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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!

 

Talking to Others II

An important part of coping is being able to assist others in need. How do you handle things when someone reaches out to you for advice, or just wants to get a sympathetic ear? Being a listener can be challenging because you are likely to be concerned about saying the wrong thing and making things worse. Here are some examples that illustrate some good ways to respond to troubled folks.

Comment:        “Life just sucks! It’s just too hard. I’ll never be the type who commits suicide, but I’ll be damned…. I don’t care if I live another day.”

Response:        “I agree life doesn’t seem worth it at times. I imagine just about everyone has those feelings at one time or another. I’ve been there, too. But I bet most people would say that life is what we make of it. Life deals the hand, but we decide how we want to play it. Have you asked yourself what you’re willing to face, what you need to do to get more out of your life? Do you think there are better choices you can make?”

Note how this response centers on two things: empathy and empowerment. The first part of the response says, “I hear you and understand where you’re coming from because I’ve been there.” In the face of total negativity about life, the second part focuses on optimistic proactive coping strategies, using such phrases as “we decide,” “what you’re willing to face,” “need to do,” and “better choices you can make.” The point is, rather than criticize the speaker, the focus is on helping them consider positive actions when down on life.

Our next example deals with self-blame over past events:

Comment:        “I can’t get over things that happened a long time ago when I was a kid. These memories haunt me; I’m damaged forever. I can’t overcome it. It’s just no use in trying. I’ve tried but it’s no use.”

Response:        “I guess we all have our crosses to bear. Lots of people have long-term problems dealing with traumatic things. You hear about them on the news all the time. But look at all the stories of people who have moved on and learned to cope with all kinds of traumas, injuries, even death of a loved one. If they can do it, why can’t you? I bet a lot of them got some counseling. Are you willing to give counseling a try before you throw in the towel? Isn’t it at least an option?”

This commenter is hung up on the past and determined to blame those who have damaged him/her. The response points out that many people must travel a rocky road of life, and the great majority of them have grown and prospered in spite of a lousy upbringing. Then, important questions are raised to help the commenter focus on positive actions that can be taken.

In these examples, note how both responses pose questions to the speaker. Using questions tells listeners that confronting problems is up to them, and your questions imply you have confidence in their ability to do so. Also, remember that when talking to those who are troubled, you will be tempted to express your opinion. You must take yourself out of the equation, however, because the issue is not what you would do; the issue is to encourage listeners to consider proactive options consistent with their needs and abilities.

When Childhood Dominates Adulthood

Meredith grew up in a secluded, economically and socially depressed small town. She was the oldest of five siblings and it was her job to help take care of them because mom worked and dad was chronically ill. Her parents were very domineering, and they made it clear to Meredith from an early age that she was not meeting their standards. During her teen years they reminded her again and again that she was not living up to their expectations.

Meredith’s childhood and into her teens was a life of hearing constant criticism from her parents. Their frequent scolding and emotional abuse didn’t help her develop much self-esteem or self-confidence, and she grew into adulthood believing she was pretty incompetent and unable to meet others’ standards.

Meredith graduated from high school and over the next ten years had two failed marriages, both to alcoholics. Predictably, she married men who treated her poorly. Because of her childhood, she expected poor treatment from men and, ironically, this was the type of treatment that made her comfortable. People who have psychologically painful experiences in childhood often find themselves as adults attracted to partners who re-create that childhood distress, which is something they are used to dealing with and that provides them with a sense of predictability.

Now in her 30s Meredith shows some insight into her problems and is able to talk about them openly and frankly: “Everywhere I go I see couples. It seems that there is no one made for me.” She adds, “Being alone makes me wonder if I think right. Sometimes I pray to die. Since high school the world isn’t what I thought it would be. I’m tired. I’ve worked all of my life and have nothing to show for it.”

Meredith doesn’t want to kill herself because she believes she will go to hell as a sinner. She says, however, that there is no joy in her life, only fear. She admits, “People are my downfall.” She doesn’t speak with others unless they speak to her first, and at lunchtime she eats in her car to avoid being around co-workers. These actions keep her feeling lonely and alienated. She says she doesn’t know how to get along with people, and if she tries, she figures she will fail and things will be worse than ever.

Meredith basically spends her days re-creating her childhood: She assumes she can never live up to others’ expectations, and she has put herself between a rock and a hard place. Her withdrawal from life creates a self-fulfilling prophesy because she does not allow herself to have productive social experiences that can re-program her brain. She feels so socially inept, and is so afraid of being around others, that she is unwilling to learn how to interact with others and just be herself. “I don’t care if I live or die,” she says.

This case illustrates several rules of effective coping: First, Meredith allows herself to be dominated by a concern for what others may think of her, something over which she has no control; Second, she is unwilling to develop actions in her present that will help her stop living in the pity parade of her past; Third, she keeps herself as the center of her life; Finally, she has not given herself permission to experience life. Although she continues in counseling, her prognosis is not good.

Courtesy is Empowering

Ken and Sam were entering a restaurant. Ken went first just as a customer was leaving. Ken didn’t give way to the exiting customer, but continued ahead through the doorway, forcing the customer to step aside. Sam, however, directly behind Ken, stopped, stepped aside, and motioned to the customer to walk out before Sam entered.

Once inside, Ken said to Sam, “Why did you do that? Don’t you know that by letting that guy out you were basically telling him he was your superior? You backed down.”

Incredulous, Sam replied, “What? Being courteous shows you’re secure in your own skin, that letting someone else be first is not a threat to you. In fact, when you had to nearly push him out of the way you were showing that you couldn’t let a stranger have the upper hand. Sorry, buddy, but that shows insecurity.”

What do you think? Who was showing the better coping skill, Ken or Sam? We believe it was Sam, for the following reasons:

Many people seek a stress-free life with minimal unpleasant emotions. The problem is, that approach makes them the main ingredient in their life recipe, where they see themselves as virtuous and entitled. This approach is selfish and will fail in the long run. When it comes to coping, what you want is not there lying on the ground to be picked up and put in your pocket.

When coping with stress, don’t seek things from life; don’t just wander around looking to pick up solutions to your problems. Rather, participate in life, experience it through actions. Experiencing life allows positive emotions to emerge from your actions. Consider, for example, the case of Ken and Sam, which really boils down to old-fashioned courtesy. Polite actions put needs of another person in your coping equation. When you include others in the picture, you can feel some humility as you show yourself that others are important, and empowerment as you see you can participate with life in ways that will give you confidence. Don’t look for emotions and feelings; allow yourself to experience them by acting in ways that don’t make you the center of attention.

Ken needed to keep himself as the center of his actions, which is an ego-based strategy designed to protect a fragile sense of self. Sam, on the other hand, made the other person the focus; he showed himself that he was confident and secure within himself, and empowered to act with a social conscience.

Think about it. Feeling all stressed out, that your life is spiraling out of control, that you are suffocating? Maybe you should stop cooking with life recipes that make you the main ingredient.

Incentivize your “life workplace.”

What would you do if you owned a small company with 20 employees, and you wanted to increase worker morale and loyalty to the company? If you consulted a Human Resources Specialist, you would most likely get suggestions that revolved around ideas of taking care of your workers and making them feel appreciated, things that would give them a sense of ownership of the company. What would some of these “things” be?

At the top of the list would probably be compensation. You would want to make sure that you pay your people at a fair level consistent with the type of work they do. The level might be defined by pay of workers in similar jobs at other companies. Connected with actual pay, of course, would be policies governing things like vacation and sick-leave, maternity leave (both genders), bonuses, educational supplements, overtime, comp time, etc.

No doubt there would also be suggestions from your consultant to provide opportunities for advancement, alternative training and expansion of skills, plus policies that would give your workers a sense of meaning and significance about what they do. Once again, your consultant would probably focus on actions to help make your workers feel appreciated.

Let’s see if we can translate the human resources (HR) strategy into a personal coping context, and imagine how you might apply basic HR principles to your “life workplace.” We often talk about the importance of developing a coping plan when confronted with specific challenges. Let’s take that notion a step further and apply it in a broader context, moving from a specific hurdle facing you, to a general policy you can take toward yourself as one who “works” at living.

Do you pay yourself enough? Do you occasionally give yourself a “pat on the back” for a job well-done? You should. Don’t overdo it, of course. Limit your “pay” to situations where your persistence, preparation, and effort paid off.

How about “vacation” time, “sick leave,” “personal” days off? Do you indulge yourself now and then, allowing yourself to take a brief timeout from responsibilities and reserve some “me time”? You should.

Do you take actions that allow you to appreciate yourself? Self-appreciation can be much more than a pat on the back. In fact, sometimes you don’t even need that pat: “I did something today that made someone else feel good. That makes me feel good, so I should try and do stuff like that more often.” Tune yourself to be aware of the effect you have on others.

Do you have a sense of loyalty and ownership about your life? That is, do you feel responsible and empowered in your life workplace? Or, are most of your actions and beliefs the result of dependency on others? You must nurture your autonomy and independence so you can be accountable to yourself for the actions you take. That accountability, of course, applies to both your successes and failures.

Just as your company HR consultant zeroed in on policies that would make employees feel appreciated, so must you develop self-directed actions that pay attention to your needs and feelings. These actions must not become so extreme that you drift into narcissism, but should be focused on insuring you do not neglect yourself because you feel you are unworthy. Empowerment, confidence, and autonomy – all essential to effective coping — cannot proceed if you consider yourself unworthy.

 

 

Choices

Faced with life stressors, you have two choices: On the one hand, you can say the hell with it and withdraw into a protective shell. No matter how stressed out life makes you feel you just decide to live with the stress and avoid trying to do anything about it. This choice keeps you in your comfort zone, but from a psychological perspective it will turn you into a stagnant pool, a state where you exist, but are not living your life in any productive or satisfying way. This avoidance strategy makes coping with stress virtually impossible.

On the other hand, you can decide to attack the stress in your life, to accept challenges and meet them as best you can. That’s what this blog is all about. You can decide not to be ruled by your emotions, but to accept them and use them to your advantage. This choice requires more effort and focus than the first one, but we believe that the effort is well worth it in the long run. This choice also involves some basic truths about life and coping:

You can only control your thoughts and your actions.

Life must be lived in the present.

Optimism is good but must be grounded in reality.

Excessive dependency on others is the enemy of self-empowerment.

You must accept your emotions but not let them rule you.

Positive actions are more powerful than positive thoughts.

You learn more from failure than from success.

You should accept help from those you trust.

You should try to serve others when appropriate.

Your body is designed for movement, so keep it moving.

Find Your Hidden Strengths

We often talk about the importance of doing an honest self-assessment as part of the coping process. Developing a sense of empowerment and facing challenges can be greatly facilitated when you have a good idea of your strengths. Unfortunately, it’s easy to overlook them and sell yourself short.

I remember an adult student who came to chat with me during her final semester of college. When she entered college seven years earlier, she had already raised two children who were both in college themselves. She wanted to enter the workforce but decided that first she needed to get her college degree. “I got married a couple of years out of high school and we immediately started having kids. I was strictly a stay-at-home mom.”

She was still married when she entered college. Along with some domestic responsibilities she was also a parent of college students, so most semesters she carried a part-time course load, and also took summer courses. The road to graduation turned out to be long – seven years — but she did it and was approaching 50 when she graduated.

Sitting in my office about three months before commencement, she lamented, “I’ve never had any work experience to speak of, and I’m nearly 50! How can I put a resume’ together that an employer will notice? I have no job experience or skills.”

I said, “You need to think outside the box here. Sure, you have your college degree, but you have no work experience. Still, there must be some things that you bring to the table.” She laughed and said, “I raised two kids!” Ah ha! Now we had something to work with.

Over the next 10 minutes or so we had a good time coming up with some of the “work skills and traits” she had acquired over nearly 25 years of raising kids. Our list included: persistence; patience; cook; organizer; planner; psychologist; therapist; problem solver; teacher; first-aid “nurse”; mediator; mentor; role model; disciplinarian; judge. All that, plus her outgoing, modest, and positive interpersonal style, formed quite a good package.

I also told her to include a statement that her work experience and parental skills were apparently successful given the fact that when both her kids were in college, they held part-time jobs to help with costs, maintained above average grades, and graduated on time.

She put together a somewhat unconventional resume’, but it showed her maturity, sense of humor, and realistic perspective about how she could contribute to an organization. She had five interviews all of which resulted in job offers. Nothing supervisory, of course, but solid positions that offered her the chance for advancement.

When you’re faced with challenges, it’s easy to sell yourself short and avoid confronting hurdles because you tell yourself, “I don’t have the skills to take this on.” Until you make an honest and realistic assessment of your skills, however, and allow yourself to think broadly and creatively, you’ll never know.

One thing for sure: You don’t want to live the rest of your life tormented with thoughts of, “I wonder what would have happened if I….?” My adult student didn’t.

Fighting irrational thinking

Coping with stress requires you to accept life rather than try and manage it. The first step in acceptance is to challenge negative and irrational thoughts you carry around with you. Everyone has such thoughts now and then, but trouble begins if you have them most of the time. Here are some examples:

Making mountains out of molehills. Frank made a mistake at work and thought he was going to be fired. Not only was he not fired, his “mistake” uncovered a flaw in the company work manual.

Taking everything personally. Is the slightest criticism from others as a challenge to your self-esteem? Remember, you can’t control what others say. Marian felt that whenever her husband decided to do something with the guys, it meant he felt she was a lousy wife.

It’s not a black-white world so don’t force others into one. “You either trust me or you don’t.” “I am always correct and he is always wrong.” This style of thinking overlooks a basic truth: there are two sides to every story, and the truth often lies somewhere in the middle!

Do you over-generalize and reach crazy conclusions from a single unrelated incident? “I gave a lousy presentation. I’m obviously a complete failure in everything I do.” “I got a lousy grade in my Economics course. I may as well quit school.” “I was turned down for a date, so I’m obviously a worthless individual no one wants or cares about.”

How often do you get caught up in irrational thinking? “I must succeed in everything I do or I’m a failure”; “I must be admired and respected by everyone or I’m worthless”; “I struck out three times in our game today. That does it. I’m batting .268 but it’s clear I’m a burden to the team and I’m quitting”; “The boss gave the project to my colleague. She obviously thinks I’m incompetent.”

Irrational thinking can impair day-to-day functioning as your life becomes organized around the central themes of those thoughts. Such thoughts are demoralizing, interfere with effective coping, and make you vulnerable to psychological dysfunctions like Personality Disorders, Depression, and, very frequently, Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In this last condition your mind entertains a big package of irrational thoughts, and you are constantly adding thoughts to the box. The result is that you worry about a variety of different things, and at an intensity far above what is normal concern and worry.

The repetition of irrational thoughts in your mind will dispose you to focus on them more and more. As you do so, your actions will be modified around those thoughts, and you will develop dangerous habits of withdrawal and denial. We regularly point out that finding satisfying actions for yourself is central to effective coping. Actions that service irrational thoughts do not bring satisfaction because they are difficult to resolve and tend to isolate you from situations that need to be challenged.

For instance, a woman in counseling confessed that she avoided social situations as much as possible because, “I’m afraid I will faint.”

Counselor:      “Afraid you’ll faint? Has that ever happened?”

Woman:           “No, but it’s possible.”

Counselor:      “Yes, that’s true. But can you accept that it’s highly unlikely?”

Woman:           “Yeh, I can go with that.”

Counselor:      “Besides, what if you did faint? What’s the big deal?”

Woman:           “Are you kidding? Everybody would laugh at me and think I was worthless.”

Counselor:      “Worthless? Laugh at you? Would you react that way if you saw someone faint?”

Woman:           “No, I would think they were sick or needed help. I wouldn’t…Oh, I see what you mean. No, I guess they wouldn’t make fun of me.”

“OK,” you ask, “how do I deal with irrational thoughts?” One thing for sure, simply telling yourself, “I’ve got to stop thinking this way” is futile. Your best bet is to accept the reality of your irrational thinking, identify those thoughts, and focus on rational actions you can take that will help you think more realistically.

Look again at our earlier examples. Instead of carrying around that irrational baggage, how about considering strategies that involve self-talk like the following: “I need to talk to my supervisor about how I can guard against making a mistake like that in the future”; “That pitcher really fooled me with his curve ball. I need to study the tapes plus take more batting practice against that kind of pitch”; “I need to let my colleague know I’m available to help should she need it”; “I need to share with the boss some ideas I have for other projects.”

When you react to failure by developing proactive actions to take, you are learning how to fail. Many people are crushed by failure and unable to cope with the resulting anxiety, frustration, and other disheartening emotions. When you learn how to fail, however, you see failure as a learning opportunity, and you accept the challenges imposed by failure. Then you are coping effectively.

The first step in the process is to become aware of your irrational thoughts. Write them down when they occur. Enlist the help of friends, acquaintances, and even professionals to help you identify them. In this way, you will be able to focus more on rational courses of action to help you cope with the everyday challenges you face.

There’s never any guarantee you will succeed. But by focusing on positive actions, at least you’re teaching yourself to persevere even when frustrated; you’re showing yourself that you are self-sufficient enough to engage in some proactive actions; and you’re doing things that give you a chance to feel good about yourself. Such positive possibilities certainly outweigh marching in your personal pity parade.