Emotions are not your issue.

You feel fear, anxiety, frustration, and you keep focusing on them. “Damn,” you tell yourself, “Why can’t I get rid of these emotions? They’re killing me. I need to calm down, relax, and manage myself better.”

Sure, there’s the ticket: avoid, avoid, avoid. You don’t like how you react to things so you look to deny who you are.

Your avoidance tendency is misplaced. Stress and emotions are not your issue. You must accept the fact that life is supposed to have some stress, and you can’t always control that fact. Marriage, Christmas, performance evaluations, having a baby, retirement, seeking a job promotion – all are stressful and require adjustment.

Should you avoid these things? Should you tolerate a mediocre job to avoid the stress of seeking a new and more challenging position? Should you avoid commitment in a relationship because you fear the stress of marriage? Should you resist ending an abusive relationship because you fear the stress of “making it on your own”? If you resist change and avoid stress will you be better off in the long run?

If you answer “yes” to these questions, you are avoiding life, not living it. Avoidance is a form of denial that says, “I’m going to ignore you, so please go away.” Denial and avoidance will not make stress magically disappear.

When faced with stress and the emotions that result, your best bet is to recognize your emotions, accept them as real, take responsibility for confronting the stress, and attack it by developing a plan of action that works within the boundaries of who you are and what you can control. Stress is not the issue; what you do about the stress is the issue. Your life’s road is not filled with obstacles; the obstacles are the road.

Finding Mental Harmony

The human mind loves harmony and consistency, and when you feel stress and anxiety it’s often a signal that things in your mind are out of balance. For instance, George is the father of a 15-year old girl who has been arrested for shoplifting. George feels he is tolerant and shows understanding toward his daughter, is a reasonable disciplinarian, and a good source of parental guidance. And yet, she’s in trouble with the law! Now those things are not harmonious, and George is under a lot of stress as a result.

George decides his daughter needs counseling and medication, so he sets up an appointment with a psychiatrist. He also forbids her to hang out with a certain group of peers, and he monitors her social media activities. Unfortunately, nothing seems to work. His daughter remains hostile, uncooperative, agitated, and often downright nasty toward him. George struggles to cope as the imbalances in his mind continue to bring him considerable anxiety.

A major part of George’s problem, of course, is that he has trouble examining his role in his daughter’s behavior, and he doesn’t see how his actions contribute to her problems, many of which are a normal part of navigating the psychological and biological minefield that is adolescence. His approach to the problem is self-absorbed, keeping himself as the dominant element in the equation. He can’t find the empathic understanding to see things from his daughter’s perspective.

Then there’s Kevin, 56, a former construction worker who is widowed with two sons who are married and live 2,000 miles away. Kevin is on disability because of a work accident from several years ago. He spends most of his days at home watching TV, dwelling on how stressed and depressed he is. His self-esteem, self-confidence, and initiative are in the toilet.

He was once a burly, outgoing guy loaded with motivation, a can-do attitude, and a willingness to confidently take on any job at a work site. Then came his accident and his wife’s death from cancer. His behavior switched from “out of my way, I can handle this,” to, “I’m not much good anymore.” His mind lost its harmony and sent out SOS signals in the form of anxiety and depression.

Then one day came a call from Jim, a friend: “Kevin! I need help. I have to deliver for Meals on Wheels today but I pulled my back something terrible. I can drive OK, but getting in and out of the car is agony. Would you come with me and take the meals up to the door?”

Kevin was glad to get out of the house and said he would help. Turns out he had some unexpected and remarkable experiences when he delivered the meals. One woman yelled out when he knocked, “It’s open! I can’t get to the door very good!” She was in the kitchen and Kevin put the meal in the fridge for her. He started for the front door but she grabbed his arm and said, “Pray with me, please.”

Kevin returned to the car and told Jim: “I stood there holding her hand while she thanked God for me being there to help her. Prayed for me! I mean, no one ever thanked God for me!” Jim said, ‘Yeh, Gladys is a doll. Really makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?’”

And on it went as Kevin went to the front door at each stop. No one else prayed for him, but nearly every one of them said, “God bless you,” as he left. One old guy was on his computer, which surprised Kevin, and he printed out this page with inspirational sayings on it about the importance of taking care of your neighbor. He told Kevin, “ This is for you. You’re a saint for living these words. Thank you so much.” Kevin was speechless.

Kevin got home that day, looked around the house, and realized that he suddenly felt better than he had since his accident and his wife’s death. As Kevin told Jim later, “I picked up the phone and called the Office of Aging. Said I wanted to volunteer to deliver meals. The lady said great and added that they also needed drivers to taxi old folks around to their doctor appointments, take them shopping…wherever they needed to go. I said, I’m your guy, ma’am. Just tell me what needs doing and I’ll get it done.”

Ah, the rebirth of Kevin. The confident, can-do guy of old was back. What a beautiful thing to see. But what happened to bring on this rebirth? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Kevin’s mental harmony was restored as he stopped focusing on his emotions and how miserable he was, and started to focus on helping others. He took himself and his pity parade out of the equation, and allowed his mind to find the old can-do Kevin by focusing on others.

Honor and Coping

Is personal honor something that can help you cope with stress? I bet you don’t usually associate honor with coping. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m having such a hard time coping with the stress in my life. I guess I need to be more honorable”? Probably never, right? Well, maybe it’s time to make personal honor a part of your coping plan.

What is honor anyway? The Cadet Honor Code at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY, reads simply: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

The Honor Concept at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD states: “Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They tell the truth and ensure that the truth is known. They do not lie. They embrace fairness in all actions. They ensure that work submitted as their own is their own, and that assistance received from any source is authorized and properly documented. They do not cheat. They respect the property of others and ensure that others are able to benefit from the use of their own property. They do not steal.”

Honor. It’s easy to think of in military terms, and that is why the notion plays such a large role in the mission of our military academies.

But honor can also be an integral part of living your daily life because it will help you cope with everyday challenges. How so? Personal honor will help you to critically evaluate information that comes to you each day. Honor will also help you make a plan of action that will allow you to live your life interacting with yourself and with others in a way that helps you to avoid narcissistic actions, and look in the mirror with satisfaction at the end of each day.

“Wow!” you think, “That sounds great. But how do I make those things happen?” It’s simple, really. Just remember that effective coping rests on a tripod: Acceptance of what you do, Accountability for the consequences of what you do, and taking Corrective Action to improve the quality of what you do. Living a life of Honor will help you build that tripod as you critically examine your daily life.

To conduct a critical examination of yourself, consider some basic questions – ones that deal with honor – you might ask yourself on a regular basis:

“Do I try to deceive and manipulate others for my own selfish ends?”

“Do I care when I see others being deceived?”

“Are my actions based on selfish entitlement to gain unfair advantage of others?”

“Am I able to understand how others feel when they are troubled?”

“When I consider my actions toward others, do I ask myself how I would feel if I were at the receiving end of those actions?”

Keep in mind that you also have a right to challenge others so you can vaccinate yourself against excessive dependency on them. Thus, you should also ask “honor questions” about actions others direct at you:

“Do they try to deceive and manipulate me for their betterment?”

“Do they seem to care about my feelings?”

“Are their actions based on selfish entitlement to gain unfair advantage over me?”

“These things they ask of me…how would they feel if I asked the same of them?”

Asking such questions can engage you in the critical thinking required for resisting excessive dependence on others, and facilitating your self-actualization.

Effective coping with stress requires personal empowerment, independent thought and action, personal autonomy, empathy and sensitivity for others, and service to others. Blind obedience and dependency on others will make such coping impossible. In the final analysis, only you can challenge and judge yourself.

And remember: When it comes to effective coping, traits like honor, integrity, and character are always “in”; narcissism is always “out.” When you see the latter, whether in yourself or in another, reject it like you would any other poison.

Why don’t you run?

Laura is 30 years old and periodically physically abused by her husband. She never knows when she will be hit, slapped, pushed to the floor, or thrown against a wall. There are other times when her husband is affectionate, helpful, and caring.

A part of Laura’s problem is that her husband’s behavior is unpredictable. Sometimes she is rewarded with kindness and warmth, but at other times she is yelled at, threatened, or physically attacked.

Psychologists know that such unpredictability can produce strong submissive behavior from victims. When you think about it, that makes sense: Victims become agreeable, polite, and solicitous toward “the enemy” in the hope of avoiding attacks. In short, they develop strong dependency actions in a desperate attempt to avoid harm.

This sort of dependency pattern is seen in many circumstances: The bullied kid on the playground tries to join his tormentor’s group; a kidnap victim admires and identifies with her captor; an abused child affectionately rushes to her abusive daddy’s side when he comes home from work; sex-trafficking victims make no effort to escape their “handler”; Laura displays the role of an adoring spouse.

Well-meaning friends and relatives who sense Laura’s problem often ask, “Why don’t you leave him?” Laura would like to end her marriage but she says, “I have no job and nowhere to go. 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’m just totally helpless.”

Laura does not see any options other than enduring the abuse and trying to avoid it. She sees her only hope as trying to stay at peace with her husband. She fears that if she runs, threats against her children and other loved ones will be carried out. She may also be uncertain about her financial future if she strikes out on her own. In short, she is completely dependent, helpless, and at the mercy of her spouse.

Similar dynamics are at work in cults, authoritarian governments, and terrorist groups. Like the abusive husband, the cult leader has a firm hold over followers because the leader has destabilized them. The leader controls information and tears down psychological anchors like family and social norms, convincing followers that they are helpless to act without the leader’s guidance. Combining flattery, deception, and coercion, the effective cult leader forms a trauma bond with adherents: “Only I understand your pain and can relieve it; you can depend only on me. There’s nowhere else to turn but you can count on me.”

But let’s return to Laura. What is she to do? What actions can she take to break free? She has no control over her husband’s behavior, and being nice, subservient, and trying to placate him simply don’t work.

There are alternatives for Laura, but without help she can’t see them. “Without help.” That’s the key. Only with the help of others can she muster the strength to plan her escape using resources available to her. She can contact women’s resource centers and legal aid organizations for advice on how to proceed. If children are involved, she can contact child protective services. She can get an attorney and involve the police. She can call on friends for support, and discover the strength in numbers and resources available to her.

As a general principle, remember that when you feel you have no direct control over the source of your troubles – and often you don’t, whether it be a spouse, criminal, supervisor, or acquaintance – there are always options available to you that allow you to exercise control through other agents. The key is to develop a plan that includes those options, a plan that focuses on specific aspects – financial, personal safety, legal — of situations to attack, making sure you have resources backing you up. To do so, you must reach out and develop a social network of people who are committed to helping you.

The one thing you must not do is descend into apathy, ambivalence, and dependency. You must determine your “circle of control” and, operating within that circle, fight! Otherwise, you may eventually fall victim to depression. The best antidote to depression is action. The key, however, is to understand that actions must not be obvious to your tormenter, who is stronger and holds all the cards in the “home arena.” An effective plan will involve deception, subterfuge, trickery, and clever maneuvers that take you outside your persecutor’s circle of control, into arenas where you have supportive resources and more control.

Good coping requires humility

Why would humility be an important part of coping effectively with stress? The answer is simple: Psychologically, humility involves much more than simply admitting your mistakes and weaknesses; much more than not allowing yourself to be an egotistical braggart when you do well. Yes, such actions are a helpful part of coping, but they serve you best when you allow the humility coping circle to play to completion.

What exactly is the humility coping circle? Imagine five progressive actions placed around a circle. First, humility encourages you to admit that you should not be the primary ingredient in your life recipe. That is, life is not all about you; there are always others involved. Second, this admission can help release you from your personal pity parade, give you a sense of freedom that is uplifting, and instill you with an optimistic spirit. Third, continuing the progression around the circle, strengthened with your new-found positivity, you will be more likely to “share yourself” with others who are also fighting stress in their lives. Fourth, sharing your struggles with others not only requires you to talk to them, but it also requires you to listen to and learn from them. Thus are the seeds of empathy planted in your mind.

That brings us to the fifth and final phase along the humility coping circle, the actions that close the circle: Talking to, listening to, and learning from others will inevitably show you the essence of effective communication: Optimistic Empathy.

The circle is now complete. Can you see it? You begin with reducing a focus on yourself as the center of it all, and end with an empathetic understanding of others who are wrestling with similar life challenges as you are. But now, released from the prison of self-absorbed ego, you are able reach out to help others because you understand their plight. Purged of considering yourself special and deserving of pity, you cope with your stressors by helping others with their difficulties. And you also enjoy the benefits because you are participating in the fullness of the human experience.

As Mike Church and I said in Using Psychology to Cope with Everyday Stress:

“Empathy. We usually think of it in terms of helping others, but it’s more. If you have been previously victimized or are presently dealing with emotional upheaval in similar ways as another, who can understand their plight more than you? The true human beauty of empathy, however, is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. Whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties. The best way to facilitate your ability to cope is to make sure that, as you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you leave no one behind.”


Is it time for a dependency audit?

You have a friend, Ron, and you think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. He always seems to have the answer. He knows how to handle situations that make you feel uncomfortable; he knows how to handle people; you feel comfortable, secure, and safe when you’re with him.

You hang around with Ron a lot, and he starts to “rub off” on you. When Ron laughs, you laugh; when he’s angry, you get angry; when he explains something, you accept it as truth; when he tells you something is false, you believe him and discount it; you ignore criticism of Ron.

You may not realize it, but you have become inappropriately dependent on Ron. This is OK, of course, if you’re 3-years old and Ron is your dad, but it’s not so good if you’re an adult. Such total dependency makes it impossible for you to evaluate and cope with reality in any objective way because you are compelled to see reality as your idol wants you to see it.

In a sense, you belong to the cult of Ron. He is your unquestioned leader and you are his loyal follower no matter what. If you ask Ron about information that seems to contradict his teachings, Ron will explain why you must avoid false facts that only mislead and deceive you. Over a period of time, again and again and again, Ron will remind you of the false messages and saturate you with his truths. This pure repetition will literally re-wire your brain to accept what Ron says. If you deviate from his “correct path,” he will distract you and substitute convenient scapegoats to correct your inappropriate thinking. You come to think like Ron, act like him, incorporate his standards into your thoughts and actions, and sacrifice your self-worth and self-respect.

In the context of coping with stress, excessive dependency on another is incompatible with developing self-empowerment, critical thinking skills, and self-confidence. Such dependency prevents you from developing self-efficacy and being able to initiate independent action. You will not be in touch with your thoughts and your actions; you will likely blame other people or events for your current problems; your optimism will not be grounded in reality but on your leader’s version of reality; you will withdraw from stressful situations, waiting for your leader to handle things. In short, psychologically you become a dependent, helpless child.

Do you want someone else to tell you how to think and act? Do you want someone else to tell you what is true and what is false? Are you so insecure that you need to cling to another out of fear of abandonment by a metaphorical parent? If you feel uneasy about your unquestioned allegiance to someone who dictates your life to you, then it is time for you to audit your relationship and check for excessive dependency that will rob you of personal autonomy, and the ability to cope with everyday stress on your own. The choice is yours.

Why Resolutions Fail

“My New Year’s resolution is going to be the same one I made a year ago: find a new job. This time I’m serious. Plus, the economy is good and employers are looking for workers; it’s a workers’ market. Wages are up so I can expect more pay in a new job. What do I need to do to be successful?”

These words, written to a newspaper columnist who advises job seekers, illustrate how not to cope with a challenge. Note the excuse for last year’s failure: He wasn’t serious last year, but “This time I’m serious.” This excuse suggests he has not truly accepted the reality of his situation. If he did, he would not need to say he’s serious.

Also, note how the writer focuses on external factors like the economy and having no advisor to explain his earlier failure, rather than focus on what he may have done wrong. In other words, he has not taken accountability for his actions. We’ll never know, of course, but like last year he is unlikely to be successful this year. He’s got a lousy strategy based on chance external factors, and he believes a columnist can take care of him. In other words, he has not worked on a plan of action that corrects previous mistakes.

When failure occurs, effective coping requires taking action to correct errors, not focusing on external factors. The former is under your control; the latter is not. After a loss, coaches say, “We’ve got to correct our mistakes, and that’s what we’ll be concentrating on in practice. We can execute better if we work hard.” Coaches do not say, “We need to petition the league for better refs, and make sure we don’t get that crew again. They screwed us!”

New Year’s Resolutions generally don’t last. Why not? First, the very fact that you pick a specific date to begin your transformation into a better person shows that you are procrastinating, and are really not motivated. Picking a date is artificial and means you are just kicking the can down the road.

Second, many folks use overly general resolutions to motivate themselves. “I’m joining a gym on January 2nd and that will help me lose weight.” You’re putting the cart before the horse. Resolutions must be the result of motivation to do something, not the catalyst for generating motivation.

Third, resolutions are usually unrealistic. You make grandiose, unattainable resolutions (“Be able to run a marathon by Spring”; “Lose 30 lbs. by February.”) and you also believe that you’re reinventing yourself, creating a new you. That’s unrealistic thinking.

To have any chance of success, a resolution must involve specific actions and specific goals: “I will eat a piece of fruit, an apple or a pear, for lunch instead of a sandwich”; “I will do a 30-minute workout at the gym 3 days a week”; “I will walk my neighborhood (or my treadmill) for 30 minutes every day.”

It also helps to connect your resolution to a specific motivator: “Warm weather will be here soon and I want to look decent at the pool”; “That wedding I’m in is only a few weeks away and I want to look sharp”; “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I have to be able to keep up.”

Your resolution must also involve your values as well as your actions. Specifically, you must engage in values-oriented thinking and make your actions consistent with that thinking.

Consider these disconnects: you say, “I care about my health” (your value), but you put off investigating diets (an action); you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value) but you put off joining a gym (an action); you say, “I love being with my family” (your value), but you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action). If you truly value those things, then you must admit to yourself that your actions are inconsistent with those values, and you must work to correct that problem. Connecting actions to values requires a much deeper commitment than does making a simple resolution. To cope with everyday life more effectively, identify your values, the things that are important to you. Then devise a plan that will help you coordinate your values with specific actions that are compatible with those values.

To summarize: (1) Accept your current situation and be accountable for it; (2) make a plan of action that results from your motivation to change, not a plan designed to motivate you; (3) include realistic, attainable, and specific actions and goals in your plan; (4) connect your plan to your values; (5) begin now, not at some future date.