Helpless Dependency

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the examples used (“Laura” and “Reggie”) are fictional. The post presents possible actions one may take based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Laura is 30 years old and is frequently physically abused by her husband. She never knows when she will be hit, slapped, pushed to the floor, or thrown against a wall. She would like to end her marriage but says, “I have no job and nowhere go, but even if I did, he’d find me and beat me. And I’ll never go to the cops because he said he’d kill me. I feel so helpless.”

Psychologist Martin Seligman developed the concept of Learned Helpless to explain how an event that produces unpredictable and inescapable pain can lead victims to conclude there is nothing they can do, so why bother to fight it? Laura talks about divorce, but she may never be able to pursue that course because of her feelings of helplessness. She feels she has lost control, which makes her give up.

The important coping lesson here is that you must be on the alert for feeling helpless about things in your life. Being vigilant will help you avoid a major danger: becoming overly dependent on someone whose domination makes you feel helpless.

Laura, for instance, fears taking independent action against her husband, but she is also becoming vulnerable – because of helplessness – to becoming totally dependent on anyone who may happen along and tell her, “I can help you out of your desperation.” This process is precisely how young people who feel adrift in life, and misunderstood and stifled by their parents, fall under the spell of a charismatic cult leader.

Autonomous action is essential to effective coping; excessive and inappropriate dependency on another will cause you to let the other do everything for you, making you weaker than before.

As for Laura, of course she has no control over her husband’s behavior. But she cannot see that being nice, subservient, and always trying to placate him so he won’t attack her simply won’t work. She can, however, take independent action, such as contacting women’s resource centers and legal aid organizations for experienced advice on how to proceed. If children are involved, she can contact child protective services.

It is important to remember that just because you feel you have no direct control over the source of your troubles – and you may not, whether it be a spouse, criminal, supervisor, or acquaintance – there are always multiple options available to you that allow you to exercise control in indirect ways. Rather than reaching out to false messengers who do not have your best interests in mind, you must organize your coping efforts around a proactive plan of action that is under your control. Obviously, you can reach out to others for assistance, but not to the point that you totally depend on them.

Reggie is sixty-eight and lives in low-income housing in an inner city. Drugs and gang activity are rampant in his apartment complex. His apartment has been burglarized a couple of times, and he has also been robbed once while walking on the street. Reggie lives in perpetual fear of being attacked or robbed and feels totally helpless. In fact, after one of the burglaries, the police captured the perpetrator. When asked if he was willing to testify against him, he said, “No. What’s the use? He’ll just get off and come after me. I got nothin’ to fight him.” What could someone like Reggie do? A first step might be is trying to organize his neighbors into fighting the perpetrators who commit crimes against them. There is great strength in numbers. If they seek police advice on ways to form a neighbor protection group, and if they tap into legal resources available to low-income victims, they just might discover that following these strategies over which they have some control might bring them significant positive results.

The one thing victims must not do is move into apathy/surrender mode and make those actions their habitual response to their troubles. If you are in a situation of unpredictable and seemingly inescapable pain, you must determine your “circle of control” and, operating within that circle, design a coping plan and fight like hell! If you don’t, you are well on the way to depression.

Pathologies and the Mask

NOTE: This post is neither directed at, nor refers to, any particular person. It presents possible speculation based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Various surveys report that from somewhere between 50 and 90% of the population wear a mask in public. Many folks continue to be surprised at the level of resistance to the mask. My blog entry on May 8, 2020 discussed this issue in the context of narcissism, but some people have asked about psychological pathologies in general. That is, while refusal to wear a mask can reflect the belief that, “It’s all about me,” can refusal also be due to other personality disorders or psychological conditions? The answer is yes.

Consider antisocial personality disorder, a pattern of behavior in which individuals consistently disregard and violate the rights of others around them. Features of antisocial personality disorder include irritability, irresponsibility, and aggression; impulsive and reckless behavior; and little remorse or guilt for causing discomfort in others. Obviously, victims of this disorder would be less likely to wear a mask.

The same could be said for psychopathy, which overlaps with antisocial disorder, but is considered more extreme and intense in its expression. Psychopathy is characterized by absence of empathy. Callousness, detachment, and a lack of empathy enable psychopaths to be highly manipulative as they glibly ignore social norms. Masks would not be their thing!

In our book Subtle Suicide: Our Silent Epidemic of Ambivalence about Living, Mike Church and I discuss the pattern of behavior called subtle suicide. Sufferers show repetitive actions that are self-defeating and self-destructive. Victims may not be overtly suicidal, but they have a lackadaisical attitude toward life – “If I’m careless crossing the street and get run over and killed, what’s the big deal?” Subtle suicide rarely involves a single self-defeating behavior such as smoking cigarettes, failure to see the doctor on a regular basis, drinking alcohol, gambling, etc.; rather, subtle suicide actions fit a larger pattern of slow and steady self-destruction, usually over many years. Anyone fitting this profile would certainly be likely to refuse wearing a mask, an action that would be part of a larger pattern of self-damage.

Although typically diagnosed in children, oppositional defiant disorder in adults would certainly influence mask wearing. ODD victims are temperamental, argumentative, and refuse to comply with rules. They deliberately annoy others and blame others for their own mistakes.

Their repeated pattern of negativity, hostility, and defiance encourages them to “spit in the face” of authority figures who urge them to follow guidelines for their own and others’ well-being. Suggestions from authority figures to wear a mask would certainly trigger such oppositional reactions.

Victims of avoidant personality disorder struggle with shyness and fear of rejection from others. They are easily hurt by criticism from others, and are unwilling to try new and potentially embarrassing things. Under the right conditions, they might appear to be good candidates for obeying mask policies; under different circumstances, however, the threat of rejection and disapproval from others could make could make wearing a mask threatening to them.

Obviously, refusing to wear a mask is not necessarily a sign that one has a personality disorder or some other psychological pathology. Reaching such a conclusion would require a diagnostic evaluation of the individual and evidence of a persistent pattern of behavior. That said, however, whether one masks-up or not could easily be indicative of larger personality tendencies. The mask can also trigger internal insecurities: the robust man who fears weakness or criticism; the teenager desperate to avoid ridicule by peers. Anyone tormented by insecurities at some level of their mind is vulnerable to view wearing a mask as psychologically threatening.

Thus, when you see someone without a mask in a situation where donning a mask is appropriate – such as a grocery store – you may be right on target if you ask yourself, “I wonder what inner turmoil they’re avoiding?”

Counseling Tips II

Brian and Lee don’t know each other, but they are both clients of psychologist Dr. Wiley, who is treating them for social anxiety. They have each had 3 sessions with Wiley, mostly discussing diagnostic test results and their treatment plan. Wiley also runs a weekly support group of 5-6 people who are struggling with social anxiety, and he has suggested to both Brian and Lee that they join the group.

Brian and his wife decided that logistics would work out best for the first session if he worked late, ate in town, attended the session, and then took the bus home. That morning, Brian says to his wife, “I’m really upbeat about this session. I’ll be anxious in a group of strangers, but in the long run I think it’s going to pay off.” Brian is optimistic.

Lee and his wife have also decided that because his wife needs the car that evening, he should eat in town, go to the meeting, and then take a bus home. That morning, Lee says to his wife, “I’m pretty sure this is going to be a big waste of time. I mean, really, what can a bunch of people like me possibly have to say that would help. But I told Dr. Wiley I’d give it a shot, so what the hell.” Lee is pessimistic.

After the session, Brian is on his bus when a stranger sits down across the aisle from him and starts reading the paper. Brian thinks, “One guy in the group said that having a simple exchange with a stranger helped him. OK, deep breath and let’s go for it.” Brian looks at the stranger and says, “This heat wave has been brutal. Hope it breaks soon.” The man looks over at him and says, “Absolutely! It’s too hot,” and returns to his paper.

Brian thinks, “Wow! It worked! I started a conversation and he treated me OK, not like I’m some kind of weird loser! Can’t wait to tell Beth [wife]. This is the start of a new me.”

Same scene on Lee’s bus. He sees the stranger across the aisle and thinks, “That guy in the meeting said a brief chat with a stranger helped him. It’s nonsense, but I’ll try it.” He looks at the stranger and says, “This heat wave has been brutal. Hope it breaks soon.” The man looks over at him and says, “Absolutely! It’s too hot,” and returns to his paper.

Lee is crushed. “My God, I said something and what do I get in return? Two or three words? That’s it? This whole damn counseling thing is a big waste of time and money.”

Brian and Lee have experienced a self-fulfilling prophesy. Brian the optimist puts a positive spin on the exchange with the stranger, while Lee the pessimist interprets the same experience as worthless. The lesson is clear: It helps to be an optimist. A positive attitude won’t guarantee that things will go well, but as we said in Counseling Tips last week, you have to believe that counseling is going to work for it to have a reasonable chance of working for you.

But there’s another lesson here, equally important as being upbeat and confident – and that is how you perceive and interpret events you experience. When under stress that produces psychological conflicts, people generally focus on their emotions. How many times have you told yourself, “I should not be so anxious. I’ve got to do something about it. I’ve just got to become less anxious.” That focus is all wrong because anxiety is not your problem; your problem is how you interpret situations that bring on anxiety, and the inappropriate actions you take to subdue it. Don’t treat your emotions as if they are alien invaders. They are you! We all have them and it’s natural. You are not weird.

If Brian and Lee try to suppress their anxiety, they invalidate themselves; they open themselves to self-criticism, helplessness, and depression. They need to accept the anxious part of themselves, and work on changing their perception of situations involving strangers, and developing actions that reflect that new perception.

Counseling Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep a daily written record of your actions and feelings including the situations in which they occur. When you fail, do not dwell on the failure but examine what can be changed. The difficulty of the task, for instance, cannot be changed, but your preparation and effort can be. Focus on actions that bring you satisfaction. Do the “right” things, acting ethically and with integrity. Identify and challenge any irrational, self-defeating thoughts you have about needing to be some perfect “super-person” who is good at everything and loved by everyone. Remember, you are not in this world to live up to others’ expectations.

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

Suggestibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules for New Year’s Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gift of Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coping with “Big” Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Projection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfolding Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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