Values-Deficient Anxiety

Just a few months ago we had a thriving economy and nearly everyone was employed. And yet, prosperous times notwithstanding, more and more people were complaining about excessive anxiety in their lives. Many said, “If everything is so great, why am I still anxious about things? Something seems to be missing.”

There are always things missing from your life that could bring on anxiety, but I bet you never considered that failing to link your coping efforts to your personal values could be responsible. Think about your coping actions. Are they tied to your moral compass, your standards, your integrity? Most people say social conscience, empathy, and honor are important to them, but they fail to link these things to their coping actions. They don’t realize it, but that linkage failure is what is missing in their lives. The result? Anxiety, or more specifically, what I call Values-Deficient Anxiety (VDA).

Dr. Carlea Dries describes some linkage failures: “You put off investigating diets (an action), even though you say, ‘I care about my health’ (your value); you put off spending more time with your family (an action), even though you say, ‘I love and need my family’ (your value); you put off taking a course at the local college (an action), even though you say, ‘I want to become more educated’ (your value).”

Whenever you find yourself worried and anxious, consider the possibility that you may be experiencing VDA. To confront this type of anxiety you need to examine your focus in life. For instance, do you focus on things you are against – a politician, a religion, an ethnicity, a nationality? If so, consider redirecting your focus from what you are against to what you value. Then you can work at coordinating your values with actions compatible with those values.

Actions are essential to effective coping, but those actions must be grounded in a “life strategy,” which means your actions must serve your goals and ambitions in ways that complement your values. If you have not identified those values, your actions will not serve you in meaningful ways.

Think about it. If you believe you should instill personal accountability in your 18-year old, yet you allow him to take his pet dog to college for emotional support, are you linking your values to your permission? If you believe in financial responsibility, yet tell your college-graduate daughter that being delinquent on repaying her college loan is OK, are you linking your values to your comment? If you believe you should be honest with friends, but decide not to tell one of them you think she is being deceived by her romantic interest, are you linking your values to your silence? Unconsciously, such inconsistencies between values and actions can cause stress and Values-Deficient Anxiety (VDA).

To cope with VDA, consider three questions: (1) “What am I avoiding?” (2) “Do I make life all about me?” (3) “Am I willing to develop a coping action plan that focuses less on me and more on the welfare of others?” The idea here is not to struggle with answers to the questions, but to use the questions as paths to help you reflect on who you are, and to develop actions that can help you move forward.

Instead of focusing on the anxiety you feel, reflect on those three questions honestly. This reflection will help you identify what is important to you, and help you focus on actions dealing with those things. Remember, the idea is not to reflect on the anxiety you feel and how you wish you could get rid of it. How you feel is your reality, so don’t work to deny that reality.

Many people get hung up on question #3. They have a hard time accepting that focusing on – and empathizing with – others is possible and productive. In short, they feel inadequate to the task. Keep in mind, however, that the idea is not to bring a special set of skills to the table; the idea is to base your coping actions on values that give you a social conscience – a respectful and sincere focus on others, not yourself. This focus will help you feel more confident and empowered to venture outside yourself and act independently.

“But these actions…” you protest, “…where would I even begin with things to consider?” Well, you might examine your feelings about various social issues: mental health; children’s welfare; clean air and water; social, gender, and pay inequality; homelessness. No matter what the issue, getting involved in such areas can bring you a wealth of satisfaction and redirect your VDA in a more productive direction.

Even when the source of your anxiety is clear – such as the current pandemic – VDA can add to your misery. How are you coping in these troubled times? Are you sitting at home feeling helpless? Are there people you value whom you could call (video or audio call – no text, no email) and lend a reassuring voice and/or smile – human “contact” – to their coping efforts? Social isolation does not mean emotional isolation. Also, you could ask yourself, “Are there community support programs that fit my social conscience that I could support?

To cope with the stress of stay-at-home, and the worry about infection, in addition to maintaining your vigilance about hand-washing and other protective measures, take time now and then to accept your anxiety as a normal reaction to reality, and to reflect quietly on your values. Don’t bother to write them down; let them emerge from positive introspection about who you are and the role you can play in the human enterprise.

Reflection on personal values is a type of mindfulness, the ability to be aware of who you are and what you’re doing, and how you can expand what you do for others. Your focus is not self-criticism, or judgment. The focus is on finding ways to express yourself in ways that benefit others.

Here’s the coping message: Whenever anxiety threatens to take hold of you, examine your values and then identify realistic actions you can take to complement those values. You will feel better – more confident, satisfied, and empowered to channel your anxiety into areas of your life in ways that give you some control over your actions.

I Don’t Care.

I recently saw an item on Facebook describing how a celebrity felt about a social issue. The post generated hundreds of replies, with just about every comment falling into one of three categories: (1) “I agree”; (2)” I disagree”; (3) “I don’t care how this celebrity feels.”

It’s that last category that caught my attention. I mean, why would people who don’t care feel compelled to take the time to let the world know that they don’t give a rat’s backside about how the celeb felt?

I was reminded of a story a therapist shared with me about a client who was dealing with a variety of anxiety issues. During one session the client told how his best friend betrayed him by sharing information with others that the client had told this friend in confidence.

While telling the story, the client’s eyes began to “well up” with tears. As he wiped his eyes, he suddenly looked at the therapist and said rather defiantly, “I don’t care, though. Screw him.”

The therapist responded, “That’s interesting. You say you don’t care but I guess some part of you cares because a part of you is weeping about possibly losing a friend.”

Could we pose the same response to folks who post on Facebook, “I don’t care what this celebrity thinks”? A response along the lines of, “Well, that’s interesting, but it looks like some part of you cares because some part of you needs to announce your apathy publicly.”

Logically, if you don’t care about something, shouldn’t you just ignore it? How often do you observe habits in others that are different from yours? If you don’t care about their habit, do you make a big deal out of it or just ignore it?

Imagine having a meal with some folks and one of them says to you, “I see that you eat all of one food on your plate before eating another. Of course, I don’t really care about your eating habits. How you eat is up to you.” If that happened to you, would you think that your “critic” might have some insecurities triggered by your eating style? Would you be tempted to say, “If you don’t care, why do you need to bring attention to my eating habits? What’s that all about?”

Here’s the point: When you have a need to announce, “I don’t care,” for all to hear, you are including yourself in that audience. Could it be that the situation has tapped into some unresolved psychological conflict, and you are basically telling yourself, “Avoid it because you don’t care.”

Ah, denial! Truth be told, you do care, and you may be showing a need to deny something inside you that you would prefer not to face because you feel insecure about it.

Sounds crazy, I know, but people have many ways of showing denial. Taking time to bring attention to something but then saying, “You realize I really don’t care,” shows a misaligned disconnect indicating that an event has tapped into an inner conflict.

Of course, saying “I don’t care” can be – and usually is – a frivolous, off-hand comment, especially when you are replying to a question like, “What do you think of that?” You look puzzled and say, “Are you serious? Apparently, you have me confused with someone who gives a damn.”

If, however, you voluntarily offer the “I don’t care” assertion – as in our eating example – it can be a sign of an inner insecurity that may be worth accepting and facing. Be vigilant for the “I don’t care” signal; you might learn something new about yourself or others.

Who you are does not make you weak

Do you feel anxious and get mad at yourself when you fall short of perfection? Striving for high quality work is admirable, but if you fall short and cope with emotions using self-criticism, you’re not coping well. First, you’re teaching yourself to be self-critical, and you will never be satisfied with your work, even when it’s good. Second, self-criticism ignores the fact that striving for perfection is usually better than being sloppy and uncaring. Finally, self-criticism treats your emotions like your enemy, and that is denying who you are.

So, you messed up. How should you handle your frustration and anger? We have noted in other entries that emotions can be channeled into working for you if you accept them and think about them a little differently.

If you’re mad at yourself for being overly perfectionistic, pause and consider the positive aspects of this trait: First, you’re less likely to make foolish mistakes; second, you are showing others that you care about the quality of your work; third, you are more likely to seek creative solutions to a task; fourth, you are less likely to depend on others for completing a task; fifth, you demonstrate how your actions are consistent with your values. For instance, you can remind yourself that your perfectionistic tendencies are consistent with how you were raised and taught by role models you respect. “I was always taught that I must act in ways that make me proud of the result. If I’m going to do something, do it right. That’s my value and it’s the principle I live by.”

In general, I’m saying instead of criticizing yourself for who you are, accept who you are and examine the benefits of your traits. Such a critical examination can often increase your sense of control, personal empowerment, and autonomy.

Here’s another example: Suppose you’re anxious and fearful about something going on in the world. Someone tells you, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s going to be fine.” Does that comment make you feel better? Suppose you say to yourself, “Yeh, I shouldn’t be afraid.” Does that make you feel better? In both cases, I bet the answer is, “No.”

Notice in this second example that once again, you are being asked to deny a part of yourself, in this case, the part of you that is anxious and fearful. Don’t deny how you feel! That denial will lead to self-criticism and the negative consequences we noted earlier.

Instead of denial, accept your fear as real. Also accept the fact that you can use your fear to your advantage. Just as we noted above how being a perfectionist can work to your advantage, so can being fearful and anxious work for you.

Accepting the reality of your fear as a part of who you are can have a calming effect that keeps you in a steady frame of mind. Also, your anxiety can help you stay alert and focused on developing plans to attend to the fearful situation. Finally, your concern can help you stay vigilant and monitor the effectiveness of your plans as you implement them.

The result is that your plans are more likely to be successful because you are operating with a positive sense of independence and empowerment that emerge from acceptance. Remember, acceptance of who you are is a fundamental step in coping with stress. Always work from that foundation of acceptance. Denial of the reality of who you are will be self-defeating and toxic for your coping efforts.

Also, take note that whether or not you like your trait is not the issue. Once you accept it and find ways to make it work for you, more effective coping will be the result. It’s like telling someone, “Yes, I’m too much of a perfectionist…,” or, “Yes, I tend to be overly anxious in most situations…,” “…but it’s who I am and I make it work to my advantage.”

Reflections on an Empty Grocery Shelf

I had seen it on news reports and heard about it from others. But about a week ago, when I went to the grocery store for the first time since the reality of the coronavirus was taking hold in the public mind, there it was: an empty grocery shelf in the section where paper products like toilet paper and tissues normally filled what was now vacant space.

The next day I was thinking about a new blog entry, and it occurred to me that the empty shelf carried some good coping messages. Yes, really, believe it or not!

The first thing that occurred to me was narcissism. The narcissist believes, “It’s all about me. I am the major ingredient in all life recipes. I am the crucial variable in the equation that will solve the problem.”

Now I’m not saying that all the folks who grabbed armfuls of multi-pack TP were narcissists. No doubt some of them had large families at home and were replacing their dwindling stock of TP. I bet there were even some folks who saw the shelf getting depleted, but had a decent supply at home, and decided to leave the small remainder on the shelf for others. But, for sure, there were no doubt many who had a garage full of TP, considered themselves fortunate to have stumbled on even more, and scooped up a bunch like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter. The narcissist’s mantra is, “I deserve all I can get.”

Narcissism encourages a “me vs. them” orientation. If you’re White, non-Whites are the enemy; if you’re a native-born American, immigrants – and even naturalized citizens – are the enemy; those who do not accept your beliefs are the enemy; those who would take “my TP,” are the enemy. The pathetic narcissist has a lot of enemies, and must constantly be on the defensive to avoid psychological collapse. What a weak way to try and cope with stress.

I also decided that the empty shelf symbolizes humility. I talked about humility in the 1.10.20 blog, and noted that when you lack humility, you form your own pity parade when things don’t go your way. You wail about the unfairness of it all – “I deserve better!” – and talk and think your way into becoming an emotional cripple.

Reality, however, dictates that there are always others involved. Accept that reality and you can embrace humility. You can then free yourself from your pity parade, and find uplifting empowerment and optimism. You can feel pride in your accomplishments, but understand that your successes do not grant you preferential treatment. This realization will make you more inclined to “share yourself” with others who are also fighting stress. Sharing is a powerful and productive strategy for coping with stress.

And that brings me to a third coping message from the empty shelf: the importance of empathy in the coping process. As I noted recently (3.6.20), when used to cope with stress, empathy is not sympathy, but is a sensitivity that allows you to understand others in the context of their needs, not yours. As a result, you focus your actions around values, social conscience, and morality. This focus provides both giver (you) and taker (the other) psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. Assist others along your life path and you will never be alone.

“All this from an empty shelf?” you exclaim. Why not? Let’s personify that shelf and imagine a conversation with it. You say, “Hello, shelf. I must say you’re looking a little depressed today.” The shelf replies, “How would you feel if your entire purpose in life has been taken from you? I am here to provide things to please people, but they have stripped me of everything I am, and left me empty.”

The empty shelf reminds me that coronavirus threatens more than our health; it also threatens who we must be as human beings. Remember, this crisis is not one where the homeland has been attacked by another country, and we can come together and resolve together to defeat the common enemy.

Rather, this crisis threatens our inner being. We – or a member of our family – may get sick, while our neighbor does not. With that possibility in mind, standing in front of the full shelf our self-preservation kicks in. Screw the neighbor! Narcissism rules, and humility and empathy are overpowered. We strip the shelf bare, and the shelf becomes us! Empty!

For our common benefit, that outcome is what we must prevent. Crises that threaten our inner being can bring out the worst in us. “Think of your neighbor,” morphs into, “Everyone for themselves!”

You have to decide which one is you and act accordingly. Which one is consistent with your values, your character, your morality, your ethics? One thing for sure: Discarding narcissism, and embracing humility and empathy will help you cope with any crisis, and also benefit others. In the final analysis, that coping strategy – not one that stresses “it’s all about me!” – is what life needs to be about.

Coping with Coronavirus

More than once I’ve heard this question: “I don’t get it. Every year the flu kills a lot more people than this coronavirus, and yet everyone seems to be panicking about corona. What’s with that?” That question is like asking, “Cars kill a lot more people than shark bites. How come people don’t sweat driving to the beach, but get panicky when they hear there might be a shark in the water?”

What is it about the coronavirus that scares people more than the annual flu? Let’s pose some answers, and see if they can help with coping. Before we do, let’s note that if you are anxious and afraid, it’s OK. Fear is an adaptive response to potential danger. If you accept the threat and your natural fear reactions as real, you will be more likely to remain vigilant, take precautions, and help reduce – not prevent – your risk of infection. Being afraid can be a good thing. Remember, fear can self-generate and strengthen. That is why acceptance of the reality of the situation is important because then you are more likely to use your fear in appropriate ways.

Back to our question: Why is the reaction to the annual flu less intense for some than to coronavirus? For one thing, the flu is familiar, predictable, and expected. You have experienced it before and know most people get through it OK. There is also the flu shot that gives many a sense of control knowing they have at least reduced their risk of infection. The coronavirus, however, is new, unpredictable, and unknown. Humans have no immunity and, as of now, there is no vaccine. That knowledge naturally intensifies fear.

Reactions to coronavirus are also more exaggerated compared to the flu because the former – but not the latter – has been politicized. Elected officials have injected their self-important agendas into the corona crisis. The result has been a flood of contradictory, confusing, and misleading information that has served to frustrate and anger the public.

Faced with this barrage of agenda-driven information designed to make you feel helpless and dependent on elected “leaders,” what should you do? First of all, whatever your political preference, take off the political goggles and think rationally. Suppose you have a severe, persistent stomach pain. Your neighbor says, “Appendicitis!” A family member says, “Gall bladder!” A friend says, “Diverticulitis!”

Who do you call for clarification, your local congressional representative? Surely not! You would call a professional medical provider. The coping lesson here is simple: Don’t listen to politicians, economists, or other laypeople when they expound on the medical properties and consequences of coronavirus. Tune them out! Listen to the medical professionals. Yes, you will hear words like “may,” “could,” “might,” and “we’ll have to wait until we have more data.” These words, however, do not mean the professionals don’t know anything; they mean that more test data are needed, and that you must think in terms of risk, not certainty.

Closely related to politicization is the spreading of conspiracy theories. There’s no conspiracy here folks. That message is for the weak-minded. The fact is, bad things can happen without human intervention. Contrary to what you may believe, humans do not have absolute dominion over the other organisms on this planet. Viruses have a way of reminding us of that. We are part of nature’s laws.

Politicization also carries the danger of making you think coronavirus is not that big a deal. Maybe not, but don’t bet your health on it. When it comes to coping with health threats, prepare for the worst. Never apologize for being vigilant and taking precautions to minimize potential threats to your health. Those actions are under your control. If you think they are best for you, take those actions.

The coping lessons? Accept reality; do not listen to false messengers with agendas; listen to the medical experts; accept your anxiety as normal and use it to help you plan rationally, and to make informed decisions to reduce – not eliminate – your risk of infection.


Empathy is not sympathy

Posts on this blog often point out the importance of empathy in the coping process. When you’re stressed and upset, you struggle to find ways to deal with emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt, grief, jealousy, and others that seem to rob you of stability in your life. At this point in the coping process, you think it’s all about you, that you are the primary ingredient in your life recipe. Unfortunately, this self-centered emphasis makes coping difficult.

When you get outside of yourself and bring others into the picture, the coping picture brightens. Whether you reach out to others with problems similar to yours, or work at trying to understand the effect you are having on others, substituting an “other-oriented” – rather than “self-oriented” – focus will provide insight into your problem. This focus is what we mean by empathy.

When most people think of empathy, they think of sympathy. If you can understand how another person is feeling, you are more likely to feel sympathy toward them, and this feeling motivates you to help them. Maybe so, but in a coping context, empathy has a much broader meaning than feeling sorry for someone. When you use empathy to cope, you are acting with moral strength.

Suppose you’re 17 and being bullied by a kid in high school. Generally, you do all you can to avoid this kid and stay out of the way of her wrath. Problem is, avoidance strategies don’t work because they’re a form of denial. Successful coping requires acceptance of challenges facing you.

You talk to your folks and other adults about the situation and begin to form some possible explanations for why she’s bothering you. You ask around, seeing if you can get a feel for her family life, grades, anything that will help you figure out what she’s angry about and why she’s displacing that anger onto you.

All these actions form what we mean by empathy. You’re not looking to feel pity for her; you’re looking to understand her so you can stand up to her in the context of her issues, not in the context of your fear of her. Do you get it? Effective coping requires you to focus your actions around your values and your conscience, and to convey your moral principles to the oppressor.

A lot for a 17-year old? Of course, but we’re trying to illustrate the true dynamics of empathy. So, the bully comes up to you, pushes you and says, “Look, b***h, get out of my way or I’ll beat the s**t out of you!”

You respond, “Look, I get it that you’re angry at something or someone, but you have no right to take it out on me. Keep it up and I’ll file a complaint and I’ll win. But I’d rather talk about it and find how you can point your anger at who deserves it. But not at me. No more!”

The absence of empathy is denial. Empathy can be used to generate acceptance of what is going on, and assertiveness of what you can do about it. Then you can give the bully a choice because you have made yours. You have used empathy to produce acceptance, understanding, and a plan of action. Sympathy has nothing to do with it.

At the outset of WWII, as Hitler began to unleash his war machine in Europe, England’s Prime Minister Churchill argued with his senior government advisors about strategy: conciliation or prepare for war. Churchill had already shown empathy toward Hitler – that is, observed and analyzed him. He decided the German leader was a power-hungry sadist who would stop at nothing to attain world domination, and Great Britain had no choice but to prepare its defenses from an inevitable attack by Hitler. Churchill felt no sympathy for Hitler; instead, his empathetic analysis showed him that Hitler must be exterminated. Empathy, not sympathy, allowed Churchill to prepare his country.


How’s your coping intelligence?

Intelligence. If you’re like most people, when you run across this word you think of cognitive things like a good memory, large vocabulary, math ability, reading comprehension, and critical thinking skills – in general, you probably think of an intelligent person as someone who has a lot of knowledge in a variety of areas.

You probably don’t think of an intelligent person as one who is necessarily good at coping with stressors. Would you find the following comment contradictory? “Jim is one of the most intelligent guys I know, but he sure doesn’t know how to handle conflicts with others, or how to deal with anxiety! Put him in a stressful situation and he falls apart.” No contradiction at all, right?

Intuitively, most people separate cognitive abilities and coping abilities; the former deals with knowledge, the latter deals with emotions. In fact, in a 1964 paper, psychologists Davitz and Beldoch talked about emotional intelligence as different from cognitive intelligence. They linked the latter to cognitive abilities, but tied the former to effectiveness in social communication, especially the ability to empathize with others.

In the context of coping, your blog hosts use the term emotional intelligence to describe those who are “secure in their own skin.” These folks have healthy levels of self-esteem and feel empowered to be autonomous, independent, confident, and optimistic as they confront the challenges of daily life. Individuals with high emotional intelligence are good at accepting reality, taking responsibility for their actions, setting priorities, and navigating their way through the maze of stressors that regularly confront them.

Readers of this blog, however, will know that emotional intelligence is not the whole story when it comes to coping effectively with stress. Many people high in emotional intelligence appear to be pretty confident and secure – at least on the outside – as they tend to their needs. Unfortunately, they may leave a trail of human psychological carnage in their wake as they focus on their egotistical coping strategy that puts them at the center of it all. In their own minds they are coping well, but they do so with a lot of deception, manipulation, lying, cheating, and bullying.

“OK,” you ask, “if emotional intelligence by itself is no guarantee of effectively coping, what’s missing? What other traits are needed to use my emotional intelligence to cope in positive ways?” The answer to that question involves an intelligence that supplements Emotional: Moral Intelligence.

Coping with everyday life will be most effective when Emotional Intelligence is complemented by Moral Intelligence. How would we describe people with a healthy moral intelligence? They have values, standards, and a social conscience, which means they weigh their coping actions against the needs of others. “Embezzling money may be good for me financially, but others are going to suffer, so I choose not to embezzle.” That’s moral intelligence! If you have low moral intelligence, if you do not value others as dignified and worthy of courtesy and respect, you will have no problem cheating and manipulating them to satisfy your own greed.

Moral intelligence means having empathy for others, being able to understand how they are feeling. “If I insult and disparage others in the presence of their children, I may feel good, but I also show my total disregard for the pain I inflict on their offspring. As much as I dislike them, I will not disrespect them in the presence of their family.”

Here’s what we’re saying: You may have high emotional intelligence and feel really great about yourself. But if you have low moral intelligence and can only focus on you, if you must include yourself as the primary ingredient in your life coping recipe, ultimately your coping efforts will fail because you will leave behind a legacy of making others feel bad about themselves. Your legacy will be others who scowl at the very mention of your name.