Jim is 46. He’s a construction worker. Makes good money, too, and has good benefits. His wife, Alice, works part-time at a local department store to help make ends meet. They have two teenage boys – Jordan, 17, and Jeff, 15 – to feed. Jim also likes to take Alice out to eat once a month, and the family enjoys taking a two-week camping vacation in the mountains every August. The family budget is a challenge at times, but with Alice’s extra pay they’re able to make it and even put a little aside each week.
But last week Jim’s world spiraled downward when Jordan announced to the family that he was gay. Jim was furious, and adamant with his son: “No son of mine is going to make that choice to be a fag! That’s not how I raised you. You’re a man so start acting like one. If you can’t handle that, get the hell out of my house. Go live with Aunt Fay. Knowing her, she’ll probably take you in.”
No ifs, ands, or buts with Jim. He believed that “choosing” to be gay was disgusting, sickening, and perverted, an anti-Christian abomination condemned in the Bible, and he would disown Jordan if he insisted on that lifestyle.
From a psychological perspective, Jim is coping poorly. First of all, note the intensity of his emotions. His reaction to his son’s news is exaggerated, full of emotion, and showing all the signs of avoidance based on fear. What is he avoiding? What does he fear? Why is he unwilling to let his son live his own life? Why does he insist on controlling how his son behaves? Why is he unwilling to have an adult conversation with Jordan?
Many psychologists would agree that Jordan’s actions probably threaten crucial elements of Jim’s identity, his core self. Specifically, Jim – carrying at the center of his self-esteem a variety of insecurities – hears what Jordan says and is plunged into anxiety believing that others may think that he, Jim, is gay; or a lousy parent; or a general failure in life. Jordan’s statement also arouses and torments Jim with guilt and self-doubts about who he is. In short, Jordan’s announcement taps into Jim’s underlying insecurities. Jim must avoid and deny these conflicts at all costs or his personality will disintegrate into self-criticism, depression, and self-destructive actions. Jordan must be cast out to protect Jim’s fragile stability.
The fact of the matter is straightforward: extreme, either/or, authoritarian thinking occurs to deny and avoid unwanted inner tendencies and insecurities in oneself by targeting “them,” the “others,” the “enemy,” with extreme hatred and other negative emotional attacks. For Jim, the issue is not really Jordan’s homosexuality; the issue is protecting Jim’s fragile ego.
A politician, Barry Goldwater, once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Psychologists, on the other hand, see inflexible and extreme attitudes and thinking as a desperate attempt to deny, to cover-up and avoid facing long-unresolved emotional conflicts and anxious self-doubting. Extremists doth protest too much, which shows an inability to cope well with stress because they must safeguard their unstable self-esteem.
Are you an extremist? Do you refuse to consult, negotiate, and compromise with those who disagree with you? What are you avoiding? Do your values and sense of purpose in life revolve around dominating others so you don’t have to face yourself? Confronting these and other such questions honestly and realistically are a first essential step in being able to cope with stress.