Coping With Everyday Life


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!


Counseling Tips

Effective coping requires acceptance of reality, and a willingness to act within the limits of that reality. Your actions should proceed from a context of humility and sensitivity to others, and you must hold yourself accountable for those actions. In other words, effective coping requires you to “translate” your traits into concrete and productive actions, a process that gives you an anchor to reality. When you have difficulty “translating yourself” into concrete actions, you will feel adrift – that you have nowhere to go. Professional counseling – also called psychotherapy – can help in fostering this translation process.

If you have decided to seek counseling, there are important things to keep in mind:

You must enter counseling with a willingness to work hard to confront and possibly change your thinking and your actions. Many folks fail in counseling because they are unwilling to develop autonomous actions, and to work hard to implement suggestions from the counselor.

Be patient. No one can wave a magic wand and suddenly change you. Do not expect a quick fix. That being said, however, if you see a counselor for more than six months without any noticeable change in what’s troubling you, find another counselor.

Be wary of a counselor who sees overly simplistic reasons for your problems – “Ah, your problem is sibling rivalry” – and who presents a simple, effortless plan for solving them – “I would stop all contact with your sister for a while.”

A treatment plan should be straightforward, agreeable to you, and include specific and realistic goals that are manageable and under your control, but attainable only with motivation and work on your part. Your treatment plan should also include feedback provisions that allow you to assess your movement toward your goals

When choosing counseling, it helps to be optimistic and believe that your decision will benefit you. Furthermore, you should choose a provider who has characteristics that facilitate optimism; most people profit from counselor traits like empathy, warmth and genuineness.

Remember that there is a difference between psychiatrists (medical orientation) and psychologists (cognitive/behavioral orientation), and that they perform the services they are trained to do. Most psychiatrists will prescribe psychiatric medication for you, but you may not care to go down that road. For instance, if you are overly anxious about your son who is in legal trouble, you may prefer to receive advice from a psychologist stressing coping strategies instead of receiving anti-anxiety medication from a psychiatrist.   

At the outset of counseling, expect and ask for a complete psychological assessment.After thoroughly discussing the results be prepared to work at changing your patterns of thinking and acting that engage your conflicts and difficulties. If psychiatric medication is part of your treatment plan, consider working with both a psychiatrist and psychologist because the combination of counseling and medication – when needed – is more powerful than either treatment alone.

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. Do the “right” things, acting ethically and with integrity. 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. Remember, you are not in this world to live up to others’ expectations.

Keep in mind that you are an active partner in the counseling process, not a passive, dependent onlooker. You are an expert about your life, and only you can decide if you are living it in a way that brings you satisfaction.


Are you suggestible? Gullible? Do you accept what someone tells you, even when others say the information is false? Do you tend to do what others suggest you do? Do you let your emotions rule your thinking and judgment? Is there a person in your life whose beliefs and statements you accept without question? Do you subjugate your needs, beliefs, morality, and values to those of this other person? If these questions describe you – even if only partially – you may have a suggestible personality – generally estimated to be about 20% of the population.

Excessive suggestibility can even make your brain fill in memory gaps with false information given by someone else. Experiments have verified that false memories can be implanted in those who are suggestible Anecdotal evidence from law enforcement also shows that witness testimony can change in response to suggestions from police or attorneys. Similarly, observations in clinical psychology show that clients in therapy can come to believe falsely that something as extreme as sexual abuse happened when they were children.

Being overly suggestible is a liability when trying to cope with stress. Why? For one thing, you are not personally empowered to direct your life because you accept passively and uncritically what others tell you. In short, you are vulnerable to those who want to use you for their purposes. Suggestibility also makes you likely to focus on imagination and hoped-for solutions to problems, rather than engage in reality-based planning.

“Ok,” you ask, “how do I become less gullible and naïve, less likely to be influenced by false information?”

For starters, when something sounds too simple, too easy, or too good to be true, be skeptical. Remember, believing in simple explanations may give you comfort, but navigating the challenges of life is not a simple task. Ask yourself, “Is there evidence for what is being said?” If evidence is presented, find out where the evidence came from – a reliable source or someone close to the original source? Is objective evidence presented, or just a subjective opinion?

Evaluate the person who is presenting you with information. Whether it be a friend, counselor, teacher, physician, or whomever – size them up. Are they demanding blind, unquestioned obedience? Do they act entitled and above the rules? Do they boast about how talented they are? All those traits indicate they are working to enlist you to their point of view, not simply give you information. Other warning signs would be if your source is an authoritarian type who devalues others as inferior; dictates rather than listens; is insensitive to the needs of others; considers critics and outsiders as “the enemy”; and asks you to help find those who are a threat to the group.

Imagine that a VP of your company has put you in charge of preparing a bid for a big government project. When the bids are opened, a competitor beats your bid by a small margin. A co-worker on the project comes to you and says, “They cheated. We have a mole in our group who kept our competitor informed about our bid. Plus, the feds didn’t want to use us anyway because they hate our CEO. We need to get our group together and come up with a joint strategy to present to the VP so she will see that we didn’t have a chance when we prepared bid, which was fantastic, right? There’s no way we could be undercut without the other guy cheating. This really makes us look bad.”

On the surface, your co-worker’s comments make sense, and he paints a simple, clear, straightforward picture that explains your failure to get the bid. But something doesn’t feel right to you. This co-worker is always bad-mouthing other employees; he normally doesn’t take responsibility for anything that goes wrong; he’s always complaining to you and asking you cover for him; he always acts like it’s him against the rest of the world and seems to have picked you out to help him stay ahead of them. Caution signals go off in your head.

You go to your VP and apologize to her for failing to get the bid, and you try to get some hint of the kinds of shenanigans your co-worker is describing to you. The VP says, “Don’t apologize. You came up with a great bid. I saw the winning bid and studied it carefully. Looks to me like they’re willing to cut their profit margin to almost zero, gambling that they’ll have an advantage for getting other projects. The fact is, I bet they cut some corners, and they’ll screw themselves in the long run. Your bid was honest and didn’t compromise us financially. In fact, if you had come to me with their bid, I would have rejected it.”

Your caution is justified! You discover that your co-worker is using you for his personal gain. He loads you with misinformation about a mole and cheating when, in fact, there was neither. Furthermore, had you been overly naïve and bought into his false message, you would have damaged your position in the company. Wisely, you resolve to keep your co-worker at arm’s length in the future, and think objectively, without emotion, about anything he tells you. Congratulations! You have become a critical thinker, and someone well-equipped to handle on-the-job stress created by your co-worker.

Rules for New Year’s Resolutions

Ready to put those New Year’s resolutions into action? Before you do, you need to ask if they follow the rules.

“Saturday, January 9th, I’m joining a gym.” If you tie your resolution to a specific date, that’s a rules violation. You’re just focusing on a date. You’re not motivated; you’re procrastinating, just kicking the can down the road.

“I’m going to run more to make me get in better shape.” We’ve got two rules violations in this one. First, you’re putting the cart before the horse, using the resolution (“run more”) to motivate you (“Make me get in shape”). Resolutions must be the result of motivation to do something, not the catalyst for generating motivation. “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I must get in better shape to keep up with him.” You want to improve your chance of getting a promotion now becomes the motivation for the resolution – running more to get in better shape. It always helps to connect your resolution to a specific motivator: “Warm weather will be here soon and I want to look good at the pool. I’ve got to join a gym”; “I’m in a wedding in three months and I want to fit into a size ­­___ dress. I need to join a gym.”

The second violation is that the resolution is too vague. “I need to be in better shape, so I’m going to run more.” Run more? Get specific. Make a specific distance and time your goals. “Run two miles in less than 20 minutes every morning before leaving for work.” To have any chance of success, a resolution must also involve doable actions and attainable goals: “I will eat a piece of fruit – an apple or a pear – for lunch instead of a sandwich”; “I will do a 30-minute workout at the gym 3 days a week”; “I will walk my neighborhood (or my treadmill) for 30 minutes every day at 3.5 mph if on the treadmill.”

What’s wrong with this one? “I’m going to run two miles every morning before leaving for work so I can qualify for the local marathon in eight weeks.” This resolution is not realistic; it is grandiose and unattainable. “I’m going to reinvent myself – create a new me. For starters I will lose 30 lbs. by February.” Once again, you are showing unrealistic thinking.

A good way to make sure that your resolutions are realistic is to connect them to your values. Specifically, you must engage in values-oriented thinking and make your actions consistent with that thinking. “I love being with my family [your value], but I put off spending more time with my kids and spouse” [an action]. “My job brings me little personal satisfaction[your value], but I put off looking for another one” [an action]. Can you see the disconnect between values and actions? When making a resolution, first identify your values, then devise a plan that will help you coordinate those values with compatible actions.

When making New Year’s resolutions, accept your current situation and be accountable for changing it. No excuses, no shortcuts, no vague, pie-in-the-sky promises. Identify your motivation and make a plan of action that emerges from that motivation to change, not a plan designed to motivate you. Include realistic, attainable, and specific actions and goals in your plan; connect your plan to your values; and, begin now, not at some future date. Happy New Year! 

The Gift of Grief

This entry is dedicated to all who have lost a loved one, and who struggle to regain their Christmas spirit.

Christmas can be a tough time if you lost a loved one during the previous year. Suddenly, someone who was a part of family celebrations and joy is not there. Grief is magnified by Christmas family traditions.

Grief often leads survivors “inward” to pay homage to their emotions, and dwell on how their loss has broken their emotional stability. They focus on their sadness, despondency, frustration, guilt, anger – a literal flood of overwhelming emotions that can devastate the psyche. That’s why an inward focus – while OK in small doses – must not be allowed to dominate your flow of grief.

Fortunately, the holidays provide ample opportunities for an “outward” focus to help aggrieved victims “live through” their grief. Christmas amplifies the need for some parents to inject some magic into the time for their kids, and to try and maintain some financial stability to provide nutritional and shelter needs. Others who have fallen on hard times also need help finding basic necessities. The grief-stricken can reach out in a spirit of empathy, and discover that this outward focus gives them a way to move forward with their grief and honor their departed loved one.

I remember many years ago when a friend of our family suffered a great loss when her son-in-law was killed in an accident several months before Christmas. Her daughter, Jill, now a young widow in her late 20s, came to live with her mom temporarily while both of them sorted out their emotional lives.

My mother invited them to join us for Christmas dinner. Before dinner, my mom handed each of them a wrapped present. Jill was dumbfounded. “But I have no present for you,” she said. “Yes, you do,” my mom replied. “Your presence is our gift.”

I was in college at the time and thought that comment was pretty cool. Years later, however, as I began to reflect on psychology and coping with stress, I saw the comment in a new light.

Giving vs. receiving – we generally separate these actions as quite distinct, but they’re not. When Jill accepted the gift my mom gave her, she gave my mom something very special in return: the “gift” of fulfillment and satisfaction. I think my mom received a gift of feeling part of the family of humanity; mom discovered that helping someone in distress – helping Jill realize that, yes, she is saddened and in pain, but life endures through the pain – offered her the special blessing of receiving by giving. So, looking at Jill and my mom, who gave and who received?

For me, the lesson here is pretty straightforward: Are you in emotional pain – depressed, saddened, hurt, upset, guilty, angry? Focus on what’s “out there” and how you can be a part of it. After all, it’s life out there. Accept and receive from others, and in doing so, you will discover that you are giving, and bringing great honor to the memory of your departed loved one.

Thanks for being a part of this blog. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Coping with “Big” Changes

We have known students who – during their junior or senior year of college – expressed concern about their post-graduation plans. Jenny is a junior and her case represents the issue: “I’m majoring in psychology but never really wanted to work in the field. But now I do. I’ve decided to get a Master’s in Counseling and get licensed. The problem is, my Dad wants me to join the family business after graduation. We always talked about this and I thought it would work, but now I don’t think so. Any advice on how to tell him?”

That’s a tough question. Jenny needs to be true to herself, and she’s hoping that dad – even though disappointed – will see that letting her go “her chosen way” is in her best interests. Maybe it would help if Jenny took time over the upcoming summer to give working with Dad a trial run. She could see what’s involved and if she likes it. If not, she can honestly say, “It’s not for me, Dad.” Furthermore, Jenny can be reassured that in the future, she need not fear her Dad saying, “Well, you could have at least given the family business a go.” She did! Also, Jenny would not have to worry about going through life wondering, “What would have happened if…?” Once again, she can say, “I gave it a try and I know it’s not for me.”

Trevor’s dilemma happened several years after graduation. In college he was a Business Administration major and an academic superstar. After college he landed a great job with a major company and seemed well on his way to a rewarding and lucrative professional career.

After two years on the job, he contacted one of his college professors and said: “I’m doing really well. Great evaluations from the boss; already two raises; colleagues I enjoy working with…” The professor interrupted, “Sounds like a ‘but’ is coming!”

            Trevor laughed. “Yeh, a big ‘but.’ The business culture doesn’t fit with my values. Bottom line, bottom line, bottom line – always the bottom line. I analyze spread sheets showing budget reductions requiring employee termination and I think, who are these people being let go? Do they have kids? A mortgage? College loans to repay? I just can’t get away from the people angle. It’s more important to me than the bottom line.”

            “So, what are you planning to do?” asked the professor.

            “I have to help people. Nursing school. Or be a dentist!” replied Trevor.

            Trevor’s choice is not as wild as it sounds. He always had what he called a “latent” interest in medicine, but business and accounting “grabbed” him in college. Now, with his change of heart, the problem was that he had taken none of the science courses required for admission to any medical professional school.

            He discovered that the university where he lived had a special program where he could take a concentrated year-and-a-half of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics to give him the requisite courses to apply to professional schools in the medical field.

            Would you agree that this would be a gutsy move on Trevor’s part?  Of course, if nothing else, he would show himself to be willing to take on the challenge because he didn’t want to go through life wondering, “What if…?”

Two situations: choosing against family wishes; and, making a radical career change. What might they have in common? Two things in particular: the importance of having a realistic coping Plan of Action, and Accountability in carrying out the plan. Jenny has a plan, but she must be responsible for respectfully and lovingly communicating her decision to Dad; Trevor also has come up with a plan, and he is responsible for meeting the professional conditions put on him if he is to be successful in carrying out this revised career plan.

Are you one of those people who experiences considerable stress because of being in a job you dislike? Do you stick with it because you hate change? Do you focus on your negative emotions the job produces – anger, anxiety, frustration, helplessness, and maybe even depression? Jenny’s and Trevor’s stories show the importance of not worrying about the emotions, but focusing instead on a purposive plan – engaging in actions that are under your control, and that meet the realities of the of the goals you want to attain. When put in the appropriate task-focused coping context, even the wildest life changes can be realized.


Susan is a college freshman. During a recent Economics multiple-choice test, she glanced at her neighbor’s answer sheet and copied some of his answers. When she returned to her dorm room, her roommate asked, “How was the econ test?” Susan replied it was pretty tough and added, “I can’t believe how many kids were cheating. Unreal.”

John, 42, is plagued by low self-esteem and lack of confidence. He refuses to face these self-doubts, but is quick to see them in others. Just the other day at work, his project team was discussing ways to improve a production plan. At one point, John said, “I hate to say this, but the problem is that you people are not willing to take some risks and test out the plan on a pilot basis. Why can’t you get some confidence here and trust in the team and get off the dime?”

Roger, 28, is depressed and angry that his bride of two months, Kasey, was killed by a drunk driver while he and Kasey were riding their bikes. Roger doesn’t see that deep inside he blames himself for what happened. He doesn’t reach out to his or Kasey’s family because he feels they are all angry at him and blame him for what happened. “They act like they want to help me,” Roger says, “but I can see that they hate me for what happened.”

Susan, John, and Roger are all using the ego-defense of Projection. They have some unpleasant emotions in themselves that they just can’t face, so they project these undesirable qualities onto other people. Susan is upset with herself about cheating, but she soothes her guilt by believing other students also cheated. John, of course, projects his own shortcomings onto the others so he can blame them – not himself – for problems with the production plan.  Roger blames himself for his wife’s accident, but says that others blame him. Thus, he can criticize them, not himself.

In each case, note how the use of projection is a form of anxiety avoidance. They don’t want to face unwanted traits in themselves, so they see those traits in others. What a great way to avoid the stress of self-examination!

Unfortunately, like all forms of stress avoidance, projection prevents psychological growth, self-awareness, and development of self-empowerment to face life challenges. It also prevents being vigilant for signs that – like Susan, John, and Roger – you are using projection to hide what you can’t face in yourself. Such signs would be failure to hold yourself accountable, being excessive and repetitive in your criticism of others, and disengaging from social interactions.

Projection is also a close cousin of hypocrisy. From a coping perspective, it pays to heed comments from friends and acquaintances that you are criticizing others for actions you yourself have taken in the past. For instance, Bruce points out to a co-worker, Adam, that he is insensitive to the needs of Sharon – a co-worker – who has a disability that confines her to a wheelchair. “Uh, Bruce,” says Adam, “I remember just last week when you told me that Sharon uses her disability to make us feel sorry for her so we’ll do her job for her. Remember how you said, ‘Sharon really plays the disability card’? That was kind of insensitive, don’t you think?” Adam’s comments should be a warning to Bruce that he is projecting his own insensitivity toward Sharon onto Adam.

Let’s note that projection need not be bad, and can be used as part of healthy coping. Jennifer’s best friend, Alyson, is grief-stricken because her dad, 55, just died of cancer. Jennifer is trying to console Alyson, and at one point she says, “I know how you feel, Aly. I remember how I felt when my dad died two years ago. My world ended, and I saw no hope. If you want to talk it’s OK because I’ve been there. I understand.”

Note how Jennifer is able to project herself and her emotions into Alyson because she has been down the same road. In this case, projection has become empathy, literally feeling how another person is feeling. Jennifer takes herself out of the equation, projects her own experience and memories into Alyson, and thereby is able to help her through the grief as if they were one. Jennifer understands that it’s not all about “me,” and she is willing to allow Alyson to unload on her, even though that interaction risks reawakening painful memories for Jennifer. That, my friends, is the essence – and beauty – of effective coping.

Unfolding Yourself

I want to put this post in the context of three memories I have. First, I remember some years ago when the US Army ran a recruiting campaign with the slogan, “Be All You Can Be.” Second, I recall a football coach saying to me, “Football doesn’t build character; it reveals character.” Finally, I remember a college history professor speaking to a group of parents and saying, “I don’t teach history; I teach our students.”

These memories seem unrelated, but they all carry the same message: Coping is about putting yourself in situations where who you are – your traits, your qualities, your individuality – can unfold for you to see. If you don’t like what you see, then it’s up to you either to keep yourself out of those situations, or – if that’s not possible – to modify your actions and express your traits in more desirable ways.

During my years as a college professor, I met with dozens of high-school students and their parents when they visited King’s College to see if the school was a fit for them. I always ended our meeting with variations on these words: “Visit all the colleges you’re interested in – if possible, more than once. Experience the school’s culture. Stay overnight in the dorm; eat in the cafeteria; attend some classes; talk to professors like we’re doing now; talk to as many students as possible. Once you’re back home, ask yourself, ‘Is this school a place where I’m comfortable, where what’s already inside me can unfold and allow me to see who I am?’”

In a sense, I was asking the students to decide if King’s was a place where they felt they could “Be all you can be,” where “You can confidently reveal your character,” and where you can “Allow teachers to show you how to evaluate information around you.”

When it comes to coping with stress, it helps to be the Army recruiter and remind yourself, “I should strive to be all I can be.” It also helps to be the football coach, and encourage yourself to find challenges that allow you to unfold in ways that reveal your character. Finally, it helps to listen to those who inspire you, and find role models whose actions are consistent with your values.

Here are some questions to ask yourself, questions I think capture what the recruiter, coach, and teacher are saying:

Do I “pay” myself adequately? Are you overly self-critical, always putting yourself down? How often do you march in your own special pity parade? How much do you ruminate about the past and how others were mean and rejected you? Do you complain that others do not appreciate how hard you try, and then internalize that criticism by giving yourself a pessimistic evaluation of your abilities? If so, maybe it’s time to give yourself a psychological “pay” raise – a symbolic pat on the back, so to speak – by complimenting yourself on a job well done. Engage in some positive self-talk now and then: “They said I was really helpful. I need to do stuff like that more often.” It never hurts to focus occasionally on your actions that have positive results.

Do I give myself growth opportunities? If you are going to empower yourself to cope effectively with life, you need to have challenges in front of you, and to give yourself the chance to tackle those challenges head-on. Thus, you need to provide yourself with opportunities to venture outside your comfort zone and experience new things. Seek out situations that challenge you, that let others help you grow, and that allow you to develop a sense of purpose.

Why do I need a sense of purpose? Without a guiding rationale behind your actions, you will find that it’s hard to be productive and satisfied with your efforts. Being committed to purposeful goals will encourage you to examine your values, morality, integrity, character, and personal standards. Finding purposeful actions that bring you satisfaction will help you develop your own moral compass.

How do I develop feelings of ownership of my life? Be realistic, confident, and humble about your competencies and skills, and act within the constraints of reality. Above all, be accountable for your actions, and use failure to help you improve. Accountability will give you a sense of pride and ownership about your actions. You will become less vulnerable to those who would dominate you, and use you for their purposes. Being accountable will give you the confidence to be autonomous and independent – to take charge of your life and move confidently in directions you choose.

The answers to these questions are revealed when you look in the mirror honestly. No one else in the world can see what you see. Only you. What do you see? What do you feel?

#Me Too should not impact childrearing

            I recently saw a newspaper headline that asked, “How should dads talk to sons at this #MeToo time?” Three things about this headline struck me.

            First was the reference to the #MeToo movement. Are you telling me that prior to this movement, parents were not concerned about teaching their sons it’s wrong to assault girls? That’s ridiculous. Responsible parents do not need #MeToo to tell them assault is wrong.

            Second, the headline only mentions dads and sons. Is the message that moms have nothing to offer, or that raising girls in the #MeToo context is irrelevant? Just teach them to cook and everything will be fine?

            Third, the headline is typical of subtle, implicit sexist messages that denigrate women and assign them second-class status compared to men. The subliminal message is that dads need to provide their sons with knowledge to protect themselves against accusations from girls, but #MeToo makes this teaching difficult.

            Psychology has a lot to tell us about how to raise children. Consider Sandra Bem’s work in the ‘70s on teaching children to embrace a variety of emotions and characteristics. Bem said parents should certainly teach sons that they will find themselves in situations when they should be forceful, competitive, and dominant. “Man up, kid! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.”

            But Bem also said parents must teach boys that sometimes sensitivity, caring, and empathy are appropriate. Teach boys that showing such traits does not destroy their masculinity. Don’t tell them that they must always show tough-guy masculinity, because then they will be unable to participate in a broad range of productive interactions with others.

            Bem also argued that parents can teach girls to be nurturant, supportive, sensitive and understanding. But parents must also teach them that sometimes they need to be assertive, competitive, forceful, and decisive, or they will find themselves dominated by those around them. Plus, girls should be taught that firmly standing up for themselves in no way sacrifices their femininity.

#MeToo boils down to living together with mutual respect, and striving for empathy when conflict arises. Sure, girls should be taught to be caring and sensitive, but if the situation demands it, they should be aggressive and competitive. Likewise, boys should be taught to be dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, it’s OK to be emotional, sympathetic, and soft. Our kids should be taught that having a range of emotions and actions available does not make them less of a woman or less of a man.

One final thought: In the wake of the #MeToo movement, and seemingly endless accusations by women made against abusive men, some men complain that the whole atmosphere puts tremendous pressure on them. Men grumble about anxious concerns – “Am I doing something to offend? Will I be taken to court?” – that make their world a scary place where avenging women are out to get them. What nonsense!

There’s nothing new here, folks. During the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s, the same specious cries of alarm came from men. Hugh Hefner called the “libbers” man-haters. Wimpy men whined, “I’m scared. Do I call her Miss, Mrs., or Ms.? I’m walking on eggshells!” Others moaned, “Can I compliment her without being accused of harassment?” Guess what? These spineless comments notwithstanding, the vast majority of young men survived. They learned to respect women, got married, helped raise the kids, and even (gasp!) did the dishes now and then.

Focus Coping Efforts Outward, not Inward

Gena is frightened of her husband because he is physically abusive. She says, “I’ve got to conquer this fear so I can deal with this situation.”

Frank is angry at a co-worker, Adam, because he is always undermining Frank at work. Adam spreads false rumors about Frank; he lies to Frank to trick him into acting in ways that irritate the boss; and he tries to sabotage Frank’s work to make him look bad. Frank says, “If I don’t take some anger management classes I just may injure this nut.”

Kim’s neighbor, Taylor, is always flirting with Kim’s husband, Seth. Kim gets really jealous when she sees them laughing together, and she’s mad at herself because she knows Seth has no romantic interest in Taylor, or any other woman for that matter.

Gena, Frank, and Kim are all feeling stress and trying to cope with it as best they can. But notice the context in which they focus their coping efforts: Their emotions! Gena doesn’t like her fear; Frank is worried about his anger; Kim is ashamed of her jealousy. Each one of them is engaging in self-criticism, self-absorption, and self-pity, because they make their problems about them and their emotions.

In situations like these, focusing on yourself and your emotions is not the way to cope with stress. Rather, try letting empathy toward your tormentor kick in. “Huh?” you ask. “You want me to feel sorry for the person who’s making me miserable?”

Absolutely not. In this example, by empathy we mean focusing on and understanding the motivations and issues of the other person, and meeting the challenge they pose within that context, not within the context of your emotions. Gena, Frank, and Kim, for instance, need to accept that the emotions generated by their dilemmas are quite normal, and that they need to take action not against themselves, but against their persecutors.

Gena enlists the help of a divorce attorney, the police, a women’s shelter, and friends and neighbors who know what’s going on and can corroborate Gena’s accusations. She lets her husband know that she will no longer be the target of his power trip and she has the resources behind her stop him.

Frank confronts his co-worker and tells him he is ready to file a harassment complaint with the Human Resources Office. He lets Adam know he has a detailed log of incidents and will bring it to the attention of their superiors if necessary.

Kim tells her husband how his flirtations make her feel, and it’s time for him to “man-up” and act like a responsible husband who values his marriage and family. If he wants to play like he’s single, she will accommodate him!

All these actions form what we mean by empathy. Gena, Frank, and Kim must make it clear they are not looking for pity from their tormentor, but are prepared to stand up to them in the context of the bully’s issues, not in the context of their own emotions. Doing so gives them the upper hand because each demonstrates that, “I understand your motives and where you’re coming from, and I can handle you.” See how empathy is involved? “I understand your motives” is putting empathy to work for you.

The absence of empathy is denial. Gena, Frank, and Kim can choose to deny the reality of their tyrants’ motives and continue to suffer. Empathy, on the other hand, can be used to generate acceptance of what is going on, and assertiveness of what they can do about it. They turn the tables by forcing their adversary to make a choice; they have made theirs.

New Book, The Honorable Self

We are pleased to announce publication of The Honorable Self, by psychologists Charles Brooks, PhD and Michael Church, PhD. In this brief book, we explain how Acceptance, Accountability, Values, Humility, Empathy, and Planning provide the key to understanding who you are, and how you fit in the challenging adventure of living your life. Your satisfaction and productivity are greatly enhanced when you keep before you the importance of maintaining your honor – your integrity, ethics, decency, morality, and conscience – and finding your Honorable Self.