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.

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