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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!

 

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!”

Parenting Styles

My colleague Mike Church remembers, “One day when one of my daughters was eight years old, I told her she was cute, sweet, and smart.  She quickly retorted, ‘You have to say that Daddy because you’re my Dad.’  Suddenly, I realized she was forming her own opinions of herself, based on impressions from people in her social world. Clearly, she wanted to receive approval and recognition from more than her parental figures. She was beginning to evaluate herself based on interaction and feedback from a much larger field of influence.”

Most psychologists agree that the seeds of self-esteem are planted in childhood through early social interactions with many people, but especially with parents. This is not to say that parents should attribute their kids’ shortcomings and failures as entirely the result of how they raised the kids. After all, children are free to make choices as they grow. Thus, whereas it’s true that parents can influence their children’s development into adulthood, we don’t want to say that parents completely determine how their kids turn out.

Child psychologists have studied the influence on children of various parental childrearing styles. Here’s a summary of some of those styles. Do you see yourself in them, as either a child or a parent? That recognition can often be helpful in assessing any coping problems you may have. In other words, when you assess factors that can help you or hinder you in coping with your stressors, it can be helpful to look at yourself when you were a child, and how you may be now as a parent.

Trust and Autonomy. When parents provide a consistently loving and secure environment, they help their children develop feelings of trust in others, and confidence to be autonomous and explore their environment. Parents who are neglectful or abusive generate distrust in kids, and a tendency when an adult to feel anxious around others.

Positive Regard. Psychologist Carl Rogers focused on whether children receive conditional or unconditional positive regard from parents. Conditional love means children are loved only if they obey the dictates of the parent. Children who receive unconditional positive regard are loved and supported even when they go against parental wishes; they are secure in the knowledge that it is their behavior parents do not approve of, not them.

Good vs. Bad Mother. Many psychologists say the most important early determinant of self is the quality of the relationship with mom. Children see a benevolent and loving mom as a good person, and they tend to have high self-esteem; they view an unloving mom as bad, and are likely to have low self-esteem. These levels of self-esteem often persist into adulthood. Adults who have been neglected or abused as children or adolescents often have low self-esteem and see themselves as unlovable. In counseling they say such things as, “How could I expect anyone to love me if my parents didn’t?” With roots going back to childhood, this thinking in an adult can be difficult to change.

Intimacy vs. Rejection. Some children are given too much intimacy and are encouraged to display dependent behavior. The resulting self-concept is imbalanced, and the child grows into adult patterns of narcissism and dependency. The other extreme is found in parents who are busy trying to meet their own needs, and become emotionally distant from their children. As adults the kids suffer loneliness and depression and search for experiences that will fulfill the emotional loss from having distant parents. However, psychological damage can also be done by parents who are overly involved with their children – helicopter parents – and who over-identify with their children’s achievements. Many parents put undue pressure on them to succeed athletically, socially, and academically. Excessive criticism confuses children about the meaning of success and failure, and they see themselves as failures when they lose.

Social Comparison. Parents must be aware of children’s tendency tocompare themselves with schoolmates, same-age peers, and similar-age siblings, particularly same-gender ones. Many children have low self-esteem because they believe their sibling(s) is(are) more adequate in important areas. This negative comparison can occur even when they are performing in the above-average range academically, athletically, or socially. They still see themselves as failures in relation to an extremely successful sibling. Parents must help children put social comparison in perspective, and not use it to define to themselves who they are.

Authoritarian Parent. In childrearing, there is a huge difference between authoritative and authoritarian parents. High self-esteem can be facilitated by authoritative styles of interaction. These parents are warm, supportive, and allow children a degree of autonomy to explore their world; but the parents set clear limits to their children’s behavior and are consistent in their control of rewards and punishers. On the other hand, authoritarian parents are dictatorial, controlling, demanding, and punitive, undermining their children’s feelings of adequacy by treating them as unworthy, untrustworthy, and lacking judgment.

As we said earlier, gaining some insight into your stressors and the coping strategies you use to deal with them, can help you cope better. Just remember, reflecting on your past can be subject to lots of error; memories of childhood are tricky. Evaluating yourself in the present as a parent, however, and examining your style of interaction with your children, can provide valuable understanding when you experience undo anxiety and stress as a parent.

Parenting and Coping with Stress

NOTE: Other than describing two events that were in the news, this entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the second person personal pronoun “you” is used as a generic universal. The post presents analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

I remember taking a course in Adolescent Psychology when I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s. The professor made a comment one day and it has stuck with me over the years. He said, “Being a parent is a job, but it’s kind of unique. I don’t know of any other job where the goal is to be unemployed.” The class knew what he was saying: At some point, the child of  successful parenting will declare independence – cut the cord, so to speak – and venture forth to make his or her way in the world, thus rendering the parent unemployed.

            Two recent events made me think of that job analogy of parenthood. The first was when a Texas Senator packed up his wife and kids, age 9 and 11, and they headed with him to Cancun. Texas was in the midst of a Winter emergency as temperatures plunged below freezing for days, power went out, and water pipes burst in thousands of homes. People were running out of food and becoming desperate, while the Senator acceded to his kids’ pleas to take them somewhere warm. He said he wanted to be a good dad. I wondered: Was he doing his job as a parent? Should he have taken his kids to a food bank or a shelter and handed out food, water, blankets, and other basic necessities? Was he being a good role model by suggesting to his kids that when the going gets tough, get out of town? Was he teaching them how to cope with adversity? Was he teaching them that sensitivity to the needs of others was an honorable value? Just wondering, not passing judgment.

            The other event was a group of parents standing around a fire burning face masks. They were protesting the mandate to wear masks during the virus pandemic. Several parents had their kids – who looked about 8 -10 – with them, and the kids were helping them toss masks into the fire. I got to thinking: Is it parents’ job to educate their kids, or to indoctrinate them? Educate means explaining all sides of an issue to the kids, presenting the evidence for each position, and when their understanding is mature enough, letting them form their own opinion. Indoctrinate means convincing kids to adopt the parents’ values as being correct.

To answer all these questions, of course, parents would need to develop a job description of their parenting employment. If the family is like a company with you, the parent, in charge, what kind of product do you want to produce? An independent or a dependent kid? A kid who seeks perfection, or who seeks curiosity? A questioning or an accepting kid? An active thinker or a passive listener? A kid who values rigid, stern actions, or who values flexibility? A kid who is willing to accept challenges and work hard to overcome them by learning from mistakes, or a kid who feels entitled, wants others to do the hard work, and blames others for failures?

From a context of coping with stress, I believe that as a parent, you can only answer these questions by looking inside yourself, and including such a self-analysis as part of the parenting job description. For instance, are you trying to be a perfect parent? Do you fear losing your parenting job? If your kids choose actions and values that are not yours, will you feel you are imperfect – a loser, a failure – as a parent? Are you insecure with your own principles such that you must have your kids accept them to reinforce your beliefs and standards, and thereby allay your insecurities? Are your kids simply crutches that you use to justify who you are, and to show yourself you are a worthy person?

Success at the parenting job boils down to how you decide to cope with your stressors. In making that decision, you need to accept that the goal of your psychological life should not be self-preoccupation, inflexible thinking, and perfection in all you do as a parent. Come to think of it, success at living involves those things, too!

Planning Your Coping Strategy

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group. The post presents analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

In our 2019 book, Using Psychology to Cope with Everyday Stress, Mike Church and I presented a three-step coping model: Acceptance, Accountability, and Planning. Consider Alice – 45 years old and happily married – whose youngest child just graduated from law school and moved to a distant city to join a law firm. Suddenly, Alice is faced with an empty nest as all three of her children have relocated to far-away areas to pursue their careers and lives. Alice feels frustrated and fearful for her future. “Have I failed?” she wonders. “Should I have finished college and started a career before having kids? Am I a burden on my husband?” Alice begins to develop sleep problems and gain weight; she watches too much TV and spends too much time on social media. She sees that she is deteriorating, both physically and psychologically. One day she looks in the mirror and says with disgust: “Enough of this crap. I’m losing control. I’m calling that counseling office Ann [a good friend] said helped her. I need to put some structure back into my life and redefine myself.”

Kevin, 56, is widowed with two sons who are married and live 2,000 miles away. He is on disability because of a work accident from several years ago. Physically, he can handle most normal everyday chores and activities, but he spends most of his days at home feeling sorry for himself. His accident and his wife’s death from cancer happened within months of each other, and his behavior switched from, “Out of my way, I can handle this,” to, “I’m not much good anymore.” His depression grows almost daily.

One day a friend, Jim, called: “Kevin! I need help. I have to deliver for Meals on Wheels today but I pulled my back. I can drive OK, but getting in and out of the car is agony. Would you come with me and take the meals up to the door?” Kevin was glad to get out of the house and said he would help. At the first stop, a woman yelled out when he knocked, “It’s open! Just bring it in.” She was in the kitchen and Kevin put the meal in the fridge for her. He started for the front door but she grabbed his arm and said, “Pray with me, please.” Kevin returned to the car and told Jim: “I stood there holding her hand while she thanked God for me being there to help her. Prayed for me! I mean, no one ever prayed for me, Jim!” At later stops, no one else prayed for him, but nearly every one of them said something like, “God bless you,” or, “You’re a saint, sir.”

Kevin got home that day, looked around the house, and realized that he was missing out on life. He picked up the phone and called the Office of Aging. He said he wanted to volunteer to deliver meals. The lady said great and added that they also needed drivers to taxi old folks around to their doctor appointments, take them shopping – wherever they needed to go. Kevin said, “I’m your guy, ma’am. Just tell me what needs doing and I’ll get it done.”

What do Alice and Kevin have in common? They both came to the realization that they needed to take control of their lives and cope better. They accepted the reality of their situations and took responsibility for their dilemmas. No blaming others, no rationalizations – just the determined recognition that, “This is on me and I need help getting out of it.” Then they began to develop a plan. For Alice, it was deciding to begin counseling. As treatment progressed, she and her therapist developed a coping plan that made her a more active participant in life. The key was action – doing things, not just sitting around focusing on her emotions. Same with Kevin. As soon as he picked up the phone and called the Office of Aging, he was engaging his plan: Time to do things, not just sit around and focus on emotions. Each put a general plan in action, and the details would emerge as time went on.

Is your life out of balance? Do you make the mistake of focusing on your emotions and resolving to get rid of them? Are conditions like depression, anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, jealousy, anger, and frustration your reality? You must accept them as a part of you, not try to excise them from your life; you would lose a part of who you are. You must focus instead on actions to solve a problem, not to relieve you of emotions. Actions will rejuvenate you as you see yourself participating in life, doing things that bring you contentment. Your emotions will still be present, but they will not dominate you. They will take a back seat to new feelings of being worthy, strong, capable, and fulfilled – feelings that will emerge from using your actions to solve a problem and strengthen you. Acceptance, Accountability, and Planning – those are the steps to restoring a constructive, productive, and satisfying life, and coping successfully with your stressors.

Extremism Hinders Coping

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or group. The second person personal pronoun “you” is used as a generic universal. Jane’s case is a composite of conversations I have had with several professional, married women, and illustrates the coping dilemma posed by Bem. The post presents analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Coping with life stressors means making choices. Unfortunately, too often you see your task as choosing between one of two extremes, which reduces flexibility by requiring you to see one choice as “right,” and the other as “wrong.” From a coping perspective, you would do better to consider a moderate position between the two extremes.

Think about childrearing, for instance. For generations, parents followed traditional customs. They wanted their sons to be competitive and assertive. “You need to be tough, kid! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.” Daughters, on the other hand, should be sensitive and domestic. “Remember, honey, always nurture your children, support your husband, and make sure your household is well-run.”

 In the 1970s, however, psychologist Sandra Bem argued that forcing children into such rigid sex-roles limits their ability to cope well as adults. For instance, if a situation requires caring, sympathy, and emotion, the traditional man can’t show those traits without feeling he is sacrificing his masculinity and looking like a wimp. Similarly, if a situation requires assertiveness and a competitive spirit, the traditional woman is lost because to act in those ways would be – in her mind – a threat to her femininity. She’s afraid that others would judge her to be a penis-envying b***h, or some similar pejorative term.

Bem said kids should learn both sets of traits. A girl can be taught to be caring and sensitive, but she can also be taught to be forceful and competitive if the situation demands it. By the same token, a boy can learn to be dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, parents can teach him that showing emotion and tenderness is OK. And here is the key: The kids can also learn that showing this flexibility doesn’t compromise their self-esteem or respective identities as being masculine or feminine. Consider what Jane, a corporate executive, says: “The other day at a Board meeting, a couple of members were condescending toward me and said my idea for improving productivity was nonsense. I told them that I had researched my plan and had ample data supporting my position. If they disagreed with me, they should provide documentation favoring their opinion. They backed down. After the meeting, several Board members complimented me on how I held my own. Then I went home, listened with mom-sympathy to my kids complain about their lives, and cooked my husband’s favorite dish because he had a hard day at the office. He said I was the best wife ever!”

When you limit your choices in life to one extreme or the other, you force yourself into a restrictive coping strategy and lose flexibility in your actions. Effective coping requires making adjustments and adapting to change, and that requires having a variety of personal traits to call upon in a variety of situations. Extremism sabotages that flexibility. During the 2020 pandemic, colleges had to decide whether or not to play football. The extremist choice was simple: Play or don’t play. Administrators and athletic directors knew, however, that the “all in” vs. “fold” choice was restrictive and unrealistic; there was a middle ground. Specifically, schools choosing to play made a nuanced, not an absolute either-or decision: They would play, but only under conditions that were spelled out in specific safety protocols. When the protocols were met, the game could be played; when not met, the game must be canceled. Contrast that successful nuanced approach to the political arena in 2020-21. Extremism rules, and threatens to bring American democracy to the brink of destruction. Rational voices speak out against the rigid choices offered by extreme positions, but those sensible voices are vilified and punished by those at both ends of the political spectrum. The result is damaging division.

The lesson for personal coping is this: Accepting one extreme view and rejecting the other will cause you to base your life on emotion – “I am right! You are evil! – and you will live in an unchanging, static world of blame, anger, and revenge. These emotions may eventually turn inward, producing a mind divided against itself, and inundating you with more stress. If you are to cope realistically and successfully with your stressors, you must change your focus from emotions to problem-solving. The latter means you are guided by results, not by a gut feeling. Problem-solving involves taking action based on a realistic evaluation of what faces you. Over the long run, a problem-focused approach – unlike an emotion-focused approach – will allow you to be accountable for your actions, less self-preoccupied, and more socially responsible.

An attorney once shared with me a story he heard in a classroom lecture in law school. The story goes, a judge said there were times when he had to make either-or decisions during a trial – such as allow one side to present a piece of evidence, or don’t allow it. He added, “More typically, however, my decision was in a gray area. I might tell the Prosecution they can bring such-and-such into the trial. The Defense was unhappy with that decision. But I added that the Prosecution could use such-and-such only in a very limited, non-prejudicial way. Now they were also unhappy. When both the Defense and the Prosecution were unhappy with one of my decisions, I knew I had made the correct ruling, and was not bothered with second-guessing myself.”

To cope well you must be flexible, and that requires you to avoid extremism, be able to choose from multiple actions, and be comfortable with any of them. Requiring yourself to be an extremist, either this or that – but never a combination of both – in all situations is a losing, destructive strategy. It’s a form of avoidance – avoidance of the stress of falling short of your own expectations for yourself. Such avoidance disrupts any effort you make to cope with those stressors. Life is not always about finding perfection by choosing A or B; it’s knowing how to choose the best features of each.

PTSD — Am I at Risk?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) results from experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Depending on the severity of the event – falling off your bicycle and spraining your wrist would be less traumatic than being robbed at gunpoint – most people who experience trauma have only temporary difficulty; with time and good coping strategies, they usually get through it OK. Psychologists estimate that less than 10% of the population develops severe PTSD symptoms following even a harsh traumatic experience. In other words, most people handle the stress pretty well. But what about that 10%?

People who have a history of psychiatric disorders are more prone to PTSD. Also, experiencing childhood trauma leaves one vulnerable to PTSD following adult trauma, especially when the two traumas are similar – such as, being bitten by a dog as a child, and then again as an adult. Just as physical injuries leave the body vulnerable to later injury, so, too, do early psychological scars leave one vulnerable to later stress.

Some people have oversensitive nervous systems. They respond more intensely to loud noises, pain, and unexpected events, and are more prone to uneasiness and discomfort in new and strange environments. This biological make-up makes them more vulnerable to PTSD.

PTSD is also more likely among those who have lived a relatively sheltered, stress-free life, and who believe adversity and danger primarily affects others, not them. They have been indulged, and are ill-prepared for effective cognitive processing of trauma. If a trauma occurs, they react with denial – “This is not happening!” – or catastrophic thinking – “My world has ended!” Parents who go out of their way to indulge their kids and protect them from hardship and disappointment are actually engaging in a subtle form of emotional child abuse, and making their kids more vulnerable to PTSD.

Not surprisingly, people who feel isolated and lonely are more vulnerable to PTSD than those who have an extensive and supportive social network. When people are supported and helped by friends and family, they are better able to process trauma and avoid PTSD.

Those who have training about what to do when faced with trauma fare better after experiencing trauma. Soldiers undergo extensive training before they are sent into combat; school children have evacuation drills in case of fire or other emergency; some women take courses in self-defense to prepare themselves in case of personal attack. Such preparation can provide a sense of control over the unexpected, and equip people to deal with trauma more effectively.

The bottom line? PTSD is not inevitable following a frightening experience. That’s important to remember because being anxious over the possibility of developing PTSD can add to stress levels and complicate even mild symptoms after trauma. Talk about a self-fulling prophecy! “What’s the matter, Ann?” She replies, “Serving on that jury was really stressful. I’m scared to death I’m going to develop PTSD!” Ann is vulnerable to PTSD because she’s afraid she will develop PTSD!

Some other useful things to consider: When dealing with PTSD, remember that what works for someone else may not work for you – and that’s OK. Give yourself some time to process a traumatic event. You may need several days – or even a week or two – to adapt psychologically to what has occurred, and that’s OK. Premature discussions with counselors during that processing time might be ineffective, and may even worsen the impact of the original trauma.

In a supportive context with open sharing of thoughts and feelings, it’s usually helpful to talk with others who have experienced the same or similar traumas. Talking to yourself, writing about the experience, or recording yourself talking about the event may also be beneficial. Many victims find that privately expressing their deepest thoughts and feelings about what happened can help get emotions out so they can re-evaluate and process them. Finally, if appropriate, it may help to return to the place where the event took place. For many victims this step comes only after much preparation and support. The “visit” can be symbolic, as is the case when Vietnam veterans visit memorials like The Wall, or real as when veterans return to Normandy on the anniversary of D-Day.

Note that all these recovery techniques have two things in common: Neither denial nor self-blame are part of the coping process, and the process takes place in a context of what victims can control. One way or another, and at the appropriate time, victims accept the reality of the event, they take responsibility to face that reality head-on, and they take action to empower themselves for the future.

Cults II: The Cult of Self

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or group, and the second person personal pronoun “you” is used as a generic universal. The post presents possible speculations about coping with stress one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Do you distort reality and engage in twisted thinking just to hold on to a belief? Would you rather “be right” than “do right”? Is it hard for you to change your beliefs when others say your actions in service of your beliefs are irrational? It’s difficult to face these questions, but if examine objective evidence about your beliefs and discover you’re on shaky ground; if you hear friends you respect telling you often that you’re thinking irrationally; if you find yourself wanting to receive information only from those who agree with your way of thinking; if you’re troubled by emotional outbursts of anger, anxiety, jealousy, and paranoid accusations against those who disagree with you – well, if those descriptions fit you, you might consider that your thinking is cult-like, that you have become excessively dependent on a cult that is telling you what to believe.

You will likely refuse to accept this cult explanation, because – as we saw in last week’s post – cult devotion and obedience are extremely resistant to criticism or change. Why? The cult and your sense of purpose, the cult and your identity, the cult and your values – they have all merged into a single entity: “Self” and “Cult” have blended into one with no border separating them. In this case you are not really a member of some external cult. No, you are a member of the Cult of Self. Asking you to reject your cult values, principles, emotions, and ways of thinking is asking you to reject who you are. That will never work because your Cult of Self is how you hide your unresolved conflicts and maintain a fragile sense of psychological security. You are the cult and the cult is you. Doesn’t sound good, does it? And it gets worse!

Cults generally focus on “us” – the good guys – and “them” – the bad guys. But what if “us” and “them” are both you? What if your discomfort, uncertainty, and frustration about what’s going on around you boils down to your mind at war with itself? You’ve heard, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Well, a mind divided against itself cannot cope with reality, and requires scapegoats to survive. A mind divided against itself has no choice but to lash out at others, aggress against them – fight, hate, reject, retaliate, avenge. These negative emotions and actions become your world, a world you see as evil, unreasonable, and against you. That’s what the cult tells you, but in the Cult of Self, those out there are not your enemy; you are the enemy. Looking in the mirror becomes a metaphorical shouting match full of hate, fear, anger, and revulsion, and you don’t even realize it. When you fall under the spell of a cult, you declare war on yourself!

How can you break out of this prison? You must keep telling yourself: A mind that harbors anger toward itself cannot remain stable; a mind that only hears messages that give it comfort, and distorts messages it finds discomforting, cannot escape emotional disruption; a mind that cannot accept its own emotions becomes self-destructive, and slowly sinks into despair and depression. Your emotions become alien – the other, the outsiders – the “them.” A part of your mind becomes your cult leader, and renders you helpless. Is that what you want – to be helpless in the face of challenges? You see yourself as strong, capable, independent, competent, and autonomous. Well, if that’s true, why are you dominated by others who have assumed control of your mind? How did you become so weak?

Cult thinking does not survive on politics, patriotism, finances, or laws. If it did, others could help you reject your cult thinking by threatening arrest, paying you money, or showering you with guilt. Cult thinking is a psychological problem that encourages you to avoid challenges. It must be attacked with methods used by mental health professionals in a counseling context. The sources of your fears and anxieties – hidden deep in the recesses of your mind – must be attacked in ways that help you celebrate your humanity, not your helplessness and self-disgust. This will be the hardest battle you have ever fought. But you can stand on your own two feet. You can choose your values, purposes, and goals, and use them in constructive rather destructive ways. You can discover that the obstacles in your life road are not obstacles – they are the road. Choosing to travel this road will rid you of self-hatred and irrational fears, and bring you empowerment, self-esteem, and a healthy connection to yourself and others.

Cults I: Why is allegiance to cults so hard to eliminate?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the example used (“Pete”) is fictional. The post presents speculations one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Why do people join cults and persist so strongly in their loyalty, even when the cult fails? In the 1950s a small cult gathered on a hillside on a date specified by their leader as the day the world would end. According to the leader, God would save them and destroy everything else. In preparation for this day, these folks sold all their belongings, their houses, cars, clothes – everything! They made an incredibly strong commitment to their leader.

The world survived and the group experienced cognitive dissonance, but they did not turn on their leader as a false prophet. Instead, they joined him in praising God for rewarding them for their great faith and saving the world. They reduced their dissonance by distorting reality, not by changing their beliefs about their prophet. They decided the world continued to exist because of faith in their leader. Faced with the possibility that they were a bunch of knuckleheads who fell under some idiot’s spell, they kept their mental balance with perceptual distortions and irrational thinking, which allowed them to continue to worship their leader. If you said to one of them, “Your leader was all wrong and caused you to get rid of all your worldly possessions! He’s a fake!” Their reply would be, “You’re wrong. God was so impressed with us and our prophet that He decided to spare the world. We saved you! And it was all because of our prophet!”

In the 1960s and 70s, several cults sprang up, and they preyed on young people, especially teens, who are often in a rebellious stage of questioning their parents’ values. The cults tried to convince the kids that cult membership would resolve their confusion about life and their role in it. The Hare Krishna movement, which focused on questioning Western values, grew quickly in the hippie culture of the time. Members were so prevalent in public places – they really liked airports – that laws had to be passed to prevent them from accosting people with their often aggressive and intimidating demands for money. Many young people were attracted to the movement with promises of an improved life, both physical and mental, if they just discarded their parents’ values and beliefs. Also prominent at this time – and equally dangerous for impressionable young people looking for a sense of higher purpose in their lives – were the “Moonies,” the colloquial name for members of the Unification Church, founded by Sun Myun Moon.  

Beginning in the 1970s, horrified at how their children often became rigid adherents to these cults, many parents responded by hiring “deprogrammers.” The essence of deprogramming was to abduct cult converts – some called it kidnapping – isolate and physically restrain them, and barrage them over long periods of time with continuous arguments and attacks against their new “religion,” threatening to hold them forever until they agreed to reject the cult. The process was not easy, very expensive – upwards of $10K – and bordered on torturous brainwashing. Deprogramming eventually lost favor in society because the process seemed every bit as dangerous as the cult itself.

In 2020 and on into 2021, many mental health professionals see a resurgence of cult thinking, although it is often centered on political beliefs in adults, not so much the “tune-in, turn-on, and drop-out” youth drug culture of the 60s and 70s. Whether political or altered-consciousness enlightenment, however, the dynamics of cult allegiance is the same: Reality distortion, irrational thinking, unquestioned acceptance, and illogical devotion to the leader that is incredibly resistant to change. Why is such devotion so impervious to reality checks?

Cult allegiance is hard to overcome because the cult complements adherents’ personalities. They join because the leader compensates for their inner insecurities and weaknesses, often unconscious. If Pete joins a cult because they pay him a really great salary, it would be easy to dissolve his loyalty to that cult: Pay him more than the cult pays him! But if Pete is tormented by fears and helplessness – “minorities will take over my country” – that cult membership mitigates with the reassuring message, “Join us and together we will prevent that from happening” – in this case, weakening Pete’s loyalty to the cult requires helping him resolve his inner psychological conflicts without the cult, not an easy task.

Loyalty to a cult and its leader is not a political, legal, financial, or patriotic enterprise. It is a psychological undertaking based on one’s search for meaning, purpose, truth, and values. The simplicity and definitiveness of cult principles attracts those who are adrift, confused, and bewildered in that search. Unerring loyalty to the cult may fly in the face of logic, rationality, and self-preservation, but challenging believers that their loyalty is illogical, irrational, and self-destructive is futile when that loyalty satisfies psychological needs. Finding ways to help the follower satisfy those psychological needs without the cult and its leader, is the only way to show cult devotees the way out of their commitment. The key is to show them how to re-calibrate the search for values that brought them to the cult in the first place. It’s not an easy process, but few things worthwhile are easy. The point is, appealing to reason, logic, and level-headedness is not the way to go.

What’s your Working Hypothesis about Life?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the examples (Sharon, Marvin, and Stan) are hypothetical. The post presents possible speculations and analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

When it comes to your world and other people in general, what is your basic working hypothesis? By that I mean, do you fundamentally believe that the world is OK, or does it stink? When it comes to others, how is your default key labeled, “Trust” or “Mistrust”?

Sharon answers those questions, “Basically, I think people are out for themselves. If I get in the way, they’ll take advantage of me. Let’s face it, when you get down to it – unless you’re talking about a really close friend or family member – people can’t be trusted.”

Marvin sees his world a little differently: “Yeh, the world is OK. Sure, there are some losers and you have to watch out for them, but I believe that overall, people are good inside and can be trusted.

The renowned psychologist, Erik Erikson, maintained that a basic working hypothesis about the world is formed during your first year of life, when you are totally dependent on others for comfort and nourishment. If your caregivers are reliable, loving, and supportive, you are likely to develop a sense of trust in others and a belief that the world is a positive place. If, on the other hand, caregivers are cold, rejecting, unreliable, and uncaring, you are more likely to form the working hypothesis that the world, and those in it, are unreliable and you should not trust them.

The long-term effects of your initial working hypothesis can be substantial. Stan was raised by a critical, demanding, and verbally abusive mother. Most of the time, whatever family members did or didn’t do was simply not good enough for her. No matter how hard they worked, she demeaned their efforts and achievements.As Stan grew older, he harbored much anger toward his mother, but paradoxically found himself drawn toward women like her. He was accustomed to her type of treatment and, quite frankly, wouldn’t know what to do with an accepting, supportive, loving woman. Even though mom’s behavior was difficult to cope with, there was a comfort level with her predictability.

Stan’s first marriage ended in divorce. He didn’t see that the marriage was a continuation of his battles with his mother, and that his anger toward his mom was displaced onto his wife. After the divorce Stan entered a mutually-abusive relationship with a girlfriend, which lasted only a few months. Stan was incapable of establishing a loving bond with a woman because his deep anger toward his mother kept defining the relationship.

Early emotional deprivation often causes one to be drawn to people who are emotionally unavailable. When emotionally-deprived while young, as adults they tend to run from partners who are consistently warm, giving, nurturing, and loving. Such supportive social signals are aversive because of the uncertainty those signals produce about how to behave. Warmth and love make them feel uncomfortable and undeserving. Guilt, shame, and helplessness can result, and they develop an ambivalence toward life. Stan says, “I want to live, but a part of me wants me to die. It would be fine with me if I get sick and die. What’s the big deal?”

Let’s take two messages from this discussion. First of all, repeated experiences in childhood – such as habitual rejection – can produce a working hypothesis that the world is untrustworthy, and that premise can have long-term negative consequences that extend well into adulthood. Second, those negative consequences need not be inevitable, and need not last forever. Yes, Stan’s adult road will be a lot rockier than someone’s whose early childhood was not characterized by emotional rejection, but Stan is not bound by chains from which there is no escape. That’s what coping is all about: adjusting, adapting, changing direction, surviving, and being accountable for the choices you make. That last aspect is very important; that is, it will do you no good to blame your present conflicts on those from your past.

Stan entered counseling, and became aware of his anger toward his mom, an anger that persisted but subsided a bit. He became aware of his tendency to choose women “like mom,” and how that tendency was self-destructive for him. He began to work with his therapist to understand the value of more “appropriate” women – that is, women who were not so demanding, critical, and confrontational like mom – and try to develop a mature, mutually supportive relationship with them. It was a high hurdle for Stan because a lifetime of avoidance patterns is hard to overcome, but high hurdles can be vaulted, as long as you are willing to accept  the challenge they present.

Skin Color Blind or Skin Color Conscious?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the example used (“Don and Paul”) is hypothetical. The post presents possible speculations one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Don and Paul, White business colleagues, were walking to a restaurant near their office for lunch. A Black man was approaching them, dressed professionally as they were – white shirt, suit and tie. Don said derisively, “Look at this big shot coming. Not too uppity, is he? Thinks he’s better than us, just because he’s Black. He’s probably some affirmative action guy who’s dumb as hell but gets breaks because he’s Black.”

“My God, man” says Paul, “what are you doing? I know you’re biased, but this is ridiculous. You never met this guy, but you think he’s some arrogant SOB who hates Whites? Just from seeing his skin color? Man, you really need to be more color blind.”

Did you ever hear that phrase, “color blind”? It was kind of pervasive back in the 1960s and 70s during the racial upheaval that tore through American society. The idea was, when you’re judging someone, be “color blind,” and ignore their skin color. Really? When you see someone, how can you possibly ignore one of their most obvious physical traits? Back to Don and Paul.

Don snaps back at Paul: “Oh, Mr. Pure of Heart, I suppose you didn’t have some negative thoughts about this guy?”

Paul says, “I didn’t even notice that he’s Black.”

“You didn’t notice his skin color?” challenges Don. “You’re color blind? Who are you kidding?”

Don has a point. The intent of, “You need to be color blind,” was noble back in the day, but it missed an important point: It’s impossible to do! When you look at someone else – especially a stranger – skin color is just too salient a characteristic to ignore.

Well, if it’s impossible to be “color blind” in social interactions, what if we strive instead to be “color conscious”? Substituting “conscious” for “blind” takes us down a completely different road – a road that offers much more promise when it comes to coping with our prejudices in social exchanges. How so?

Color conscious means that Don is aware of his racial prejudices and his tendency to disparage Blacks. He knows that he believes they feel entitled and want to be given breaks to make up for White domination over the past 400 years. He also knows that his prejudices make him pre-judge Blacks as being arrogant, smug, and conceited. Armed with that self-knowledge – being conscious of his biases – Don can guard against impulsively judging them. Had he been color conscious, when first seeing the approaching man, he might have said to himself, “Alright, Don, cool it. Give the guy a break and put your biases on the back burner. Don’t assume that this guy fits your belief.”

Note that when being conscious of his biases, Don follows some important coping rules: He accepts his prejudices and holds himself accountable for them. That awareness helps him avoid letting his negative attitudes make him act impulsively. Instead, he follows a plan of action that stresses courteous behavior over confrontational behavior. Humility and empathy will not be far behind.

The coping benefits of being “conscious” rather than “blind” with respect to physical appearances also applies to other obvious characteristics about a person, such as gender, height, hair color, or weight. Being conscious of who you are – your attitudes that make you behave in certain ways in particular situations – will make your social interactions more honorable and smoother, more productive, and satisfying. The alternative is lashing out inappropriately to serve your biases, which will result in more stress.

In 2009, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina was listening to a speech on health care by President Obama, delivered to a joint session of Congress. At one point – disliking something Obama said and clearly not conscious of his prejudices toward Obama – Wilson impulsively shouted out, “You lie!” In a later session, the House rebuked Wilson for his outburst, approving a resolution that said he had committed a “breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House.”   

Not very honorable behavior, Joe! Had you been more color “conscious” with respect to your biases, perhaps you would have been less likely to blurt out your disrespectful comment, and avoided a taint on your reputation.