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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!

 

That’s Silly, Part II

THAT’S SILLY, PART II

The Summer between my first and second years of college I got a job selling encyclopedias door-to-door. It was 1962, folks, and encyclopedias were a large set of volumes, each one corresponding to a letter or two of the alphabet. They were beautifully bound and took up a lot of shelf space, but Google was far off, and these volumes were a great knowledge source right at your fingertips in the comfort of your home.

I lasted about three weeks because I was, and remain, a terrible salesman. If someone said they weren’t interested in the books, that made perfectly good sense to me. For instance, many of the folks I talked to didn’t have kids. Realistically, you needed school-age kids to get the most encyclopedia bang for your buck. Also, that buck required for purchase was sizeable and many folks had other budget priorities.

Within a week I truly hated knocking on doors and trying to convince strangers that I had just what they needed. I began looking for a graceful way out of the agony, and a way that my parents would accept. It came unexpectedly when I experienced an event that had a profound impact on me, and taught me the importance of empathy and perspective in trying to understand others’ point of view. Thus, my story is a continuation of last week’s post.

Our sales strategy was simple. I was on a team with two other summer-job college guys and an older (mid-30s) salaried employee who was our leader. Every day we would pile into a car and he would drive us to a neighborhood in Memphis TN. We would each fan out on different streets, knock on doors, and do our thing.

One day we took a road trip to a small (probably around 10,000) Mississippi town about 40 miles south of Memphis. We followed our usual procedure, and I was about 30 minutes into knocking on doors when a police car pulled up by me. The cop said, “Get in the back with your buddies. You’re under arrest for solicitin.’ We don’t allow that s**t in this town.”

My teammates looked pretty confused and scared, like I was. We drove off and the officer began a non-stop dialogue that went something like this: “Takin y’all to the station house so the Sheriff can decide what to do with you. Damn good thing y’all ain’t n***ers. If you was I’d just take you down yonder to the railyard and put a bullet in your f***in’ heads. We don’t like no law-breaking n***ers ‘round here. Got a special place for killin’ em.”

I was frozen with fear and started praying: “Thank you, God, for making me White.”

Our team leader had already been arrested and was at the station when we arrived. The cop went in the Sheriff’s office and our leader said to us, “Let me do all the talking.” No problem with me; I was about to lose all bladder control as it was!

The cop took us into the office and lined us up facing the Sheriff, who was sitting behind his desk. He was the stereotypical southern Sheriff, just as depicted by Rod Steiger in The Heat of the Night, co-starring Sydney Poitier: substantial beer belly, dark eyes that cut into you like a laser, and a cigar that seemed glued to the corner of his mouth. He leaned back in his chair, put his feet on the desk, and started slicing each of us up with those eyes. Legs shaking, I continued to pray, “Thank you God for making me White. Please make him notice.”

Finally, after an eternity, he spoke, looking at our team leader: “You in charge of these boys?” “Yes sir,” he answered.

“Well what in blessed God’s name y’all doin’ in my town breakin’ our laws?”

Our leader went into a brief and respectful explanation sprinkled generously with apologies.

“Holy, Jesus! Sellin’ goddamn books? Where you boys from?”

“Memphis, sir.”

“Memphis? So you big city sons a bitches decided to come take advantage of us poor country folk?” He paused, took his feet off the desk, and leaned forward in silence, I think to let it sink in exactly who was in charge. Those piercing eyes again, and then finally, “Is this all y’all? You got any big city n***ers runnin’ ‘round out there? We’ll shoot ‘em down like goddamn pigs!”

“No sir, it’s just us, sir.”

“Do your bosses hire n***ers up there in Memphis?”

“Absolutely not, sir.”

“Any of you boys n***er lovers?”

“No, no sir, never,” we all replied in unison. I added to myself, “Thank you God for making me White.”

The Sheriff looked satisfied, leaned back, put his feet back on the desk, and put his hands behind his head. “I think you boys are OK, just dumb city s**t.” Long pause while we were all probably turning blue from holding our breath. “I’m havin’ a good day and I’m gonna let you boys get on back to Memphis. Y’all’s vee-hic-cull is outside. Y’all best get your f***in’ asses in it.” Then he leaned forward again, smirked, and unleashed the cutting eyes: “But if y’all ever set foot in my town again, God have mercy on your balls? Understand?”

We all showered him with words of gratitude, apologies, and did all but bow and lick his boots. We hustled out of town, making sure not to breaking any speed limits.

That was my last day on the job. My mother was horrified I got arrested. She said, “I’ll call Jack [family friend] and you can work in his plywood plant for the rest of the summer.” No argument from me. Working in a plywood plant in the Memphis summer heat sounded like heaven!

As I said earlier, this episode occurred during the summer of 1962. The civil rights movement was building up a head of steam and dominating social issues. Over the next few years, whenever racial discussions took place around me, I often thought about my Mississippi arrest. At one point it occurred to me that I had come as close as I ever would, and could, experience what it was like to be Black in America. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

I often thought about my prayer (“Thank you for making me White”) and wondered if I should be ashamed of invoking it. I decided I should not be ashamed of the prayer because it was not motivated out of racial bigotry, but out of self-preservation. I was, however, forced to face an objective reality that had nothing to do with my attitudes, but everything to do with the incontrovertible fact that my white skin greatly increased the odds of my safety in America.

After Mississippi, I understood the dark reality Blacks lived with every day. That insight brought me shame in other contexts: Drinking out of a public fountain with a “Whites only” sign on it, right next to a fountain with a “Coloreds” sign on it; entering an eatery or using a restroom with a “Whites only” sign on the door.

“This is all wrong,” I thought. I found myself listening more intently to the words of a Georgia Baptist preacher who issued a nonviolent invitation to Whites to try and “walk in his shoes.” I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, and I confess to many moments over the years of bigotry in my mind and heart. It’s impossible for anyone to walk 100% in another’s shoes, but we can give it a try because some things in life are just downright wrong.

The coping lesson in my story is the same lesson from Part I posted last week (10.12.19): When in conflict with others, don’t tell them their belief is silly, that they shouldn’t feel that way. Put yourself in their shoes, try and see things from their perspective, and you will find your interactions with them will be more respectful and productive. You might even learn something about yourself.

 

Treat Others’ Feelings as Valid, Part I

Stacey was trying to console her best friend, Marie. After going with this guy for over a year he had suddenly dumped Marie — in an email no less! After reading the email, Marie immediately called Stacey who quickly came over to help her through the agony. Marie was an emotional mess, and Stacey was doing what she could.

“It’s OK, hon,” she said to Marie. “The guy was a bum and you deserve more.”

“He wasn’t a bum and I loved him,” she wailed through the tears. “I don’t see how I can live without him!”

That comment did it for Stacey. “That’s a load of crap and it’s silly to feel that way. You were alive and well before you ever met the jerk, so what’s the big deal? Tomorrow’s a new day and you just move on without him.”

Stacey, of course, is likely correct over the long term, but notice what is happening from Marie’s perspective: Her good friend is basically saying that Marie’s feelings over the breakup are silly; her feelings are not valid; she shouldn’t feel the way she does.

Stacey’s motives are sincere, but she’s judging Marie, not consoling her. No matter what she says, Marie’s reality is that she does feel that she can’t live anymore without the guy; from her point of view, the emotions she feels are valid and real. Stacey’s comments don’t help because she does not accept the reality of Marie’s feelings from Marie’s perspective.

Note those last three words in italics. Problems in your social interactions will arise if you don’t try to see things from others’ perspective. You must guard against selfishly looking at things from your point of view, because whether you’re right or wrong, you’re not providing emotional support for the other person when you make it all about you.

The key to effective interactions with others is empathy, a reaction that requires you to get inside another person, see things as they’re seeing them, and let them know you understand what they’re feeling. Empathy comes much easier when you have been down a similar road.

Imagine if Stacey said, “God, I remember feeling the same way when Bill left me. My world was crushed and I didn’t see how life was worth anything anymore.” In this case, she is not judging Marie; she is accepting her comments and feelings as real and valid; she is showing understanding and compassion. Marie will now feel a lot more inclined to “unload” on Stacey because she knows her friend understands where she’s coming from. She will express her frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, and other feelings, all while knowing she is acting normally and doesn’t have to bottle everything up.

Showing understanding; can you do it in your everyday coping? Take a look at some of the conflicts in society today: Do Whites make an effort to see things from a Black perspective, and vice-versa? Do men try to see things from a women’s perspective, and vice-versa? Do Liberals try and understand a Conservative perspective, and vice-versa? Generally, the answer is “No.” Rather than try and gain understanding through rational discourse, warring sides insult and belittle each other, saying, “How you feel is absurd; you shouldn’t feel that way because that’s not the way it is.”

Not the way it is. Maybe for you! Once again, we see how conflicts develop when parties selfishly make the issue all about them. We say it again and again in this blog: If you’re the main ingredient in your life recipe, you’re not going to cope very well over the long haul.

Irrational thoughts impede effective coping

Be realistic about the stress in your life. Are you ruled by irrational thoughts, such as, “I must be perfect and succeed in everything I do,” or, “I am a worthless person”? A more realistic thought would be, “If I fail, I will examine what I did wrong and take steps to correct my mistake so I will be less likely to fail the next time.”

Think about it. Is it really so hard to put things in a realistic perspective by balancing those events beyond your control with those you can control? If you’re stressed about driving to a meeting across town, how difficult can it be to say, “I have no control over how bad the traffic will be, but I can leave early so heavy traffic will not make me late. I can also map out alternative routes in advance in case traffic backs up.”

When you are stressed and feeling overwhelmed, you have to guard against feeling sorry for yourself and asking others to join in your pity parade. There are always alternative proactive actions you can take. Instead of being dominated by irrational, self-serving thoughts, find those realistic actions that will serve you well.

 

When a Gun is Visible

If you walked into a public place, say a Mall, a restaurant, or a retail store, and you saw another customer wearing a gun, how would you feel? Would seeing that gun make you feel safer, more secure and comfortable, or would you feel some stress and anxiety?

It’s interesting that at a time when Americans are becoming more and more vocal about the need for sensible laws dealing with guns, some states are actually loosening some of their gun restrictions. Thirty-one states allow open carry of guns. Texas, for instance, recently legalized open carry of guns in churches, schools, and foster homes.

Open carry, of course, makes the weapon visible to others. Many argue that such visibility will have an inhibiting effect on violence by others. Let’s note, however, that it’s been 30 years since psychologists first presented evidence – evidence that has been replicated in multiple studies — that the presence of a gun can increase aggressive tendencies in others.

The standard interpretation is that the sight of a gun might produce aggression-related thinking in the observer. Naturally, this effect could be more pronounced in certain individuals, and even absent in others, but let’s take home an important lesson: Open-carry laws will not necessarily have an inhibiting effect on violence in everybody. In fact, in certain individuals the effect might be to increase the likelihood of aggressive actions.

People love to use “psychology” to give simplistic answers to social problems. Case in point: “Gun violence is a mental health problem.” Next time you hear that one, ask the speaker to define “mental illness.” While they struggle with their answer, remind them that conditions we all often see in our families – such as post-traumatic stress; anxiety and panic attacks; narcissism; absence of guilt following wrongdoing – can often qualify as formal disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations.

Is there a coping lesson here? Yes. When you are armed with facts and valid evidence, you are inoculated against the psychological effects of false propaganda, and better empowered to make up your own mind.

Do You Molest Your Relationships?

When we hear words like “molester” and “abuser,” we typically think of sexual or brutal physical attacks. In a very broad sense, however, the psychological dynamics that underlie the molester’s and abuser’s actions can also come into play in everyday relationships. When they do, the relationship is probably doomed to become a source of discomfort for all involved.

What we’re suggesting is that some of the dynamics of the molester — insecurity, immaturity, narcissism, anxiety, fear of competition and losing that competition — are at work in many everyday relationships that are in trouble.

Think about your relationships that are causing you stress and anxiety. The problem could be with a friend, co-worker, spouse, parent, child, or whomever. As a first step in helping you begin to confront the coping challenge and find actions that might help you move toward a resolution of the conflict, ask yourself some specific questions. As always, focus on the issue and keep your questions within the boundaries of, “What parts of this situation are under my control?”

The most fundamental questions are, “Am I able to maintain my individuality, my sense of self, in my relationships with others? Can I share, cooperate, compromise, respect those who disagree with me, and even admit I’m wrong, but through it all remain myself? Am I secure in my own skin?” These are tough questions requiring some honest self-assessment. The premise, however, says if you want a truly meaningful relationship, you must be pretty firm in your sense of self.

Here are some other penetrating questions: “Do I subjugate myself to his/her will, or do I feel compelled to assert power and dominance? Do I feel in competition with him/her? Do I feel I will lose the competition? Does (s)he arouse anxiety and insecurities in me? Am I behaving in childish ways?” (If you can’t relate to “childish” simply ask yourself if you deal with the person like you’re on the playground during recess in the third grade!)

Asking such questions in the context of a specific relationship can lead you to broader questions: “In general, can I work with others as someone who is stable and self-assured, or do I look for relationships to compensate for my weaknesses, insecurities, and dependency needs? Do I constantly look for attention and approval from others? Do I suffocate them with demands, possessiveness, and jealousy, trying to make them meet my wants and needs? Do I deny responsibility for problems in a relationship, and simply see others as objects to manipulate for my self-glorification?”

Is that you? Do you see others as opponents to defeat and belittle so you can declare yourself dominant? Do you regularly and hypocritically cast blame on others while never considering your own role in causing problems?

These are important questions because you’re basically asking yourself, “Do I socially and emotionally molest others? Are my relationships mostly about me?” If you’re honest with yourself you can greatly improve your self-understanding, your coping skills, and the quality of your interactions by working to minimize yourself as the primary focus. In other words, some self-analysis, even if you don’t like what you see, is well worth the effort. An honest analysis will help you modify your actions by removing yourself as the primary ingredient in your relationship recipe.

 

Does playing violent video games foster aggressive behavior?

For over 50 years, psychologists have studied the influence of TV and movie violence, and violent video games on the behavior of young people. The issue of TV violence came up in the 1960s and was geared mainly to children viewers. The question was, “Are children likely to imitate the violence they see on TV?”

After years of research two factors emerged as definitely playing a role: The degree to which children see depictions of violence on TV as real — if they see TV as real, they are more likely to imitate the violence — and the degree to which children identify with a violent TV character — if they admire and want to be like an aggressive character, they likely to imitate that aggression. These conclusions make sense, but they beg the questions: “What makes kids more likely to see TV as real, and more likely to identify with a violent character on TV?”

Not surprisingly, the research shows the answer appears to depend on kids’ home lives. Children who imitate violence on TV have parents who are mostly cold, disengaged, and rejecting. “Can’t you see I’m busy, Danny? Go watch TV or something.” Doesn’t it make sense that children who have a non-supportive, frustrating, and anxiety-laden home life filled with criticism might turn to the more reassuring world of TV, especially content that depicts violence as a way to achieve goals?

The point is, we’re not going to take random children, place them in front of a TV to watch violent shows, and turn them into aggressive bullies or murderers. There must be other factors in the children’s lives that “fit in” with the TV violence – factors that make them vulnerable to accepting an aggressive world, and believing that aggression is the best way to resolve conflicts.

How about violent video games? Extensive research reveals that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior, thoughts, and emotions in children and young adults. Although causation has not been firmly established, high levels of violent video game exposure have been linked to delinquency, fighting at school, assaults, and robberies. A 2018 review of 24 studies from countries including the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan found that kids who played violent games — such as “Grand Theft Auto,” “Call of Duty” and “Manhunt” — were more likely to get in trouble at school for fighting.

A leading researcher, Jay Hull, says, “Based on our findings, we feel it is clear that violent video game play is associated with subsequent increases in physical aggression. A lot of people ask, do these games really cause these kids to behave aggressively? I would say that is one possibility. The other possibility is that it’s a really bad sign. If your kids are playing these games, either these games are having a warping effect on right and wrong, or they have a warped sense of right or wrong and that’s why they are attracted to these games. Either way you should be concerned about it.”

If we link this comment to the research on TV violence showing the influence of parents on children’s suggestibility, we might do well to focus on Hull’s statement, “…or they have a warped sense of right or wrong and that’s why they are attracted to these games.” Ask yourself, “If a young person has a warped sense of right and wrong, who is their likely teacher?” By the same token, if a young person believes that violent video games portray real options for dealing with frustrations and conflict, who is falling short in helping these kids to discriminate between what is fantasy and what is reality?

Communication, love, trust, confidence, security, openness, honesty. When conditions like these exist between parent and child, negative temptations of the internet, TV, video games, peers, predator adults, and other nefarious elements of society can be diminished. When young people are secure in their family identity, they have less need to turn to these elements – and that includes hate groups, cults, and others dedicated to indoctrination of the young, malleable mind for perverse purposes.

When children and teens know they are loved and valued, they are better able to exercise critical thinking about TV and game depictions, and internet messages; they are better able to evaluate the reliability and validity of such messages; they are better able to discern if the message is geared to indoctrination or to education. They are also better prepared emotionally to handle hateful, bullying messages from peers, and more likely to reach out to trusted adults for support and coping strategies to deal with such messages.

I remember a class several years ago when we were reviewing the research and discussing this issue. I asked, “How many of you play really violent video games where you shoot people?” About 80% of the guys raised a hand (none of the women did). “OK, how many of you go around shooting people?” No hands went up. “How come,” I asked, “given that these games can have such an influence on players?”

A student started laughing and said, “Because they’re games, entertainment! It’s not real! If you think the games are real, you’re crazy!”

How Do You Make Others Feel?

How do you want to be remembered? What legacy do you want to leave behind? I’m not talking about when you die. Sure, that’s a part of your legacy, but I’m asking how you want people to remember you at the end of the day. What do you want to be your daily legacy?

If you want to get along with people – and that means communicate better with them, understand their perspective when it’s different from yours, and respect them as human beings –remember one simple thing: People will remember how you make them feel.

Imagine Betty and Frank arguing about some social issue. After going back and forth for a while Frank says, “I just can’t understand how you can believe that. You haven’t done your homework. You’re obviously biased and reached an opinion without giving it much thought.”

If you were Betty, how would you feel? You’ve not only been insulted for holding an invalid opinion, but you have also experienced condescension and arrogance. Would you be inclined to walk away and avoid any future conversations with Frank?

Suppose, on the other hand, Frank says, “I understand your argument and can see where you’re coming from. I get it but I’m looking at the issue from a different perspective and that’s part of the reason for our disagreement. I bet if we talk about this some more, we might even come to some sort of middle ground. For now, let’s just agree to disagree.”

The thing about this comment is that it probably makes you feel worthy of the discussion because it gives validity to your position.

The coping lesson here is that when you focus on how your words make others feel, and not on trying to convince them that you are correct, social interaction can proceed much more productively. Not only that, others are more likely to engage you in spirited conversation in the future. Wouldn’t that bring you a sense of satisfaction and empowerment?