Change Your Thinking. Good Advice?

When you find yourself in stressful situations, there are inappropriate actions you can take that can be detrimental to your coping efforts. In fact, these actions are what we might call “deal breakers,” actions that worsen conflict, enhance your stress, and make you vulnerable to damaging emotions like helplessness and depression. Worst-case scenario, these actions can culminate in self-destructive behaviors that threaten both your own, and others’, welfare.

Seth is 18 and just graduated from high school. He doesn’t know if he should apply to college, get a job, or enlist in the military. He’s still living at home and hanging out with his high-school buddies, a group of friends who don’t have much respect for the law, and are always interested in seeing how much they can get away with. One day, at the group’s urging, Seth shoplifted an item and got caught. During the arrest he resisted. He was fined and sentenced to 6 weeks in jail. Upon release, he violated the first rule of how to rid yourself of unwanted behaviors: He put himself right back in the troublesome situation and resumed hanging out with the gang.

Sarah, 28, works as a clerk in a department store. One day she got in a loud argument with a co-worker. The disturbance was upsetting to customers, and both Sarah and the co-worker were put on unpaid leave. Sarah spent her subsequent days immersed in anger and negative emotions toward her co-worker and her boss. She fantasized about how to take revenge. One day she stormed into the store and confronted her boss, yelling obscenities and insults at her. Sarah was fired on the spot and escorted out of the store. In subsequent job interviews, she was unable to provide a positive reference from her previous employment. Sarah let her negative feelings dominate her, making it impossible for her to cope with problem-solving actions.

Seth and Sarah illustrate two common self-defeating ways of dealing with stress using inappropriate actions: (1) Putting yourself in the wrong situations where you are vulnerable to the negative influence of others; (2) Allowing yourself to be dominated and defined by harmful and destructive emotions. Both types of actions increase your stress by bringing on additional frustration, anger, and aggression; both encourage denial and make it almost impossible for you to accept your reality; both rob you of humility and empathy, and leave you with little hope for finding a satisfactory resolution of conflict.

“OK,” you say, “what should Seth and Sarah do?” Therapist Michael Church says that a counselor might suggest they focus on cognitions, their thinking. They need to think more rationally and act more constructively by substituting more appropriate and less self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. They should identify and change specific thoughts and actions that are self-defeating and cause self-destructiveness. Seth: “You need to start acting like an adult, instead of allowing your parents to support you like you’re still a child. Also, you must stop hanging out with the old crowd.” Sarah: “You have anger issues. When stress hits, you strike back at whomever is around. Emotions rule your life and you must stop allowing that.”

“You must stop doing that.” Nice words, but are they really constructive? As Dr. Church says, imagine telling someone with post-traumatic stress that their trauma symptoms are illogical and irrational, or that their panic attacks to triggering events are exaggerated or unnatural. Or, how about telling those who have lost their job, home, or child due to an accident or illness, “You’re not thinking rationally here.” Does it seem reasonable to tell them that they are not thinking straight and should just pick themselves up and stop thinking in such self-defeating fashion? When trying to comfort someone, it helps to remember that they may be showing natural responses to things like loss, fear, abuse, and illness. And, if you are the sufferer, it may help to remember that you may be showing natural responses to your adversity. Merely telling yourself, “I’ve got to stop thinking this way,” may not an appropriate way to proceed.

When facing problems, it helps to remember that working to change your thinking is mostly an emotion-based strategy, and one that usually fails because you are trying to change a natural part of yourself. You also end up screaming at yourself at how irrational and weak you are. A better strategy is a problem-focused one, where the emphasis is not on your thinking but on your actions, things you can do to cope better. When done correctly, you will end up seeing yourself as more competent and worthy because you are doing something that brings you a sense of contentment. When it comes to coping with stress, changing actions speaks much louder than changing thoughts!

In this blog we tend to focus on coping with short-term, situational changes in your life, and specific behavioral problems you may be having. We look at everyday issues that present coping challenges, such as relationships, social anxiety, deficits in social skills, assertiveness, and depression. We also try and provide guidance for changing behaviors like smoking, weight control, and emotional impulsivity. The general model we present is pretty straightforward: Accept the reality of who you are and what is going on around you; be accountable for your actions; set realistic goals and formulate a coping plan of actions based on your values to help you move toward your goals; and, perhaps most importantly, sprinkle your action plan generously with doses of humility and empathy. “I must become a less [anxious/angry/jealous, etc.] person” is a self-absorbed, emotion-based, emotion-focused, denial strategy. “I need to find ways I can be of service to others in need,” is a problem-focused strategy that better connects you with your values, a social conscience, and ways to see yourself as part of a larger picture.

Jury Service and Stress

Imagine serving on a jury in a murder trial. After all the evidence, your jury unanimously agrees on a first-degree guilty verdict. Now, your jury must decide on the punishment: life in prison or death. This part of the trial may have some new rules for the jury to follow, and to reach a death verdict, they must all agree to it. Suppose you and everyone else on your jury agree that the death penalty is appropriate.

Once the trial is over and the death sentence is pronounced, how would you feel? A little stressed? Guilty of having poor judgment? Shame over undervaluing a human life? Mulling over a lot of “what ifs” in your mind? It’s no wonder that PTSD occurs not infrequently in jurors serving for murder trials. If that’s not bad enough, what if the judge overrules the jury and orders life imprisonment? Now how would you feel? The judge is essentially saying that your judgment is flawed. Can you even begin to imagine the self-critical thoughts that would begin to flood your mind? One might easily conclude: “If the judge has the final word, why put the jury through such mental turmoil?”

Surveys of jurors following a trial verify that the stress of jury duty can be real. Roughly a third of jurors report stress during the trial and say it complicated their ability to be confident about their judgment. One in five say they needed to talk to someone about residual stress effects after the trial. About half report being concerned about how their fellow jurors were handling their stress.

When a trial is unusually lengthy, these percentages generally increase dramatically. In one survey after a long criminal trial, 96% reported serious stress symptoms, similar to symptoms of PTSD – disturbing memories, sleep disturbances, emotional instability, and tension. These types of symptoms were more likely to be present following lengthy trials that involved graphic pictures of blood, victims, and corpses. Such materials reminded jurors of the overwhelming and potentially devastating responsibility weighing on them. They found themselves in a position where they could drastically change the life of a human being. The fear of making the wrong decision, and living with the guilt, was crushing. And, to add insult to injury, during the trial they could not deal with their stress and anxiety by talking with somebody else. For the length of the trial, they have to bottle up everything that they’re hearing and seeing. The result is a psychological powder keg of denial that can explode when the trial ends.

If chosen for jury duty, is there anything you can do in advance of the trial to fortify yourself against the coming onslaught? Remember, facing any coping challenge requires a plan of action; in this case, it would be a defensive plan so you go into battle psychologically armed. Also remember that even though this list is for jury participation, the general steps would be appropriate for many stressful situations.

First of all, engage in realistic acceptance and admit it won’t be easy. Resist denial comments like, “I can handle it. It won’t be that bad. This will just be a minor inconvenience.” Such beliefs are not realistic because you could be facing major mental and emotional disruptions in your life. Second, prepare for emotional ups and downs, and accept those swings as normal, to be expected. Third, remind yourself you’re not alone. Not only are your fellow jurors facing the same coping challenge as you, but members of your family are also dealing with the stress of your jury duty. When it’s all over, you will have a large empathetic support group. Fourth, keep a diary during the trial, making notes of your feelings, frustrations, and anxieties at the end of each day. This self-talk can be an effective, temporary emotional safety valve until you’re able to talk stressors out with others. Fifth, if you are sequestered, maintain your emotional anchors – friends, family – as allowed by the judge. Sixth, following the trial, do not be afraid to seek professional psychological help if you are adversely affected by the trial.

Choosing Your Own Path

Any parent with a kid about to graduate from high school knows the drill: What will next year bring? College? Trade school? Military? Join the family business? Get a job? Options can create stress in the family, especially if the parents and graduate do not agree. That’s a shame because the truth is, choosing any one of those options is not written in stone; no bridges have to be burned, and a year or two down the road, another path can be chosen.

I once read a Facebook entry posted by a gentleman who described his efforts to build his own company from scratch. Right out of high school he went to work for a landscaping company, and over a period of several years he learned the trade. He was a very achievement-oriented guy, and over several years he not only versed himself in the details of lawn care and design, but also studied the basic financial aspects of managing one’s own company. Eventually, after he had saved enough money, and established good credit, he decided to branch out and begin his own landscaping company. He secured bank financing, hired a couple of workers, and he was off and running.

His story was inspirational to read, a model of individual initiative centered around a solid work ethic. But suddenly, the story took a nasty turn, and became a critique of his high-school guidance counselor, and a diatribe against a college education. Apparently, the counselor had told the young man there was only one way to prepare for running his own business: Go to college. But now he was able to spit in the counselor’s face, noting that he was successful without going to college. His story then drifted into a scathing denunciation of college, talking about indoctrination, liberalism, and presenting misinformation that characterized – in his opinion – a college education, even though he had never experienced the college culture.

As I read through the harangue, variations on a line from Hamlet kept popping into my head: “The writer doth protest too much.” In psychology, when someone tries again and again and again, with great intensity, to convince you of some position – such as, a college education involves brainwashing students into liberal, socialistic ways of thinking – the effort may actually be the speaker trying to convince him/herself of the argument. Or, the effort may be a way of hiding some sort of insecurity or unresolved conflict touched on in the argument. In other words, the writer, even though successful, may feel that others judge him to be inferior because he never went to college; or, the thought of college may trigger long-repressed memories of conflicts with parents over not going to college.

Whatever the case, here’s the coping lesson. When you succeed and feel you have accomplished something through hard work, accept your success with humility. Different folks achieve success by following different paths. Just because someone succeeded by following a different path than you did, that does not mean their path was superior; your path worked for you, and you exerted effort and took advantage of the opportunities along your path. Be content in that knowledge.

If you find yourself defending the way you achieved success, and criticizing the way someone else did, you may have some unresolved issues you need to face. So, pause, accept the validity of multiple ways of achieving, and be accountable for your choice and how you fared. Maintain some humility, realizing that it’s not always about you, and that you still have more goals you can work toward; and work to feel some empathy and understanding for how others succeeded, remembering that you could very well profit from learning about their achievement strategy. As the old adage says, “Live and let live.”

Bullies Use Fear-Based Coping

            Why do some people bully others? This is a question with complex answers, but let’s see if we can come up with some general guidelines to help move toward an answer. This analysis applies no matter who the bully is: classmate, politician, neighbor, stranger, parent, teacher – it doesn’t matter.

            First of all, recognize that the bully is afraid. Of what? You! “Why,” you might ask, “would a bully be afraid of me? They sure don’t act like it!” Ah, they don’t act like it. And there’s the key to understanding what motivates most bullies. Something you do, or the way you look – literally any quality or action you show could be the culprit – reminds the bully of some internal, unresolved fear that they do not want to face because it is a source of anxiety to them. So, to avoid having to face their fear, they lash out at you to prove to themselves that they are superior – fearless – to you.

            Sometimes the train of associations is not obvious. For instance, 14-year-old Jasmine bullies 13-year-old Savannah at school, on the school bus, and on social media. She likes to get in Savannah’s face and call her names, jostle and push her, and threaten her. Savannah’s parents noticed something was bothering her, and they finally got her to share her anxieties. After hearing their daughter’s story, they decided to talk to Jasmine’s parents – calmly and respectfully – about the situation. They didn’t know the parents but got their phone number through the school. Savannah’s mom made the call and had a heart-to-heart with Jasmine’s mom.  

            “It wasn’t easy calling her,” Savannah’s mom confessed. “I was really nervous that the whole thing would go south and she would begin yelling at me or whatever; all kinds of negative concerns entered my mind. But it went OK. I was careful not to lay any blame on anyone, but just describe the situation. And I said that our daughter was getting nervous about school and feared encountering Jasmine. I said we felt that wasn’t right, and we hoped we could work with her parents to try and improve things.”

            Savannah’s mom was surprised when Jasmine’s mom said, “You know, I agree with you. I’ll have a talk with Jasmine. I don’t know why she’s picking on Savannah, but I’ll get it to stop. You know something? I wish I had done this last year, just what you’re doing now. Jasmine was being bullied by an older girl at school, and I never talked to her parents. We went to the school principal and complained, and the parents got all mad at us and they still are. And now here we are. Jasmine is doing to your daughter what happened to her last year.”

            It’s often true that bullies were once bullied. Child abusers, in fact, often have a history of being victims of abuse. And now we see Jasmine going from bullied to bully. Only by talking with Jasmine could we ever truly fit the puzzle together, but it’s reasonable to assume that her experience with being a victim caused her great anxiety and damaged her self-esteem, confidence, and sense of being worthy of love. One way to hide those uncomfortable feelings would be to show herself that she is stronger than the bullying experience makes her feel, and one way to do that would be to bully someone who reminds her of herself, someone like Savannah.

            Bullying can take many forms. Would you consider the following an example of bullying? In a small (population 12,000) town, when there’s a local election for mayor or town council, the party affiliation of candidates is not listed on the ballot. The idea is to encourage voters to make their choice in a bipartisan way, voting for a person’s position on issues, not on their political party. One year, however, the town’s state representative proposes that party affiliation be listed on the ballot. The representative’s party has a clear majority in the town, and many people accused the representative of “playing politics,” and trying to ensure that members of his party would be elected by informing voters of their party affiliation.

Looked at another way, however, the representative could be showing that he is afraid of the ideas associated with the other party; he fears voters will prefer those ideas to his own, which would threaten his own political future. Thus, he uses his proposal to bully his way into convincing those in his party that the positions of the other party are dangerous and to be feared; he bullies his way into presenting the other party members as “them,” the bad guys, the other tribe, the ones to blame for the town’s problems. He can’t accept “the others” as having legitimate ideas because to do so would threaten his self-esteem, and throw his psychological balance into emotional disequilibrium. Fear – desperate fear of his own inadequacies – motivates him to identify “them,” so he can bully them, the opposition, into submission so he can deny to himself that he is afraid of them. If voters can entertain this possibility, they may be better equipped to think critically about the party-identification proposal.

            There are many ways to handle a bully. Some may work, some may not; it all depends on the nature of the situation. One thing for sure, however: If you have a feel for the psychological motives and inner turmoil of your tormenter, you have an advantage because such knowledge gives you the “high road,” the benefit that allows you to exercise some control in the situation by being able to choose the most appropriate strategy for you. For instance, Ken, a 9th grader, sees Bret – who likes to bully Ken – coming down the hall. Ken thinks, “Uh, oh, he’ll really come at me now after I answered that question in algebra class that he couldn’t handle. I made him feel inferior to me.” Armed with his analysis, Ken decides to go on the offensive. Before Bret can say a word, Ken says, “Hey, Bret, that stuff in algebra today is a killer and I’m not sure I really understand it. I got lucky answering that question. I’m getting together with some guys from class for a study session tonight. Want to join us?” Now Bret may throw Ken against the wall. Who knows? Caught off guard, however, he just might say something like, “Uh, not sure I can make it. When and where? I’m probably busy with other stuff.” “Well, let me know,” says Ken. “It would be a help to have you there.”

            FYI, the Jasmine and Ken stories are real, but have been modified. Jasmine’s parents told her to leave Savannah alone, and she did. Bret showed up at the study session and other ones after that. His algebra grades began to improve; he stopped bullying Ken. The political example is also real, but there’s been no resolution of the proposal yet.

Self-Destructive Behavior: Direct-Active Type

In this blog, we regularly point out that poor coping with stress usually results from avoidance tendencies. That is, confronted with a challenge, or a threat, or just something you would rather not face, you take measures to avoid what’s facing you and thereby avoid the stress that goes along with it. Unfortunately, when you run from problems you are engaging in denial: “This is really not all that important for me, so I’ll just ignore it and it will go away.” Or, diffusing your responsibility, you pass it along to someone else who “will take care of it and save me the trouble.” Either way, you avoid the stress and receive some reinforcement – stress reduction – for doing so. The problem is, your rewarded avoidance tendencies can become habitual, and other problems will inevitably pile up and grow until you become desperate and overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, and their associated symptoms. When you get into a pattern of avoiding stress, you become weak, passive, and dependent on others; your self-esteem goes into the toilet; you become self-critical, and vulnerable to more serious dysfunctions. At this point, it may seem reasonable for you to resort to self-defeating and destructive coping measures. This is a pattern of thoughts and actions that inflicts significant damage on your mental and physical well-being, and significantly reduces your quality of life.

Several weeks ago, our blog entry introduced this pattern of self-sabotaging behavior, and noted that therapist Michael Church has identified four self-destructive types: Direct-Active, Direct Passive, Indirect-Active, and Indirect-Passive. We will look at each one over a series of blog entries. This entry concerns Direct-Active. This type impulsively seeks out inappropriate and destructive actions and situations, without much forethought. Examples of this type of self-destruction include alcohol and drug abusers, compulsive gamblers, self-mutilators, bulimics, daredevils, and a large percentage of those in prison.

Consider Robert, who sought psychotherapy with symptoms of anxiety and depression. He was married with children, lived in a nice neighborhood, and had a decent job. However, lurking beneath this façade was a dark psychological history. Robert’s early upbringing was cold with little emotional support from his parents, particularly his dad, who was a poor role model. His parents fought regularly, they criticized Robert as worthless, and generally used him as a scapegoat for their own anger and unresolved issues. His friend, Jeff, lived nearby and – drawn to the warmth and supportive atmosphere of Jeff’s home –Robert spent most of his time there.

Over time Robert became envious and jealous of Jeff’s life, and always felt inadequate in comparison to Jeff. Robert had trouble facing these and other negative emotions, and lived his life in denial. He acted like his life was stable and satisfying, but inside he was a bundle of insecurities, frustration, unresolved anger toward his parents, and a self-image of being a loser. Over time his behavior began to deteriorate into a self-destructive cycle. At work he constantly asked for raises and advances in pay, even as his job performance decreased. He began to cancel appointments at work, come in late, and sometimes miss work entirely. It seemed like he wanted to be fired!

What was going on? No one knew, but Robert had piled up an enormous gambling debt, despite borrowing large sums of money from every family member and friend he could tap. He used the loans to continue gambling, and never paid back any of them. Eventually, no one would loan him money. He felt trapped and alone, and was ashamed of how he created such a financial mess and put his family in jeopardy of losing their home. His counselor recommended he regularly attend Gamblers Anonymous, come clean with his wife and friends, and continue to explore in therapy his root problems and associated emotional difficulties. Unfortunately, he discontinued therapy, and about a year later ended his life, leaving behind his wife, children, and a mountain of debt.

How can we account for Robert’s tragic end? First of all, as his gambling debts grew and he faced bankruptcy, he still avoided coming out with the truth about the hole he dug for himself. Second, he never accepted the realities of his childhood and adolescent issues and the anger that consumed him. Third, he kept his inner conflicts secret while refusing to get the help needed before his troubles became almost insurmountable. By the time he entered therapy it was too late to prevent serious practical, family, and self-esteem problems. At one level, he knew that the fallout from decades of emotions he failed to confront were about to affect his family and reputation. Lacking effective coping skills and the self-esteem he needed to face the consequences of his actions, he responded with the ultimate act of avoidance, suicide.

Temperament Can Make Coping Difficult

Temperament. Basically, it refers to personality dispositions. When people say, “Jim is really an angry person,” or, “Sarah always sees the negative side of things,” they are talking about Jim’s and Sarah’s temperament, fairly consistent traits that, independent of the situation, dispose them to view the world in a particular way. Unfortunately, in interactions with others, temperament can be that random, unknown variable that throws everything off balance and makes coping difficult. Evan, for instance, is an upbeat – “great day to be alive” – kind of guy, and people generally enjoy being around him. Even strangers usually find his attitude elevating when he passes them with a smiling, “How’s it going? Have a good one!” Most people meet his smile with one of their own. But sometimes there’s the grouch temperament, the perpetual malcontent who meets Evan’s cheer with a “Buzz off!” reply, or ignores him completely. Or how about Gail, an executive in a large company who likes to dish out social praise to employees who perform well. “I find praise has a motivating effect on them,” Gail says, “although the other day I praised a guy in accounting and his boss told me later the guy thought I was setting him up to be fired! He thought I was lying to him! What the hell? What’s his problem?” His problem is, he has a distrustful temperament.

Temperament is the “X” factor that can mess up general principles. Psychologists know, for instance, that rewarding an action will increase the frequency of that action in the future. But there are always individuals who are unaffected by rewards. Always that “X” factor that messes everything up. As another example, take marriage counseling. Psychologists know that it works, but there are always those temperament complications. As therapist Michael Church puts it: “Just as with individual counseling, not everyone is an appropriate candidate for marital counseling. Some people are simply too rigid, oppositional, argumentative, distrustful, manipulative, cognitively distorted, or emotionally dysregulated to benefit from marital counseling.”

Do you think you could apply Dr. Church’s comments about marital counseling to coping with stress in general, that is, to any sort of stress in any aspect of your life? The answer is probably, “Yes,” but with the caveat that you must always be aware of the “X” factor: Individual temperament. Church notes that some people are just not cut out for counseling; too many traits comprising their individual temperament work against them. Extending that observation to another case of conflict, imagine arguing with someone about some conspiracy theory – such as the one that the coronavirus vaccine is implanted with microchips so the government can keep tabs on you 24/7. You may make rational, logical arguments showing the absurdity of the theory, but to no avail. Your opponent refuses to be dissuaded from a paranoid belief that someone or something – the government, another country, a leader, a political party – is out to get them. At some point you realize that because of the temperament of your adversary – ingrained traits, personality dispositions, biases, and well-practiced actions – you are wasting your time. Essentially, you are arguing with a committed cult member. Forget about it. Do yourself a favor and terminate the discussion.

But suppose you are arguing with someone about what political philosophy, conservative or liberal, is best for a democratic republic? What if your opponent makes statements that, like yours, are rational, reasonable, logical, and supported by objective evidence? You present evidence supporting your argument, and your opponent does the same. Now what do you do? Is there a civil way out of this conundrum? The answer might depend on the nature of the conflict, of course, but in most cases, the answer is, “Yes,” if – and it’s a big if – qualities like humility, empathy, and accountability can be injected into the exchange. These qualities tend to counteract temperaments like egotism (“It’s my way or the highway!”), disrespect (“You’re nuts for believing that!”), and tribalism (“You people just can’t see past your nose!”). In general, humility, empathy, and accountability tend to inhibit temperamental traits that cause disruptive emotionalism, and that interfere with constructive problem-solving. Remember that the next time you’re having a rational argument with someone.

Here’s the coping lesson: If you tend to enter arguments with the attitude, “There will be a winner and a loser in this confrontation and I’m not going to be the loser,” you are not coping well. That attitude will just reinforce any temperamental tendencies you also have that impede problem solving when interacting with others. But you can learn to restrain such attitudes. You may be temperamentally argumentative, disagreeable, self-absorbed, and aggressive in your interactions with others, but you can learn to counterbalance those personality dispositions by injecting empathy and humility into the situation; you can become more tolerant, civil, accountable, and reasonable in your social exchanges if you work at it. Yes, your best outcome may be, “We will just have to agree to disagree,” but even that is better than an unruly conclusion that causes everyone to storm away angry, resentful, and unforgiving.

Choosing a College Major

A high school student recently asked me about choosing a college major. She said, “I’m taking this sociology course in high school and the teacher said the other day that sociology is the best major for getting into law school, and that’s what I want to do. Now I’m all confused because I want to major in English when I get to college. Am I hurting my chances of getting into law school with that major?”

“What your teacher said is nonsense,” I said. “Choose a major that you find enjoyable and exciting. If you like English, choose it. Law school admissions committees don’t care about your undergraduate major. They care about your grades, letters of recommendation, and performance on the Law School Admission Test.”

Many students – and their parents – find that choosing a major is a source of stress and anxiety because they think the choice may hurt their chances of getting into a professional program after college. This dilemma is tough on a student aiming for medical school who wants to major in Music, or English, or Philosophy; or a student hoping for admission to an MBA program who wants to major in Psychology, or Theology, or Theatre. People say, “Med school? You have to major in a science like Biology or Chemistry. MBA? You have to major in some business area like Marketing, Accounting, or Management.”

The fact is, however, the pre-med student really doesn’t have to major in Biology, Neuroscience, or Chemistry to get into med school; but she better have a core of completed college courses like two years of Biology, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry, Calculus, Anatomy & Physiology, Neuroscience, etc., if she is to have a realistic shot at med school and doing well on the med school admission test. Meanwhile, she can major in some totally non-science area that she loves. By the same token, the MBA student should take two years of Accounting, Principles of Management, Marketing, Calculus, Information Systems, etc. And he can also major in some non-business area that he enjoys.

Granted, there are some fields where the college major should be seen as an entrance requirement – majors like Athletic Training, Physician Assistant, Accounting, Nursing, Med Tech, and Engineering – but the fact is, most career tracks do not require a specific major. I once asked the owner and CEO of a moderate-sized company if his recruiting office looked for students with a particular major. “Absolutely not,” he said. “We look for graduates who can write, think, speak, and work in teams. We want critical thinkers and problem solvers with good interpersonal skills.”

Consider these real examples: Jill majored in Theology and minored in Psychology, and was accepted into a PhD program in pastoral counseling; Roger majored in Psychology and minored in Business Administration and was accepted into three MBA programs; Karen double majored in Accounting and Spanish, used every elective plus some summer courses to take required science courses for entrance into dental school, and became a dentist.

It is important for both students and parents to remember that a college curriculum not only comprises a major, but also minors and electives. The major should be an area the student enjoys, finds interesting and stimulating, an area that “turns him or her on.” That’s what makes college so special. Students have the opportunity to learn about an area of study that may have little direct relevance to their career goals. They can stimulate and enrich their minds with exposure to scholars and experts in this area. The future physician can major in Art History, Philosophy, or even Dance, and deepen her understanding of the human experience. The career? That’s where double majors, minors, and elective courses become very important. Using those areas wisely can help students pursue their career goals.

These comments also apply to the student who changes career goals while in college. Marty, a junior Criminal Justice major, came to me in March of his third year and said, “I thought I wanted to be a cop, but after taking intro psych last Fall, I’ve decided I want to be a sports psychologist. What do I do? I feel like I’ve wasted three years, and I sure can’t finish a psych major in one year.”

Roughly, here is what I told him: “You haven’t wasted three years. All your credits count toward graduation, plus you’re just about finished with your CJ major. Finish the major; second, fill any available electives next year with psychology courses, especially ones you need for entrance into graduate school; third, if we can, we will include a psychology internship working with one of our local professional sports teams. [At the time, locally there was a triple-A baseball team affiliated with a National League Team, and also a professional ice hockey farm team with an NHL affiliation.] We’ll also work up a reading list for you in sports psychology to supplement your sports internship.

Marty was a sharp, articulate, and confident kid with great interpersonal skills. We were able to set up a “meet-and-greet” for him with a hockey-team official, and they accepted him as an intern. He graduated on time with his CJ major, psychology electives, and 12 hours of psychology internship experience in the operations office of a professional team, including getting to know the “psychology” of the athletes. Upon graduation, he was hired by the hockey team in an entry-level position working in the operations office. Today, years later, he is an executive with an NHL team. Why is he there? Because of his personal qualities, especially his interpersonal skills. He is not there because of his major.

In this blog, we stress the importance of developing a realistic coping plan of action to deal with stressful situations. Choosing a college major, supplemented by carefully chosen elective courses, perfectly illustrates how having such a plan can alleviate a lot of stress in challenging situations. And note how the plan must operate within the restrictions and requirements of current opportunities available, and with a realistic and – very importantly – flexible target goal. Circumstances and interests change, and you must be prepared to adapt to the challenges of such change.

Coping Failure and Collateral Damage

Michael Church and Charles Brooks

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” How many people who suffer from adversities – like Type II diabetes, coronavirus infection from risk-taking or carelessness, family alienation related to their behavior, compulsive gambling, or drug/alcohol abuse – wish they paid more attention to preventing suffering to themselves and others? Unfortunately, far too many people are so self-preoccupied and self-absorbed that they are not worried about negative consequences until it is too late. The truth is, people have a remarkable capacity to deny, rationalize, and distort reality, thereby opening the gate to ignoring the need to make changes and blaming others for their self-destructiveness. Much of the time this amounts to “little white lies” they tell others or themselves. Other times, it leads to cascading and catastrophic effects. Often, by the time they see the troubled waters they have waded into, their habits create the difficulty of having to swim against the tide. And then they lament, “I wish I had done….”

For example, drug/alcohol abusers do not plan to cause so much havoc in their life and those around them when they first begin using. However, their refusal to accept that they are developing a problem leads to stress and complications with their mental and physical health. These complications impact their family and larger social systems, including health care professionals, police and judicial systems, and businesses. The collateral damage from self-sabotaging behavior patterns means students have to deal with teachers who are absent and vice-versa, homeowners have to deal with crime and drug-related offenses in their neighborhoods, businesses have to adapt to circumstances where their workers are absent because of preventable physical and mental health problems, and the list goes on and on. These reverberating effects on society reduce the quality of life of many people who had little or nothing to do with the individual who engaged in the self-destructive processes.

The fact of collateral damage from self-destructive behavior shows the importance of empathy when coping with your personal stressors. Being aware of, and sensitive to, the effect of your behavior on the welfare of others, can play a significant role in helping you accept reality and take more responsibility for your actions. Such awareness can also help you include others in your coping plan of action, an inclusion that brings you humility and acceptance of help from others, both of which will increase your odds of success.

How about you? Do you engage in selfishly-motivated actions that bring others down with you? Do your denial patterns and inability to deal with reality infect others who are innocent bystanders? The fact is, coping with stress has significance far beyond your personal betterment. Remember that fact when you seek to enhance your ability to cope with your stressors.

Moral Disengagement

Michael Church and Charles Brooks

We often change our minds about things. Early in the pandemic, many medical experts felt masks were of minimal use because the thinking at the time was that the virus was transmitted primarily from surfaces. Eventually it became clear that transmission was through the air, and social distancing and wearing masks suddenly became a primary defensive action. In this case, it was adaptive and wise for medical experts to change their minds.

Sometimes, however, we are neither wise nor rational, and we change our minds because of the indoctrinating influence of others. For instance, throughout the 1960s there were a variety of conspiracy theories that some people accepted. Marylyn Monroe died in 1962 of a drug overdose, but a few believed she was murdered by the government because of her alleged and nefarious ties to Jack and Robert Kennedy. Another belief grew that because of the counterculture, antigovernment movement of the 1960s – make love not war – the government flooded the food and water supply with LSD to pacify the population. My favorite was that United Nations troops would arrive on our shores in black helicopters to overthrow the US government.

From a psychological perspective, what’s fascinating about people who come to accept a conspiracy theory, no matter how bizarre or irrational, is how they hang on to the new belief in the face of contradictory evidence. I recently overheard a person say, “Of course, Obama wasn’t a legal president; he was born in Africa.” Good lord, even Trump eventually admitted that his birther argument was wrong. Someone also told me several days ago, “Did you see Biden? He looked different, didn’t he? That wasn’t him, you know. There are three or four doubles who fill in for him because he sleeps most of the time.”

Many people, once they make a decision – especially if publicly announced – are resistant to changing their mind because they want to see themselves as consistent, and appear that way to others. Also, the more emotional involvement they have in the decision, the more resistant they are to changing their mind. It is truly remarkable how people can justify and rationalize just about any decision, and do so without feeling guilt, regret, shame, or remorse, even if circumstances suggest they made a bad decision. Social psychologist Albert Bandura called this process Moral Disengagement. People can justify virtually any decision or action they take, even self-destructive actions that are also hurtful to others. Shame is irrelevant. You may think that shaming someone will encourage them to change their belief, but it won’t. In fact, it is likely to raise their defensive shields more strongly to resist facts that speak against their belief.

Challenging someone’s irrational beliefs – such as, by imposing a vaccine or mask mandate – can also lead them to verbal, even physical, violence. Imagine this conversation:

“Sir, why did you threaten that school board member?”

“Because she voted to require my kids to wear a mask in school. She is evil and trying to harm my kids.”

“But, sir, she says she wants to protect the children.”

No matter what he replies, he is thinking – possibly at a subconscious level but definitely revealing a bizarre display of twisted psychological machinations – “She is evil because I’m attacking her. I only attack evil people who threaten me and my family.” Note how he merges his belief with his actions. The board member is evil because, “I am threatening her, and I am threatening her because she is evil!” Ignoring the context of this example, the broader coping lesson here is that you could easily act in an inappropriate way to justify your beliefs. When your mind observes your action, it is straightforward to conclude that the action is justified; you attack someone because you believe they’re evil, and your attack confirms for you that they are indeed evil. The problem is, this moral disengagement is a lousy way to cope with stress because the process ignores the importance of personal values in the coping process. When you divorce what you say, do, and believe from the ethics, standards, and morals of society – doing the right things for the right reasons – your stability, social conscience, and autonomy are sacrificed. The damage to self-empowerment and your ability to cope with your stressors is significant. You discard critical thinking, ignore the advice of experts, and blindly follow the misinformed herd. Your honor, dignity, self-esteem, autonomy, and self-sufficiency are all sacrificed on an altar of dependency on others. You must constantly live in a world of denial to avoid realizing your inability to control how you live; you are now vulnerable to feelings of helplessness, followed by depression, followed by chronic self-damaging actions that rob you of your ability to cope with your stressors. All because your life is not guided by a stable set of personal values.

Moral Disengagement boils down to bullying. Values are cast aside to cover up one’s personal inadequacies and insecurities.

The Coping Hazards of Tribalism

by Michael Church and Charles Brooks

A sure way to find yourself burdened with excessive stress is to try and control things in your life that are beyond your control, such as others’ behavior. One key to mitigating your stressors is to stay centered on what you can control directly – your thoughts and actions. That process will be greatly facilitated when you recognize that your most important thoughts should revolve around your values, purposes, goals, and acceptances. Once you identify these thoughts, your task becomes ensuring that your actions are consistent with these thoughts. It sounds simple enough, but this process can be difficult because reality can be tough to accept, and values can be hard to identify. Why? Because others often try to construct your reality based on their agenda, and they work to convince you to accept their value system. To do so, they assure you that issues confronting you are emotionally based – that is, these false messengers try to trigger despair, frustration, anger, and hatred inside you. They console you that “our side” – the tribe – is right; “their side” is wrong, and must be rejected, defeated, overpowered, and crushed as evil. If you accept their emotionally-based foundation for your thoughts and actions, you are no longer listening to yourself and evaluating reality objectively; you are no longer identifying your values and coordinating your actions to those values. Instead, you have succumbed to a manipulative message of tribalism that makes you no more than a passive puppet.

The Survey Center on American Life reports alarming increases in depression and suicide in America over the past decade, and a similar increase in those saying they have no close friends. In a Facebook world that amplifies differences in values, beliefs, and opinions, psychologists note how acceptance of – and coping with – lifestyle changes is becoming progressively more difficult. Technological developments, social media, working at home, shopping online, barely knowing neighbors, and interacting more frequently with artificial intelligence instead of humans – all can have a depersonalizing and dehumanizing effect on you. The resulting frustration and anger can make you vulnerable to concocting a psychological coping strategy that is a recipe for disaster.

The progression to coping catastrophe is well-documented: Emotion-based coping strategies –> Acceptance of extremist autocratic false messages –> Rejection and hatred of targeted others –> Subordination of your values, purposes, goals, and independence to the “tribe,” aka the “clan” or “cult” –> Denial of objective reality –> Feelings of helplessness –> Increasing self-criticism –> Unhappiness and depression –> Self-damaging actions.

When subservience to false messaging and alternate realities becomes your pattern of coping with stress, in the long run you will suffer. Objective reality has a way of creating immense psychological pressure from this pattern, and the “self” – who you thought yourself to be – will crumble with dire consequences. On the other hand, if you commit to accepting objective and verified reality, if you learn to discriminate between what you can and cannot control directly, and if you decide to be guided by values and standards that you – not others – choose, life becomes less stressful and you will be better able to cope with change. You will find a corresponding increase in the energy you need to pursue independent and constructive pursuits that bring you satisfaction and contentment with a life well-lived. You will get along better with others because you will be able to accept their perspectives and individuality. In short, you will be guided by humility, empathy, a social conscience, self-actualization, and life satisfaction, qualities that cannot merge with who you are – your sense of self – if you are guided by tribalism.