation requiring coping with life’s stressors. Whatever the life challenge facing you, always be aware of the fine line between unconditional positive regard, and indulgence.

One day in July I received a call from a gentleman: “Dr. Brooks. My son ***** is your advisee, and I’m wondering if you could check for me why I haven’t received the tuition bill for the fall semester. I called the Business Office and they told me to check with my son, because he would have received the bill.” While we were talking, I reached into my advisee file and pulled out his son’s folder. I opened it and the first paper – dated one month earlier – was a letter to the student from the Academic Dean’s office advising him that because of low grades, he was suspended from the College for one year. Because of privacy laws, it was standard practice for the College to notify only the student of any matter concerning grades. What the student did with the information was up to the student. I thought, “Good lord, he never told dad he was suspended.” I collected my thoughts and said, “Mr. *****, there is information in your son’s file that I cannot share with you. I’m going to transfer you to the Dean’s office.”

I learned later from the Dean that the father was quite distraught, and very angry that his son did not share the information with him about the suspension. The father also said that he and his wife had always given their son considerable leeway to conduct his own affairs, and support him whenever he asked. The dad said, “I should have been tougher on him instead of always backing him up.”

Receiving positive regard is very comforting and reassuring. In the context of learning how to cope with stress, however, you must remember that such regard must not be used to prevent you from evaluating your actions with respect to accountability. You must accept the responsibility to determine if your actions can be distinguished from your wants. That’s what functioning in reality means.

Banning Books Bans Emotions and Weakens Coping Ability

When politicians start telling us how to raise our kids and what to teach them, we’re in trouble. Case in point: Your county school board comes up with a list of books to be banned from the school libraries. Such a decision is usually made on moral grounds, although recently, political issues also get involved. Let’s ignore both moral and political issues, however, and ask what parallels we can draw between banning books and coping with stress.

Banning a book is analogous to denial. Let’s say there is some issue that you as a parent find disturbing (e.g., Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century), and there’s a book about it in your kids’ school library. So, you say, “Let’s just get rid of it. Why burden my kids with the unimportant information that there was a time in this country when the KKK targeted Black people as undeserving of the American dream?”

In 1959 I was 15-years-old and a student in the 10th grade in a prep school in New Jersey. I had a Black classmate (first Black friend I ever had) and we were talking one night about racism. My position was that he had the same opportunities in America that I had. He showed me a little green book, and I said, “OK, a bunch of restaurants and motels. What about it?” He replied, “When my parents drove me up here from Louisiana, we needed this book to tell us which places would feed us or give us a room for the night. Most places would not welcome Negroes.” I was incredulous and said, “But your dad is a university president!” [Grambling University] My friend laughed and said, “His skin is black; that’s all that mattered.” I spent the next couple of weeks talking with my history teacher and getting some books out of the library on the KKK and Jim Crow laws. I even did a paper on it. The books and teacher support were there, but it’s interesting that up to that point I had had no formal education in these matters. I was naïve, living in a fantasy White boy’s world. The discussion with my classmate began to shake me from that fantasy world. But I always remember a comment the history teacher wrote on my paper: “There are two sides to every story and the answer is usually in the middle. Find the middle ground and you’ll solve more problems.”

The idea of banning books for school libraries is often appropriate. From a neuro-psychological perspective, the college-student brain is probably equipped to handle the complexities of topics like same-sex marriage; the junior high-school brain, probably not. But where we run into problems from a stress and coping point of view is when book banning is designed to serve an educational philosophy that values indoctrination of the young mind. Many parents feel that their kids should not grow up being told they live in a racist society, and that there are moral and ethical positions saying racism is wrong. The parents’ concern, however, is not whether their kids’ brains can comprehend the complexities of racism, but whether they should be exposed to such an idea at all. From a coping perspective, that’s not a healthy childrearing strategy.

Why not? Kirk has a newborn son, Ken. Kirk plans to teach his son how to be a man. “I’m not going to have him showing any of that wimpy girly crap, being sensitive and emotional and all that bs. Not my boy. He’s going to learn to be in charge, to be assertive and aggressive and stand up for himself.” Kirk is “banning” certain types of emotions for his son. He is restricting the emotional options Ken will have for dealing with situations. Thus, if Ken is in a situation – and he will be – that requires sensitivity, empathy, caring, tenderness, and other “wimpy girly crap,” he’s out of luck because he won’t know how to use those behaviors to cope with the situation. Effectively coping with stress requires having behavior options, but Ken’s range of coping options will be restricted. And that will cause him to get frustrated and angry, and he will blame the person who needs what he is unable to give. And Ken will begin a downward spiral of increased stress and aggressive actions directed at those he blames for his discomfort.

Politicians may ban books in school libraries for political reasons. In doing so, however, they also ban emotional growth in young people, and that will seriously compromise the future ability of those youth to cope with conflict. By the same token, if you cope with stress by banning (denying) some of your negative emotions, you will also compromise your ability to cope with challenges in your life. Don’t ban the emotional “books” of your psyche; they are a part of who you are. Banning them is self-denial – which will lead to self-hatred – which will lead to self-sabotage – which will make it difficult for you to lead a satisfying and productive life, and may even make you a danger to yourself and others.

Taking Things Too Personally Poses Coping Problems

By Therapist Michael Church, PhD

Do you take things personally? If you make a point at a meeting, and someone disagrees with you, do you internalize your dismay and spend the next several hours – and most of the night – ruminating over what that person said at the meeting? The problem with taking things too personally is that you are then confronted with jealousy, anger, suspicion, and other upsetting emotions. For many people, and in certain situations, these emotions can produce arguments like neighbor disputes and conflict with work colleagues, plus more serious consequences like rage, hate crimes, and violent domestic behavior.

It is important to remember that these are largely avoidable emotional outcomes if you work at being more objective, less impulsive, more patient with others, and better able to operate in problem-solving mode rather than emotion-based mode. For instance, if you make a point at a meeting, and someone strongly disagrees with you, if you respond in emotion-based mode – “You know, Joe, if you weren’t always so stubborn and oppositional, we could get a lot more done around here!” – communication will likely deteriorate quickly. If, on the other hand, you respond in problem-solving mode – “I hear your point, Joe, but I think we’re approaching the issue from different perspectives. Let’s see if we can get on the same page.” – you are more likely to stimulate productive cooperation.

Another danger from taking things personally is that you are likely to evaluate your own and others’ feelings and thoughts as good or bad. Thoughts and feelings, however, are not good or bad but, for the most part, are natural reflections of personality, moods, and experiences. They are normal both for you and for the other person. But, as soon as you go into extremist good or bad thinking, you enter a world of zero-sum subjective evaluation. You want to win and the other guy must lose, so the social interaction becomes a personal war from your perspective. That’s not a psychologically healthy way to interact with others because it prevents understanding, cooperation, and empathy.

Another coping danger from taking things personally is that you are more likely to take responsibility for what other people choose to do. This is particularly dangerous for parents. How many parents spend thousands of dollars for lawyers and fines because their adult child broke a law? How many let the kid come back home, and watch them sleep on the couch, doing little to get a job or help with chores? How many parents fall into this enabling trap because they feel guilty that their adult child is making bad choices? How many see their adult kid’s mistakes and – laden with guilt – think, “I should have raised this kid better. I was a poor parent.” This is faulty thinking. No parent does everything right, but the past is gone; your adult child is making their own choices in their present world. As long as you enable their self-sabotaging choices in the present, you are not helping them and you are certainly not helping yourself. Your coping task is not to ruminate over the past, but to decide what options are available to you right now. And in most circumstances like this one, the wisest choice is to force current reality on your “child,” and follow through with firm and even harsh action. You are not responsible for everything others do. Accountability is great, but keep it in perspective. Personal accountability is essential to good coping, but best done when the actions are under your control.

Our coping lesson is simple: Taking what others’ say too personally will throw you into a coping minefield. It will threaten your self-validity, foster self-sabotaging actions and thinking, and bring you all sorts of troublesome encounters.

Watch Out for the Mental Illness Trap

The term “mental illness” is thrown around quite a bit these days. Whenever a mass shooting occurs in public, many proclaim the need to confront the problem of mental illness in society. Whenever a teenager threatens suicide, or overdoses on drugs, or succumbs to the intoxicating message of a cult leader, we hear again the warnings about widespread mental illness in society.

The message conveyed by the words, “mental illness,” has unfortunate collateral consequences: First, it wrongly casts a wide net over large segments of the population, and scares a lot of people. Many mistakenly see this net as fitting folks from the mass shooter motivated by some vast delusional system, to the confused teenager struggling to find a self-identity. Second, the phrase ignores the fact that most mentally ill people do not go around shooting others, and a lot of those who shoot others are not mentally ill. Third, the phrase does not suggest how to confront the crisis. For instance, some blame the schools for indoctrinating children into an unstable “woke” culture, but these critics ignore the role of “helicopter” parents who refuse to allow their children to learn what it means to fail, and how to deal rationally with that failure. Fourth, the phrase is so general and ill-defined that it allows people to use it to demonize and reject those who are different or troublesome.

Just what are the professional criteria of mental illness? Some of the more prominent behavioral criteria include fundamental weaknesses and inabilities in several areas of behavior: separating reality from desires; relating to others rationally; understanding and empathizing with others’ distress and needs; discarding arrogant thinking about self in favor of humility; facing challenges without reliance on others; accepting personal accountability. If you are mentally ill, you will show deficiencies – consistently and over a period of time – in many of these areas. But note that the focus in this list is on behaviors that a troubled person, with professional help, can possibly work on, not on their emotions and feelings that are a normal part of living.

Most emotionally distressed people who feel they are mentally ill are probably not. Unfortunately, those who are troubled do not receive the message emphasizing actions, because that is not the focus of society when talking about mental illness. Rather, people – especially the young ones – hear the false message from a variety of media platforms, that if they experience emotions like shame, anxiety, sadness, confusion, frustration, ambivalence, and fear, then they are mentally ill – not normal. This is a false and dangerous message that can trigger deeper despair, depression, and thoughts of suicide, especially in those who already feel rejected, abandoned, confused, and alone. The irony is, the experience of those emotions is quite normal and a part of living. The key to coping with them is to acquire actions that help you deal with them in rational and confident ways. But, again, too many people in our society – especially adolescents and young adults – have been protected from adversity by parents and other adults, with the unfortunate consequence being that they never learn how to deal with negative experiences and emotions. That inability makes them susceptible to the misleading statements about mental illness, beginning in adolescence and extending well into adulthood.

So, to the extent that “mental illness” presents a problem in society, how should we handle it? What should we be telling people? First, we must establish a proper alternative context for the phrase. Instead of “mental illness,” let’s talk about helping people make wise choices about their behavior when it comes to coping with stress. Second, let’s help people understand that it is not abnormal to feel anxious, ashamed, or sad, and that they need to try and change their inappropriate behavior in coping with these emotions. Third, let’s convince people that they can learn to depend on themselves rather than blindly following someone who would encourage them to cope by antagonizing and hating others. Finally, as an alternative to worrying about feelings and emotions and criticizing themselves for holding those feelings and emotions, let’s help people see the importance of accepting reality, of being accountable for their actions, of striving for some humility in their interactions with others, of working toward empathy and understanding of others, and of taking action to serve others in need. If you’re worried about whether your distressing emotions make you “abnormal” or having an “illness,” modify your perspective to a focus not on emotions but on changing your behavior for the betterment of yourself and those around you.

Take Your Values to Your Workplace

Many entries in this blog point out the importance of connecting personal values to coping actions. Of course, this principle raises the question: “How do I know if my values are appropriate for effective coping?” That’s a valid question. After all, what if someone values dishonesty as useful; or manipulation of others; or arrogance; or being guided by – as someone once said – “alternative facts”? How are we to evaluate our values as useful in coping with stress? It’s actually pretty straightforward. Just ask yourself, “Do my values motivate me to focus on reality instead of speculation? Do they encourage me to be accountable in my actions and humble in my successes? Do they inspire me to develop empathy for others?” If you answer “Yes,” your values are appropriate for good coping.

Raymond is a college professor. His course in Themes in America History is among the most popular at the university. What’s his secret? “Well,” says Raymond, “I have always felt that this course is a reflection of some of my values, and students like that.” When asked to list those values, he wrote, “Respect for students; Awareness and appreciation of diversity; Consistency and clarity in presenting ideas; Expose students to differing perspectives, but never indoctrinate them into accepting one view as best.” He paused and said, “I could add more, I’m sure, but this gives you an idea of my standards as a professor.”

“So, you believe those values are reflected in how you teach the course?”

“Absolutely. I believe in this course and the historical themes I try to develop. I hope the students learn how the themes express American democracy. I think they respect the fact that I don’t advocate any particular point of view. I respect each student’s perspective, and in class discussion I try to validate their perspectives by showing them how their views would fit in the context of each course theme. I think this gives them a sense of ownership of the class material.”

“Do you think reflecting your values in the course is at least partially responsible for the popularity of the course?”

“I suppose so, although I don’t measure success by how many kids sign up for it. I encourage students to express their opinions. Once they learn that I respect their opinions and am not interested in indoctrinating them into a particular point of view, they really open up. I present information, pose what I hope are questions that trigger critical thinking, and the result is usually exciting and productive discussions. When I point out to students how their divergent perspectives bring teacher and learners together as problem solvers, I think they see the value of mutual respect when sharing different opinions. That makes it all fun. Education, you know, should be challenging, but it should also be fun. I have fun, and I think it’s contagious.”

Link your values to your workplace. The consequences should be quite rewarding.