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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!

 

Weather and Mood

NOTE: Lynn’s case is hypothetical.

It’s June! It’s getting warm! Is your mood increasing too? If so, that’s not surprising because there a relationship between our moods and the weather. For example, researchers at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics found that mood and thinking ability both improved with warmer temperatures, and sunny, pleasant weather. But, there’s a caveat: The researchers also found that when assigned to work on tasks outside on warm, sunny days, the mood of the research participants increased; for those assigned to complete the tasks inside, however, even when pleasant weather conditions prevailed outside, mood was lower. In other words, the positive effect of weather depended on where the person was working during those nice weather conditions. Working outside – certainly more stimulating to the senses than being inside – produced better performance than working inside.

Isn’t this exactly what happens every Spring (except for 2020, of course, when the pandemic took hold)? Warm April days come after weeks of cold weather that have driven you inside – at least in the North. And now, almost overnight, there is opportunity for outdoor activities. So, you get outside and do more and you feel great!

There’s a key word here: Activity. Is winter a “downer” for you? If so, is it possible that you might feel a little sad in the winter months because you change your routine and give in to the darkness? All those worries about the dangers imposed by bad-weather driving, flying home for the holidays, becoming snowbound, getting the flu, or a host of other concerns – all resulting from negative psychological responses to winter – just tie you up in knots. So, you retreat and curl up on the couch. You’re less likely to “mask-up” and go out to dinner and parties, host small social events at home, or engage in outdoor hobbies and recreation. You lower your activity level.

Every September Lynn gives her psychiatrist’s office a call and asks to refill her anti-depressant medication. She tells them she’s feeling fine and hasn’t taken any meds since last April. But winter is coming and she knows that come late October she will begin to feel “down” as those winter blues set in. She wants to get a running start and start the meds so they will have already “kicked in” by November, and she will cut off the depression at the pass, so to speak. Her strategy is like getting a flu shot before the flu season sets in.

If you tend to get down-in-the-dumps during winter and want to take antidepressants, that’s your choice. But in a few months, you might consider an alternative strategy. Perhaps the key to maintaining a good mood during winter is to maintain your activity outside the home. When winter 2021-22 begins to rear its ugly head, don’t let it drive you inside; rather, stay active. Schedule special events and activities that you’ll enjoy. Sure, you’ll have to adjust from November to April to take that walk, go to the gym, deliver meals to the needy, volunteer at the animal shelter, or visit with hospice guests, but doing so is better than sitting on your butt.        

Some physiologists speculate that winter depression results from altered brain biochemistry because of reduced sunlight. While certainly plausible – bathing in sunshine is uplifting for the spirit – a psychological hypothesis seems equally reasonable. As winter approaches and the days get shorter, maybe it’s not reduced sunlight that makes you feel miserable; maybe it’s what you do – or don’t do – during the reduced sunlight that brings on that glum mood. Yes, you can choose to take antidepressants during this time; but you can also resolve to approach winter as a challenging time to continue with activities that give you pleasure and a sense of control in your life, not as a time to hibernate! What you do is under your control; the weather is not! So, have a great summer, but when it’s over, find creative ways to extend your pleasurable warm-weather activities into the winter months. [For a lengthier, more detailed look at this topic, see our entry on November 12, 2017.]

Critical Thinking

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

The phrase “critical thinking” has been absorbed into a lot of current issues – think conspiracy theories, for instance. When someone expresses a conspiracy theory, it’s not long before someone else mentions the need for critical thinking. In this blog, we’re also interested in critical thinking, but in the context of coping with stress: Critical thinking is essential for effective coping. Being able to think critically about conflicts will help you immensely in resolving the stress involved.

Critical thinking means being able to evaluate, objectively, what a speaker says about an issue. The critical thinker will want the speaker to produce clear, impartial, independent evidence supporting their position, and to show how alternative explanations can be ruled out. In other words, the critical thinker wants something more than, “Because my Senator [or my dad] said so!”

Years ago, I had a college classroom discussion going about the psychological benefits of religious belief. At one point a young man ventured off focus and made a comment about Mormons: “They have more than one wife, you know.” I asked how he knew that, and he said, “My dad told me.” I said, “But where’s dad’s evidence? Where are all these extra wives? Are they hidden away?” “Must be,” he replied.

I told the class, “Hang on. Dr. Murphy in our department is an expert on Mormons. Let me go get her.” She was in her office and I asked her to come to the class and tell them what Mormons believe and practice. I didn’t tell the class she was Mormon; that was her business and she could tell them if she wanted. She didn’t. Instead, she treated the topic like any knowledgeable professor would: Here’s some history, some statistics and data, and current Mormon doctrine governing things like tithing, family, and ministry. At the end of class, as the students were filing out, I asked the kid who started it all, “What do you think?” He said, “I don’t care what she says, I’ll stick with my dad.” Critical thinking is a challenge because it may require you to discard ideas that bring you comfort and certainty, and this student was a long way from reaching that requirement.

Bart hears a speaker proclaim, “We are at the end of days. God has had it with humanity, filled with pedophiles, baby killers, and other assorted perverts, and the world will end within the year. Only my believers will be saved.” Bart is attracted to this notion because he also feels humans have screwed everything up. He doesn’t see much hope for the world, and he would love to have a pathway to salvation. “I should join this group,” Bart thinks.

But, wait, let’s have Bart do some critical thinking first. “Just because his words bring me comfort doesn’t make him correct. Since the dawn of time, the world has been filled with evildoers. Why hasn’t God ended it all long before this? Why would God single out this guy as His messenger? Does this guy have some private agenda? I know my buddy, Jim, is always telling me how much good there is in the world, if I just look around for it. Maybe he’s right, and not this guy. If I join this group, what will that mean for other parts of my life?” And on Bart could go, critically and objectively evaluating the claim that the world will end this year, and examining the guy’s motives in proclaiming that view. Bart must also examine his personal consequences of accepting or rejecting the world’s-end claim. The task requires him to detach himself emotionally from arguments on all sides and think about things rationally, logically, and realistically.

There’s one more thing involved, the most important thing, but it’s also the one thing that people never seem to realize: Critical thinking requires humility. Critical thinking requires you to admit that it’s not all about you, that you are not the center; you are not the indispensable ingredient in the recipe; you are not the one with the best judgment. Critical thinking – like effective coping itself – requires you to put aside such self-absorption and admit that you may be wrong! Unless you’re a narcissist, that admission shouldn’t be difficult. After all, it’s illogical to think that you are always correct, and those who disagree with you are always wrong. You say the government is evil and the source of all your troubles. Or, maybe it’s mom, dad, or any of several other authority figures in your life who are to blame. But you know your belief is true because you see yourself as superior to others in evaluating what’s around you.

But here’s the problem with such condescension: You are not superior; you just think you are. The truth is, you cannot accept uncomfortable truths about yourself; you are unable to hold yourself accountable for your actions and beliefs; you cannot devise your own independent, autonomous coping plan that includes the needs of others. In short, without humility, not only are you unable to think critically, but you’re also unable to cope with life as a rational, independent, self-sufficient human being.

Critical thinking and coping effectively and realistically with stress are tightly intertwined. Those whose self-concept is threatened by self-examination; those who see infidels under every rock and conspiracies around every corner; those who blindly follow and never question the wisdom of their own actions – they are self-absorbed and imprisoned by self-interests. They are incapable of handling stress because of denial, anger, fear, and self-blame – unchecked emotions and ego defenses that inevitably lead to self-sabotage.

[For more on critical thinking check out blog entries for May 14 and 21, 2021]

Oppositional Defiance in Adults

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

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is a disorder of childhood. Children with ODD are uncooperative and hostile toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures. The condition often begins when children are toddlers, and may reflect problems with becoming independent from a parent or caregiver – anyone to whom they are emotionally attached. Conflicted between independence and dependence, they become more and more resentful of rules and restrictions on their behavior.

Although not typically diagnosed in adults as a disorder, oppositional defiance can be expressed as a chronic adult behavior pattern. Habitual actions would include temper tantrums; arguing; refusing requests; preoccupation with self and pathological narcissism; questioning rules and refusing to follow them; purposely doing things to annoy or upset others; being easily annoyed by others; speaking harshly or unkindly; seeking revenge or being vindictive. Of course, at any given point in time, anyone could exhibit some of these behaviors, but many occur habitually, we can characterize the individual as being an oppositional defiant type.

The adult pattern could have its roots in childhood. For instance, the victim might have unresolved anger toward a parent. This anger would be released when conflict with other adults – particularly authority figures – occurs. The authority represents the parent. Unresolved anger from childhood could also be turned inward, and the victim blames him/herself for the childhood conflict. Such blame could lead to instability in interpersonal relationships, especially when dealing with a spouse, significant other, boss, or co-worker. Whatever the case, the ODD adult is not pleasant to be with.

Felicia is an extreme example of the ODD pattern, and her case shows the influence of unresolved childhood anger toward a parent. Felicia had a lot of emotional upheaval in childhood. Her parents divorced when she was six and she lived with her father to escape her alcoholic mother. Her father eventually remarried, and he was overly controlling and dictatorial toward both his wife and Felicia. She harbored anger toward her dad but was unable to express it, fearing retaliation. When she was 16, her boyfriend raped her. They were “making out” but he escalated the situation despite her pleas of, “No, stop! I don’t want to.” She kept the episode a secret, and was eventually able to end the relationship. The episode, however, intensified her mostly unconscious anger toward men, anger she didn’t know how to resolve.

Ironically, as she grew older, Felicia only felt comfortable with abusive, confrontational, angry men. They were a part of her “father comfort zone,” meaning she was used to confrontational interactions with men and felt a sense of predictability and control. On the other hand, when a man showered Felicia with warmth, support, consideration, and understanding, she experienced anxiety because she didn’t know how to handle those gestures. She didn’t know how to return affection and it’s no wonder her multiple marriages were a bust.

Felicia’s third husband, Kurt, was much like her, and their arguments were monumental; she was finally symbolically confronting her dad and releasing years of pent-up anger and frustration. Physical and emotional abuse from both Felicia and Kurt resulted in multiple calls to the police, and their home life was, at best, chaotic. At one point they tried marital counseling, and over several years one or both of them had therapy sessions. They tried psychiatrists and different medications; they tried psychologists and different types of treatment strategies. Soon they found that going to sessions together was a mistake because issues that came up would just provide fuel for arguing later. The counseling and medications did not really lessen their personal insecurities or their anger with one another – and for Felicia, her anger toward her dad. Neither she nor Kurt could be intimate with the other, nor refrain from lashing out at the other. Even on rare “pleasant” days, eventually something would come up that would cause stress and tension, and they would once again fight like two rams locked in battle. Will they stay together unhappily until death?  “You’ve heard of soul mates?” says Felicia. “I guess we’re devil mates!”

Do you know someone who fits the ODD pattern? A co-worker, partner, acquaintance, spouse? Obviously, their coping abilities are terrible; they do not solve problems, they create them. Their actions are designed to help them avoid the inner turmoil tormenting and terrifying them – the repressed, never-resolved emotional conflicts that require them to maintain a pathological character armor to protect them from having to face who they are, and sabotage their life in the process. They are perfect models of ineffective coping.

Values Clarification: An Exercise for Your Teens

Joe Namath and Roger Staubach are former NFL quarterbacks who played in the late 60s and early 70s, and are now enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Namath was “Broadway Joe,” the superstar who lived the New York club life with a new babe on his arm each night. He opened a popular Upper East Side nightclub called Bachelors III, which not only drew big names in sports, entertainment, and politics, but also organized crime figures. To protect the league’s reputation, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle ordered Namath to divest himself of his interest in the venture. Namath refused and retired from football. But he eventually recanted, agreed to sell the club, and un-retired. In 1984, at age 39, confirmed bachelor Namath married Deborah Mays. The couple had two daughters, and divorced in 2000.

Staubach was a Naval Academy star (Heisman Trophy, 1963) who did his military stint after graduation, and then joined the NFL. He and his wife, Marianne, have been married 56 years and have five children.

I remember a TV interview with Staubach sometime in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. The interviewer was trying to draw Staubach into comparisons of himself and Namath with respect to their lifestyles, especially sex. At one point the interviewer even implied that perhaps Namath’s libidinal needs were more satisfied than Staubach’s. I’ll never forget how an irritated Staubach interrupted the interviewer and said, “Wait a minute. I enjoy sex just as much as Namath does. I just always have it with the same woman.”

Are you the parents of a teenager, and wondering where he/she might be heading on the morality wagon? You could share the stories above and ask them leading questions like, “Who do you admire more?” “Who do you want to be like?” But what about instead of focusing on their choice of identification, try this question on for size: “Which lifestyle do you prefer that we, your parents, follow? Namath’s or Staubach’s?” Suddenly, the context is not one of you telling the kid what’s right and what’s wrong. And, when the kids hear themselves telling you how they want their parents to behave, they open the door inside themselves for thinking critically about some pretty heavy issues.

For parents looking to discuss “character” with their kids – things like ethics, integrity, values, and honor – they might consider as a prompt two US Presidents, George H. W. Bush, and Donald Trump.

Bush was the 41st president who served one term from 1989 to 1993. In 1942, at age 18, he enlisted in the Navy and became an aviator during WWII. He flew his first combat mission in 1944 during the attack on Wake Island in the Pacific. Three months later his plane was shot down during a bombing attack on Japanese-held territory, but he was rescued. After the war, Bush married Barbara Pierce in 1945, a marriage that lasted until his death, 73 years and six children later.

In 1993 Bush lost his bid for a second term as president to Bill Clinton. In his concession comments he said, “Well, here’s the way I see it. The people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system. I just called Governor Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations. He did run a strong campaign. I wish him well in the White House. And I want the country to know that our entire Administration will work closely with his team to insure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done and we wish him well.”

Trump was the 45th president, and he lost his bid for a second term in 2020. He was educated at Fordham University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in May 1968. In 1977, he married Ivana Zelníčková. They had three children and ten grandchildren followed. The couple divorced in 1992, and in 1993 he married Marla Maples. They had one daughter. They were divorced in 1999, and in 2005, Trump married Melania Knauss. They have one son.

Following his loss in 2020, Trump said, “This election was rigged. Everybody knows it. I don’t mind if I lose an election. But I want to lose an election fair and square. What I don’t want to do is have it stolen from the American people. That’s what we’re fighting for, and we have no choice. We already have the proof, we already have the evidence, and it’s very clear. Many people in the media, and even judges so far, have refused to accept it. They know it’s true, they know it’s there, they know who won the election. But they refuse to say, ‘You’re right.’ Our country needs somebody to say, ‘You’re right.'” To this day, Trump continues to encourage his followers to find a way to overturn the election.

Try the Bush/Trump stories as prompts in discussions with your kids about honesty, values, principles, and conscience. Ask the kids: “Which approach do you prefer that we, your parents, follow, Bush’s or Trump’s?” Even if your kid knows where you stand on Trump, the nature of your question puts the discussion on a different playing field where you, not the kid, is the object of concern. Also, the issue becomes much broader than Bush or Trump. “I wouldn’t want you to look for excuses when you lose, Dad.” Or, “For me, Mom, if you really believe something, I want you to stand up for yourself.” Again, you have opened an inner door to self-discovery for your kids. Isn’t that what parenting is all about?

Coping with Vax Side Effects

Many vaccination-resistant folks justify their hesitancy by saying there are side effects to the shot: Pain, redness and swelling in the arm; plus, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever, and nausea, generally lasting a day and occurring primarily after the second shot. Many also mention blood clots in a small percentage of Johnson & Johnson recipients.

Isn’t it interesting that many of the “popular” medications used or prescribed for various conditions also list possible side effects, but these are generally ignored? I often wonder how many of those folks who refuse to get the coronavirus vaccination because of the side effects, readily take other prescription medications that have a daunting list of side effects. Even the most popular OTC pain killer, aspirin, can cause stomach irritation and bleeding, nausea, heartburn, skin bruising, and tinnitus.

Lexapro and Zoloft, popular antidepressant drugs, can produce drowsiness, dizziness, fainting, insomnia, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, decreased libido, irregular heartbeat, and seizures. Xeljanz, used for types of arthritis and ulcerative colitis, can cause liver disease, heart problems, blood clots, stomach and intestinal ulcers, kidney disease, and risk of developing certain cancers.

Lisinopril (Zestril), a drug prescribed for high blood pressure, can produce a light-headed feeling, shortness of breath, fever, sore throat, nausea, weakness, chest pain, irregular heartbeats, and kidney and liver problems. Maybe you’ve seen a commercial for Entresto, which is prescribed for heart problems. Side effects include dizziness, cough, trouble breathing, elevated potassium, hypotension, fainting, and rash.

Another thing that’s interesting is that the people who justify their vaccine hesitancy by appealing to side effects, don’t seem to worry about the possible long-term effects of becoming infected. There is clear and ample anecdotal evidence that post-infection problems can occur long after infection symptoms have dissipated. The coronavirus has the potential to adversely affect literally every organ in the body, and produce lingering symptoms that can pop up over months. People who suffer this way are called “longhaulers.” And yet, fear of the vaccination seems to override logical thinking about such things.

Maybe the issue is the needle, something we mentioned in last week’s blog. Receiving a vaccination involves a needle being inserted into the body. Do we have a primeval fear that penetration of the skin signifies delivery of an impurity into the body, a wound, a threat to life? News coverage repeatedly shows people having a needle inserted into their arm, and many recoil at this sight. Most prescription medications that we talked about earlier involve taking a pill, an action that arouses far less instinctive revulsion than having a needle invade your body.

One thing for certain: using side effects to justify your resistance to receiving an inoculation is a poor coping strategy because it transforms what should be a problem-solving issue into an emotional issue. That transformation focuses on fear, anger, and distrust. Those and other emotions compromise your ability to think about an issue rationally, logically, and realistically, and make you dependent on others who may not have your best interests in mind. There’s no secret to effective coping with stress. It involves focusing on solving a problem, not on catastrophizing your life in service to normal emotions that you assume make you different, incompetent, and worthless.

Vaccine Hesitancy

A sizeable number of Americans – 25% to 40% across various polls – say they have no plans to receive a coronavirus vaccination. Even White evangelicals show hesitancy – 45% in a recent Pew Research Center poll. Rev. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist public policy division, has a different perspective for resistors: “These vaccines are cause for evangelicals to celebrate and give thanks to God. I am confident that pastors and lay members alike want churches full again and vaccines will help all of us get there sooner rather than later.” Voices like Moore’s try to emphasize the message of Jesus, who preached the value of a social conscience. From Mark 12:31: Jesus is asked which commandment is the first of all. Jesus replies, “The first is,” ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” To the extent that getting the vaccination helps protect your neighbor’s health, hesitancy seems to conflict with a central tenet of Christianity.

In spite of this apparent contradiction, evangelicals are really no different than others in the reasons given for resistance. One reason is that the government released the vaccine before effectiveness was proven, and that same government is now forcing us to do something against our will. Resistors also believe that the vaccine doesn’t work, will make them sick, or has too many side effects. Many believe the vaccine is linked to aborted fetuses.

The thing to note about these and other reasons for avoiding a vaccination is that they’re all focused on emotion. One man says, “I feel like, and I know it works medically, but when you put something in you to help you stop from getting it, that just doesn’t work for me. I’ve never liked the idea of that.” The phrase “put something in you to help you stop from getting it” is a comment based on fear and misunderstanding; it focuses on a needle being inserted into the body. That image awakens a primeval fear that penetration of the skin signifies delivery of an impurity into the body, a wound, a threat to life. News coverage shows again and again people having the needle inserted into their arm, and many recoil at this sight.

There’s a coping lesson in all this: Fear, anger, distrust – rational problem-solving succumbs to these emotions because they prevent judicious examination of beliefs. Denial takes over as values like a social conscience, humility, and empathy get lost in a flood of ego-protecting justifications that bring you phony solace and help you avoid reality. Why is the comfort phony? Because this denial and avoidance tell you – falsely – that your self-concept has no validity (“I am unworthy.”), and that you are unable to confront and deal with factual experience (“I am weak and incompetent.”). You don’t really want to face the emotions that vaccination arouses in you, so you detour around it, rationalizing your avoidance – “It’s the government trying to control me.” “It’s like letting poison enter my body.”  Such rationalizations can render you helpless and make you self-critical, which can lead to depression.

Pandemic aside, for those who might be open to at least considering any vaccination – whether seasonal flu, coronavirus, HPV, shingles, pneumonia, chickenpox, measles, mumps, hepatitis, polio, and others, either for themselves or for their children – it is reasonable to ask: “How do I deal with my fear, and change my attitude about being vaccinated? How do I break the avoidance cycle?” Here is how we answer those questions: Remember, these are stress and coping issues that require solving a problem, not focusing on fear and other emotions. Thus, you must make a plan that involves four steps. First, accept your fear and other emotions: “I feel distress from natural fears that tell me I am a normal, valid human being.” Second, examine your accountability and rational thinking: “Why should I blame the government? I follow many government guidelines. I wear my seatbelt; I follow restrictions on smoking; I pay taxes; I read warning labels on food and drug packages.” Third, identify your values: “I believe in personal effort, not just receiving handouts; I believe in the power of love over hate; I believe in helping and respecting others – I don’t let my friends drive drunk; I recognize that life is not always just about me, that I’m a member of a community.” Fourth, take action: “If I want to actualize who I am, and be true to myself and my values, I must do things not only with my own welfare in mind, but also remembering the welfare of others. I will do my part for the health and general welfare of society. I will discuss with my physician about my family being vaccinated along with me; I will volunteer at a health center; I will share my story with others.”

As we point out many times in blog entries, the best way to find yourself, to increase your self-esteem, humility, and empathy, and to experience fully the richness of life, is to act in ways that bring you satisfaction, contentment, and gratification; to perform actions that complement your values, that include others in the equation, and that engage your social conscience. You will smile, and leave a daily legacy where people remember you because you made them smile, too.

The Thin Line Between Purposeful Actions and Self-destructive Behavior

Michael Church, blog co-host, shares some brief thoughts on where your coping focus should be placed.

You are neither cats nor dogs who live in the present, no more than you are a computer who can avoid stress and people, and intellectualize your way through life and be satisfied. Instead, you must learn to keep your focus on your goals and purposes, and tune out the noise and chaos around you. Furthermore, you must be wary of focusing on your temporary thoughts and feelings, especially those negative ones, because that focus will misguide you to see them as your problem. But they are not your problem; it is your inaction toward meaningful goals that is the problem and that hinders your coping efforts. Effective coping requires moving toward purposeful goals, even when that pursuit causes suffering. That’s right – even when positive goal-directed actions bring you anguish, it is the discomfort that can increase a sense of meaning. You will value most the things you have worked hardest for, and suffered for the most. Inaction caused by lack of clarity of values and purposes, or an inability to overcome fear, are the primary sources of psychological stress. Almost inevitably, people who are not meaningfully engaged in purposeful commitment toward obtaining desired goals, are engaging in self-defeating actions. These types of people either underachieve by avoiding stress and growth, or they get lost in escape behaviors that temporarily give them a cheap thrill at the expense of their long-term health. Proactive coping with stress requires you to maintain a focus on your goals and purposes, and engage in actions that bring you closer to those goals.  

Setting Goals

  NOTE: Cory does not refer to any specific person. He is a composite of several cases.        

  Throughout this blog and in our books, Church and Brooks present a 3-stage coping process that involves acceptance, accountability, and developing a coping plan of action that involves heavy doses of humility and empathy. We also stress that when developing a plan of action, you must focus on overt behaviors, not on your emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Those parts of you do not make you a good or bad person; they are natural and they are you. Do not waste your time feeling guilty about them or trying to control or deny them – such as, frequently telling yourself, “I must make myself less anxious.” Focus, instead, on actions that you can choose to take, actions that are based on goals, and that bring you a sense of productivity and satisfaction.

What do we mean, “Actions based on goals”? Church shares his thoughts:

“Without appropriate, specific, clear, and objectively verifiable goals, it is unlikely there will be optimal progress, if any at all. Goals help you focus; they give you purpose to reach them; they help you persist. There are rules to follow, however. Choose goals that are measurable. Saying, ‘I will lose weight’ is inappropriate; a more appropriate goal is, ‘I will reduce my calorie consumption by 20% and increase my exercise time by 25%.’ Set attainable goals. ‘I want to be more at peace’ is vague, but vowing ‘to regularly engage in some form of relaxation, meditation, or biofeedback’ is measurable and attainable. Setting a goal to ‘save my marriage’ is also vague, whereas, ‘I will get therapeutic help individually or jointly with my spouse’ is doable, and specifies an action to take. Simply stating goals does not provide you with the motivation you need to move successfully toward them. Use the measurable and specific steps you can take to provide you with guideposts to determine whether you are making progress, and have met or exceeded them. When moving toward goals, it is crucial to be able to assess your movement.”

Cory went to a well-known university for two years and then dropped out with lack of motivation and direction. He connected neither socially nor academically in terms of making friends, studying, or finding a major. He was aimless, adrift. He returned from college depressed, and moped around until his parents told him to get into counseling or “hit the trail.” He wisely chose counseling. Once in therapy, he was able talk about his lack of self-identity, purpose, achievement motivation, and career goals.

Cory was the youngest son of highly successful professionals. He had two older brothers, both of whom had successful college experiences, landed good jobs following graduation, and were well on the road to productive careers. Cory admitted he grew up obsessed with exceeding his parents’ and brothers’ achievements, and generally felt he was in competition with them in a battle to prove himself worthy. Counseling helped Cory see he was never really in competition with his parents or siblings, but always with himself. His focus on his family’s achievements prevented him from discovering his own values, purposes, interests, and needs. He never bothered to define personal goals consistent with his standards and principles; he was always too busy concentrating on what others in the family were doing.

His counselor encouraged him to engage in values clarification in order to identify his wants and priorities in work and life in general. What kind of work did he want to do? How important was independence, salary, and flexibility? Did he want to help others or be more self-focused in meeting wants and needs? How valuable were friends and intimacy to him? Did he want to have a family and get married? If so, what kind of traits would he want in a mate? As Cory confronted these questions, he began to discover that the university he had been attending was not consistent with his answers. Simply put, this school was poorly suited to his personality. No wonder he never really felt comfortable there.

Cory found another institution that was a better match for him. The counselor also discouraged him from looking immediately for a specific career. Rather, he was encouraged to find a major he enjoyed, one consistent with his goals and values. He was assured that eventually his major would help him discover a variety of career paths that would complement his needs and interests. Before too long, Cory was no longer preoccupied with keeping up with others or worrying if others approved of his life goals and pursuits. He established his individuality and identity, focusing on who he was and what he wanted to be. For the first time in his life, he felt he was truly committed to his future. His mood became more positive, he began exercising regularly, and he reconnected with friends. He confronted his problems, sought help, defined his values, created new purposes and direction, and followed through with needed behavior changes. He accepted that it was okay to go his own way, even if it meant he might not earn the money and status of his parents and siblings. He discovered he was okay with being the best Cory he could be.

Will Positive Thinking Help Low Self-esteem?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group. “Ron” is a composite of multiple cases.

Children’s self-esteem can be enhanced by teaching them how to cope with both success and failure. Whether dealing with accomplishments or disappointments, when parents help their kids focus on things they can control – like effort – then both their achievements and self-esteem are enhanced. In fact, research shows that high achieving and high self-esteem children tend to attribute their successes and failures to effort, and similar factors that can be controlled – and changed if necessary – such as focus, organization, and planning.

These principles also apply to adults. The key is learning how to analyze and evaluate your experiences. Tackling job assignments, resolving daily interpersonal conflicts, meeting the demands of childrearing, and maintaining friendships – all these challenges are subject to success and failure. Whatever the outcome, analyze your preparation and effort before you let success – or failure – intoxicate you into believing you are better – or worse – than you truly are. When you are realistic in assessing the reasons for your successes and failures, you will maintain a stable self-concept and high self-esteem. 

Many people wonder if positive thinking is important in this process. Self-help books are filled with comments about the so-called power of positive thinking. When it comes to self-esteem, however, psychological research and clinical observation do not consistently support its usefulness. That makes sense when you think about it. To feel better about ourselves, if all we have to do is think positively, then why is it that so many people languish in a swamp of low self-esteem? Why don’t they simply snap out of the doldrums by having positive thoughts? The fact is, you can say positive things to yourself all day long, but that is not sufficient to increase your self-esteem. Let’s face it, psychologists would be out of business if all people had to do was think positively in order to enhance their self-esteem.

Positive thinking is ineffective with low self-esteem because people can see that their positive thoughts are inconsistent with their already well-established self-doubts. In short, they know better! What we’re saying is that you won’t be fooled by having positive thoughts that don’t square with your personal reality! What you have to do, therefore, is change that personal reality. And how do you do that? Simple. Engage in actions that bring you satisfaction and contentment, actions that make you feel worthwhile and productive. Such actions will provide you with positive feedback that will result in more optimistic feelings about yourself. Without appropriate actions, positive thoughts are nothing more than fantasy.

Ron was a socially unskilled young college man with relationship and emotional problems. He generally had a hard time making friends and getting dates. A psychologist told him to think positively and act assertively, and his problems would be eliminated. Beginning several days before each counseling session, he required Ron to ask co-eds for a date. As you might expect, the strategy didn’t work. The poor guy came to therapy sessions “bummed out because I was rejected again and again.” 

Ron was blinded by the “power” of positive thinking, believing that his optimism would be enough to encourage women to agree to his date request. The fact is, however, his belief in positive thinking prevented him from reasoning things out rationally. That is, how often is a young man going to be successful in asking out a woman he barely knows? Not often. Ron, however, thought, “I know she will say yes. I’ve got to think positively!” Ron may have been thinking positively, but he wasn’t thinking or acting rationally. He believed positive thinking and assertiveness would produce success; but all it led to was frequent rejection, which prevented him from analyzing why he was having social problems. Ron didn’t need positive thinking; he needed social-skills training and some cognitive restructuring! He found his way to a new counselor, and that is exactly what they worked on in therapy.

Ron had to learn to lower his expectations and re-evaluate social pressures from others to date regularly; being turned down, for instance, did not mean he was an unworthy person. Furthermore, he needed to accept the reality that many of his social problems resulted from fairly normal anxiety and discomfort when talking with women. Rather than compensate for these insecurities with fake confidence – “Hi, honey. I’m the man of your dreams!” – Ron learned to be more realistic about his poor social skills. He worked at focusing on his social abilities, and not being distracted by irrelevant positive thinking. For instance, Ron believed it was appropriate to approach a girl after class – a girl he barely knew – and say, “Hey, how about a movie with me tonight?”  He had to learn there are ways to initiate a conversation and ways not to initiate one; there are ways to keep a conversation going; there are signals from others he needed to be sensitive to, and react accordingly. The effect of working on these changes in his thinking – and coordinating his actions to those changes – was to lower his social anxiety.

Eventually, Ron asked out only the few women who showed some reciprocal interest in him after several casual conversations over a period of time. This strategy increased the odds of actually getting a date – which he did, sometimes. But he learned that expecting only occasional success was realistic, and those occasional successes were sufficient to increase his self-esteem. He accepted the realities of the dating world; he made himself accountable for adapting to those realities; he devised a plan of action. In short, with some guidance, he taught himself to cope better with his social stressors.

Helicopter Parents

NOTE: This entry is not directed at any particular person or group. The examples are composites from multiple instances.

Helicopter Parents – they hover over their kids and attempt to micromanage their lives. Combat Helicopter Parents – these guys are armed for battle, and God save you if you’re in their way! A dorm counselor at a large university received a call at 3AM from a distraught parent: “I haven’t heard from my daughter in two days. She’s not answering her cell phone and her roommate said she’s sick. I’m worried if she needs to go to the emergency room. Is she in her room? Why aren’t you people on top of this?”

Turns out the young woman was studying with some classmates who lived off-campus. The study session went late so she just “crashed” at their apartment that night instead of trudging through the campus to her dorm. When the harried dorm counselor finally found her in class the next morning, he asked, “Are you sick? Your mom’s worried.” Her reply? “Sick? No way. Well, I do have a little cold.” All the poor counselor could say was, “Call home! PLEASE!”

In the past couple of posts, we’ve discussed parenting. We can draw on some of our earlier comments to answer the question: “Why are some parents so overly involved in their kids’ lives, even when the kid is in college and officially an adult?” One possibility is that the parents are showing a pattern of control that began when their child was younger. Terrified that the kid would get into the wrong crowd and be tempted in a world of drugs and sex, they began to micromanage the kid’s activities 24/7; now they can’t break the habit. It’s also possible that the parents don’t trust the kid and never did. They see their son or daughter as lacking in ability and judgment, and believe success will only come as a result of their intervention. Maybe the parents fear their child will fail, so they become enablers who spoil the child; whatever Johnny or Sally wants is fine with them. They mistakenly believe that competence and self-esteem result from success, and failure must be avoided at all costs. So, they try to shelter the child from failure believing that high self-esteem will result – a belief that has little research support, by the way. Another possibility is that the parents reflect on their own youthful craziness, feel anxious about their ability as parents, and want to make sure their children have more focus and direction than they did.

Whatever the reason behind “helicoptering,” it’s psychologically damaging. In fact, some say it’s a form of child abuse that adversely affects emotional development. That view is supported by research and clinical observation. In the extreme, sheltered kids are more vulnerable to PTSD when adults; they are not taught how to learn from failure; they enter adulthood with low self-esteem; they feel entitled, which robs them of maintaining healthy and productive social interactions; they become self-absorbed, lacking in humility and empathy; they resist being accountable for their actions; and, most tragically, they are at risk for feeling helpless and descending into depression.

A father called his son’s university financial aid office, asking why he had not received the statement for his son’s financial aid package for the upcoming year. The staff person checked the records and told dad that his son had been sent multiple emails and regular campus mail notices that he needed to come in and sign the papers so they could be sent to his parents. Apparently, he did not see any urgency to the request, and no doubt figured he had better things to do. The staffer boldly suggested to dad that the boy was being a little irresponsible.

When dad heard about the notices sent to his son over the previous month, and the suggestion sonny was behaving in a less-than-adult fashion, he protested, “But you have to realize, he’s only 21 years old!”

The staffer was incensed, and replied, “Sir, my son is a 21-year-old soldier stationed in Iraq, and he might die for your son!” And she hung up on dad! An hour later, the boy showed up in the office to sign the papers. But you know what’s sad here? The kid showed up only after dad obviously called him and read him the riot act! This kid was overindulged, spoiled, protected, and shielded from having to face responsibility. When he graduates and enters the work force, the first time he is faced with a challenge on the job, will he call dad? “My boss gave me this assignment to finish by tomorrow! What do I do, dad? Help!”