The Power — and Danger — of Failure

We behave, do things, and most of our actions have consequences. Some of those outcomes are mild, but others can be very intense. Some are positive and some are negative. The positives bring us varying degrees of pleasure and reassurance. We like consequences that make us feel good, so we have a strong tendency to repeat actions that bring about those positive effects. But, whether mild or strong, it is the negative consequences – our failures, disappointments, letdowns, mistakes – that are the great teachers in life. Athletic coaches certainly know this fact. Even following a win, they say things like, “We need to study our mistakes so we can get better.” They know that improvement results from focusing mostly on faults, not strengths.

Psychologists also recognize the value of failure when coping with stress. That is, life is full of negative experiences that cause you stress, and the best way to deal with that stress is to confront and examine your failures, and make necessary adjustments to improve your future actions. The spotlight is on actions that bring you anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions, not so much on effective coping behaviors. Those actions that work for you take care of themselves; it’s those actions that get you into trouble that require examination.

Unfortunately, some people “fuse” to their failures. When they act and experience a negative outcome, they direct those negative thoughts and feelings inward, at themselves. Following a bad outcome, they use terms like frustrated, fearful, incompetent, and worthless to describe themselves. Is this you? If so, you must remember that following failure, when you “fuse” to your negative thoughts and feelings – meaning you absorb your sense of self into the failure – you alter your sense of identity. You define yourself in a negative framework, and come to think of yourself as if you are your negative experiences. Obviously, getting caught in this pattern of negative thinking, and identifying your self-concept with failure, creates an identity that puts you in a whirlpool of inescapable stress. You quickly fashion a downward spiral of avoidance, depression, self-debasement, and self-destructive actions.

At this point you are especially vulnerable to stressors in your life. One way to deal with the stress is to reach out to supportive people in your life who will remind you of your positive gifts that can help you confront your negativity and change course. Family bonds can help here. Unfortunately, if constructive, supportive others are not available – or if you rebuff them – you may turn to those who willingly accept you into their sympathetic and understanding group, but who truly have only their own interests, not yours, in mind. This is how cults and other outlier extreme groups operate. They foster and encourage antisocial behavior, but give members a crutch – usually adoration of the leader, or hatred of some outside enemy – to prevent the downward spiral of self-hatred. Members of these groups can act hatefully and negatively toward others, but they do not fuse their actions with their identity as long as they have that crutch for support. Thus, to avoid the anxiety of fusing to their hateful actions and seeing themselves as evil, cult members must adore the leader, or hate the “enemy,” at all costs. The dynamics work for a while, but eventually reality will catch up and the crutch will fall – be it irrational adoration of the leader or hatred. At best, this state of affairs eventually generates dislike of self that permeates everything and leads to self-destructive behavior – aka, “drinking the kool aid.”

OK, you say, but how do I make myself less likely to fuse to my negative experiences without relying on some inappropriate model to help me? First, remember that failures can be great teachers and help you improve. Second, remember that negative reactions to failure and criticism – reactions like frustration, disappointment, anger, and questioning your competence – are natural and expected responses, and do not define your core self-concept. Third, accept that you are accountable for how you react to failure. Fourth, remember that family and trusted friends can sometimes help you meet that responsibility in an independent and autonomous way. Fifth, when confronting failure, look for solutions that are task-based – “Next time, I need to prepare and practice before facing this challenge.” – not emotion-based – “My report would have been right on the money if my lousy boss had given me more time.”  A task-based strategy will not encourage you to be unrealistic and seek continued success; rather, it will encourage you to do everything you can – within your circle of personal control – to minimize the odds of failure in the future.

Finally, remember that most life problems have no perfect solution. Your best option is often to accept life, yourself, and others even when these things can be unpleasant. This type of acceptance does not mean giving up or quitting; it means taking a realistic orientation to life that is focused on what you can directly control: your thoughts and behavior.

Being Accountable Does Not Mean Self-Blame

You suffered a traumatic experience. Maybe you were raped? Fought in Afghanistan and watched buddies die? Robbed at gunpoint while walking to your car at night? Served on a jury and recommended a killer receive the death penalty? Whatever the event, in the aftermath you are suffering post-traumatic stress, and are seeking ways to cope.

In this blog we often talk about effective coping as resting on a tripod of acceptance, accountability, and developing a coping plan. If you’re like most people, you might look at that “accountability” component and automatically assume it means, “taking responsibility for what happened.” Not always.

Sure, if you’re speeding on a rain-slicked road while a little buzzed on alcohol, and the car spins out of control causing an accident that injures others, you need to take responsibility that the accident was your fault. In most traumatic experiences, however, life throws a curve ball and – through no fault of your own – you happen to be in way. Maybe you’re one of the “others” in the accident just described. You’re driving safely for the weather conditions but you were still involved. Will you feel compelled to dwell on things you should have done, and load yourself with guilt because you didn’t? Too often, victims of trauma afterwards torment themselves with, “I should’ve done this,” a comment that cripples them with guilt.

In our coping triad, accountability does not mean admitting that you were at fault for what happened. It means, “recognizing that you are responsible for evaluating your role in the event.” In many cases, you must choose not to blame yourself, not to form a pity parade, and not to make it all about you as a sufferer. That’s what accountability means in this context: Empowering yourself to choose how best to evaluate your traumatic experience, and how best to resolve the subsequent emotions you feel.

Helen is 33 years old. When she was 8, over a period of two months she was sexually abused multiple times by an acquaintance of her parents.

 “For a long time, well into my 30s in fact, I went through the whole range of emotions and efforts to deal with the trauma. I held it in, telling no one. I blamed myself and felt guilty as hell. But I always found a way to let others know that, in general, I had a rocky childhood, and because of it I needed special handling. No wonder I had trouble with relationships. Guys didn’t want a fragile glass doll. Commitment on my part? Forget it. At some level in my mind, they were all in it to rape me. Then 5 years ago I met Rick. He was the one for sure. The night he proposed I broke down and confessed the whole sordid story. He was a rock. Encouraged me to get into counseling and a support group. He was with me all the way and we got married while I was still in treatment. But here’s the thing. I stopped being a martyr and blaming myself for the event. It happened! I didn’t deserve everyone’s sympathy because of it. I had no right to expect others to pad the corners of my world because I was abused as a child. Counseling, Rick, and my support group helped me empower myself. I’m actually ready to end the counseling sessions, but I will stay with my weekly support group. We understand each other like no one else can. We have walked in each other’s shoes and somehow that brings us strength as we help, and are helped by, each other. Yeh, I’ll stay with Rick, too.”

In the blog entry on November 15, 2019, we said, “Instead of putting yourself as the main ingredient in the coping recipe, reduce your part in the recipe. You can accomplish this by allowing your troublesome emotions and interpersonal conflicts to help you increase your sensitivity to others – your empathy toward them – who suffer from conflicts similar to yours. This sensitivity and empathy will encourage you to reach out to help them. The bonus? You will discover ample helpings of personal satisfaction to help you cope better with your own problems. In other words, happiness will emerge from your altruistic actions.”

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: The true human beauty of empathy is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy for your coping difficulties than empathetic service to others. As you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you will discover that whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties; you will realize that the best way to have coping strength emerge from your actions is to make sure you leave no one behind.

That’s what’s really meant by accountability. Not self-blame, but being there for others who, like you, need help in evaluating the reality of challenges imposed by obstacles on life’s path.

Altruism: Your Best Coping Partner

            Why do you want to cope better with the stresses and strains of living? No secret to that answer! Better coping increases the likelihood that you will experience a host of positive reactions – things like contentment, satisfaction, competence, confidence, well-being, and acceptance of who you are – that motivate you to achieve and improve. Better coping also enhances your sensitivity to the needs of others, and improves the quality of your interactions with them. When you cope well you become more comfortable with yourself, and accept that while you are far from perfect, you are close to being all you can be. That reinforcement is pretty empowering!

            In this blog, each week we discuss ways to enhance your sense of fulfillment as a useful participant in the human family. While there is no magical elixir that guarantees you will attain self-realization, serenity, and satisfaction with who you are, there are factors that come close to being absolutely essential for those outcomes: Focus on the needs of others; understand and empathize with them; and place their needs above your own. Psychological research shows that those who accept the premise, “I am not the indispensable ingredient in the recipe of life; it is not all about me.” –  those are the people who are most likely to be comfortable in their own skin, and to feel fulfilled by their participation in a life that places the needs of others above their own.

            As you read those words, however, be careful. Serving others is not like working at a salaried job that brings you material gains, nor is it like going to church hoping to become a more spiritual person. Personal contentment, fulfillment, and acceptance of who you are – these are not goals you can seek and find. Rather, they emerge from a coping style that (1) recognizes the inherent value of others, (2) understands that how you make people feel defines your true self-worth, and (3) is guided by the belief that self-knowledge can never be complete without feeling and appreciating the needs of others.

            The reality of 2022 is saturated with examples of self-preoccupation, narcissism, and attempts to dominate others. Observing all these biases against the family of humanity can be quite stressful. How do you live with that stress? Try reaching out to those in need, especially those who differ from you. Conduct yourself with honor and be guided by values that transcend your needs in deference to the needs of others. Your stressors will still be present, but they will not dominate and disrupt your daily activities. Isn’t that about the best you can expect from coping better with the stress of everyday life?

Cyberbullies

A girl gets into a prestigious college a few days after she breaks up with her boyfriend. He gets all bent out of shape over her acceptance and begins bullying her anonymously on social media. Before she knows it, others – strangers – join in and are merciless in their vilification of her.

In this example, there are several standard features from social psychology. First of all, the guy doing the bullying is obviously jealous of his former girlfriend, and angry at her for rejecting him and threatening his fragile ego. In short, her success frightens him, and his bullying is an effort to hide his insecurities. The girl has the upper hand and doesn’t even realize it. Second, people who don’t even know this girl join in abusing her. They’re probably harboring inner anger toward themselves and tormented by guilt and fear; attacking a stranger somehow makes them feel in control. Third, consistent with the data, our victim is female – women and people of color are much more likely to be bullied online. And fourth, our victim has achieved something not everyone does – admittance to a high-status college. Successful women are especially vulnerable to cyberbullying.

Many mental health professionals feel that cyberbullying is amplified because the bully really doesn’t understand the personal damage he is doing to his victim; in short, he has no empathy. That’s may be true in some cases, but it ignores other psychological dynamics that are frequently in play: the bully often has strong sociopathic tendencies that override empathy; the bully truly does want to inflict harm on his victim; and, the bully operates from a grotesque motivation to elevate his low self-esteem to avoid facing the fear and shame from some previous unresolved conflict. To the extent that these dynamics are in play – and I believe they are in most cases of bullying – might Retaliation be one effective strategy for the victim to use?

April had the same bullying experience as our girl above. She got so angry she enlisted the help of several of her good friends, and they saturated a variety of social media sites with vicious rumors and misinformation about her bully, including not-so-subtle belittling references to her attacker’s manhood. As expected, many strangers joined in, no doubt victims of bullying themselves from their own ex’s online tirades. April’s tormentor didn’t have a chance. He was slandered, pilloried, and denigrated so brutally that he removed his original posts against April. As April put it, “The pig could dish it out, but he sure couldn’t take it!”

What do you think? Is retaliation a good way to defeat a bully?

The “Wow” Factor

            Several years ago, a student introduced me to her family, which included her little brother, Hank, who was about five. When I said, “Hi, Hank,” he replied, “What’s your favorite word?” Kids. Ya gotta love ‘em. Surprisingly, however, – to me at least – without any thought, I just blurted out, “Wow. My favorite word is wow.” I guess he didn’t expect an answer because he just turned around and said, “Daddy, when are we leaving?” Great tonic for my ego! Thanks, Hank. Later that day I found myself wondering why my brain pulled that word out of a hat. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true. So often in my life, I find myself fascinated, surprised, shocked, or even bewildered, by someone or some event, and my usual first reaction is, “Wow.”

I think “Wow” is an indication that I am involved in an event; the event has affected me personally and I am reacting accordingly. To some extent, I guess I go through life in “Wow” mode, and – for better or worse – live and interact with the life events that unfold around me. “Wow” makes me want to enjoy and appreciate, analyze and understand an event, and resolve discrepancies between that event and my reactions. I suppose I want to be able to use the event to inspire improvement in my own life.

            Believe it or not – you might even mutter an incredulous “Wow” when you read my next comments – just the other day, right out of the blue, my brain threw me a connection between “Wow” and good coping. Really. Imagine this scenario playing out with a guy we’ll call Ken. Seems Ken got into an argument with Ray, one of his work colleagues. For the rest of the day, and into a restless sleep, Ken dwelled on the argument and didn’t know how to approach Ray the next day. “Wow,” Ken thought, “what is going on here? I never obsess over disagreements like this, conflicts with others, confrontations. What’s different here? Why is it affecting me so?”

            Ken’s “wow” is showing the first step in coping: Acceptance. Then he asks, “What’s going on? Why am I reacting differently to my argument with Ray than I normally do? These questions show he is seeking accountability from himself, the second step in effective coping with stress. There’s no doubt that Ken will probably talk with Ray about their disagreement; he will probe his attitudes toward Ray and try to discover any triggers in their disagreement that produced his atypical reactions to the disagreement. The point is, the “wow factor” will encourage Ken to formulate a plan of action – the third coping step – to resolve his stress. Right down the line, “Wow” fosters healthy coping reactions.

            OK, “wow” is good. Well, what happens when there’s no “Wow,” no concern on Ken’s part for why he is responding in a peculiar way? In this case, there is no acceptance, and no accountability. Ken’s likely conclusion is that Ray is an idiot for disagreeing; he will simply deny any unusual reaction on his part, and conclude that Ray is wrong and his opinions must be ignored. Without “Wow,” Ken’s self-absorbed denial and avoidance cast Ray as an enemy, and then Ken must find allies in the workplace who agree with him about Ray, and thus help Ken justify his rejection of Ray as incompetent. Ken will need dependency on others to maintain stability, prevent a loss of personal control, and thwart any descent into depression and self-destructiveness. Without “Wow,” Ken is nothing more than a fed-up cynic.

            What’s the moral of my story? Add “Wow” to your coping arsenal. Doing so will help you experience and appreciate life’s curve calls. “Wow” will help you see life not as threatening, but as challenging in its unpredictability – a vision that will help you be proactive and confident in dealing with unexpected and stressful events; “Wow” will help you understand that when life makes you uncomfortable, you must work to improve yourself, not deny and run away.

Self-Defeating Behavior II

When you get into a pattern of avoiding stress, you risk becoming weak, passive, and dependent on others; your self-esteem decreases as you become increasingly self-critical, and vulnerable to dysfunctions like depression. At this point, it may seem appropriate to resort to coping measures that you don’t realize are self-defeating and destructive. That is, your thoughts and actions damage your mental and physical well-being, and significantly reduce your quality of life. Therapist Michael Church has identified four self-destructive types, Direct-Active (See blog entry for November 5, 2021), Indirect-Active, Direct Passive, and Indirect-Passive. Let’s take a look at the Indirect-Active type. This type actively seeks and responds to situations by taking indirect action. Examples include excessive use and preoccupation with medical or psychiatric drugs to cope with problems, and a gallery of personality dysfunctions including paranoid, obsessive compulsive, borderline, and narcissistic tendencies.

            Don was raised in a family tradition of successful men. His father was a difficult and stern man, although highly respected in his community. He was well known and had status and influence. Don, a small and sensitive boy, was pretty much in awe of his father. His mom was a homemaker who stayed mostly in the background, but tried to be nurturant and supportive of her son. His dad could be tough on him, and they did not have a close relationship. Dad’s non-negotiable message was clear: “You will excel and stand out.” Don did so and matriculated at a prestigious college and then professional school where he completed an advanced degree. In college Don was not a partier. Quite the opposite, he was very obsessive, anxious, and a loner. He could be social when it came to advancing his status or opportunities, but having fun with the guys was not his cup of tea. His focus was always on meeting dad’s expectations to keep his own anxiety and self-doubts low.

            After college Don married and they began a family. His wife was a stay-at-home mom who kept busy with domestic duties. Don worked hard and spent long hours at the office. What looked like ambition, however, was really an effort to avoid stressors. His anxiety, self-criticism, and avoidance tendencies increased significantly when unexpected expenses arose at home, and when he had to adjust to a new boss at work. His smoking increased, and he became progressively more distant from his family. He seldom attended any of his kids’ special events, such as sports competitions, even though he could have rearranged his work hours. He worked most weekends, and when he was home, he was usually unavailable for his kids. Self-defeating actions were slowly kicking in, and they were damaging the stability of his family.

            His physician prescribed anti-anxiety medications that he took for years, even though his diagnosis was never precisely clear. From a distance, it appeared he suffered from some type of anxiety disorder, with avoidant, dependent, and narcissistic personality features. However, he never confronted his core anxieties with a professional therapist; he just kept treating his symptoms. He did not exercise and had an unhealthy, high-sugar diet. This combination of his poor health habits and poor coping skills eventually led to significant health problems. His anxiety levels rose, he became indecisive and unsure about how to deal with both work and domestic responsibilities, and he started “disappearing” for hours at a time, or staying up late to be by himself.

            As time went on, Don suffered through three bypass surgeries and bladder cancer. His poor health habits continued, and his self-destructive tendencies remained largely unchanged. Don refused to face and accept the reality that he was alienated his family, and he never accepted that he had personality dysfunctions needing to be addressed in psychotherapy. Instead, he covered them up, like he did so many things in his life. Lacking responsible adult guidance, his children learned to be self-defeating in their own ways. All of them ended up in counseling trying to understand their coping deficits and how to overcome them. Before his death from multiple health problems, Don told his kids he was aware of his negative impact and poor parenting, but confessed he lacked the strength and motivation to overcome his self-defeating ways. Don’s sole purpose for living was designed to avoid stress and discomfort at all costs. In narcissistic fashion, he was concerned only with himself, and constantly preoccupied with running from negative experiences, even while knowing he was neither providing emotional support for his family, nor being a positive role model for his kids. The result not only destroyed him, but also inflicted devastating psychological damage on his family.  

Yeasayers and Naysayers

Think about it for a moment. Are you one of those types who tend to agree with what is being said? You hear someone arguing in favor of an issue – “Children should be spanked” – and when they’re done you say, “That makes a lot of sense. I agree.” But then someone else speaks and argues for precisely the opposite position. As they move along with their argument, you find yourself saying, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that. What they’re saying seems reasonable to me. I agree.” Some might say you’re wishy-washy, indecisive, and unable to make up your mind. Psychologists have used the term “Yeasayers” to describe those who tend to agree with whatever point of view is being presented.

On the other hand, you may be one of those types who tends to disagree with whatever is being said. Bill says, “I really hate these cloudy days.” Wally responds, “It’s not that cloudy. I’ve seen lots of days with more clouds.” People might describe Wally as argumentative, stubborn, and uncooperative. Bill says, “Wally, why do you take issue with everything I say?” Wally: “That’s crazy. I don’t take issue with you. I agree with a lot of what you say.” Psychologists would call Wally a “Naysayer.”

Whether a yeasayer or naysayer, it’s pretty obvious that neither are good coping strategies. Yeasaying would seem to be a good way to cope. When you agree with someone, you’re giving their opinion validity and saying you value their opinion. That makes them feel good. After a while, however, they may begin to question your sincerity. It’s like a worker always agreeing with the boss’s ideas. The boss may eventually wonder, “Is he agreeing because I’m the boss, or because he’s afraid of me?”

Yeasaying can also be bad if you always agree to do something for someone. No matter what the request, do you typically say, “No sweat. I’ll be glad to help you out.” Such altruism may make you feel better, but it also brings coping dangers: What if helping involves a task that violates your values? What if you don’t want to be held accountable for this particular job? What if helping compromises your health, finances, or self-esteem? What if deep down you know that the job is unrealistic? When these factors come into play, you’re better off saying “No.”

When I was a professor, there were times when the President of the College asked me to serve on a particular committee, develop a project, or take on some similar extra duty. I never said no, even when I had my doubts about my ability to make a contribution [which was often!]. When the President asked something of me, I complied. Most of the time it worked out, but there were occasions when the extra work overburdened me, and my work in other areas suffered; or, there were times when I was simply unprepared and lacking knowledge in an area that made my contribution minimal at best. There were a couple of circumstances when I eventually had to go to the President and explain to him why I needed to be excused from my commitment to him. I could have saved myself a lot of grief and stress by taking that stand originally, and explaining why I didn’t feel I was the best person to represent him in whatever he was asking of me.

In the context of effective coping, you need to strike an appropriate balance between almost always agreeing or almost always disagreeing. A good coping strategy will allow you to adapt to the situation by weighing your needs and welfare against others’. This process can be especially difficult when you need to say “No.” You want to see yourself as empathetic, helpful, and humble, and avoid a reputation of being truculent, selfish, difficult, and not a team player. Those feelings are understandable. Remember, however, that “no” does not mean “never,” and the occasional, “Sorry, I can’t,” does not preclude helping someone in the future; nor does it make you a naysayer. That personality type shows a habitual pattern of being uncooperative, belligerent, and self-absorbed. The persistent confrontational nature is akin to a personality trait.

Coping with stress is challenging and requires behavior that not only takes into account your welfare and values, but also is adaptable to situational changes. Our coping model stresses acceptance of reality, personal responsibility, and coping actions that include empathy and humility. It helps to remember that you are not capable of everything and can’t control everything; you are liable for your accountability, not for others’; empathy and humility do not mean sympathy, nor do they mean habitually subjugating your independence to the whims of others.

Fear of Failure

If anything can add to your stress level, it’s fear of failure. If you think about it, though, this fear is pretty normal and even useful, because without it you will likely be unprepared, reckless, sloppy, and unfocused when confronted with a challenge. The problem, however, is that the fear can become excessive and lead to avoidance of challenges; or, worse yet, denial can set in, which almost guarantees you will indeed fail.

When you’re all bent out of shape from fearing that you will fail, the best coping strategy is to accept the fear, and alter your thinking to recast your fear as a sign that you are cautious and vigilant, and want to gets the odds of success in your favor before taking on the challenge. In other words, modify your fear of failure into productive risk assessment.

Here’s the point. Suppose you are torn about looking for a new job. You hesitate because you figure you’ll never find the perfect job and will fail in your job search. Then you get down on yourself for being such a pessimist, a self-critical comment that just increases your stress. So, what can you do?

Organize your thinking and actions around the strategy of determining if you can increase your likelihood of success of finding a job that fits you. Develop an action plan: assess your strengths; thoroughly investigate a company before applying for a position; determine if you can integrate your strengths into the company profile; if so, prepare for the interview.

During the “get to the moon” initiative of the ‘60s, NASA exemplified these principles with the phrase, “Failure is not an option.” It’s a nice phrase, but the reality of failure was always present, and often occurred. In reality, “Failure is not an option,” translated into, “We’re going to do everything we can to minimize the odds of failure. When failure does occur, we will correct the flaws that caused the failure, and move on.” And that’s the approach you must take when confronting a challenge. Don’t let fear of failure overwhelm you; attack it with a well-thought-out plan of action.

The Lure of Psychiatric Meds

When it comes to coping with everyday stress, many people seem to have a love affair with medications. Listen to this comment from a distraught dad who called in to a radio talk show with a psychologist as a guest:

“We’re having a lot of problems with our 15-year-old daughter. She doesn’t listen to us, obey our rules, or follow her curfew. She hangs around with kids we feel are a bad influence. Her grades are worse and she gets in lots of trouble at school. The school counselor evaluated her and told us she was depressed and bipolar. The counselor also said we should take her to a psychiatrist for a prescription. So, we did. The psychiatrist recommended starting with an anti-depressant, and about three weeks ago she began her prescription. We make sure she takes her medicine every day. The problem is, we’re three weeks into the treatment and we haven’t seen any change in her behavior. My question is, how long do we have to wait before the drug kicks in and we have our daughter back?”

This man’s comments show how many people want a simple solution to a complex problem, and think taking a pill will produce some magical psychological result, just like taking an aspirin gets rid of a headache in a few minutes. Using psychiatric medications carries the danger of applying an easy “solution” (taking a pill) to complicated psychological problems (we suspect the daughter’s problems go beyond “depressed”). Taking a pill, of course, is a simple and convenient approach.

Medication may not be appropriate for many coping situations. For instance, is the 15-year-old really depressed, or is she a confused, frustrated, and unhappy adolescent? Is she going through typical teenage angst as she tries to navigate her way through the maze of emotions involved in the transition from childhood to adulthood – which often involves challenging parental authority?  In this case, if the daughter is not clinically depressed, the medication is unlikely to have the desired effect, and could be the beginning of a long series of trial-and-error multiple-drug treatments.

Let’s suppose you’re feeling down these days. Life’s not going well for you in the pandemic, and you’re told you’re depressed. If you’re considering medication like those you see advertised all the time on TV, consider some questions: Are you suffering from depression, or are your problems related to anger, grief, or anxiety that make you look depressed? Should you see a psychiatrist (prescription likely) or psychologist (analysis of your coping actions more likely)? Do you understand psychological assessment techniques and specialized treatments tailored for specific coping difficulties? Will you insist on a thorough and critical evaluation prior to developing a treatment plan?

Remember, being diagnosed without any objective psychological assessment is like going to the primary care physician and being prescribed medications without the support of any medical tests (x-rays, urinalysis, blood tests).  Even worse are the explanations you may be given to justify medications. These explanations are typically simplistic, and you should be wary.

What would happen if, prior to taking prescription psychiatric medicine, clients were routinely told something like this:

We’re not really sure what happens in the brain with depression, anxiety and other psychological problems. Psychotropic medication may help you with your symptoms, but that help does not mean that you are cured. We aren’t sure what medication you should take, if any, or how it will alter your brain’s biochemistry. You may suffer side effects with these medications and we are not sure whether they are safe to use in the long-term; it takes decades to adequately research this type of outcome. If you respond positively to your medication, we can’t even be sure the drug was responsible. It is possible your improvement was due to your expectations of what the medication would do. Taking the drug may have actually created a ‘placebo effect.’

We’re not saying that psychiatric medication is never appropriate. We’re just saying it pays to do your homework, don’t look for a quick fix, and never sell yourself short as an important player in the coping process. You can, and should be, an active participant in any coping plan.

Feeling Dumpy?

Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) is largely a cognitive condition, a way of perceiving and thinking about events in your life in a negative way. If you think negative thoughts, especially about yourself, you are going to feel pretty rotten – you are going to avoid challenges and become more likely to get depressed. Imagine going through the day repeatedly telling yourself, “I’m incompetent; I’m going to fail; I can’t do anything worthwhile; I’m a disappointment to others; I’m such a klutz everyone feels sorry for me.” How do you think you will feel at the end of the day? Satisfied or kind of “down”?

If you feel you might suffer from depression but tend to write it off as just having some problems dealing with life, you could be one of the “silent sufferers” afflicted with PDD. You go to work or school, you care for your loved ones, and generally function in the normal range of activities. But you have this gnawing feeling that most people seem to enjoy life more than you do. You seem to have more than your share of pessimism, guilt, lack of interest, appetite fluctuations, low self-esteem, chronic fatigue, social withdrawal, and concentration difficulties. Whatever your particular profile, you have a chronic discontent with yourself, and your negative thinking has become a way of life.

Please note, the symptoms in PDD are subtle and moderate compared to disorders like Bipolar and Major Depression where symptoms are much more severe and dramatic. For instance, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalization, and the need for anti-depressant medication are much more common with major depression and bipolar disorder. The material on PDD in this entry is not intended for cases of Bipolar or Major Disorder, which require professional intervention, medication, and possibly hospitalization.

With PDD, it is important to remember that effective coping requires honest self-discovery and awareness of your strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, if you don’t work at translating your traits, even your weaknesses, into productive actions, you will have no anchor to reality. This process is crucial to confronting the moderate levels of depression found in PDD: If you cannot “translate yourself” into concrete positive actions, you will feel you have nowhere to go, and likely to remain depressed.

Ask yourself some important questions: Am I truly depressed or simply unhappy? Are my problems related to anger or anxiety that make me look and feel depressed? You’re a human being. That means you experience unhappiness, anxiety, anger, and other emotions brought about by current life circumstances. When that happens, do not simply tell yourself, “I’m depressed.”  Instead, identify the conditions that prompt your emotional state. With that in mind, here are some concrete steps to take:

Become more vigilant about your health, and take a more active and assertive role toward life in general.Remember that there is no medication that will help you develop an action plan to navigate the challenges of life and develop more satisfying and productive actions.

If you are feeling “down” more often than usual, monitor your daily behavior to look for avoidance actions you may be taking to reduce stress in life.

Exercise, diet, frequent medical check-ups, an optimistic attitude – these are just a sample of things you can do to try and take some control of your life and walk through each day with some confidence, assertiveness, enjoyment, and satisfaction. These actions tend to inoculate you against feeling “depressed” about your current circumstances.

Identify those actions that bring you satisfaction and for which you are grateful. List situations in which you can express those actions and put yourself in those situations as much as possible. Also, seek out situations that relax you.

At the end of the day write down your activities and how they made you feel. Use that information to your advantage tomorrow.

Continue your normal exercise routines during the winter.

Get involved in charity projects. Volunteer at a homeless shelter during the coldest time of the year. Hit the road, get out there in the world, and be with people. Remember, you are not defined by your thoughts and feelings; and you are not likely to get out of depression or any other emotional dilemma simply thinking or feeling your way out. As we say often, you must develop a coping plan of action.

Barry was moping about one Saturday evening, thinking what a loser he is. Suddenly, he reminded himself of something: “Earlier today during my volunteer stint at the hospital, I took that patient in a wheelchair to the MRI center. She was so nervous and all worked up, just dreading it. I told her, ‘It’s OK to feel anxious. I would, too. But I guarantee you, you’re in good hands with the MRI folks. They know how you feel and are very supportive and reassuring. You’ll be nervous but they’ll help you get through it.’ And when I was leaving her, she said, ‘Thanks for helping me relax a bit. What you said really helped.’” Barry thought further: “Get off your pity kick, Barry. What you did there shows you’re no loser.”

Need a coping strategy? Remember: Your actions speak louder than your thoughts.