Extremism Hinders Coping

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or group. The second person personal pronoun “you” is used as a generic universal. Jane’s case is a composite of conversations I have had with several professional, married women, and illustrates the coping dilemma posed by Bem. The post presents analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Coping with life stressors means making choices. Unfortunately, too often you see your task as choosing between one of two extremes, which reduces flexibility by requiring you to see one choice as “right,” and the other as “wrong.” From a coping perspective, you would do better to consider a moderate position between the two extremes.

Think about childrearing, for instance. For generations, parents followed traditional customs. They wanted their sons to be competitive and assertive. “You need to be tough, kid! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.” Daughters, on the other hand, should be sensitive and domestic. “Remember, honey, always nurture your children, support your husband, and make sure your household is well-run.”

 In the 1970s, however, psychologist Sandra Bem argued that forcing children into such rigid sex-roles limits their ability to cope well as adults. For instance, if a situation requires caring, sympathy, and emotion, the traditional man can’t show those traits without feeling he is sacrificing his masculinity and looking like a wimp. Similarly, if a situation requires assertiveness and a competitive spirit, the traditional woman is lost because to act in those ways would be – in her mind – a threat to her femininity. She’s afraid that others would judge her to be a penis-envying b***h, or some similar pejorative term.

Bem said kids should learn both sets of traits. A girl can be taught to be caring and sensitive, but she can also be taught to be forceful and competitive if the situation demands it. By the same token, a boy can learn to be dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, parents can teach him that showing emotion and tenderness is OK. And here is the key: The kids can also learn that showing this flexibility doesn’t compromise their self-esteem or respective identities as being masculine or feminine. Consider what Jane, a corporate executive, says: “The other day at a Board meeting, a couple of members were condescending toward me and said my idea for improving productivity was nonsense. I told them that I had researched my plan and had ample data supporting my position. If they disagreed with me, they should provide documentation favoring their opinion. They backed down. After the meeting, several Board members complimented me on how I held my own. Then I went home, listened with mom-sympathy to my kids complain about their lives, and cooked my husband’s favorite dish because he had a hard day at the office. He said I was the best wife ever!”

When you limit your choices in life to one extreme or the other, you force yourself into a restrictive coping strategy and lose flexibility in your actions. Effective coping requires making adjustments and adapting to change, and that requires having a variety of personal traits to call upon in a variety of situations. Extremism sabotages that flexibility. During the 2020 pandemic, colleges had to decide whether or not to play football. The extremist choice was simple: Play or don’t play. Administrators and athletic directors knew, however, that the “all in” vs. “fold” choice was restrictive and unrealistic; there was a middle ground. Specifically, schools choosing to play made a nuanced, not an absolute either-or decision: They would play, but only under conditions that were spelled out in specific safety protocols. When the protocols were met, the game could be played; when not met, the game must be canceled. Contrast that successful nuanced approach to the political arena in 2020-21. Extremism rules, and threatens to bring American democracy to the brink of destruction. Rational voices speak out against the rigid choices offered by extreme positions, but those sensible voices are vilified and punished by those at both ends of the political spectrum. The result is damaging division.

The lesson for personal coping is this: Accepting one extreme view and rejecting the other will cause you to base your life on emotion – “I am right! You are evil! – and you will live in an unchanging, static world of blame, anger, and revenge. These emotions may eventually turn inward, producing a mind divided against itself, and inundating you with more stress. If you are to cope realistically and successfully with your stressors, you must change your focus from emotions to problem-solving. The latter means you are guided by results, not by a gut feeling. Problem-solving involves taking action based on a realistic evaluation of what faces you. Over the long run, a problem-focused approach – unlike an emotion-focused approach – will allow you to be accountable for your actions, less self-preoccupied, and more socially responsible.

An attorney once shared with me a story he heard in a classroom lecture in law school. The story goes, a judge said there were times when he had to make either-or decisions during a trial – such as allow one side to present a piece of evidence, or don’t allow it. He added, “More typically, however, my decision was in a gray area. I might tell the Prosecution they can bring such-and-such into the trial. The Defense was unhappy with that decision. But I added that the Prosecution could use such-and-such only in a very limited, non-prejudicial way. Now they were also unhappy. When both the Defense and the Prosecution were unhappy with one of my decisions, I knew I had made the correct ruling, and was not bothered with second-guessing myself.”

To cope well you must be flexible, and that requires you to avoid extremism, be able to choose from multiple actions, and be comfortable with any of them. Requiring yourself to be an extremist, either this or that – but never a combination of both – in all situations is a losing, destructive strategy. It’s a form of avoidance – avoidance of the stress of falling short of your own expectations for yourself. Such avoidance disrupts any effort you make to cope with those stressors. Life is not always about finding perfection by choosing A or B; it’s knowing how to choose the best features of each.

PTSD — Am I at Risk?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) results from experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Depending on the severity of the event – falling off your bicycle and spraining your wrist would be less traumatic than being robbed at gunpoint – most people who experience trauma have only temporary difficulty; with time and good coping strategies, they usually get through it OK. Psychologists estimate that less than 10% of the population develops severe PTSD symptoms following even a harsh traumatic experience. In other words, most people handle the stress pretty well. But what about that 10%?

People who have a history of psychiatric disorders are more prone to PTSD. Also, experiencing childhood trauma leaves one vulnerable to PTSD following adult trauma, especially when the two traumas are similar – such as, being bitten by a dog as a child, and then again as an adult. Just as physical injuries leave the body vulnerable to later injury, so, too, do early psychological scars leave one vulnerable to later stress.

Some people have oversensitive nervous systems. They respond more intensely to loud noises, pain, and unexpected events, and are more prone to uneasiness and discomfort in new and strange environments. This biological make-up makes them more vulnerable to PTSD.

PTSD is also more likely among those who have lived a relatively sheltered, stress-free life, and who believe adversity and danger primarily affects others, not them. They have been indulged, and are ill-prepared for effective cognitive processing of trauma. If a trauma occurs, they react with denial – “This is not happening!” – or catastrophic thinking – “My world has ended!” Parents who go out of their way to indulge their kids and protect them from hardship and disappointment are actually engaging in a subtle form of emotional child abuse, and making their kids more vulnerable to PTSD.

Not surprisingly, people who feel isolated and lonely are more vulnerable to PTSD than those who have an extensive and supportive social network. When people are supported and helped by friends and family, they are better able to process trauma and avoid PTSD.

Those who have training about what to do when faced with trauma fare better after experiencing trauma. Soldiers undergo extensive training before they are sent into combat; school children have evacuation drills in case of fire or other emergency; some women take courses in self-defense to prepare themselves in case of personal attack. Such preparation can provide a sense of control over the unexpected, and equip people to deal with trauma more effectively.

The bottom line? PTSD is not inevitable following a frightening experience. That’s important to remember because being anxious over the possibility of developing PTSD can add to stress levels and complicate even mild symptoms after trauma. Talk about a self-fulling prophecy! “What’s the matter, Ann?” She replies, “Serving on that jury was really stressful. I’m scared to death I’m going to develop PTSD!” Ann is vulnerable to PTSD because she’s afraid she will develop PTSD!

Some other useful things to consider: When dealing with PTSD, remember that what works for someone else may not work for you – and that’s OK. Give yourself some time to process a traumatic event. You may need several days – or even a week or two – to adapt psychologically to what has occurred, and that’s OK. Premature discussions with counselors during that processing time might be ineffective, and may even worsen the impact of the original trauma.

In a supportive context with open sharing of thoughts and feelings, it’s usually helpful to talk with others who have experienced the same or similar traumas. Talking to yourself, writing about the experience, or recording yourself talking about the event may also be beneficial. Many victims find that privately expressing their deepest thoughts and feelings about what happened can help get emotions out so they can re-evaluate and process them. Finally, if appropriate, it may help to return to the place where the event took place. For many victims this step comes only after much preparation and support. The “visit” can be symbolic, as is the case when Vietnam veterans visit memorials like The Wall, or real as when veterans return to Normandy on the anniversary of D-Day.

Note that all these recovery techniques have two things in common: Neither denial nor self-blame are part of the coping process, and the process takes place in a context of what victims can control. One way or another, and at the appropriate time, victims accept the reality of the event, they take responsibility to face that reality head-on, and they take action to empower themselves for the future.

Cults II: The Cult of Self

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or group, and the second person personal pronoun “you” is used as a generic universal. The post presents possible speculations about coping with stress one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Do you distort reality and engage in twisted thinking just to hold on to a belief? Would you rather “be right” than “do right”? Is it hard for you to change your beliefs when others say your actions in service of your beliefs are irrational? It’s difficult to face these questions, but if examine objective evidence about your beliefs and discover you’re on shaky ground; if you hear friends you respect telling you often that you’re thinking irrationally; if you find yourself wanting to receive information only from those who agree with your way of thinking; if you’re troubled by emotional outbursts of anger, anxiety, jealousy, and paranoid accusations against those who disagree with you – well, if those descriptions fit you, you might consider that your thinking is cult-like, that you have become excessively dependent on a cult that is telling you what to believe.

You will likely refuse to accept this cult explanation, because – as we saw in last week’s post – cult devotion and obedience are extremely resistant to criticism or change. Why? The cult and your sense of purpose, the cult and your identity, the cult and your values – they have all merged into a single entity: “Self” and “Cult” have blended into one with no border separating them. In this case you are not really a member of some external cult. No, you are a member of the Cult of Self. Asking you to reject your cult values, principles, emotions, and ways of thinking is asking you to reject who you are. That will never work because your Cult of Self is how you hide your unresolved conflicts and maintain a fragile sense of psychological security. You are the cult and the cult is you. Doesn’t sound good, does it? And it gets worse!

Cults generally focus on “us” – the good guys – and “them” – the bad guys. But what if “us” and “them” are both you? What if your discomfort, uncertainty, and frustration about what’s going on around you boils down to your mind at war with itself? You’ve heard, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Well, a mind divided against itself cannot cope with reality, and requires scapegoats to survive. A mind divided against itself has no choice but to lash out at others, aggress against them – fight, hate, reject, retaliate, avenge. These negative emotions and actions become your world, a world you see as evil, unreasonable, and against you. That’s what the cult tells you, but in the Cult of Self, those out there are not your enemy; you are the enemy. Looking in the mirror becomes a metaphorical shouting match full of hate, fear, anger, and revulsion, and you don’t even realize it. When you fall under the spell of a cult, you declare war on yourself!

How can you break out of this prison? You must keep telling yourself: A mind that harbors anger toward itself cannot remain stable; a mind that only hears messages that give it comfort, and distorts messages it finds discomforting, cannot escape emotional disruption; a mind that cannot accept its own emotions becomes self-destructive, and slowly sinks into despair and depression. Your emotions become alien – the other, the outsiders – the “them.” A part of your mind becomes your cult leader, and renders you helpless. Is that what you want – to be helpless in the face of challenges? You see yourself as strong, capable, independent, competent, and autonomous. Well, if that’s true, why are you dominated by others who have assumed control of your mind? How did you become so weak?

Cult thinking does not survive on politics, patriotism, finances, or laws. If it did, others could help you reject your cult thinking by threatening arrest, paying you money, or showering you with guilt. Cult thinking is a psychological problem that encourages you to avoid challenges. It must be attacked with methods used by mental health professionals in a counseling context. The sources of your fears and anxieties – hidden deep in the recesses of your mind – must be attacked in ways that help you celebrate your humanity, not your helplessness and self-disgust. This will be the hardest battle you have ever fought. But you can stand on your own two feet. You can choose your values, purposes, and goals, and use them in constructive rather destructive ways. You can discover that the obstacles in your life road are not obstacles – they are the road. Choosing to travel this road will rid you of self-hatred and irrational fears, and bring you empowerment, self-esteem, and a healthy connection to yourself and others.

Cults I: Why is allegiance to cults so hard to eliminate?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the example used (“Pete”) is fictional. The post presents speculations one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Why do people join cults and persist so strongly in their loyalty, even when the cult fails? In the 1950s a small cult gathered on a hillside on a date specified by their leader as the day the world would end. According to the leader, God would save them and destroy everything else. In preparation for this day, these folks sold all their belongings, their houses, cars, clothes – everything! They made an incredibly strong commitment to their leader.

The world survived and the group experienced cognitive dissonance, but they did not turn on their leader as a false prophet. Instead, they joined him in praising God for rewarding them for their great faith and saving the world. They reduced their dissonance by distorting reality, not by changing their beliefs about their prophet. They decided the world continued to exist because of faith in their leader. Faced with the possibility that they were a bunch of knuckleheads who fell under some idiot’s spell, they kept their mental balance with perceptual distortions and irrational thinking, which allowed them to continue to worship their leader. If you said to one of them, “Your leader was all wrong and caused you to get rid of all your worldly possessions! He’s a fake!” Their reply would be, “You’re wrong. God was so impressed with us and our prophet that He decided to spare the world. We saved you! And it was all because of our prophet!”

In the 1960s and 70s, several cults sprang up, and they preyed on young people, especially teens, who are often in a rebellious stage of questioning their parents’ values. The cults tried to convince the kids that cult membership would resolve their confusion about life and their role in it. The Hare Krishna movement, which focused on questioning Western values, grew quickly in the hippie culture of the time. Members were so prevalent in public places – they really liked airports – that laws had to be passed to prevent them from accosting people with their often aggressive and intimidating demands for money. Many young people were attracted to the movement with promises of an improved life, both physical and mental, if they just discarded their parents’ values and beliefs. Also prominent at this time – and equally dangerous for impressionable young people looking for a sense of higher purpose in their lives – were the “Moonies,” the colloquial name for members of the Unification Church, founded by Sun Myun Moon.  

Beginning in the 1970s, horrified at how their children often became rigid adherents to these cults, many parents responded by hiring “deprogrammers.” The essence of deprogramming was to abduct cult converts – some called it kidnapping – isolate and physically restrain them, and barrage them over long periods of time with continuous arguments and attacks against their new “religion,” threatening to hold them forever until they agreed to reject the cult. The process was not easy, very expensive – upwards of $10K – and bordered on torturous brainwashing. Deprogramming eventually lost favor in society because the process seemed every bit as dangerous as the cult itself.

In 2020 and on into 2021, many mental health professionals see a resurgence of cult thinking, although it is often centered on political beliefs in adults, not so much the “tune-in, turn-on, and drop-out” youth drug culture of the 60s and 70s. Whether political or altered-consciousness enlightenment, however, the dynamics of cult allegiance is the same: Reality distortion, irrational thinking, unquestioned acceptance, and illogical devotion to the leader that is incredibly resistant to change. Why is such devotion so impervious to reality checks?

Cult allegiance is hard to overcome because the cult complements adherents’ personalities. They join because the leader compensates for their inner insecurities and weaknesses, often unconscious. If Pete joins a cult because they pay him a really great salary, it would be easy to dissolve his loyalty to that cult: Pay him more than the cult pays him! But if Pete is tormented by fears and helplessness – “minorities will take over my country” – that cult membership mitigates with the reassuring message, “Join us and together we will prevent that from happening” – in this case, weakening Pete’s loyalty to the cult requires helping him resolve his inner psychological conflicts without the cult, not an easy task.

Loyalty to a cult and its leader is not a political, legal, financial, or patriotic enterprise. It is a psychological undertaking based on one’s search for meaning, purpose, truth, and values. The simplicity and definitiveness of cult principles attracts those who are adrift, confused, and bewildered in that search. Unerring loyalty to the cult may fly in the face of logic, rationality, and self-preservation, but challenging believers that their loyalty is illogical, irrational, and self-destructive is futile when that loyalty satisfies psychological needs. Finding ways to help the follower satisfy those psychological needs without the cult and its leader, is the only way to show cult devotees the way out of their commitment. The key is to show them how to re-calibrate the search for values that brought them to the cult in the first place. It’s not an easy process, but few things worthwhile are easy. The point is, appealing to reason, logic, and level-headedness is not the way to go.

What’s your Working Hypothesis about Life?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the examples (Sharon, Marvin, and Stan) are hypothetical. The post presents possible speculations and analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

When it comes to your world and other people in general, what is your basic working hypothesis? By that I mean, do you fundamentally believe that the world is OK, or does it stink? When it comes to others, how is your default key labeled, “Trust” or “Mistrust”?

Sharon answers those questions, “Basically, I think people are out for themselves. If I get in the way, they’ll take advantage of me. Let’s face it, when you get down to it – unless you’re talking about a really close friend or family member – people can’t be trusted.”

Marvin sees his world a little differently: “Yeh, the world is OK. Sure, there are some losers and you have to watch out for them, but I believe that overall, people are good inside and can be trusted.

The renowned psychologist, Erik Erikson, maintained that a basic working hypothesis about the world is formed during your first year of life, when you are totally dependent on others for comfort and nourishment. If your caregivers are reliable, loving, and supportive, you are likely to develop a sense of trust in others and a belief that the world is a positive place. If, on the other hand, caregivers are cold, rejecting, unreliable, and uncaring, you are more likely to form the working hypothesis that the world, and those in it, are unreliable and you should not trust them.

The long-term effects of your initial working hypothesis can be substantial. Stan was raised by a critical, demanding, and verbally abusive mother. Most of the time, whatever family members did or didn’t do was simply not good enough for her. No matter how hard they worked, she demeaned their efforts and achievements.As Stan grew older, he harbored much anger toward his mother, but paradoxically found himself drawn toward women like her. He was accustomed to her type of treatment and, quite frankly, wouldn’t know what to do with an accepting, supportive, loving woman. Even though mom’s behavior was difficult to cope with, there was a comfort level with her predictability.

Stan’s first marriage ended in divorce. He didn’t see that the marriage was a continuation of his battles with his mother, and that his anger toward his mom was displaced onto his wife. After the divorce Stan entered a mutually-abusive relationship with a girlfriend, which lasted only a few months. Stan was incapable of establishing a loving bond with a woman because his deep anger toward his mother kept defining the relationship.

Early emotional deprivation often causes one to be drawn to people who are emotionally unavailable. When emotionally-deprived while young, as adults they tend to run from partners who are consistently warm, giving, nurturing, and loving. Such supportive social signals are aversive because of the uncertainty those signals produce about how to behave. Warmth and love make them feel uncomfortable and undeserving. Guilt, shame, and helplessness can result, and they develop an ambivalence toward life. Stan says, “I want to live, but a part of me wants me to die. It would be fine with me if I get sick and die. What’s the big deal?”

Let’s take two messages from this discussion. First of all, repeated experiences in childhood – such as habitual rejection – can produce a working hypothesis that the world is untrustworthy, and that premise can have long-term negative consequences that extend well into adulthood. Second, those negative consequences need not be inevitable, and need not last forever. Yes, Stan’s adult road will be a lot rockier than someone’s whose early childhood was not characterized by emotional rejection, but Stan is not bound by chains from which there is no escape. That’s what coping is all about: adjusting, adapting, changing direction, surviving, and being accountable for the choices you make. That last aspect is very important; that is, it will do you no good to blame your present conflicts on those from your past.

Stan entered counseling, and became aware of his anger toward his mom, an anger that persisted but subsided a bit. He became aware of his tendency to choose women “like mom,” and how that tendency was self-destructive for him. He began to work with his therapist to understand the value of more “appropriate” women – that is, women who were not so demanding, critical, and confrontational like mom – and try to develop a mature, mutually supportive relationship with them. It was a high hurdle for Stan because a lifetime of avoidance patterns is hard to overcome, but high hurdles can be vaulted, as long as you are willing to accept  the challenge they present.

Skin Color Blind or Skin Color Conscious?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the example used (“Don and Paul”) is hypothetical. The post presents possible speculations one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Don and Paul, White business colleagues, were walking to a restaurant near their office for lunch. A Black man was approaching them, dressed professionally as they were – white shirt, suit and tie. Don said derisively, “Look at this big shot coming. Not too uppity, is he? Thinks he’s better than us, just because he’s Black. He’s probably some affirmative action guy who’s dumb as hell but gets breaks because he’s Black.”

“My God, man” says Paul, “what are you doing? I know you’re biased, but this is ridiculous. You never met this guy, but you think he’s some arrogant SOB who hates Whites? Just from seeing his skin color? Man, you really need to be more color blind.”

Did you ever hear that phrase, “color blind”? It was kind of pervasive back in the 1960s and 70s during the racial upheaval that tore through American society. The idea was, when you’re judging someone, be “color blind,” and ignore their skin color. Really? When you see someone, how can you possibly ignore one of their most obvious physical traits? Back to Don and Paul.

Don snaps back at Paul: “Oh, Mr. Pure of Heart, I suppose you didn’t have some negative thoughts about this guy?”

Paul says, “I didn’t even notice that he’s Black.”

“You didn’t notice his skin color?” challenges Don. “You’re color blind? Who are you kidding?”

Don has a point. The intent of, “You need to be color blind,” was noble back in the day, but it missed an important point: It’s impossible to do! When you look at someone else – especially a stranger – skin color is just too salient a characteristic to ignore.

Well, if it’s impossible to be “color blind” in social interactions, what if we strive instead to be “color conscious”? Substituting “conscious” for “blind” takes us down a completely different road – a road that offers much more promise when it comes to coping with our prejudices in social exchanges. How so?

Color conscious means that Don is aware of his racial prejudices and his tendency to disparage Blacks. He knows that he believes they feel entitled and want to be given breaks to make up for White domination over the past 400 years. He also knows that his prejudices make him pre-judge Blacks as being arrogant, smug, and conceited. Armed with that self-knowledge – being conscious of his biases – Don can guard against impulsively judging them. Had he been color conscious, when first seeing the approaching man, he might have said to himself, “Alright, Don, cool it. Give the guy a break and put your biases on the back burner. Don’t assume that this guy fits your belief.”

Note that when being conscious of his biases, Don follows some important coping rules: He accepts his prejudices and holds himself accountable for them. That awareness helps him avoid letting his negative attitudes make him act impulsively. Instead, he follows a plan of action that stresses courteous behavior over confrontational behavior. Humility and empathy will not be far behind.

The coping benefits of being “conscious” rather than “blind” with respect to physical appearances also applies to other obvious characteristics about a person, such as gender, height, hair color, or weight. Being conscious of who you are – your attitudes that make you behave in certain ways in particular situations – will make your social interactions more honorable and smoother, more productive, and satisfying. The alternative is lashing out inappropriately to serve your biases, which will result in more stress.

In 2009, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina was listening to a speech on health care by President Obama, delivered to a joint session of Congress. At one point – disliking something Obama said and clearly not conscious of his prejudices toward Obama – Wilson impulsively shouted out, “You lie!” In a later session, the House rebuked Wilson for his outburst, approving a resolution that said he had committed a “breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House.”   

Not very honorable behavior, Joe! Had you been more color “conscious” with respect to your biases, perhaps you would have been less likely to blurt out your disrespectful comment, and avoided a taint on your reputation.

Helpless Dependency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathologies and the Mask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counseling Tips II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counseling Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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