#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.  

Stress Is…?

Stress is a word we use almost daily, but it’s hard to find a decent definition because it is such a complex concept. But we can at least discuss some common misconceptions about stress, and note what stress is not.

Should stress be avoided? No! It is a necessary part of life. Besides, you can’t run from it. As long as you are alive you will experience stress. Even enjoyable experiences like Christmas or getting married can be very stressful. Any experience that requires adjustment and change – whether it be positive or negative – is stressful.

Is stress equal to anxiety? Again, no! Stressful events can produce anxiety, yes, but stress can also generate emotions like anger, jealousy, envy, depression, and guilt.

Does stress damage the body? Not necessarily. Evolution has built you to withstand daily stress brought on by the challenges and demands of daily living. Plus, if you don’t experience some minimal amount of daily stress, you’ll get bored at best, and agitated or depressed at worst.

Does stress weaken performance? Not always. In fact, heightened arousal, a dose of apprehension, and even some anxiety can enhance performance of well-learned skills. That’s why we can get superb performances from musicians and athletes when the stakes are the highest. On the other hand, if skills are in the early stage of development, stress can weaken performance. Stress can negatively impact the performance of poorly-learned responses. If you’re poorly prepared, stress will harm performance. Want to put stress to work for you? Prepare thoroughly with extensive practice.

Does avoiding change reduce stress? Put another way, are you better off staying in your daily, predictable, unchanging comfort zone? Not in the long run. Yes, change is stressful. Marriage, having a baby, seeking a job promotion, retiring – all are stressful and require adapting to something new. Would you say, however, that avoiding those things is in your best interest?

Avoiding change to reduce short-term stress leads to stagnation. Should you tolerate a mediocre job, or face the stress of seeking a new and more challenging position? The long-term result of avoiding change and never taking risks can be devastating. On the other hand, confronting the challenge of taking on something new can be exhilarating and rewarding! 

Don and Mary were struggling with whether to have a second child. Mary said yes, Don said no. They were financially secure and had a solid marriage. Don, however, was comfortable with their organized lives, and he worried about disrupting things by adding a second child. Ultimately, sensitive to his wife’s desires – which he valued greatly – Don decided that adding to the family could strengthen something else he valued greatly – his marriage.

Notice how Don analyzed his dilemma as a problem to be solved – not as an emotion to be avoided – and how he brought his values into the equation. Approaching things from a problem-based perspective, and assessing how his values could be coordinated to his actions, Don made the issue a challenge to be faced by partners, not a source of stress he should selfishly avoid. When he decided to stop running from his anxiety, and face a new challenge with his partner, that partnership improved and was infused with new energy and enthusiasm.

Stress and Health

Research has linked stress to many health problems: the common cold, ulcers, asthma, headaches, menstrual discomfort, skin disorders, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, stroke, appendicitis, glaucoma, diabetes, back pain – to one degree or another, all have been connected to stress. Emotional hassles, of course, may not be the primary cause of physical ailments, but the strain and pressure of everyday living can definitely complicate physical health. That being the case, coping effectively with stress is definitely a health-enhancing behavior.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that the “solution” to stress is not to try and avoid it. This strategy may give you temporary relief as you retreat to your comfort zone, but over the long run, consistent avoidance of stressors causes low self-esteem, self-criticism, and – eventually – depression. So, what alternate strategies to avoidance are available to you, and without those negative side-effects?

Identify what you value. If you value yourself and the roles you play in life – roles like parent, spouse, employee, or friend – but at the same time let yourself become less effective in these roles, how can you expect to feel better about yourself? Act honorably – with sincere commitment and dedication – toward those things you value in life.

Coordinate your actions with your values. Do you put off investigating diets (an action) even though you say, “I care about my health” (your value)? Do you put off joining a gym (an action) even though you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value)? Do you make excuses for continuing a health-compromising habit like smoking (an action), even though you say, “I know it’s bad for me” (your value)? Coordinating your values to health-enhancing actions will help you initiate and maintain those actions.

Modify your interpretation of stressful events. Some students facing final exams might see exams as threats that will reveal incompetence and lack of intelligence. Other students might see exams as challenges that require preparation, and present opportunities to demonstrate learning and academic skills. This latter interpretation will foster a sense of control and empowerment. The stress will not be eliminated, but feelings of helplessness when confronted with that stress will be significantly reduced.

Write about things troubling you. Writing down your inner-most thoughts about stressful events has been shown to bolster the immune system. This “self-dialogue” encourages restructuring your perceptions of stressful incidents into manageable coping tasks, thus lowering stress. Talking with trustworthy others can have the same positive effect.

Strive for Realistic Optimism. A powerful antidote to the harmful effects of stress is having an optimistic attitude – as long as the positive outlook is realistic.  Research has shown that two months after beginning law school, optimistic students – “I can get through this OK if I manage my time, make school my top priority, and work with other students.” – showed better immune system functioning than pessimistic students – “I’m in over my head and just don’t have the ability to handle this work load. I’m screwed!” Again, notice the importance of interpretation: The optimist sees stress as a challenge that can be successfully overcome with effort; in other words, stress is a problem that needs to be solved. The pessimist sees stress as an unconquerable foe that generates anxiety and fear; the pessimist becomes obsessed with uncontrollable emotions, which leads to helplessness and depression.  

If optimism improves immune-system functioning, can we say that it also increases survival rates when a terminal illness like cancer is involved? Unfortunately, no. An optimistic attitude can improve the quality of a cancer victim’s life, but there is no definitive evidence that optimism affects disease progression or survival rates. This statement, however, should in no way downplay the importance of attitude on your adjustment to disease – or to life in general.

For instance, there are many positive effects of optimistic thinking for cancer victims: Compared to pessimists, optimists are better able to express their feelings to others, and more likely to be liked by others; they are more resistant to depression; they are more likely to form positive attitudes about their disease, such as seeing how their illness brought their families closer together; they are better able to restructure their attitudes about their illness, reduce their stress levels, and have a higher quality of life during the illness. Therefore, although coping strategies like optimism may not result in a higher survival rate, sufferers and their families and friends should act like it does!

These are just some ways to cope with stress without resorting to avoidance. The key is to find strategies that help you generate “passion” about life, because passion fosters seeing the value of active participation in life. Being passionate encourages you to “connect” with life, not avoid it, and to devote yourself to focusing on effort, not emotions.

Hardiness

Psychologists use the term Hardy to describe people who respond relatively well to stress. Hardiness is associated with three C’s: Control, Challenge, and Commitment. 

Control. When you fail to control what is under your influence – or try to control things that are not – you create stress for yourself. Good coping strategies involve taking appropriate control over life situations you can influence. This approach is a lot like the Serenity Prayer used in Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the serenity to change the things I can/The courage to accept the things I cannot change/And the wisdom to know the difference.”

You must identify situations in which you have control. The fact those situations may be stressful is irrelevant. You must act within your circle of control by facing stress, and generating positive consequences of your actions

Challenge. If you knew what tomorrow will bring, what would your life be like? Boooring! Let’s face it, uncertainty and anxiety-provoking adventures make life exciting and challenging. You find yourself faced with a continuous series of problems and tasks. If you perceive your problems, responsibilities, and obstructions as challenges – not as potentially catastrophic events – you will be less stressed and perform better over the long run.

Yes, you increase your stress over the short term by facing challenges, but as you resolve them you experience lower stress and better psychological health over the long term.

Commitment. Psychological research shows it is less stressful to be committed to the demands of life, such as work, relationships, and parenting. If you are not committed to your responsibilities, problems will build-up and, over the long haul, you will have more stress. You will also have fewer feelings of accomplishment.

It’s the bottom of the 9th inning and your team is ahead 3-2. You are playing shortstop, and the bases are loaded. You have a choice. You can think: “God, I hope the ball is not hit to me. I could make an error and lose the game.” Or, you could think: “I want the ball to come to me. This is my opportunity to help win the game. After all, isn’t that why I’m out here?” Which “you” will enjoy the game more and have a greater chance of success? 

Control, Challenge, Commitment. Accept the importance of maximizing these three “C’s.” By doing so you may face more hurdles, but you will also be more successful in overcoming them. Avoiding obstacles is a losing coping strategy; facing obstacles will bring you more confidence, higher self-esteem, and provide you with more satisfaction about your role in life.

Coping With Disappointment

Last summer I was taking a walk and saw four young people in the park, each wearing their graduation cap and gown. They were laughing and having a great time as they posed for pictures taken by each of them in turn.

I wasn’t sure what high school they had attended, but it didn’t matter because every school in the area had canceled graduation exercises because of the coronavirus. But these four kids were doing a great job of coping with what had to be a disappointing time for them. Good for them!

Hara Estroff Marano wrote about the high-school class of 2020 in Psychology Today (August 2020). Marano said these kids have been thrown a wicked curveball by life, a pitch that deprived them of a ceremony signaling achievement, and filled with accolades and pride. “Life needs such events,” said Marano. “Taking the time to acknowledge them…works as a kind of push-off to the challenges ahead. The future feels less certain, rockier, without the landmarks.”

I imagined myself spouting this stuff to the four students in their graduation garb and just began laughing. Their future will be rougher without experiencing a ceremony? Nonsense! You know what I think? Years down the road those kids will have kids of their own, and one day their kids will suffer a terrible disappointment, and the parent will take them aside and say, “You think you have it bad? Let me tell you what happened when I graduated from high school!” Kind of like when our grandparents tell us how they walked five miles to school each day, usually in a foot or two of snow, uphill both ways.

As I continued walking, I began to think about how we cope – or don’t – with disappointment. Life is full of disappointments, beginning when we discover that we may not get fed before those hunger pangs begin, or we may not get a clean diaper right away. Then we reach that age when we can walk, and we long to discover all the wondrous things surrounding us – only to learn that the most frequently-used word in the language is, “NO!”

In my 41 years of teaching and advising college students, I had numerous student office visits – not to talk about coursework, but to talk about some disappointment in their lives: broken romances; family finances that could preclude their return to college; alcohol/drug problems; acquaintance rape; sexual identity; roommate problems; parents trying to dictate their life, etc., etc.

My most memorable one was when a student came in at the end of a semester and said that her wedding scheduled in 10 days had to be canceled because the groom decided to back out. As you might expect she was pretty emotional about the whole thing, although angrier than anything else. One thing for sure, she wasn’t going to cancel the honeymoon that was booked. Turns out she and the bridesmaid took the trip and they had a ball. Everyone they met assumed they were a lesbian couple, and they just let that story ride.

No matter what the issue, when chatting with “disappointed” students, I tried – not always successfully – to follow this model: Let them monopolize the conversation; show understanding and empathy, not criticism; ask them to identify what options – realistic ones – they had to solve the issue. In a few cases, I referred them to the Counseling Center, or to an outside mental health service. Most of the time, however, I discovered that they wanted to hear someone say, “I understand,” and, “It’s not your fault”; then they began to handle their problem on their own.   

Parents don’t always do a good job of preparing their kids for disappointment because they believe that the road to healthy self-esteem for their kids is paved with success. Thus, they work hard to protect their kids from failure, and to help the kids enjoy success in all they do. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to teach children how to cope with the reality of failure and disappointment.

Kids need to be taught that success is never guaranteed, and comes from preparation and effort. Likewise, they must learn that failure does not mean they are worthless. In fact, they need to discover that failure provides learning opportunities by giving them information about where they need to improve so they can increase their chance of success in the future.

When parents structure their children’s environment to make success easy, the children don’t learn the importance of preparation and effort; they don’t learn to ask if their evaluations of their abilities are realistic; nor do they learn the danger in assuming that someone will always be there to bail them out.

These points apply to all of us, not just to kids. Your biggest coping enemy is trying to avoid failure, because then you will never learn to correct mistakes and improve. To cope well, you must accept challenges, face your failures, examine the information they provide, and correct your mistakes to increase your chances of success.

Empathy Deficiency

Some people have a hard time understanding how others are feeling. Do you feel empathy for others when they suffer discomfort? If not, you’re not alone, but it’s kind of sad when you think about it. We humans are “social animals,” but if you can’t feel empathy for others, how can you be fully “social”? Is it reasonable to say that empathy is one of the most honorable expressions we can give to others because it fulfills our destiny as social beings?

“Well,” you might ask, “if empathy is so crucial to being human, why do I have a hard time with it? I don’t hate people, and I enjoy helping others, so what’s my problem?”

Where might an empathy deficiency come from? The answer can be complicated because it would depend on the particular experiences and genetic make-up of each individual. Bill might be un-empathetic for entirely different reasons than Sally.

Still, it is possible to come up with a general understanding of empathy deficiency if we think about empathy in a different way. That is, when you boil it down, empathy means you are sensitive to emotional signals from others.

Larry: “I’m glad to see that Roger is recovering nicely from Susan’s death.”

Declan: “Recovering nicely? Didn’t you see his face or hear his voice when you asked him how he’s doing? Yeh, he said, ‘Just fine; the kids and I are moving forward and we’re doing OK,’ – but that was bull. It’s three months since Susan died and the guy is just eaten up inside. He’s in bad shape and needs support. It’s all over his face and in his voice. I can see it and hear it. The guy is really hurting. I think we need to steer him toward some support group.”

Declan seems to “get it,” but Larry doesn’t. Declan picked up on some facial and voice cues that Larry didn’t. So, let’s re-phrase our question – “Where might an empathy deficiency come from?” – and ask, “How could a person develop an insensitivity to emotional social cues expressed by others?”

Note how this question doesn’t see an empathy deficiency as always meaning someone mean-spirited – a misanthrope who dislikes people and uses them for personal gain. That could be true for a particular individual, but seeing the deficit as an insensitivity to social cues makes the deficiency more of a perceptual problem for someone, not necessarily a character flaw or chronic indecency on their part. So, let’s ask, “What might be the origin of this perceptual handicap?”

Imagine being raised from birth in a home that is cold, rejecting, and full of criticism. Love and support are in short supply. In infancy, you learn that the world is not a trusting place – you can’t depend on others to satisfy your needs, especially your need for comfort, warmth, soft cuddling, and gentleness. During your preschool years the deprivation continues and you begin to feel some guilt (“What am I doing wrong?”). The guilt makes you develop fear of showing any initiative or independent action, believing that doing so will certainly result in abandonment by your parents. 

As you grow older you have no idea how to give and receive love because you have never been taught such interactions. Any developmental mirroring that occurs in your early experience is limited to experiencing frustration, uncertainty, guilt, and rejection – never understanding, support, compassion, and affection. Furthermore, any thought of “giving yourself” to another in a context of love is threatening because it triggers guilt, fear of rejection, and your core fear of abandonment.

Empathy becomes a threat to your stability. If you try to understand how others are feeling you expose yourself to a situation in which you have no idea how to behave. Everyday emotional social cues – a smile, a laugh, a grimace, a cry – become aversive to you because you don’t know how to respond to them. You learn to avoid or ignore them.

If someone says with a smile, “You know, I really like you,” you are threatened because you don’t know what to say. Your cold upbringing did not prepare you for mutual caring and empathy. If a friend says, “I’m hurting ever since Gail dumped me,” you’re at a loss as to how to answer, how to offer solace, how to…empathize.

Social signals – whether positive like a smile or negative like a frown – frustrate you, make you angry, and foster conflict in your relationships with others, the very emotions and actions you have experienced from others in your upbringing.

Are you doomed for life? No. People and events in your past helped make you who you are, butunless you choose it you are seldom perpetually enslaved by your past.

Remember that statement: When you blame people from your past – parents, siblings, or other caregivers – for your adult problems, you are ignoring the fact that you are capable of making decisions to help you overcome the effects of a rocky childhood. Blaming your past says you believe you are entitled to special treatment because your childhood was tough. That’s not the way life works. Effective coping must always involve accountability on your part.

If your sense of entitlement, and your history of difficulty in assessing social signals lasts for years – for instance, well into adulthood – you may need professional psychological help to unravel the various threads your mind has woven over the years. Just remember, there’s no shame in seeking help. It’s the honorable thing to do, and, in fact, you empower yourself by doing so. On the other hand, if you obsess about yesterday as the cause of your troubles, how can you possibly be ready to cope with today’s challenges, much less tomorrow’s?

The bottom line? You can learn empathy; you can – with help – teach yourself to be sensitive to social cues; you can learn to become a more active participant in the social enterprise of being human. Like so many things in life that challenge you, it’s your choice.

Perceptions Need Adjusting?

Note: This story has been modified to insure anonymity.

I was just about checked out at the grocery register when the clerk recognized the man behind me and said, “Pete, it’s good to see you out.”

            He replied, “This is the first time in 6 months I’ve been out. I’ve just been so scared. It’s really tough being alone when you’re not used to it. People just don’t know.”

            I figured that Pete – who looked around 70 behind his mask – had possibly lost his wife. But I didn’t know Pete, so I didn’t know for sure, but I decided to chime in anyway. I said, “I know I wouldn’t want to go through it. When you’re used to being with someone, suddenly being alone has to be really frightening.”

            “It’s terrible,” he said. “Everything became so quiet. Even the slightest noise scared me to death. I never knew the refrigerator made so much noise. It was so quiet and all of a sudden it came on and I nearly jumped out of my skin every time.”

            I had to get moving or people would start scowling at me for holding up the checkout line. But I wanted to leave Pete with something, and said, “The refrigerator is reminding you it’s there for you, keeping your food cold, just for you. Think of the noise as something reassuring – ‘It’s OK, I’m here for you. Relax and feel safe.’”

            He didn’t say anything, but just looked at me. I hope he was processing what I said, and in a positive way. I just smiled – which was hidden by my mask – and said, “Take care,” as I walked away.

            We’ve said this before, but coping efforts are not helped when you focus on – and try to avoid – the emotions you feel. Pete, for instance, had been paralyzed by fear for 6 months that imprisoned him at home. His fear was his focus, so much so that even a small noise was fed into his fear network. His perception of the noise from the fridge got all messed up, and the result was increased fear. Same with his grief. Fred no doubt mixed his grief and fear together, which made it more difficult for him to process his sadness.

            Pete was all hung up on his fear and grief, so he stayed hidden away, avoiding the outside world. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that emotions carry valuable signals that can help him adjust to the unknown, and to loss. Fear tells him to find ways to prepare and be vigilant; grief tells him to seek ways to honor the memory of the loved one he lost. The focus must be on actions, not on how he feels.

            When you’re faced with a coping issue, it pays to remember that if you focus on your troublesome emotions – like fear and grief – you become self-absorbed and begin to feel sorry for yourself; you lose confidence to take on challenges; you begin to perceive things irrationally.

“Well, OK,” you ask, “but what could Pete have been doing differently during those 6 months?”  

For starters, four things come to mind: Maintain his social network by reaching out to friends and family; join a support group of people with similar problems; allow himself to accept help from others; finally, give help to others.

            In short, after giving himself a reasonable time to grieve, Pete’s focus should be just as it was that day I saw him – re-evaluating things like a refrigerator noise, venturing into the world once again, and acting in ways that make him feel a part of life again.

My Way or the Highway

Do you prefer simple, definitive answers to questions? Suppose you hear on the news about a man who lives in your town. A local business where this guy worked was losing money and was forced to lay-off 50% of its work force, and he was one of them. Over a period of months his financial situation worsened. He was unable to find another job and his unemployment benefits ran out. His 10-year old son has a life-threatening illness that requires medication he can no longer afford. Desperate, our unemployed dad breaks into a pharmacy and steals the medicine. He gets caught. How should this man be punished?

Simple Answer: He committed a felony and should go to trial. If found guilty he should go to jail.

Complicated Answer: If found guilty maybe he should receive a suspended sentence so he can continue to look for work. Could the pharmacy put him on an affordable payment plan for the medicine? Could the drug company supply him with the medication and put him on an affordable payment plan once he is back at work? Maybe local media could run his story, and local businesses and neighbors might work to help him financially until he is able to find a job.

If you like the simple answer, and believe that life is really an either/or deal, the odds are that you’re going to have some coping problems somewhere along the line. Why? Because you want life to be something it isn’t: Simple. You want things to be black or white, right or wrong. You believe that if something is right for you, it should be right for everyone, and everyone should see it as right. You have no tolerance for ambiguity, subtleties, nuance, or dissenting opinions. 

Let’s face it, stress results when the answers to problems are not simple; it results when others disagree with you, and don’t see your way as best; it results when others show creativity, independence, and initiative, but you are unwilling – or unable – to do so.

When faced with complex stressful situations, coping requires compromise, courtesy, humility, empathy, and teamwork. If you insist on living by simplistic, either/or, black/white rules, you will not be equipped to solve the challenges posed by life’s complexities, shades of gray, and nuance. If you believe, “There’s only one way to solve this conflict,” you will fail, and stress will continue to haunt you.

In the Spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, some people took to the streets to demonstrate against stay-at-home restrictions. Many TV viewers watched, fearful for their health if reopening occurred too soon, yet also empathetic with the demonstrators, understanding their frustration. Stress was in ample supply all around.

A major contribution to everyone’s stress resulted from the either/or manner in which choices were delivered to the people: Close or reopen society; follow the President or your Governor; think like a liberal or like a conservative; be guided by the medical or by the financial aspects of the crisis; choose us or them, your needs or your neighbor’s. In other words, some leaders preached either/or thinking, and encouraged us to think like simpletons!

Unfortunately, simplistic either/or thinking encouraged everyone to take sides and overlook the complexities of the problem facing them. The result was emotional upheaval, anxiety, frustration, and anger that made coping difficult. Emotions! Decisions were approached from an emotion-based context, when they needed to be approached from a problem-based context. There were problems that needed solutions, but everyone worried about how much they were worrying.

Imagine that your boss tells you to decide to make Pete or Joan –it’s your decision – the leader of the team for an upcoming important project. When you see the issue as either/or, Pete or Joan, you put yourself in a decision-making straitjacket that is almost guaranteed to maintain your stress level. Your focus on emotion will make you anxious about how you will be seen by your boss if your choice is terrible.

Give yourself a break. Your emotions do not need solving – a problem needs solving. Why not make Pete and Joan provisional co-leaders? If one obviously shines, you slowly elevate that one to leader. Notice how you have removed the either/or stressor, and made the conflict data driven: “I will let their performance determine which one emerges as leader.”

Assigning Pete and Joan as co-leaders is a middle-ground solution that allows you to design a flexible plan of action, and continually measure how well the plan is proceeding. The resolutions to most conflicts are usually most successful when they include features from all possible options, and allow for feedback – data – to evaluate their effectiveness. Let Pete’s and Joan’s performance determine your final decision.

Note how this strategy makes your accountability much easier. You convert an emotion-based approach to your decision to a problem-based approach. That means you are guided by results, not by a gut feeling. A problem-solving analysis involves actions based on realistic evaluation of measurable outcomes. Over the long run, your problem-focused approach – unlike an emotional-focused approach – will allow you to be accountable for your decision, and a lot more confident that your decision was valid.