Cyberbullies

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

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

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

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

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

The “Wow” Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Defeating Behavior II

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

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

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

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

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

Yeasayers and Naysayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of Failure

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

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

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

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

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

The Lure of Psychiatric Meds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Dumpy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue your normal exercise routines during the winter.

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

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

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

Childhood Trauma and Their Future as Adults

Painful events during childhood – such as death of a family member, serious injury or illness, and physical or sexual assault – can potentially have long-lasting and significant negative impacts on later adult physical and mental functioning. Even more stressful for children are ongoing patterns that persist over years, conditions like parental emotional deprivation and rejection, and deprivation of basic needs like food and shelter. The consequences of such experiences were documented in The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the late 1990s. The ACES test screened for childhood trauma in ten areas: Physical Abuse, Verbal Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Emotional Deprivation, Physical Deprivation, Addiction, Domestic Violence, Incarcerated Family Member, Divorce/Abandonment, and Mental Illness. The presence of such traumas was highly positively correlated with medical and emotional problems later in life: Smoking; alcoholism; IV drug use; obesity; chronic anxiety; panic attacks; early and unprotected intercourse; depression. The consequences of childhood traumas are often carried into adulthood.

            But – and it’s a big but – there is another side to the coin.

            There is also solid evidence that early experience with stress – in moderation – can help one become more resilient, hardy, and able to maintain a sense of control and confidence when confronted with difficult events. For example, Larissa Dooley and colleagues found that – compared to adults who report highly stressful early lives – adults who report moderate levels of stressors in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, describe their current lives as satisfying, low in psychological discomfort, low in PTSD symptoms, and generally strong in day-to-day functioning. Again, we’re talking about the advantages of moderate stress in early life. Conversely, indulging children and protecting them from exposure to moderate levels of reality-based stress can be harmful because the kids never learn coping skills, which later puts them at a disadvantage in dealing with the inevitable reality of challenges imposed by daily adult living. Thus, shielding children and adolescents by exposing them only to minimal stress may be every bit as harmful in the long run as subjecting them to devastating stress.

            Here we are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with increasing racial and tribal violence, and our media filled with negative reports of more and more people seeking counseling for anxiety and depression. Dire warnings are also issued for the psychological damage being done to our children, as the pandemic causes disruptions in school and other daily activities. These and other stressors in society are associated with increased emergency mental health interventions for children, including self-injury, suicide, and low levels of mental well-being.

Whereas it is important to be aware of stressors imposed on young people, these worrisome predictions of psychological doom seem to overlook something important: The role of parents, teachers, and other adult role models in helping children learn that experiencing stressful events does not automatically mean defeat; young people can profit by learning how to cope with adversity and maintain some control and stability in the face of stress.

            When parents teach their children these life lessons, and when parents by their own example show children how to confront – not avoid – challenges, the parents are providing future adults with “counseling” that will serve them well in the future. Highly stressful events like our current pandemic and social-media interactions need not inevitably lead to anxiety, depression, and other psychological difficulties. Parents who are wise, strong, stable, and involved in their children’s lives in authoritative – not authoritarian – ways are appropriately preparing children with lessons for meeting future stressors. And what are some of these lessons? Just because you feel or think you are a loser does not make you a loser; just because you are bullied does not make you a reject; just because you are afraid does not make you a bad person. These events should not make you feel guilty and ashamed because your thoughts do not make you good or bad; they are natural for you and part of what makes you human. You do not have to feel guilty about your thoughts or feelings. You have some thoughts from time to time that worry you, but those thoughts and feelings do not define you. Your freely-chosen behaviors define you.

            These lessons, of course, also apply to adults, who must learn to say: “I am not likely to get out of my depression by thinking or feeling my way out. I can’t expect or demand that others pad the corners of my world for me. The past happened and can’t be denied. I need to function in my present without being dominated by my past. I must accept the reality of my here-and-now, and be accountable for my actions. I must identify my values, purposes, goals, humility, and empathy. At some point, I need to bring my behaviors into alignment with my core values. If I am not living corresponding with my value systems, then it is not realistic for me to be happy.”

Resisting “cult” influence

Are others trying to get you to think as they do, indoctrinate you, influence you, make it difficult for you to think for yourself? Sometimes it’s tough to resist, especially if they’re friends. But you can cope effectively and resist by being vigilant and knowing some basic things to watch for. To illustrate, let’s assume you have some acquaintances who want to convert you to their way of thinking. What are some steps they would probably take, things you want to watch for?

First of all, they won’t let you know they’re “working on you.” They will keep things casual and full of distractions. For instance, if they want to convince you not to get the coronavirus vaccination, they will disguise their efforts with a lot of talk about how “Big Brother Government” is always keeping an eye on you and making sure you behave.

They will become familiar with your standard reference group. It might be family, a club, teammates, a particular teacher, etc. Now and then they will mention how those models fall short of expectations, but be subtle, deceptive, amusing, confusing, and engaging when doing so. They will present arguments that contradict your role models, and always “document” their own arguments, even using bogus sources. They will casually encourage you to resist succumbing to your traditional ways of perceiving, interpreting, and evaluating events around you. They will argue that the old attitudes don’t work, and they will present alternatives to those old ways and point out how they make more sense.

They will try to become the predominant presence in your life. They will suggest that others do not have your best interests in mind, and you should “listen to us.” They will work to become a source of comfort and reinforcement for you, and make their interactions with you profitable, enjoyable, and productive. They will be available for you as much as possible, and create an “us vs. them” platform. Fostering tribalism – identification with the “us” – is a fundamental principle of indoctrination. The group will point out frequently how “them” rob you of independence, autonomy, and power. They will slowly impart the idea that “them” are to be feared, and make an effort to instill in you a confrontational model of a world-view that is simplistic: There are good guys and there are bad guys; we are the good guys, the latter are to be feared, rejected, and avoided.

The bottom line to indoctrination is to use deception, misdirection, and false information to trick you. Knowing this fundamental principle of propagandization, let’s consider what you should do when you sense you are the recipient of efforts to change your attitudes. That is, how can you resist? What should be your first line of defense? Simple – critical thinking. Too often, when you hear something new or unusual from someone, your default response is, “Really? I didn’t know that.” If you really want to cope better with information that has the potential to throw you out of balance and increase your stress, delete that default response and substitute it with, “How do you know that? Where did you get that information?” Once you have their sources, you can evaluate them with three simple questions: “Is this source reliable? Do they have an agenda? Is the agenda designed to serve them or me?”

That last question is absolutely essential. More often than not, those who would indoctrinate you are insecure, have an agenda to bolster their self-esteem, and want to use you to justify their efforts. Thus, when you sense you are a target of indoctrination to serve others’ purposes, you must ask if their arguments are supported by information from independent sources – deceptive information will not be. Ask yourself if you are being asked to passively accept someone else’s “facts,” or being required to be personally accountable for your decision – remember, accountability is a cornerstone of effective coping. Finally, ask yourself if you are allowed to appreciate and respect the needs and opinions of others – indoctrination will stress tribalism not cooperation, and it will undermine the cornerstones of effective coping: humility and empathy for the perspective of others.

There’s no secret to being in charge of yourself and rejecting those who would turn your brain into jelly. You have to align yourself with those who are not afraid to let you be yourself, and who encourage you to forge your own path, not theirs. Those who are vulnerable to indoctrination by others are tormented, guilty, and shameful about their past and want someone to pad the corners of their world. They believe it’s all about them; life is unfair and they whine and cry like sniveling children. They agree to lash out against the “others” because those “others” are the cause of their insecurities, low self-esteem, self-hatred, and fear of being left alone.  To resist losing your identity and autonomy, you must fight those vulnerabilities; you must learn to accept, not deny, your reality; you must learn to challenge the false messages of indoctrination and how to correct them before they build momentum and lead to self-destructive patterns in your life.

Know Who You Are

Martin is an Executive Assistant to his lifelong friend, Carlton, who is the CEO of a company that employs 500. At work, Carlton keeps Martin nearby, and their offices are next to each other. Carlton trusts Martin, values his judgment, and rarely makes a decision without Martin’s input. When Carlton travels on business, Martin is at his side. Carlton understands the strain this dependency puts on Martin, and he often says to Martin, “Bring Cheryl [Martin’s wife] and the kids along for this trip. We’ll give them some vacation time.”

Business associates who work with Carlton regularly are aware of how much Martin knows about the business, and how much he contributes to his company. His reputation as a knowledgeable insider is so high, many companies have tried to lure him away from his company. Martin, however, is exceptionally loyal, and he is unfazed by competitors who say, “It’s time for you to be a CEO yourself. Come work with us and you will be totally in charge of our Operational Division, and we’ll pay you 50% more than you make now.” Martin always turns them down. On one of these occasions, he was asked, “Why do you reject this offer? You’re ready, Martin. You know this business better than anyone I know. Why would you want to stay #2 on the totem pole?”

Martin laughed. “I know who I am. My strengths are working behind the scenes – organizing, planning, strategizing. Put me in front of a Board of Directors or a Congressional committee and I melt. My heart pounds, I sweat, I fumble over words. I don’t think fast on my feet. But Carlton – he could stand before the United Nations and stay cool as a cucumber. As long as he has my outline before him, he’s never at a loss for words and sounding coherent. If he’s asked a question we didn’t anticipate, he thinks with the speed of a lightning bolt and bluffs his way through it, always staying like a rock: solid and cool, guided by my outline. Make me a CEO? No thanks. I would fall on my face all the time. It’s not who I am.”

“It’s not who I am.” If you want to cope well, you must both learn and accept who you are. By that, I don’t mean you should never try to improve yourself. But you must know yourself well enough to identify the particular skills and attributes you are able to improve. You must know your body and your mind. Martin is there – he knows the situations when he is strong, and he knows when he is “out of his league.” He also knows that his weaknesses do not make him incompetent and useless; recognizing his weaknesses does not affect his self-esteem. He also chooses not to try and deny and overcome those weaknesses that are a part of his fundamental nature. It is those things he does fairly well that he always works to improve. He is who he is and he feels fine with the life he has.

Take the example of Martin to heart. Coping with stress often involves recognizing the reality of your strengths and weaknesses. Yes, you may choose to attack and work on some of your weaknesses and be able to take on new challenges. You may also, decide, however, that confronting some of those weaknesses and changing them probably won’t work, nor is that effort needed for your sense of self-worth, purpose, and ability to meet the demands of your chosen life path. Know who you are, be that person as best you can, and move forward as that person, purposefully moving toward goals that give your life some meaning.