“Action” Away Your Stress

Here’s one of the simplest principles to guide your coping with stress: The only two things you can realistically hope to control are your thoughts and your actions. The first step in coping effectively is accepting that fundamental reality. You can try to control others, but in the long run you will fail. In most situations, you are not in control.

            But even when you accept that fundamental truth about control, you still have to accept some limits. For instance, how many times has someone said to you, “You have to stop thinking that you’re weak and worthless! You’re not, so stop feeling that way!”

            Easy for them to say, right? The problem is, if you feel something about yourself, even though controlling your feelings is something you can manage, how can you force yourself to stop feeling that way? Is that what we mean by effective coping? Fortunately, no, it’s not.

            So, here’s an important rule to follow when trying to exercise your circle of control: You must stop focusing on trying to get rid of unwanted and unpleasant thoughts and emotions. You may want to force yourself to be less anxious, or less angry, or less jealous. You may feel that these emotions – and your thoughts about them – make you weak and vulnerable. But, remember, they are a part of you. Your emotions are not only a natural part of being human, but they are also you. Don’t deny a part of yourself.

            You might say, “I’m just too damn anxious. I get worked up over every little thing.” Hey! Anxieties are just thoughts, just emotions. Who says you have to subdue them, or be influenced by them, or get overly attached to them? They’re not perfect reflections of reality so why be obsessed by them? You may think that you’re too anxious, but that thought doesn’t make you a victim; you may think you’re a loser, but that thought doesn’t make you a loser. By the same token, you cannot think your way out of being a loser, or being anxious, or being hostile, or being depressed.

The only way to deal with those conditions is to modify your actions to become consistent with your values, and with having a purpose and goals to pursue. For instance, if you’re anxious about giving a presentation at work, your first inclination is to avoid having to do it – find some way to convince the boss that someone else should do it. You have learned from reading this blog, however, that avoidance is coping poison, and is the first step to increasing your stress. So, you should reject that option. Instead, accept the reality that you will be anxious, and begin preparing your presentation well in advance. You might also ask several colleagues for input you can include, and tips on how you can make sure the audience understands the importance of their input. When you begin speaking, start by thanking everyone who provided you with data and ideas to include in your plan, and point them out in the audience. Not only will those people immediately be supportive of you, but your audience will shift their focus away from you onto your helpers. That can have a calming effect, plus give you some time to acclimate your voice, audience eye contact, and general likeability to the audience.

There are other things you can do, of course, but the point is, do things that will make you feel at one with the audience. Your anxiety is based on a threat of failure; implicitly and indirectly encouraging the audience to join you in your task will reduce that threat in your mind. You can’t think your way out of your anxiety, so “action” your way out of it.

Let Others Know What They Mean to You

At some point, Rosalie decided her life was without purpose. She was 52 and married (28 years). The last of her three children had just graduated from college, and moved away to pursue Their careers. Her marriage was stable, although Rosalie had begun developing “mood” problems 10 years earlier. Her physician prescribed various anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications with minimal success. She developed medical problems that were not life threatening, but that added to her general stress. She decided to try counseling.

Rosalie told her counselor that her purpose for living was over because her children were independent and did not need her any longer. The counselor pointed out that their independence was a testament to her excellent childrearing, but Rosalie could not find life goals consistent with her values, which were defined solely by her effectiveness as a mother. Her kids were gone; how could she continue to see herself as an effective mother?

Within a year after her last child’s graduation, she terminated counseling, and a couple of weeks later she committed suicide at home. Hundreds of people attended her funeral stunned with questions and disbelief. Rosalie, who had come to believe that her life had been stripped of friends and loved ones, probably would have been surprised to see how loved and appreciated she really was.

Who knows, if Rosalie had known how truly valued she was by so many friends and neighbors, would she have been less likely to give up on life when the chips were down? There’s no way of knowing, of course, but the question begs another important question that perhaps we all should ask ourselves: “Do I spend enough time letting people know how important they are to me, and how much I appreciate their presence in my life?”

I remember when an older colleague retired, and the occasion was highlighted in an issue of the alumni magazine. For weeks after the magazine article, he was literally inundated with letters, cards, emails, and phone calls from dozens of former students thanking him for the positive influence he had on their lives. He said to me, “My God, wish I had known back when I was teaching. There were a lot of days when I wondered if I was getting through to them…wondering if all my effort was worth it. Now I know it was. How about that!”

Here’s the coping lesson: When someone tells you that you’re a positive part of their life, that makes you feel good, right? Comments like that are good for the coping soul. But here’s the thing – when you tell someone that they’re an important and positive part of your life, not only do you make them feel good, but you make yourself feel good, too. Coping is a two-way street. When you help others, you help yourself.

At the end of each day ask yourself if you established a positive legacy that day, meaning did you do something that made a person feel better about themselves and life?  “I told my sister Lucy how she’s such a positive part of my life. She was having a bad day and it seemed like her face really lit up.” “After work I gave John a ride to pick up his car. He didn’t have to wait for his wife to pick him up; saved him an hour. No big deal, but he was really appreciative.”  “After dinner, I gave my neighbor Fred a hand fixing his garage door. He said having an extra pair of hands really made things a little easier for him.” The folks speaking those words gave Lucy, John, and Fred something to smile about, plus the speakers also ended their day with a smile. That’s a good day, and if that’s not effective coping, I don’t know what is.

How about you? At the end of a day, can you identify a positive legacy that you left someone? Can you end that day with a smile?

Humility and Empathy

The coronavirus pandemic was in full swing, and during one of those on-the-street TV interviews, I heard a couple of comments from everyday people that stuck with me. The first one was in response to the question, “Do you generally wear a mask in public?” The reply: “I’m not going to wear a mask. It’s a free country. I’m free to do what I want. I’m responsible for me, not others.”

The second comment responded to the question, “To prevent the spread of the virus, will you cancel plans to travel and visit family during the upcoming holidays?” The answer: “Life is short. Elderly members of my family could be gone next year. I will not cancel my holiday gatherings because this could be my last one with all of them.”

The thing that struck me about both these replies was the emphasis on “Me,” “My wishes,” and, “The hell with everyone else.” Maybe these people felt just fine living in their world of self-preoccupation; but their comments reminded me how important a dose of humility can be, not only when coping with personal stress, but also in developing a social conscience.

Stress can evoke a lot of troublesome emotions – fear, anxiety, guilt, grief, jealousy – that make life unpredictable and uncomfortable. A common reaction is to think it’s all about you, and life is being very unfair. You descend into self-pity, and seek sympathy from others. When that doesn’t work, you turn to self-criticism, which tears at your self-esteem. A sense of helplessness is not far behind, and now you are vulnerable to depression. The foundation for depression is definitely there:

Self-doubt:      “I don’t have the courage and strength to change and recover.”

Self-blame:      “I should have done things differently; this whole mess is my fault.”

Self-pity:         “I have been victimized and I deserve sympathy from others.”

The thing to note in these comments is that they are self-centered, which makes effective coping very difficult. When you inject some humility into the picture, however, coping becomes more manageable. You don’t allow yourself to act like you deserve better; you don’t insist that others hop on your pity train; you don’t get irritated because the corners of your world are not soft; you realize that life is not all about you, and you become more receptive to thinking about others.

Humility allows you to go “beyond yourself,” to face your troubles directly, and to interact with others who are also hurting. Only with humility will you be able to see the importance of reaching out to others with problems similar to yours; only with humility can you understand the effect you are having on others; only with humility can you become “other-oriented” rather than “self-oriented”; only with humility can you relate to others with empathy.

Empathy for others is built on your humility. Why is empathy important? The answer is simple: When you react to others with empathy, you use your own difficulties to reach out to another afflicted with similar difficulties, which provides you with insight into both your problems, and others’ problems. This process occurs in support groups. When a member shares pain and suffering with the others, they identify with that member. That identification allows them to relate to the co-member in a mutually-beneficial give-and-take relationship that profits both parties.

When humility is present, empathy allows you to understand others in the context of their needs, not yours. That understanding allows you to focus your actions around human values and a social conscience, and to act in the service of moral principles. But, that empathetic understanding of another also provides you with insight into your own issues. Both of you benefit, both of you discover that you are not alone, and both of you take a fruitful step to healthier adjustment.

American society is in a time of massive self-preoccupation. People seem ill-prepared to accept the reality of variability in what is right and what is wrong. Bewildered and frustrated, they reject accountability and retreat into the comfort zone of their own needs. This retreat makes them more dependent and passive, incapable of critical thinking, and vulnerable to false messages. As their sense of self crumbles, their values and purposefulness fade away, and they fail to see how self-destructive their emotion-based actions have become.

Self-Destructive Behavior, Part IV

When you habitually work to avoid stress, you risk becoming weak, passive, and dependent on others; your self-esteem suffers; you become self-critical, and vulnerable to serious problems like depression. At this point, you may resort to self-defeating – even destructive – coping actions that damage your mental and physical well-being. Therapist Michael Church has identified four self-destructive types: Direct-Active (Blog entry 11/5/21), Indirect-Active (Blog entry 3/4/22), Direct Passive (Blog entry 4/15/22), and Indirect-Passive. The Indirect-Passive type includes those who are dependent and fail to establish a positive and stable identity. Their self-concept is fragile, and they remain child-like in functioning. They often remain in chaotic, abusive and unsatisfying relationships, even when they have the means to get out. They tend to excuse and justify the abuse received by others and rationalize why they do not change their lives. They readily allow others to take advantage of them and even abuse them and those around them.  

Stephanie’s parents both died before she was 10. Growing up, her primary parental figure was an aunt who met her practical needs, but not her emotional and social needs. Stephanie recalled feeling lonely and alienated as a child and adolescent. In her teen years she developed chronic anxiety that was probably due to the loss and abandonment associated with losing both parents. Simply put, she suffered from separation anxiety and insecure attachment as a child.

Her anxiety persisted into college and beyond. In college she developed a close relationship with a classmate, and after graduation they married and had a child. They both worked, but Stephanie burdened herself with work responsibilities, so much so that her performance often suffered. As her high anxiety and stress became connected with her work and her marriage, she sought counseling on and off, and took various anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications with limited success. Due to her continuously high stress levels, she also developed medical problems that lowered her quality of life and further strained her marriage.

Her daughter graduated from college and was accepted to medical school. Suddenly, Stephanie felt purposeless because her “child” no longer needed her. Adding to her stress, her husband became friendly with a woman who was perceived as a threat by Stephanie, and the marriage slowly deteriorated. One day, home alone with her thoughts and anxieties, she committed suicide. Indirect-Passive types rarely harm themselves, and her suicide is somewhat of a mystery. Her chronic anxiety and chronic medical conditions, however, together with marital issues and lack of purpose, appear to have caused a psychological tsunami that she could not handle.

Stephanie suffered significant adverse effects during childhood that undoubtedly caused her chronic anxiety as an adult. It was difficult for her to enjoy life and depression was never far from her door. She never developed a stable and positive identity, which led to low self-confidence and goals with minimal sense of purpose. A life without meaning and direction is difficult for anyone, but especially for someone with her physical and mental health issues. How could she be expected to deal with significant stressors without sufficient purpose to deal with such suffering? Her suicide suggests she gave into self-defeating and self-destructive tendencies rather than turn her negative emotions and thoughts into constructive and growth-oriented patterns.

His Son is Gay

            Jim is 46. He’s a construction worker. Makes good money, too, and has good benefits. His wife, Alice, works part-time at a local department store to help make ends meet. They have two teenage boys – Jordan, 17, and Jeff, 15 – to feed. Jim also likes to take Alice out to eat once a month, and the family enjoys taking a two-week camping vacation in the mountains every August. The family budget is a challenge at times, but with Alice’s extra pay they’re able to make it and even put a little aside each week.

            But last week Jim’s world spiraled downward when Jordan announced to the family that he was gay. Jim was furious, and adamant with his son: “No son of mine is going to make that choice to be a fag! That’s not how I raised you. You’re a man so start acting like one. If you can’t handle that, get the hell out of my house. Go live with Aunt Fay. Knowing her, she’ll probably take you in.”

            No ifs, ands, or buts with Jim. He believed that “choosing” to be gay was disgusting, sickening, and perverted, an anti-Christian abomination condemned in the Bible, and he would disown Jordan if he insisted on that lifestyle.

            From a psychological perspective, Jim is coping poorly. First of all, note the intensity of his emotions. His reaction to his son’s news is exaggerated, full of emotion, and showing all the signs of avoidance based on fear. What is he avoiding? What does he fear? Why is he unwilling to let his son live his own life? Why does he insist on controlling how his son behaves? Why is he unwilling to have an adult conversation with Jordan?

            Many psychologists would agree that Jordan’s actions probably threaten crucial elements of Jim’s identity, his core self. Specifically, Jim – carrying at the center of his self-esteem a variety of insecurities – hears what Jordan says and is plunged into anxiety believing that others may think that he, Jim, is gay; or a lousy parent; or a general failure in life. Jordan’s statement also arouses and torments Jim with guilt and self-doubts about who he is. In short, Jordan’s announcement taps into Jim’s underlying insecurities. Jim must avoid and deny these conflicts at all costs or his personality will disintegrate into self-criticism, depression, and self-destructive actions. Jordan must be cast out to protect Jim’s fragile stability.

            The fact of the matter is straightforward: extreme, either/or, authoritarian thinking occurs to deny and avoid unwanted inner tendencies and insecurities in oneself by targeting “them,” the “others,” the “enemy,” with extreme hatred and other negative emotional attacks. For Jim, the issue is not really Jordan’s homosexuality; the issue is protecting Jim’s fragile ego.

A politician, Barry Goldwater, once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Psychologists, on the other hand, see inflexible and extreme attitudes and thinking as a desperate attempt to deny, to cover-up and avoid facing long-unresolved emotional conflicts and anxious self-doubting. Extremists doth protest too much, which shows an inability to cope well with stress because they must safeguard their unstable self-esteem.

Are you an extremist? Do you refuse to consult, negotiate, and compromise with those who disagree with you? What are you avoiding? Do your values and sense of purpose in life revolve around dominating others so you don’t have to face yourself? Confronting these and other such questions honestly and realistically are a first essential step in being able to cope with stress.

Don’t Focus on the Stress

Let’s face it, those who have trouble coping with stress spend too much time focusing on the stress. “I’m so stressed out! I’m going to lose control!” Well, take a deep breath and focus on some realities: Stress is a normal, unavoidable aspect of life, and feeling stressed does not make you inferior to others; you can schedule stressful events under your control when you expect relatively few demands and changes in other areas of your life; you can reserve some time for yourself each day to relax, if only for a few minutes, and take a walk, listen to music, or chat with a friend – although not about stress; you can commit to and nurture important aspects of your life – your values – such as marriage, career, children, friendships and family. These are constructive actions that will distract you from focusing on stress itself and corresponding emotions like fear, frustration, and anger. Above all, when stressed, you can choose to stay away from self-defeating behaviors like excessive eating, drinking, spending, or gambling. These are avoidance actions that will only lead to increased stress. Instead of choosing such behaviors, focus on choosing actions that bring you a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, and usefulness. Your actions define who you are. Choose them wisely.

Stress Control. Basic Steps

After her third session in counseling, Blayne was about to leave, but turned around and said to her counselor, “How about next week just giving me the low-down on handling stress. No psychological mumble-jumble, just the basics. Give me a list I can post on the fridge.”

“Just happen to have one handy,” the counselor said. “Remember, though, these things work best when they are integrated with your individual circumstances. That’s where I can help.” Here’s the list she handed to Blayne:

Be personally accountable for evaluating your abilities, actions, and thinking. Coping accountability does not mean blame yourself for everything.

Modify your interpretation of stressful events. A threat can be viewed as a challenge.

Exit from the self-pity parade. It’s not all about you.

Work toward a realistic optimism and frame of reference about life. Realism is not found by listening to authoritarians.

Balance your decisions with logic, impartiality, and self-control. Do not let others make decisions for you.

Identify your values and connect your actions to them. Do the right things for the right reasons.

Focus on empathy for others rather than on your problems. Listen to others, not just yourself.

Lower your voice, smile more, and be humble in your interactions with others.

Every day, do something that makes others feel good.

Every day, thank someone who makes you feel good.

At the end of the day, write privately about events troubling you. Doing so can help you restructure your thinking about them.

Indoctrination vs. Education

            In last week’s entry (The Gift of Failure), we noted that parents who enable and indulge their children create adults who are largely helpless to meet coping challenges as adults. These victims of childhood overindulgence must avoid failure at all costs because they are not equipped to handle it; they have never been taught how. In adulthood, some become overbearing, domineering bullies so they can hide their fear of failure. Others, feeling helpless and isolated, turn to cult groups and surrender their free will by pledging allegiance to the group’s beliefs, standards, and values.

Any way you look at it, when parents raise their children to believe that they are special and immune from accountability for their actions, they are indoctrinating their children. At its simplest, indoctrination means teaching a person to accept – uncritically – a set of beliefs. There are no ifs, ands, or buts – what is taught is an absolute, the way things are, and the way things should be. In this case, the child is trained in a type of solipsism by being reminded repeatedly that they can do no wrong; they are the main ingredient in the recipes of life; they are immune from failure; and when failure does occur, it is because of the intervention of some other group – the enemy – that wants to defeat them.

Young people readily accept this “teaching.” It is comfortable for them. There is security in believing, and being able to proclaim, “I am in charge; I am superior; I can only lose if you cheat. You are my enemy and you need to be cast aside as irrelevant.” Notice how indoctrination is based on fear, insecurity, and psychological instability: You must accept this reality or you will be defeated by others who are out to get you and destroy your way of living. And who are these others? Candidates are chosen from a long list: those of a different race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, political philosophy, religion, etc., etc., etc.

Some parents, however, choose a different childrearing path for their children. Instead of indoctrinating their kids to the parents’ way of thinking – which indoctrinating parents do to strengthen their belief that they are good parents – they choose to educate their children and produce independent thinkers. This is a difficult path for both parents and their children because while it builds healthy levels of self-esteem, it is also full of disappointment, discomfort, frustration, aggravation, and, yes, failure.

Education challenges children to learn about new things. This learning often requires discarding mistaken ideas, developing tolerance when offended, and facing the fact that their perspective is not necessarily superior to other ones. Education requires them to accept the fact that to improve, they must learn more; it requires them to get outside of themselves and be open to new sources of information; education requires them to exercise critical thinking by questioning and researching the validity of things that they read and hear. Education produces discomfort, complexity, and challenges to the belief that, “I am the primary ingredient in the recipe.”

In general, education is a type of productive and effective coping with stress. It requires you to accept real and verifiable facts, to be accountable for your opinions and attitudes, to follow a critical-thinking plan when confronted with a challenge, and to avoid becoming excessively dependent on a dictatorial guru who would convince you that his way is your only way.

In short, indoctrination is an emotion-based platform for dealing with stress; education, on the other hand, is a problem-based platform. Danny, 14 years old, asks his mother, “Did my friend Billy get autism by being vaccinated when he was a baby?” His mom replies, “Absolutely. His mother had him vaccinated when he was 2-years-old. Right after that, he started behaving strange. There’s no doubt why he got autism.” That’s an emotion-based answer. A problem-based answer would be something like, “Doctors and scientists have done a lot of research and shown that vaccines do not cause autism. It can get complicated, but we can go online and find examples that you might understand. For example, does it make sense that thousands of babies receive vaccinations, but only a much smaller number become autistic?”

Emotion (indoctrination) vs. Cognition (education) – which process works best for evaluating reality? Indoctrination declares homosexuality is evil and decadent; education proposes that people do not fall in love with a gender. Indoctrination affirms Christianity is the only religion; education shows that there are many religions that provide pathways to God. Indoctrination categorically states that Blacks are inferior to Whites; education presents data that when provided with equal environmental opportunities, Blacks can match Whites in achievement. Indoctrination preaches the earth is flat; education demonstrates how we know it is round.

How should you raise your children? The same way you should approach stress: Not by being indoctrinated into rigid and strict attitudes and actions; not by denial, distortion of facts, projection of your fears onto others, hypocrisy, prejudice, and other emotion-based strategies. The fact is, you will be a stronger person psychologically and emotionally when you acquire understanding of perspectives and people who differ from you; when practice empathy and humility; when you put self-preoccupation aside for honest and respectful communication with others; when you experience the essence of education.

The Gift of Failure

Well-meaning parents often structure their child’s activities to ensure that the child experiences huge doses of success. Whatever the activity, from playing a musical instrument to participating in athletics, some parents dedicate themselves to guaranteeing that their children succeed most of the time. Failure is to be avoided at all costs because it will, in their eyes, damage the child’s self-esteem. When the inevitable failure experience occurs, they shelter their child, enabling the child to develop patterns of avoiding responsibility and hardship by blaming adversity on others. Over the long term, when this child matures and is confronted with failure, being raised under this parental style dooms them to inevitable frustration, rationalization, blaming others, and low self-esteem.

Fred’s son, Carson, a first-year college student, was caught stealing in the cafeteria. Carson was suspended for a semester, but he appealed, and he and his dad met one afternoon with a Dean. Fred said, “I think you made a mistake; Carson would never steal.” The Dean proceeded to show them a surveillance tape that left no doubt; Carson clearly pilfered a sandwich and walked off without paying. Fred said, “Come on, he was obviously hungry, in a rush to get to class, and intended to pay for the sandwich later. Right Carson?” “Absolutely, dad,” Carson obediently responded. They lost the appeal. The real tragedy here, however, is that kids like Carson never get a chance to learn from their failures. They are protected so much they don’t have to face the reality of failure, be accountable for their actions, and work to correct the faulty actions that led to the failure.

Some parents not only hover over their kids and swoop in to protect them from failure, but also teach them extreme thinking patterns so they can blame failures on others. Extreme thinking – things are either right or wrong, or it’s always us vs. them – is a form of protection from failure because you can always displace the failure on the other guy. When parents raise their kids to think in these extreme ways, as adults their children will fear that others will ridicule, reject, or criticize them – or, at worst, prove to be superior in ability. This fear will make it easier to reject “the others, them,” and blame them for personal shortcomings. “I am always right; it’s always about me.”

If you fall into this trap, such self-absorption is psychologically damaging to you because you do not accept reality, or take responsibility; you have no sensitivity or empathy for others, and no social conscience; you will be unable to deal with fear and anxiety about who you are; you will try to avoid social interactions with others, including parties, giving presentations at work, or speaking up in meetings; you will sacrifice flexibility, openness, and productivity, essential elements of effective coping.

In short, parents who enable and indulge their children create adults who are largely helpless to meet coping challenges in any effective way. These victims of childhood overindulgence must avoid failure at all costs because they are not equipped to handle it; they have never been taught how. Some of them become overbearing, domineering bullies so they can hide their fear of failure. Others, feeling helpless and isolated, turn to cult groups and surrender their free will by pledging allegiance to the group’s beliefs, standards, and values.

Any way you look at it, when parents raise their children to believe that they are special and immune from accountability for their actions, they are not preparing them to cope effectively with the realities and challenges of life.

Your Motives — Unconscious?

Last week we introduced a discussion of self-criticism, and how it can undermine effective coping with your life stressors. We asked you to imagine being at a dinner party and accidentally spilling wine on your host’s table cloth. A simple accident, right? Or, are you one of those people who likes to speculate on possible unconscious motives behind what appears to be a chance mishap. For instance, as you dwell on the spill later, are you likely to consider the possibility that deep down you really dislike your host, and the “accident” was really intentional, although unconscious? That is, your unconscious anger toward the host caused you to reach for your glass carelessly, increasing the likelihood of knocking over the glass.

Here’s a word of caution: If you get into a habit of analyzing your actions as expressions of your unconscious mind – “The reasons for what I do are not what they seem to be” – you’re entering a world of speculation and uncertainty, and definitely not learning how to cope in a healthy way with life challenges facing you. Speculation about unconscious motives can be fun, but it does not help you solve a stressful problem. It is purely hypothetical, leads to one blind alley after another, and robs you of control of your thinking. As such, this speculation can be seen as a form of denial that helps you absolve yourself of responsibility for your actions. And, as readers of this blog know, such absolution may be comforting in the short run, but over the long run it will increase your stress level.