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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!

 

Who you are does not make you weak

Do you feel anxious and get mad at yourself when you fall short of perfection? Striving for high quality work is admirable, but if you fall short and cope with emotions using self-criticism, you’re not coping well. First, you’re teaching yourself to be self-critical, and you will never be satisfied with your work, even when it’s good. Second, self-criticism ignores the fact that striving for perfection is usually better than being sloppy and uncaring. Finally, self-criticism treats your emotions like your enemy, and that is denying who you are.

So, you messed up. How should you handle your frustration and anger? We have noted in other entries that emotions can be channeled into working for you if you accept them and think about them a little differently.

If you’re mad at yourself for being overly perfectionistic, pause and consider the positive aspects of this trait: First, you’re less likely to make foolish mistakes; second, you are showing others that you care about the quality of your work; third, you are more likely to seek creative solutions to a task; fourth, you are less likely to depend on others for completing a task; fifth, you demonstrate how your actions are consistent with your values. For instance, you can remind yourself that your perfectionistic tendencies are consistent with how you were raised and taught by role models you respect. “I was always taught that I must act in ways that make me proud of the result. If I’m going to do something, do it right. That’s my value and it’s the principle I live by.”

In general, I’m saying instead of criticizing yourself for who you are, accept who you are and examine the benefits of your traits. Such a critical examination can often increase your sense of control, personal empowerment, and autonomy.

Here’s another example: Suppose you’re anxious and fearful about something going on in the world. Someone tells you, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s going to be fine.” Does that comment make you feel better? Suppose you say to yourself, “Yeh, I shouldn’t be afraid.” Does that make you feel better? In both cases, I bet the answer is, “No.”

Notice in this second example that once again, you are being asked to deny a part of yourself, in this case, the part of you that is anxious and fearful. Don’t deny how you feel! That denial will lead to self-criticism and the negative consequences we noted earlier.

Instead of denial, accept your fear as real. Also accept the fact that you can use your fear to your advantage. Just as we noted above how being a perfectionist can work to your advantage, so can being fearful and anxious work for you.

Accepting the reality of your fear as a part of who you are can have a calming effect that keeps you in a steady frame of mind. Also, your anxiety can help you stay alert and focused on developing plans to attend to the fearful situation. Finally, your concern can help you stay vigilant and monitor the effectiveness of your plans as you implement them.

The result is that your plans are more likely to be successful because you are operating with a positive sense of independence and empowerment that emerge from acceptance. Remember, acceptance of who you are is a fundamental step in coping with stress. Always work from that foundation of acceptance. Denial of the reality of who you are will be self-defeating and toxic for your coping efforts.

Also, take note that whether or not you like your trait is not the issue. Once you accept it and find ways to make it work for you, more effective coping will be the result. It’s like telling someone, “Yes, I’m too much of a perfectionist…,” or, “Yes, I tend to be overly anxious in most situations…,” “…but it’s who I am and I make it work to my advantage.”

Reflections on an Empty Grocery Shelf

I had seen it on news reports and heard about it from others. But about a week ago, when I went to the grocery store for the first time since the reality of the coronavirus was taking hold in the public mind, there it was: an empty grocery shelf in the section where paper products like toilet paper and tissues normally filled what was now vacant space.

The next day I was thinking about a new blog entry, and it occurred to me that the empty shelf carried some good coping messages. Yes, really, believe it or not!

The first thing that occurred to me was narcissism. The narcissist believes, “It’s all about me. I am the major ingredient in all life recipes. I am the crucial variable in the equation that will solve the problem.”

Now I’m not saying that all the folks who grabbed armfuls of multi-pack TP were narcissists. No doubt some of them had large families at home and were replacing their dwindling stock of TP. I bet there were even some folks who saw the shelf getting depleted, but had a decent supply at home, and decided to leave the small remainder on the shelf for others. But, for sure, there were no doubt many who had a garage full of TP, considered themselves fortunate to have stumbled on even more, and scooped up a bunch like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter. The narcissist’s mantra is, “I deserve all I can get.”

Narcissism encourages a “me vs. them” orientation. If you’re White, non-Whites are the enemy; if you’re a native-born American, immigrants – and even naturalized citizens – are the enemy; those who do not accept your beliefs are the enemy; those who would take “my TP,” are the enemy. The pathetic narcissist has a lot of enemies, and must constantly be on the defensive to avoid psychological collapse. What a weak way to try and cope with stress.

I also decided that the empty shelf symbolizes humility. I talked about humility in the 1.10.20 blog, and noted that when you lack humility, you form your own pity parade when things don’t go your way. You wail about the unfairness of it all – “I deserve better!” – and talk and think your way into becoming an emotional cripple.

Reality, however, dictates that there are always others involved. Accept that reality and you can embrace humility. You can then free yourself from your pity parade, and find uplifting empowerment and optimism. You can feel pride in your accomplishments, but understand that your successes do not grant you preferential treatment. This realization will make you more inclined to “share yourself” with others who are also fighting stress. Sharing is a powerful and productive strategy for coping with stress.

And that brings me to a third coping message from the empty shelf: the importance of empathy in the coping process. As I noted recently (3.6.20), when used to cope with stress, empathy is not sympathy, but is a sensitivity that allows you to understand others in the context of their needs, not yours. As a result, you focus your actions around values, social conscience, and morality. This focus provides both giver (you) and taker (the other) psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. Assist others along your life path and you will never be alone.

“All this from an empty shelf?” you exclaim. Why not? Let’s personify that shelf and imagine a conversation with it. You say, “Hello, shelf. I must say you’re looking a little depressed today.” The shelf replies, “How would you feel if your entire purpose in life has been taken from you? I am here to provide things to please people, but they have stripped me of everything I am, and left me empty.”

The empty shelf reminds me that coronavirus threatens more than our health; it also threatens who we must be as human beings. Remember, this crisis is not one where the homeland has been attacked by another country, and we can come together and resolve together to defeat the common enemy.

Rather, this crisis threatens our inner being. We – or a member of our family – may get sick, while our neighbor does not. With that possibility in mind, standing in front of the full shelf our self-preservation kicks in. Screw the neighbor! Narcissism rules, and humility and empathy are overpowered. We strip the shelf bare, and the shelf becomes us! Empty!

For our common benefit, that outcome is what we must prevent. Crises that threaten our inner being can bring out the worst in us. “Think of your neighbor,” morphs into, “Everyone for themselves!”

You have to decide which one is you and act accordingly. Which one is consistent with your values, your character, your morality, your ethics? One thing for sure: Discarding narcissism, and embracing humility and empathy will help you cope with any crisis, and also benefit others. In the final analysis, that coping strategy – not one that stresses “it’s all about me!” – is what life needs to be about.

Coping with Coronavirus

More than once I’ve heard this question: “I don’t get it. Every year the flu kills a lot more people than this coronavirus, and yet everyone seems to be panicking about corona. What’s with that?” That question is like asking, “Cars kill a lot more people than shark bites. How come people don’t sweat driving to the beach, but get panicky when they hear there might be a shark in the water?”

What is it about the coronavirus that scares people more than the annual flu? Let’s pose some answers, and see if they can help with coping. Before we do, let’s note that if you are anxious and afraid, it’s OK. Fear is an adaptive response to potential danger. If you accept the threat and your natural fear reactions as real, you will be more likely to remain vigilant, take precautions, and help reduce – not prevent – your risk of infection. Being afraid can be a good thing. Remember, fear can self-generate and strengthen. That is why acceptance of the reality of the situation is important because then you are more likely to use your fear in appropriate ways.

Back to our question: Why is the reaction to the annual flu less intense for some than to coronavirus? For one thing, the flu is familiar, predictable, and expected. You have experienced it before and know most people get through it OK. There is also the flu shot that gives many a sense of control knowing they have at least reduced their risk of infection. The coronavirus, however, is new, unpredictable, and unknown. Humans have no immunity and, as of now, there is no vaccine. That knowledge naturally intensifies fear.

Reactions to coronavirus are also more exaggerated compared to the flu because the former – but not the latter – has been politicized. Elected officials have injected their self-important agendas into the corona crisis. The result has been a flood of contradictory, confusing, and misleading information that has served to frustrate and anger the public.

Faced with this barrage of agenda-driven information designed to make you feel helpless and dependent on elected “leaders,” what should you do? First of all, whatever your political preference, take off the political goggles and think rationally. Suppose you have a severe, persistent stomach pain. Your neighbor says, “Appendicitis!” A family member says, “Gall bladder!” A friend says, “Diverticulitis!”

Who do you call for clarification, your local congressional representative? Surely not! You would call a professional medical provider. The coping lesson here is simple: Don’t listen to politicians, economists, or other laypeople when they expound on the medical properties and consequences of coronavirus. Tune them out! Listen to the medical professionals. Yes, you will hear words like “may,” “could,” “might,” and “we’ll have to wait until we have more data.” These words, however, do not mean the professionals don’t know anything; they mean that more test data are needed, and that you must think in terms of risk, not certainty.

Closely related to politicization is the spreading of conspiracy theories. There’s no conspiracy here folks. That message is for the weak-minded. The fact is, bad things can happen without human intervention. Contrary to what you may believe, humans do not have absolute dominion over the other organisms on this planet. Viruses have a way of reminding us of that. We are part of nature’s laws.

Politicization also carries the danger of making you think coronavirus is not that big a deal. Maybe not, but don’t bet your health on it. When it comes to coping with health threats, prepare for the worst. Never apologize for being vigilant and taking precautions to minimize potential threats to your health. Those actions are under your control. If you think they are best for you, take those actions.

The coping lessons? Accept reality; do not listen to false messengers with agendas; listen to the medical experts; accept your anxiety as normal and use it to help you plan rationally, and to make informed decisions to reduce – not eliminate – your risk of infection.

 

Empathy is not sympathy

Posts on this blog often point out the importance of empathy in the coping process. When you’re stressed and upset, you struggle to find ways to deal with emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt, grief, jealousy, and others that seem to rob you of stability in your life. At this point in the coping process, you think it’s all about you, that you are the primary ingredient in your life recipe. Unfortunately, this self-centered emphasis makes coping difficult.

When you get outside of yourself and bring others into the picture, the coping picture brightens. Whether you reach out to others with problems similar to yours, or work at trying to understand the effect you are having on others, substituting an “other-oriented” – rather than “self-oriented” – focus will provide insight into your problem. This focus is what we mean by empathy.

When most people think of empathy, they think of sympathy. If you can understand how another person is feeling, you are more likely to feel sympathy toward them, and this feeling motivates you to help them. Maybe so, but in a coping context, empathy has a much broader meaning than feeling sorry for someone. When you use empathy to cope, you are acting with moral strength.

Suppose you’re 17 and being bullied by a kid in high school. Generally, you do all you can to avoid this kid and stay out of the way of her wrath. Problem is, avoidance strategies don’t work because they’re a form of denial. Successful coping requires acceptance of challenges facing you.

You talk to your folks and other adults about the situation and begin to form some possible explanations for why she’s bothering you. You ask around, seeing if you can get a feel for her family life, grades, anything that will help you figure out what she’s angry about and why she’s displacing that anger onto you.

All these actions form what we mean by empathy. You’re not looking to feel pity for her; you’re looking to understand her so you can stand up to her in the context of her issues, not in the context of your fear of her. Do you get it? Effective coping requires you to focus your actions around your values and your conscience, and to convey your moral principles to the oppressor.

A lot for a 17-year old? Of course, but we’re trying to illustrate the true dynamics of empathy. So, the bully comes up to you, pushes you and says, “Look, b***h, get out of my way or I’ll beat the s**t out of you!”

You respond, “Look, I get it that you’re angry at something or someone, but you have no right to take it out on me. Keep it up and I’ll file a complaint and I’ll win. But I’d rather talk about it and find how you can point your anger at who deserves it. But not at me. No more!”

The absence of empathy is denial. Empathy can be used to generate acceptance of what is going on, and assertiveness of what you can do about it. Then you can give the bully a choice because you have made yours. You have used empathy to produce acceptance, understanding, and a plan of action. Sympathy has nothing to do with it.

At the outset of WWII, as Hitler began to unleash his war machine in Europe, England’s Prime Minister Churchill argued with his senior government advisors about strategy: conciliation or prepare for war. Churchill had already shown empathy toward Hitler – that is, observed and analyzed him. He decided the German leader was a power-hungry sadist who would stop at nothing to attain world domination, and Great Britain had no choice but to prepare its defenses from an inevitable attack by Hitler. Churchill felt no sympathy for Hitler; instead, his empathetic analysis showed him that Hitler must be exterminated. Empathy, not sympathy, allowed Churchill to prepare his country.

 

How’s your coping intelligence?

Intelligence. If you’re like most people, when you run across this word you think of cognitive things like a good memory, large vocabulary, math ability, reading comprehension, and critical thinking skills – in general, you probably think of an intelligent person as someone who has a lot of knowledge in a variety of areas.

You probably don’t think of an intelligent person as one who is necessarily good at coping with stressors. Would you find the following comment contradictory? “Jim is one of the most intelligent guys I know, but he sure doesn’t know how to handle conflicts with others, or how to deal with anxiety! Put him in a stressful situation and he falls apart.” No contradiction at all, right?

Intuitively, most people separate cognitive abilities and coping abilities; the former deals with knowledge, the latter deals with emotions. In fact, in a 1964 paper, psychologists Davitz and Beldoch talked about emotional intelligence as different from cognitive intelligence. They linked the latter to cognitive abilities, but tied the former to effectiveness in social communication, especially the ability to empathize with others.

In the context of coping, your blog hosts use the term emotional intelligence to describe those who are “secure in their own skin.” These folks have healthy levels of self-esteem and feel empowered to be autonomous, independent, confident, and optimistic as they confront the challenges of daily life. Individuals with high emotional intelligence are good at accepting reality, taking responsibility for their actions, setting priorities, and navigating their way through the maze of stressors that regularly confront them.

Readers of this blog, however, will know that emotional intelligence is not the whole story when it comes to coping effectively with stress. Many people high in emotional intelligence appear to be pretty confident and secure – at least on the outside – as they tend to their needs. Unfortunately, they may leave a trail of human psychological carnage in their wake as they focus on their egotistical coping strategy that puts them at the center of it all. In their own minds they are coping well, but they do so with a lot of deception, manipulation, lying, cheating, and bullying.

“OK,” you ask, “if emotional intelligence by itself is no guarantee of effectively coping, what’s missing? What other traits are needed to use my emotional intelligence to cope in positive ways?” The answer to that question involves an intelligence that supplements Emotional: Moral Intelligence.

Coping with everyday life will be most effective when Emotional Intelligence is complemented by Moral Intelligence. How would we describe people with a healthy moral intelligence? They have values, standards, and a social conscience, which means they weigh their coping actions against the needs of others. “Embezzling money may be good for me financially, but others are going to suffer, so I choose not to embezzle.” That’s moral intelligence! If you have low moral intelligence, if you do not value others as dignified and worthy of courtesy and respect, you will have no problem cheating and manipulating them to satisfy your own greed.

Moral intelligence means having empathy for others, being able to understand how they are feeling. “If I insult and disparage others in the presence of their children, I may feel good, but I also show my total disregard for the pain I inflict on their offspring. As much as I dislike them, I will not disrespect them in the presence of their family.”

Here’s what we’re saying: You may have high emotional intelligence and feel really great about yourself. But if you have low moral intelligence and can only focus on you, if you must include yourself as the primary ingredient in your life coping recipe, ultimately your coping efforts will fail because you will leave behind a legacy of making others feel bad about themselves. Your legacy will be others who scowl at the very mention of your name.

Counseling

Effective coping requires honest self-discovery and awareness of your strengths and vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, if you don’t work at translating that awareness into productive actions, you will have no anchor to reality. For some people, professional counseling, also called psychotherapy, can help in fostering the translation.

If you have decided to seek professional counseling, which may or may not involve taking psychiatric medications, there are a variety of actions you can take to prepare yourself and increase the likelihood of success. First, however, understand that you should enter counseling with a willingness to work hard to adjust your thinking and your actions. No one can wave a magic wand and change you; a counselor can make suggestions but in the final analysis, it is you who must do the work to produce improvement.

Also, remember that you want the counselor to provide straightforward, uncomplicated, easy to understand suggestions about your problems. Be wary of overly simplistic – that is, naive – explanations of your psychological problems (“You get angry too easily”; “You have an anxiety disorder.”), and a simplistic treatment plan (“You should take an anger management class”; “Get a dog.”).

When seeking counseling, it is important that you believe your decision to seek help will benefit you. That belief will be strengthened if you choose a provider who has trustworthy characteristics that make you comfortable. They can vary from client to client, but most people profit from counselors who are honest, sincere, warm, supportive, challenging, and who show empathy.

Always choose a licensed provider, and remember that there is a difference between psychiatrists – a medical doctor who can prescribe medication – and psychologists and counselors, who are trained in therapy techniques. These professionals perform the services they are trained to do. Most psychiatrists, for instance, will prescribe psychiatric medication for you, but you may not want – or need – to go down that road. For instance, perhaps you can’t sleep because you are anxious about your teenager who is in legal trouble. Medication may help you sleep, but it won’t provide you with a coping plan.

At the outset of counseling, you should receive a complete psychological assessment from a licensed psychologist or licensed counselor. After thoroughly discussing the results the provider may recommend that psychiatric medication be a part of your treatment plan. In this case, you should work with both a psychiatrist and psychologist because the combination of counseling and medications is more powerful than either treatment alone.

To increase the odds of successful counseling, here are some basic rules to keep in mind:

*If you are looking for a quick fix, whether a pill or some special technique, you are wasting your time.

*If you see a provider for more than six months without any noticeable change in your attitude or outlook, find another provider.

*Set specific and realistic goals that are manageable and under your control. These goals should be stated objectively to allow you to know when you are moving toward them.

*Break your issues down and address them one at a time. Do not overwhelm yourself with several treatment goals all at once.

*Begin with simple goals so you can experience success and begin to develop feelings of personal empowerment.

*Keep a daily written record of your actions and feelings, including the situations in which they occur.

*When you fail, do not dwell on the failure but examine what can be changed. The difficulty of the task, for instance, cannot be changed, but your preparation and effort can be.

*Focus on actions that bring you satisfaction. Act ethically and with integrity.

*Supplement your treatment with friends who treat you with respect, consideration, honesty, and fairness.

*Identify and challenge any irrational, self-defeating thoughts you have about needing to be some perfect “super-person” who is good at everything and loved by everyone. You are not in this world to live up to others’ expectations.

*Keep in mind that you are the one true expert about your life, and only you can decide if you are living it in a way that brings you satisfaction.

 

A Pesident shows how, and how not, to cope

In her book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, describes how President Lyndon Johnson enjoyed tremendous success as a leader when confronted with domestic issues, but failed miserably when confronted with foreign affairs. On the home front, Johnson was motivated by several positive goals he set for American society: a tax cut, civil and voting rights, Medicare, and federal aid to education. When it came to Vietnam, however, he lacked confidence and was motivated by avoidance of failure – avoid defeat at all costs.

In this blog, we talk often about three requirements for successful coping: Acceptance, Accountability, and having a Correction Plan to modify actions that don’t work. Furthermore, this plan must develop from honest give-and-take communication with others and be based on empathy and respect for others’ positions. Johnson showed them all in his domestic strategy. As Kearns notes, 623 days after John Kennedy was assassinated and he was sworn in as president, Johnson had signed congressionally-approved bills for all of his major domestic goals.

How did he manage to have such success? First, he accepted the realities of Congressional power. Second, when confronted by blind alleys and political obstacles, he knew the responsibility was his to take charge of overcoming the obstacles. Third, knowledgeable about Congressional dynamics he devised legislative plans that involved an empathic appreciation of other opinions, honest communication with adversaries, and a willingness to compromise.

On the foreign front, however, Johnson had no proactive goals. Avoidance of disaster was his ill-framed objective. He turned to “experts” on how to stave off catastrophe, and he became dependent on their point of view. Overwhelmed by stress, he sought only to manage issues, not resolve them, a poor coping strategy. He mistakenly saw the North Vietnamese enemy as analogous to an opposition party in Congress, and he tried to treat them as such. When this approach failed, he looked for scapegoats to blame for the disaster unfolding around him. As realities piled on him, he took the one avoidance road left: He announced he would not run for re-election.

We note again and again how avoidance is a doomed strategy when it comes to coping with stress. Johnson was no different. He produced significant changes in society that radically improved the lives of Americans. But the damage inflicted on the country from his stubborn persistence in Vietnam was immense. As Goodwin notes, this realization would plague Johnson for the rest of his life.

How are you approaching the stress in your life? Are you the “domestic” Johnson or the “foreign affairs” Johnson?