Self-Destructive Behavior: Direct-Active Type

In this blog, we regularly point out that poor coping with stress usually results from avoidance tendencies. That is, confronted with a challenge, or a threat, or just something you would rather not face, you take measures to avoid what’s facing you and thereby avoid the stress that goes along with it. Unfortunately, when you run from problems you are engaging in denial: “This is really not all that important for me, so I’ll just ignore it and it will go away.” Or, diffusing your responsibility, you pass it along to someone else who “will take care of it and save me the trouble.” Either way, you avoid the stress and receive some reinforcement – stress reduction – for doing so. The problem is, your rewarded avoidance tendencies can become habitual, and other problems will inevitably pile up and grow until you become desperate and overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, and their associated symptoms. When you get into a pattern of avoiding stress, you become weak, passive, and dependent on others; your self-esteem goes into the toilet; you become self-critical, and vulnerable to more serious dysfunctions. At this point, it may seem reasonable for you to resort to self-defeating and destructive coping measures. This is a pattern of thoughts and actions that inflicts significant damage on your mental and physical well-being, and significantly reduces your quality of life.

Several weeks ago, our blog entry introduced this pattern of self-sabotaging behavior, and noted that therapist Michael Church has identified four self-destructive types: Direct-Active, Direct Passive, Indirect-Active, and Indirect-Passive. We will look at each one over a series of blog entries. This entry concerns Direct-Active. This type impulsively seeks out inappropriate and destructive actions and situations, without much forethought. Examples of this type of self-destruction include alcohol and drug abusers, compulsive gamblers, self-mutilators, bulimics, daredevils, and a large percentage of those in prison.

Consider Robert, who sought psychotherapy with symptoms of anxiety and depression. He was married with children, lived in a nice neighborhood, and had a decent job. However, lurking beneath this façade was a dark psychological history. Robert’s early upbringing was cold with little emotional support from his parents, particularly his dad, who was a poor role model. His parents fought regularly, they criticized Robert as worthless, and generally used him as a scapegoat for their own anger and unresolved issues. His friend, Jeff, lived nearby and – drawn to the warmth and supportive atmosphere of Jeff’s home –Robert spent most of his time there.

Over time Robert became envious and jealous of Jeff’s life, and always felt inadequate in comparison to Jeff. Robert had trouble facing these and other negative emotions, and lived his life in denial. He acted like his life was stable and satisfying, but inside he was a bundle of insecurities, frustration, unresolved anger toward his parents, and a self-image of being a loser. Over time his behavior began to deteriorate into a self-destructive cycle. At work he constantly asked for raises and advances in pay, even as his job performance decreased. He began to cancel appointments at work, come in late, and sometimes miss work entirely. It seemed like he wanted to be fired!

What was going on? No one knew, but Robert had piled up an enormous gambling debt, despite borrowing large sums of money from every family member and friend he could tap. He used the loans to continue gambling, and never paid back any of them. Eventually, no one would loan him money. He felt trapped and alone, and was ashamed of how he created such a financial mess and put his family in jeopardy of losing their home. His counselor recommended he regularly attend Gamblers Anonymous, come clean with his wife and friends, and continue to explore in therapy his root problems and associated emotional difficulties. Unfortunately, he discontinued therapy, and about a year later ended his life, leaving behind his wife, children, and a mountain of debt.

How can we account for Robert’s tragic end? First of all, as his gambling debts grew and he faced bankruptcy, he still avoided coming out with the truth about the hole he dug for himself. Second, he never accepted the realities of his childhood and adolescent issues and the anger that consumed him. Third, he kept his inner conflicts secret while refusing to get the help needed before his troubles became almost insurmountable. By the time he entered therapy it was too late to prevent serious practical, family, and self-esteem problems. At one level, he knew that the fallout from decades of emotions he failed to confront were about to affect his family and reputation. Lacking effective coping skills and the self-esteem he needed to face the consequences of his actions, he responded with the ultimate act of avoidance, suicide.

Temperament Can Make Coping Difficult

Temperament. Basically, it refers to personality dispositions. When people say, “Jim is really an angry person,” or, “Sarah always sees the negative side of things,” they are talking about Jim’s and Sarah’s temperament, fairly consistent traits that, independent of the situation, dispose them to view the world in a particular way. Unfortunately, in interactions with others, temperament can be that random, unknown variable that throws everything off balance and makes coping difficult. Evan, for instance, is an upbeat – “great day to be alive” – kind of guy, and people generally enjoy being around him. Even strangers usually find his attitude elevating when he passes them with a smiling, “How’s it going? Have a good one!” Most people meet his smile with one of their own. But sometimes there’s the grouch temperament, the perpetual malcontent who meets Evan’s cheer with a “Buzz off!” reply, or ignores him completely. Or how about Gail, an executive in a large company who likes to dish out social praise to employees who perform well. “I find praise has a motivating effect on them,” Gail says, “although the other day I praised a guy in accounting and his boss told me later the guy thought I was setting him up to be fired! He thought I was lying to him! What the hell? What’s his problem?” His problem is, he has a distrustful temperament.

Temperament is the “X” factor that can mess up general principles. Psychologists know, for instance, that rewarding an action will increase the frequency of that action in the future. But there are always individuals who are unaffected by rewards. Always that “X” factor that messes everything up. As another example, take marriage counseling. Psychologists know that it works, but there are always those temperament complications. As therapist Michael Church puts it: “Just as with individual counseling, not everyone is an appropriate candidate for marital counseling. Some people are simply too rigid, oppositional, argumentative, distrustful, manipulative, cognitively distorted, or emotionally dysregulated to benefit from marital counseling.”

Do you think you could apply Dr. Church’s comments about marital counseling to coping with stress in general, that is, to any sort of stress in any aspect of your life? The answer is probably, “Yes,” but with the caveat that you must always be aware of the “X” factor: Individual temperament. Church notes that some people are just not cut out for counseling; too many traits comprising their individual temperament work against them. Extending that observation to another case of conflict, imagine arguing with someone about some conspiracy theory – such as the one that the coronavirus vaccine is implanted with microchips so the government can keep tabs on you 24/7. You may make rational, logical arguments showing the absurdity of the theory, but to no avail. Your opponent refuses to be dissuaded from a paranoid belief that someone or something – the government, another country, a leader, a political party – is out to get them. At some point you realize that because of the temperament of your adversary – ingrained traits, personality dispositions, biases, and well-practiced actions – you are wasting your time. Essentially, you are arguing with a committed cult member. Forget about it. Do yourself a favor and terminate the discussion.

But suppose you are arguing with someone about what political philosophy, conservative or liberal, is best for a democratic republic? What if your opponent makes statements that, like yours, are rational, reasonable, logical, and supported by objective evidence? You present evidence supporting your argument, and your opponent does the same. Now what do you do? Is there a civil way out of this conundrum? The answer might depend on the nature of the conflict, of course, but in most cases, the answer is, “Yes,” if – and it’s a big if – qualities like humility, empathy, and accountability can be injected into the exchange. These qualities tend to counteract temperaments like egotism (“It’s my way or the highway!”), disrespect (“You’re nuts for believing that!”), and tribalism (“You people just can’t see past your nose!”). In general, humility, empathy, and accountability tend to inhibit temperamental traits that cause disruptive emotionalism, and that interfere with constructive problem-solving. Remember that the next time you’re having a rational argument with someone.

Here’s the coping lesson: If you tend to enter arguments with the attitude, “There will be a winner and a loser in this confrontation and I’m not going to be the loser,” you are not coping well. That attitude will just reinforce any temperamental tendencies you also have that impede problem solving when interacting with others. But you can learn to restrain such attitudes. You may be temperamentally argumentative, disagreeable, self-absorbed, and aggressive in your interactions with others, but you can learn to counterbalance those personality dispositions by injecting empathy and humility into the situation; you can become more tolerant, civil, accountable, and reasonable in your social exchanges if you work at it. Yes, your best outcome may be, “We will just have to agree to disagree,” but even that is better than an unruly conclusion that causes everyone to storm away angry, resentful, and unforgiving.

Choosing a College Major

A high school student recently asked me about choosing a college major. She said, “I’m taking this sociology course in high school and the teacher said the other day that sociology is the best major for getting into law school, and that’s what I want to do. Now I’m all confused because I want to major in English when I get to college. Am I hurting my chances of getting into law school with that major?”

“What your teacher said is nonsense,” I said. “Choose a major that you find enjoyable and exciting. If you like English, choose it. Law school admissions committees don’t care about your undergraduate major. They care about your grades, letters of recommendation, and performance on the Law School Admission Test.”

Many students – and their parents – find that choosing a major is a source of stress and anxiety because they think the choice may hurt their chances of getting into a professional program after college. This dilemma is tough on a student aiming for medical school who wants to major in Music, or English, or Philosophy; or a student hoping for admission to an MBA program who wants to major in Psychology, or Theology, or Theatre. People say, “Med school? You have to major in a science like Biology or Chemistry. MBA? You have to major in some business area like Marketing, Accounting, or Management.”

The fact is, however, the pre-med student really doesn’t have to major in Biology, Neuroscience, or Chemistry to get into med school; but she better have a core of completed college courses like two years of Biology, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry, Calculus, Anatomy & Physiology, Neuroscience, etc., if she is to have a realistic shot at med school and doing well on the med school admission test. Meanwhile, she can major in some totally non-science area that she loves. By the same token, the MBA student should take two years of Accounting, Principles of Management, Marketing, Calculus, Information Systems, etc. And he can also major in some non-business area that he enjoys.

Granted, there are some fields where the college major should be seen as an entrance requirement – majors like Athletic Training, Physician Assistant, Accounting, Nursing, Med Tech, and Engineering – but the fact is, most career tracks do not require a specific major. I once asked the owner and CEO of a moderate-sized company if his recruiting office looked for students with a particular major. “Absolutely not,” he said. “We look for graduates who can write, think, speak, and work in teams. We want critical thinkers and problem solvers with good interpersonal skills.”

Consider these real examples: Jill majored in Theology and minored in Psychology, and was accepted into a PhD program in pastoral counseling; Roger majored in Psychology and minored in Business Administration and was accepted into three MBA programs; Karen double majored in Accounting and Spanish, used every elective plus some summer courses to take required science courses for entrance into dental school, and became a dentist.

It is important for both students and parents to remember that a college curriculum not only comprises a major, but also minors and electives. The major should be an area the student enjoys, finds interesting and stimulating, an area that “turns him or her on.” That’s what makes college so special. Students have the opportunity to learn about an area of study that may have little direct relevance to their career goals. They can stimulate and enrich their minds with exposure to scholars and experts in this area. The future physician can major in Art History, Philosophy, or even Dance, and deepen her understanding of the human experience. The career? That’s where double majors, minors, and elective courses become very important. Using those areas wisely can help students pursue their career goals.

These comments also apply to the student who changes career goals while in college. Marty, a junior Criminal Justice major, came to me in March of his third year and said, “I thought I wanted to be a cop, but after taking intro psych last Fall, I’ve decided I want to be a sports psychologist. What do I do? I feel like I’ve wasted three years, and I sure can’t finish a psych major in one year.”

Roughly, here is what I told him: “You haven’t wasted three years. All your credits count toward graduation, plus you’re just about finished with your CJ major. Finish the major; second, fill any available electives next year with psychology courses, especially ones you need for entrance into graduate school; third, if we can, we will include a psychology internship working with one of our local professional sports teams. [At the time, locally there was a triple-A baseball team affiliated with a National League Team, and also a professional ice hockey farm team with an NHL affiliation.] We’ll also work up a reading list for you in sports psychology to supplement your sports internship.

Marty was a sharp, articulate, and confident kid with great interpersonal skills. We were able to set up a “meet-and-greet” for him with a hockey-team official, and they accepted him as an intern. He graduated on time with his CJ major, psychology electives, and 12 hours of psychology internship experience in the operations office of a professional team, including getting to know the “psychology” of the athletes. Upon graduation, he was hired by the hockey team in an entry-level position working in the operations office. Today, years later, he is an executive with an NHL team. Why is he there? Because of his personal qualities, especially his interpersonal skills. He is not there because of his major.

In this blog, we stress the importance of developing a realistic coping plan of action to deal with stressful situations. Choosing a college major, supplemented by carefully chosen elective courses, perfectly illustrates how having such a plan can alleviate a lot of stress in challenging situations. And note how the plan must operate within the restrictions and requirements of current opportunities available, and with a realistic and – very importantly – flexible target goal. Circumstances and interests change, and you must be prepared to adapt to the challenges of such change.

Coping Failure and Collateral Damage

Michael Church and Charles Brooks

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” How many people who suffer from adversities – like Type II diabetes, coronavirus infection from risk-taking or carelessness, family alienation related to their behavior, compulsive gambling, or drug/alcohol abuse – wish they paid more attention to preventing suffering to themselves and others? Unfortunately, far too many people are so self-preoccupied and self-absorbed that they are not worried about negative consequences until it is too late. The truth is, people have a remarkable capacity to deny, rationalize, and distort reality, thereby opening the gate to ignoring the need to make changes and blaming others for their self-destructiveness. Much of the time this amounts to “little white lies” they tell others or themselves. Other times, it leads to cascading and catastrophic effects. Often, by the time they see the troubled waters they have waded into, their habits create the difficulty of having to swim against the tide. And then they lament, “I wish I had done….”

For example, drug/alcohol abusers do not plan to cause so much havoc in their life and those around them when they first begin using. However, their refusal to accept that they are developing a problem leads to stress and complications with their mental and physical health. These complications impact their family and larger social systems, including health care professionals, police and judicial systems, and businesses. The collateral damage from self-sabotaging behavior patterns means students have to deal with teachers who are absent and vice-versa, homeowners have to deal with crime and drug-related offenses in their neighborhoods, businesses have to adapt to circumstances where their workers are absent because of preventable physical and mental health problems, and the list goes on and on. These reverberating effects on society reduce the quality of life of many people who had little or nothing to do with the individual who engaged in the self-destructive processes.

The fact of collateral damage from self-destructive behavior shows the importance of empathy when coping with your personal stressors. Being aware of, and sensitive to, the effect of your behavior on the welfare of others, can play a significant role in helping you accept reality and take more responsibility for your actions. Such awareness can also help you include others in your coping plan of action, an inclusion that brings you humility and acceptance of help from others, both of which will increase your odds of success.

How about you? Do you engage in selfishly-motivated actions that bring others down with you? Do your denial patterns and inability to deal with reality infect others who are innocent bystanders? The fact is, coping with stress has significance far beyond your personal betterment. Remember that fact when you seek to enhance your ability to cope with your stressors.

Moral Disengagement

Michael Church and Charles Brooks

We often change our minds about things. Early in the pandemic, many medical experts felt masks were of minimal use because the thinking at the time was that the virus was transmitted primarily from surfaces. Eventually it became clear that transmission was through the air, and social distancing and wearing masks suddenly became a primary defensive action. In this case, it was adaptive and wise for medical experts to change their minds.

Sometimes, however, we are neither wise nor rational, and we change our minds because of the indoctrinating influence of others. For instance, throughout the 1960s there were a variety of conspiracy theories that some people accepted. Marylyn Monroe died in 1962 of a drug overdose, but a few believed she was murdered by the government because of her alleged and nefarious ties to Jack and Robert Kennedy. Another belief grew that because of the counterculture, antigovernment movement of the 1960s – make love not war – the government flooded the food and water supply with LSD to pacify the population. My favorite was that United Nations troops would arrive on our shores in black helicopters to overthrow the US government.

From a psychological perspective, what’s fascinating about people who come to accept a conspiracy theory, no matter how bizarre or irrational, is how they hang on to the new belief in the face of contradictory evidence. I recently overheard a person say, “Of course, Obama wasn’t a legal president; he was born in Africa.” Good lord, even Trump eventually admitted that his birther argument was wrong. Someone also told me several days ago, “Did you see Biden? He looked different, didn’t he? That wasn’t him, you know. There are three or four doubles who fill in for him because he sleeps most of the time.”

Many people, once they make a decision – especially if publicly announced – are resistant to changing their mind because they want to see themselves as consistent, and appear that way to others. Also, the more emotional involvement they have in the decision, the more resistant they are to changing their mind. It is truly remarkable how people can justify and rationalize just about any decision, and do so without feeling guilt, regret, shame, or remorse, even if circumstances suggest they made a bad decision. Social psychologist Albert Bandura called this process Moral Disengagement. People can justify virtually any decision or action they take, even self-destructive actions that are also hurtful to others. Shame is irrelevant. You may think that shaming someone will encourage them to change their belief, but it won’t. In fact, it is likely to raise their defensive shields more strongly to resist facts that speak against their belief.

Challenging someone’s irrational beliefs – such as, by imposing a vaccine or mask mandate – can also lead them to verbal, even physical, violence. Imagine this conversation:

“Sir, why did you threaten that school board member?”

“Because she voted to require my kids to wear a mask in school. She is evil and trying to harm my kids.”

“But, sir, she says she wants to protect the children.”

No matter what he replies, he is thinking – possibly at a subconscious level but definitely revealing a bizarre display of twisted psychological machinations – “She is evil because I’m attacking her. I only attack evil people who threaten me and my family.” Note how he merges his belief with his actions. The board member is evil because, “I am threatening her, and I am threatening her because she is evil!” Ignoring the context of this example, the broader coping lesson here is that you could easily act in an inappropriate way to justify your beliefs. When your mind observes your action, it is straightforward to conclude that the action is justified; you attack someone because you believe they’re evil, and your attack confirms for you that they are indeed evil. The problem is, this moral disengagement is a lousy way to cope with stress because the process ignores the importance of personal values in the coping process. When you divorce what you say, do, and believe from the ethics, standards, and morals of society – doing the right things for the right reasons – your stability, social conscience, and autonomy are sacrificed. The damage to self-empowerment and your ability to cope with your stressors is significant. You discard critical thinking, ignore the advice of experts, and blindly follow the misinformed herd. Your honor, dignity, self-esteem, autonomy, and self-sufficiency are all sacrificed on an altar of dependency on others. You must constantly live in a world of denial to avoid realizing your inability to control how you live; you are now vulnerable to feelings of helplessness, followed by depression, followed by chronic self-damaging actions that rob you of your ability to cope with your stressors. All because your life is not guided by a stable set of personal values.

Moral Disengagement boils down to bullying. Values are cast aside to cover up one’s personal inadequacies and insecurities.

The Coping Hazards of Tribalism

by Michael Church and Charles Brooks

A sure way to find yourself burdened with excessive stress is to try and control things in your life that are beyond your control, such as others’ behavior. One key to mitigating your stressors is to stay centered on what you can control directly – your thoughts and actions. That process will be greatly facilitated when you recognize that your most important thoughts should revolve around your values, purposes, goals, and acceptances. Once you identify these thoughts, your task becomes ensuring that your actions are consistent with these thoughts. It sounds simple enough, but this process can be difficult because reality can be tough to accept, and values can be hard to identify. Why? Because others often try to construct your reality based on their agenda, and they work to convince you to accept their value system. To do so, they assure you that issues confronting you are emotionally based – that is, these false messengers try to trigger despair, frustration, anger, and hatred inside you. They console you that “our side” – the tribe – is right; “their side” is wrong, and must be rejected, defeated, overpowered, and crushed as evil. If you accept their emotionally-based foundation for your thoughts and actions, you are no longer listening to yourself and evaluating reality objectively; you are no longer identifying your values and coordinating your actions to those values. Instead, you have succumbed to a manipulative message of tribalism that makes you no more than a passive puppet.

The Survey Center on American Life reports alarming increases in depression and suicide in America over the past decade, and a similar increase in those saying they have no close friends. In a Facebook world that amplifies differences in values, beliefs, and opinions, psychologists note how acceptance of – and coping with – lifestyle changes is becoming progressively more difficult. Technological developments, social media, working at home, shopping online, barely knowing neighbors, and interacting more frequently with artificial intelligence instead of humans – all can have a depersonalizing and dehumanizing effect on you. The resulting frustration and anger can make you vulnerable to concocting a psychological coping strategy that is a recipe for disaster.

The progression to coping catastrophe is well-documented: Emotion-based coping strategies –> Acceptance of extremist autocratic false messages –> Rejection and hatred of targeted others –> Subordination of your values, purposes, goals, and independence to the “tribe,” aka the “clan” or “cult” –> Denial of objective reality –> Feelings of helplessness –> Increasing self-criticism –> Unhappiness and depression –> Self-damaging actions.

When subservience to false messaging and alternate realities becomes your pattern of coping with stress, in the long run you will suffer. Objective reality has a way of creating immense psychological pressure from this pattern, and the “self” – who you thought yourself to be – will crumble with dire consequences. On the other hand, if you commit to accepting objective and verified reality, if you learn to discriminate between what you can and cannot control directly, and if you decide to be guided by values and standards that you – not others – choose, life becomes less stressful and you will be better able to cope with change. You will find a corresponding increase in the energy you need to pursue independent and constructive pursuits that bring you satisfaction and contentment with a life well-lived. You will get along better with others because you will be able to accept their perspectives and individuality. In short, you will be guided by humility, empathy, a social conscience, self-actualization, and life satisfaction, qualities that cannot merge with who you are – your sense of self – if you are guided by tribalism.

Does Positive Thinking Work?

If you are suffering from low self-esteem, can you get yourself out of the doldrums by simply thinking positive thoughts? In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale’s book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” gave a definite “Yes” to that question. Peale said you do not need to be defeated by anything. You can achieve peace of mind, health, and energy by, among other things, picturing and thinking about yourself succeeding, minimizing obstacles when you think about a challenge, thinking positive thoughts to inhibit negative thoughts, and regularly reminding yourself of the respect you hold for yourself. Similar ideas have been presented recently by Rhonda Byrnes, author of “The Greatest Secret.” Read her books and you will come to see how you can have, be, or do anything you want; you will discover who you really are and the self-actualization that life can give you.

Wow! Think your way to happiness, contentment, serenity, and stability. Ah, but if it were only that simple. Think about it. If positive thinking had that kind of power, all of us would be able to raise our self-esteem to comfortably high and healthy levels just by thinking positive thoughts; we could erase a lot of mental illness, not to mention the need for psychoactive drugs. Realistically, though, dealing with pathological or even everyday emotional conditions is much more complicated than merely imagining how we want to be, and getting what we want.

“But wait,” you protest, “surely positive thinking has psychological benefits.” Indeed, it does. Research has revealed that people high in self-esteem who engage in repetitive practice in making self-affirming and positive self-statements do show temporary increases in self-esteem. Optimistic thinking has also been shown to strengthen the immune system, making one less susceptible to colds. There is, however, no evidence that such an outlook can increase longevity or cure one from an already-contracted disease. There is also no evidence we can permanently change our self-esteem level by simply thinking positively. Furthermore, positive thinking has been shown to lower self-esteem in those already low in self-regard. Apparently, they don’t “buy into” the positive self-statements, saying, “Nope, sorry. Those positive thoughts are not who I am.” In short, the positive effects of optimistic thinking are quite limited.

So where does that leave us? Simple. Forget the focus on thoughts; after all, they only exist in your head; in a sense, they are not real, unless you translate the thoughts into actions.

You must focus on optimistic actions, not thoughts, because without accompanying actions, thoughts remain fantasy. Before you decide your level of insecurity about life and yourself, take a good long realistic look at your behavior, not at your thoughts. Thoughts are cheap; actions reveal your essence and show you the path to better coping with stress.

Then there is the “happiness” card. People generally buy into the power of positive thinking because they want to achieve happiness. Unfortunately, attaining happiness is a false goal. It is not something you find, but something that emerges from actions you perform. Ironically, even those actions do not bring you happiness; they bring you feelings of contentment, satisfaction, and an appreciation of something worthwhile that you accomplished. Along those same lines, some people base their perception of reality on how “happy” they are. Please remember that effective coping does not require that you achieve “happiness.” Good coping means developing a realistic and optimistic lifestyle – not a momentary state of being, but a repetitive pattern of actions that empower you, and give you a sense of autonomy, personal control, and fulfillment.

Grief: Cognitive and Emotional Challenges. By Michael Church

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the example is a composite from multiple cases.

Katrina’s 20-year-old son, Trevor, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was 10.  By the time he was 18 he was also diagnosed with a drug addiction. By the time Trevor was 20, Katrina, married with a child younger than Trevor, had spent the past decade believing it was her job to keep him alive, even though – as early as 14 – he told her many times he did not want to live any longer. His actions were very self-sabotaging, and he was brought into the hospital many times very close to death, resulting from drug use, lack of exercise, poor eating habits, and refusal to adhere to medical recommendations. All led to a rapid decline in his physical and cognitive health, while his tolerance to drugs grew greatly over the years, as he increased dosages to get the “high” he craved. He told his mom that the only time he felt okay was when he was on drugs.

One night he overdosed and died just before his 21st birthday. It was never clear if the overdose was intentional. Katrina was plunged into guilt; she blamed herself for not being there with him when he died, and obsessed about how she could have saved him once again. Although she admitted feeling some relief that the family suffering was over, even this relief added to her guilt: “What kind of mother would be relieved by her child’s death?” she lamented. Her guilt grew into serious depression and she began psychotherapy.

Katrina had to face and accept several harsh realities, especially that her son did not value his life and there was nothing she could do to change that. His cancer and drug addiction were consequences of many factors that were beyond her control. She felt guilty she had not insisted on chemotherapy, even though doctors said that chemo would not work. It was a terrible decision to be confronted with, but Katrina and her husband did the best they could at the time. She needed to accept that she did what most parents would have done in similar circumstances.

Katrina was still mothering Trevor during his late teens, and he had not made any fundamental or positive changes to help himself. As a matter of fact, he deteriorated during these years even while many medical and mental health care providers and facilities did their best to improve the quality and quantity of his life. The bottom line was, he did not care. He believed his pathetic state of living could not change for the better, and his drug habit fostered a self-fulfilling prophecy. He had been telling his mom for years – in actions and words – that he was not afraid of death and did not want to live, and she somehow denied the significance of these statements. His mom became collateral damage even though he probably survived longer because of her heroic efforts.

Katrina entered therapy to help reinvent herself with renewed purpose and goals. She worked to close the gap between cognitive and emotional acceptance. As is commonplace, she accepted Trevor’s death rationally before emotionally. At first, she made the mistake of trying to control her feelings, even to the point of refusing to cry or talk about her loss. Unfortunately, these actions extend suffering and delay acceptance. With the help of her therapist, Katrina was able to learn how to use action to facilitate emotional acceptance. She stopped blaming herself and trying to control her feelings. Instead, she focused on controlling her actions and letting natural healing take its course. It takes a lot of time and effort to reach emotional acceptance of many harsh realities of life, and there is no timetable or road map to follow. Every situation is unique and must be handled creatively and courageously.

She progressed with letting go (acceptance) because she was willing to talk about and face her loss. She developed a legacy for her son, did not avoid going to his room, looked at his videos and pictures, visited his grave site regularly, talked about him with family and friends, and joined a support group for grieving parents. Most importantly, she let herself grieve in her own way.

 Katrina knows there will always be an emptiness in her heart for her son who is not at the table, but she is no longer mired in the stages of grief. She is living more fully and reveling in her role as grandparent and the success of her surviving child. Her relationship with her husband is healthy and stable, and they are looking forward to a future with renewed energy and meaning.

Katrina’s case reveals some important lessons about the need to synchronize emotional acceptance with rational acceptance, particularly when personal loss is involved. That is, you need to behave in ways congruent with facing the reality of a situation, and focus on living in the present. Life is for the living and that is what those you leave behind would want. In so many important areas of life, when it comes to enhancing your confidence and self-esteem to face challenges and overcome fears, there is no substitute for facing and acting in ways to better those psychological states.

Social Comparison Theory

(With co-author Michael Church)

I was chatting with an acquaintance recently. She was telling me about her 20-year old nephew who had recently returned home following 3 months in rehab for alcohol and drug problems. She said, “Unfortunately, his parents were soon enabling him again, and it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks that he was hanging out with his old buddies, the ones he always did drugs with. I figure he’ll be back in jail or rehab before you know it. He’s got three older brothers and they’re all rock solid. Good educations, good jobs, good judgment. But this kid, he just doesn’t measure up to them. I used to wonder why they weren’t a better influence, but sometimes I think he looks at his brothers’ success and gets down on himself because he just doesn’t have it.”

Social psychologists call it social comparison, a concept developed nearly 50 years ago. One aspect of people’s evaluation of themselves – “How am I doing?” – takes place when they watch and compare themselves to what others are doing. Take a look at your own behavior. Have you been positively influenced by observing a friend or family member? Have you used their example to track your own development? If you’re like a lot of people you can probably identify some role model who motivated you to improve your own life. Many young people are spurred to do better when they have positive examples in their life like parents, siblings, a teacher, or a coach. But the comparison can go wrong.

When can comparisons make you feel bad? Judging yourself against others is likely to make you feel bad if you regularly chose those who are shining examples of certain traits. There will always be those better than you, and those worse than you, so why restrict yourself to always choosing the former for comparison? For example, you might believe you have a less active social life than others, but you don’t realize you’re always comparing yourself only to the most social people you know. It’s also possible that your comparison itself is based on a faulty assumption. In the case we just described, for instance, was the woman’s nephew negatively affected by being around his successful brothers and comparing himself to them? Or, did he carry a faulty assumption with his comparison because he elevated his brothers’ success far beyond where it really was? Consider the case of a college freshman whose self-esteem and confidence were in the toilet. Seems he was convinced that all the other students in his classes – none of whom he knew – were geniuses and he was the one dummy in the class. His assumption was flawed.

In addition to family models, young people compare themselves against others they see – those in media sources, peers, and subcultures. What is the effect on our children and adolescents who witness on a recurring basis: over half of our population being obese; at least ten percent showing drug and alcohol abuse; a veritable epidemic of Type II diabetes; more recently, refusing to take preventive sickness measures like wear a face covering or get a vaccination; and, a precipitous increase in the daily use of medical marijuana? These influences can build up over time and diminish self-esteem and contribute to depression.

Fortunately, most people have the social skills and impulse control to keep their standards for social comparison appropriate; those who don’t – especially impressionable young people who spend too much time on social media – need to be helped to understand the dangers of social comparison, and how to focus on using the process to motivate themselves to improve, not bring themselves down. For instance, social comparison can reinforce self-esteem when people focus on reviewing their memories of good times with friends. In fact, this is one aspect of social media – sharing positive times and good memories – that contributes significantly to psychological well-being.

The coping lesson? Be realistic about your comparisons, and focus on those that motivate you to act better – with reality-based acceptance, purpose, values, and accountability.

Coping is Doomed When Self is the Center

I was corresponding with a colleague recently about how a simple act – putting on a mask – has become politicized, even weaponized. She also pointed out to me how this issue illustrates a trend in society that has metastasized in recent years into extreme levels of self-absorption. She said, “I find the general level of self-preoccupation in society today absolutely startling.” She’s correct, of course, and what’s sad about this obsessive fixation with self is that it is completely incompatible with being able to cope with the stressors in your life.

Followers of this blog see again and again how we emphasize a three-step coping model that requires acceptance of your emotions and core tendencies, accountability for who you are, and development of a coping plan that must include two essential elements: humility and empathy. A coping plan that revolves around you, to the exclusion of others, is destined to fail. You will never be sensitive to your true inner self if you cannot be sensitive to the needs of others.

I often wonder how we might view things if – when we correspond or speak with someone, or post something on social media – instead of using words like “Republican” or “Liberal,” we substituted the phrase “Those who agree with me,” or “Those who disagree with me.” For instance, suppose an extreme progressive posted on Facebook, “The country was falling apart over the past four years with the Republicans in office, but now that the liberals have taken over, we’re back on the road to recovery from madness.” Any staunch conservative would consider those “fightin’ words,” literally! But what if the post said, “The country was falling apart over the past four years with those who disagree with me in office, but now that those who agree with me have taken over, we’re back on the road to recovery from madness.” Hmm. Less emotionally inciting, perhaps? Less a condemnation of others? More an admission of your responsibility for the conflict, an admission of your self-preoccupation?

 If you resolved to use only the latter phrasing, – “Those who agree/disagree with me” –   would you begin to realize that you have been operating totally from a self-absorbed, egocentric point of view that encourages conflict? Would you begin to understand that you have created an artificial, but inevitable, dichotomy between “us” and “them” that is based on the uniqueness and superiority of “me”?  Might you begin to appreciate that saying “those who agree/disagree with me” puts “us” and “them” on an equal plane, where the opposing positions just might both be valid? Could you conclude, “I have an opinion, others have an opinion, and the resolution to the conflict just might be somewhere in the middle”?

Food for thought? Maybe. One thing for certain: When you see yourself and your allies as the only enlightened ones in the discussion, you will never successfully cope with your stressors because you are operating in emotional mode, not problem-solving mode. The emotional mode is inciting, inflaming, and provoking; you will eventually hemorrhage into depression and self-sabotaging actions. Why? Because reality dictates that you are not the center of it all, and reality has a way of popping up again, and again, and again.