Guard Against Irrational Thinking

“Managing” your life is a poor way to cope. Too often, manage means to suppress – “I need to keep my anger in check” – or avoid – “If the boss wants me to make that trip, I can’t let him see I’m pissed. I’ll make up some family excuse and I won’t have to make the trip.” Suppression is a form of denial, and avoidance rewards you for running away from challenges. Neither strategy helps you cope effectively.

Coping with stress means accepting life’s challenges, and becoming empowered by facing them. The empowerment strategy involves acceptance of yourself, of your emotions, and of reality; and, a willingness to face them all. A management strategy involves denying, avoiding, and staying in your comfort zone.

Effective coping means accepting challenges that you can realistically confront with actions that are under your control. This confrontation may increase your stress in the short run, but reduced stress levels are yours in the long run. Coping often means, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

If you want to accept life rather than try and manage it, the first thing you must do is confront negative and irrational thoughts you carry around with you. All of us have these thoughts, but effective coping is disrupted when you have them frequently, and base them on one or two experiences. Here are some examples:

***Making mountains out of molehills. A stressed-out client made a minor mistake at work and immediately thought he would be fired. This thought prevented him from talking with his supervisor about how he could guard against making a mistake like that in the future.

***Taking everything personally. Do you take the slightest criticism from others as a threat to your self-esteem? Gail’s co-worker was always putting her down and she was losing her confidence at work. A friend suggested, “Put the onus on her, not you. She’s probably jealous and sees you as a threat to her promotion chances. You can’t control what she says, so go on offense and offer to help her out with what she’s working on. You’ll be in control!”

***Seeing reality as an either-or proposition: “You either trust me or you don’t.” “My plan is correct; yours is wrong.” This style of thinking is typical of the authoritarian personality and overlooks a basic truth: There are at least two sides to every story, and the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. Show people that you understand their side, are able to see the strengths of their side, and can design a solution that incorporates features of their side.

***Do you reach you reach crazy conclusions about yourself from a single incident? “I gave a lousy presentation; I’m obviously a complete failure in everything I do.” “I was turned down for a date; I’m worthless and no one wants to be around me.” “I didn’t get the promotion; the boss hates me and sees me as a liability.” Perpetual self-criticism, and inviting others to join your personal pity parades, are avoidance and denial strategies.

These examples have one thing in common: You treat failures as personal attacks on you, and accept them as inevitable because you believe you are incompetent.

You must learn to treat failures as potential learning opportunities: “When I fail, what steps can I take to improve and be less likely to fail in the future?”

Just keep it real! Coping with stress does not mean insuring that you will always be happy, successful, and feel good about yourself. When you face failure, effective coping means you know how to choose actions that are under your control; you have the confidence to modify those actions and be accountable for the consequences of those actions; you are able to act with humility and empathy for others; and, you act to feel satisfied and productive, not just to make yourself happy.

The Gay Choice?

Discussions of homosexuality can get pretty intense, even nasty. For instance, discussing the question, “Is homosexuality a mental illness?” can get downright ugly. Emotions aside, there’s an interesting history to this question. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is used by psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose clients. Prior to 1973, homosexuality was listed in the DSM as a disorder. Imagine, all of my undergraduate and graduate education in psychology – 1961 to 1970 – taught me that homosexuality was a mental disorder. In 1973, however, three years into my 41-year career as a researcher and college professor, my class lectures and discussion – not to mention my thinking – had to be modified.

Actually, I didn’t have any personal problem with the change. Anecdotally, it never made sense to me to consider the gay people I knew as having a mental disorder. It just didn’t fly.

DSM notwithstanding, many folks still believe that homosexuality is an abnormal condition. To support their belief, they note that depression and other mental disorders can run higher in gays. Psychologists, however, generally agree that the greater presence of such conditions is due to pressures from anti-gay groups, discrimination, oppression, bias, and rejection. Mental health professionals say homosexuality should not be seen as some sort of abnormal mutation, but as a part of the normal range of human sexuality. If depression is present in a gay person, treat the depression, but accept the client’s sexual orientation.

There’s another issue that can get folks all riled up when discussing homosexuality: Nature – “I was born this way” – vs. Choice – “I choose this lifestyle.” Discussions of this issue can get complicated because people on both sides can go online and easily find websites and “research findings” that support their position.

The most objective comment I can make about this issue is: Psychologists and psychiatrists generally agree that reputable research supports the “innate” position. That is, most people experience little or no choice in sexual orientation. The cause may be genetic, or possibly prenatal – when the fetal brain is exposed to gender hormones like testosterone during the second trimester – but either way, the “innate” position says that the brain’s sexual preference is present at birth.

I have thought about the nature-choice issue quite a bit over the years, and one day something occurred to me. Dozens of times, and in many courses, my students and I discussed child development, sexual behavior, and how parents could best help their kids deal with questions and impulses. Invariably we would discuss when – and how – parents should give their kids “the talk,” you know, the birds and bees and all that really good stuff.

Guess what? In all those class discussions, no student ever mentioned that a parent had said to them – or even that the parents should have said to them – “We think it’s time to talk about sex. You’re old enough now, and it’s time for you to choose your lifestyle. Are you’re going to be heterosexual or homosexual? What’s it going to be? Are you going to be attracted to girls or boys? The choice is yours.”

Logically, if someone believes sexual orientation is a choice, shouldn’t parents have that conversation with their kids? When I began asking that question to my students, I generally saw puzzled expressions, and comments like, “Huh? That makes no sense.”

One time a male student reported to the class that he tried the question out with his friends. “I asked my roommate when he decided to make it with girls instead of guys. He said, ‘What are you talking about? Girls always turned me on!’ I also have a buddy who’s gay and asked him the same question. ‘When did I choose guys? Seriously? That’s crazy. I remember when I was 9 years old watching an old Star Trek TV show. There was this scene with William Shatner without a shirt and I felt a jolt of something I had never felt before. God, that chest! Nine! I hadn’t even hit puberty but a bare-chested man just flattened me. By the time I was 15 it started to become clear. The Star Trek thing suddenly made sense. I was turned on by guys, not girls. I hated it because I wanted to be like the other guys. For a long time, I hated myself, not because I chose to be gay, but because I was obviously made different from my horny friends who always talked about girls. I wanted to be like that, but I wasn’t, and I couldn’t make it any other way.’”

“I couldn’t make it any other way.” A major coping challenge is becoming comfortable with who you are. Sometimes “who you are” can be modified: “I’m too short-tempered with my kids and spouse. I need to learn how to express my anger in more acceptable ways.” Sometimes, “who you are” can’t be modified, as in the case of my student’s friend. Make sure you know the difference.

Empathy Brings Comfort to All

Alan is a 68-year old retiree. Eight months ago, his wife of 41 years died after a brief illness. He still struggles with the loss but he’s getting along pretty well.

Victor lives in the same neighborhood as Alan. He’s 66, retired, and just 2 weeks ago, Benjamin, his partner for the past 33 years, died unexpectedly. Victor is devastated and fighting grief and loneliness.

Alan and Victor are casual acquaintances, although not friends. They recognize each other because they happen to take afternoon walks around the neighborhood at the same time each day. As they pass, they always exchange a brief greeting (“How’s it going?”) and some small talk (“Cooled off nice since yesterday, didn’t it?”).

Thanks to the neighborhood grapevine, Victor learned about the death of Alan’s wife, and shortly afterward offered words of condolences on one of his walks. Through the same grapevine, Alan just learned about the death of Victor’s partner, and was hoping to see Victor resume his walks so he could express his sympathies.

Two weeks after Benjamin’s death, Victor took an afternoon walk for the first time since his loss. As he and Alan approached each other, Alan thought, “My god, he looks awful. He’s lost weight and is just shuffling along. He’s really hurting.”

When they got close, Alan stopped in front of Victor and said, “Victor, I heard the terrible news about Benjamin. I am so sorry. Please accept my condolences. How long were you together?”

“Thanks. I appreciate that. We were together thirty-three years,” he replied as his eyes began to well up with tears while he stared at the ground.

“Oh, man,” said Alan, “I’m so sorry. I know the pain you’re feeling.”

“No, you can’t know it,” said Victor, still looking down. Victor’s grief and self-pity just didn’t allow him to accept this gesture of empathy from Alan. “You and me, we’re different. You can’t understand what Ben meant to me.”

But Alan did understand; he knew how Victor was suffering and he struggled to reply without offending him or adding to his hurt. “How can you say that, Victor? We both have lost our life partner, our rock, our friend who was with us for decades. And suddenly they’re gone. We just don’t know how fight the loneliness. I’m there, too. I do understand.”

Victor stood there looking at the ground, and then said, “I guess you’re right, Al. Maybe we have more in common than I thought. More than our differences. Thanks. Hearing what you said helps.”

I would wager that at that moment in time, Alan and Victor felt a jolt of self-actualization they had not experienced in a long time. Empathy does that. Learning that someone – especially someone who is superficially different – understands and feels your pain – that knowledge can be a powerful coping agent for both parties. Many entries in this blog point out the crucial and reciprocal role empathy plays in coping with life’s stresses. Alan and Victor discovered that.

Alan and Victor will probably continue to exchange words on future walks, but I bet their words will quickly go beyond casual greetings, and end up helping each of them cope with their grief.

Recently, I saw a woman interviewed on the news. She was asked why, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, she did not wear a mask when out in public. She replied, “It’s my body and I can do with it what I want. That’s nobody else’s business.”

I thought, “No, honey, it’s not all about you and your body. It’s about empathy – understanding and caring for others. When you’re out in public and near others, every time you exhale you could be threatening their health.”

Imagine if Alan had reacted as this woman did. “Here comes Victor. Too bad about his partner, but it was two guys living together. No way he is grieving and suffering the way I am.” I imagine their conversation would have been quite different than that described earlier. Sadly, stripped of empathy, both of them would have missed out on a thick slice of humanity.

You want to cope with stress? Travel your road accompanied by empathy. If you lose it, you lose your humanity, and you will be very lonely – and stressed.

Independence with Empathy

Independence is a good thing, right? When you’re independent you can stand on your own two feet, you can make decisions on your own, and you can forge your path with confidence. Best of all, you can do all this without being excessively dependent on someone else, and allowing that person to shield you from the realities of life.

The one thing you have to guard against, however, is loneliness. Working hard to be self-sufficient can make you afraid to depend on someone. You can reach a point of believing that depending on others for any sort of help will make you appear weak and incompetent. So, you avoid asking for – or accepting – help from others, and that can lead to social isolation. In other words, independence can be taken too far.

Kevin is under a lot of stress at work. He’s the chief supervisor of 24 workers who keep one section of an assembly line moving smoothly. Kevin feels he must do everything himself, or he believes he’s shirking his duties and his boss will demote him. There are many parts of Kevin’s job that can be delegated to his assistant, Wayne, or sometimes even to one of the workers directly on the line, but he just can’t do it.

Recently, Kevin began experiencing increasingly bad pain in his knee. What was once a slight, almost unnoticeable limp, developed into a very pronounced limp and an almost total inability to use stairs. Wayne noticed his impairment and often offered to help in one way or another.

Comments like, “Stay there and finish the paperwork, Kevin. I’ll go check the line”; “Kevin, let me give you a hand on the stairs”; “You better get that knee checked, Kevin. I bet you need a replacement,” often came his way, but Kevin always misinterpreted the concerns as showing how much Wayne wanted his job. It never occurred to him that these offers of help were out of genuine concern for his welfare.

Eventually, Kevin became all but incapacitated and unable to do his job efficiently. His boss gave him an ultimatum: “Kevin, get that knee fixed or I’ll have no choice but to let you go.”

Kevin knew he had to have the surgery. He was, however, plunged into anxiety about losing his job to that “back-stabbing assistant of mine. That’s the thanks I get for training him.”

After surgery Kevin was homebound for several weeks. He became increasingly distraught and felt helpless about it all. He started to blame himself, and was beginning to spiral into depression. During this rehab period Wayne visited him often and told him that things were going well at work and everyone was looking forward to his return. Kevin could only say to himself, “Don’t give me that bull s**t, you SOB. You’re hoping I can never walk again so you can be the chief.”

What’s Kevin’s problem? Why does he see only threats coming from Wayne? For that answer, let’s consider the case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), 32nd US President. After beginning what looked to be a great political career, FDR was stricken with polio at the age of 39, and was never again able to walk without leg braces and assistance. Just standing, much less taking steps, was an immense undertaking involving considerable pain and effort, and he spent most of his days in a wheelchair.

In her book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how FDR – long before becoming president – underwent a kind of psychological rebirth at a health spa in Warm Springs, Georgia. He found his way there after hearing reports that the waters of the spa had positive effects on paralyzed victims like himself.

FDR came from the “upper crust” of the American socioeconomic ladder, the elite of society. At Warm Springs, however, he interacted with – and became friends with – people he came to call his “fellow polios.” They were not the elite of society, but victims like him. He discovered that his association with them energized his spirits, and taught him the importance of teamwork, friendship, and a sensitivity to how others felt. He learned how to communicate – both listening and speaking – with his fellows as equals, without elitism, condescension, or superiority. In short, FDR discovered humility and empathy, two qualities I often describe as essential to coping with adversity.

Returning to Kevin, his interactions with Wayne were lacking humility and empathy. Kevin was the boss, and he felt that accepting help from Wayne was beneath him and signaled weakness. Kevin avoided facing this reality by convincing himself that Wayne was after his job, and that justified his harsh feelings toward Wayne.

Once Kevin returned to work, still gimpy but improving each day, he continued to harbor suspicions about Wayne. He began to watch Wayne carefully, and criticize him often. Wayne became uneasy at this new and unusual treatment by his boss. As Kevin became more and more critical of Wayne, their relationship became strained, and Wayne eventually left the company for another job.

Kevin once again felt secure. The problem was, he had never resolved his conflicted feelings – and misinterpretations – about Wayne’s behavior. It was only a matter of time before circumstances would arise that would reawaken these conflicts, and Kevin would go through the entire mess again. And, indeed, Kevin’s conflicts were reawakened when a new assistant, Martin, was hired.

Kevin’s interactions with Wayne were fine until circumstances arose that Kevin found threatening. Because humility and empathy were not a part of his relationship with Wayne, the conflict would never be resolved. Without those crucial features of the relationship, Kevin could only hold on to his independence by denying any expressions of dependence on Wayne. The result was loneliness, anger, and anxiety for Kevin as he convinced himself that Wayne was out to get his job.

Independence is good but don’t allow it to interfere with your relations with others who may truly have your welfare in mind. Without humility and empathy, it will be difficult to recognize and reciprocate honorable, genuine intentions of others. Your relationships will be in danger of disintegrating, and you will lose something worthwhile – a sense of belonging.



Conspiracy Theories

Aaron Burr’s place in American history is cemented firmly in two episodes. The first was in the presidential election of 1800 when Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied for number of electoral votes. After 36 ballots in the House of Representatives, Jefferson was finally chosen President, and Burr became the third vice-president of the United States.

The second episode – known to virtually every school child in America – occurred on July 11, 1804 when Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr was largely denounced as a murderer, and his political career was over.

Historians, however, also know Burr as a generator of conspiracy theories. After the duel, he headed West – in those days west meant the Ohio territory and the Mississippi River – and rumors began to fly that he was plotting against the United States. One conspiracy theory said he was going to proclaim himself the Emperor of Mexico; another that he was seeking to encourage the western states to secede from the Union; a third theory maintained he wanted to separate New Orleans from the United States and establish a new country.

There was just enough flimsy “evidence” to keep these theories afloat, and they were spread far and wide. Burr was eventually arrested and tried for treason, but acquitted because of weak evidence that he truly was conspiring against the United States.

In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin orchestrated a crusade against communist sympathizers, claiming they had infiltrated all levels of government, and were pervasive throughout the country. In particular he targeted socialists, intellectuals, artists, writers, and gays/lesbians as either communists, or engaged in un-American activities. His dragnet became wider and wider, and even powerful political leaders were swept up as traitors. Eventually, people realized his paranoid conspiracy ideas defied common sense, could not be substantiated with reliable evidence, and amounted to nothing more than a witch hunt. “McCarthyism” was condemned by the Senate.

Fast forward to 2020, and conspiracy theories are plentiful. They have always been around, but in the age of the internet and social media, the soil for planting and spreading them is rich indeed.

Why do people buy into conspiracy theories? This is a relevant question for a blog about coping with stress because the factors that compromise your ability to cope with stress are also those factors that make you vulnerable to indoctrination, propaganda, and conspiracies. Here’s a partial list of some of those factors:

Paranoia. Paranoid personalities are characterized by delusions of persecution, jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance. Paranoia can be a component of a chronic personality disorder, like narcissism. It can also be fostered by drug abuse, or a serious condition such as psychosis, in which the person loses touch with reality. Whatever the cause, if you’re paranoid, it’s easy to accept a theory that others are conspiring against you.

Authoritarian. The authoritarian personality believes in obedience to authority, especially confident and powerful leaders. Authoritarians are concrete and simplistic thinkers; the world is black or white, right or wrong. If something is right for them, it should be right for everyone else. Nuance, dissension, and compromise are not valued by the authoritarian. To solve a problem, you find a leader who claims simple solutions to the problem, and then you follow that person. If your leader claims a conspiracy, you readily accept it.

Need for predictability and control. You enjoy your comfort zone because you feel things are under your control. If that balance is disturbed, you are vulnerable to a conspiracy theory. The notion that the US is controlled by Whites is how many have been raised. If someone says Whites will soon no longer be the majority, and plots are underway to infiltrate the country with immigrants who will destroy your way of life – well, that’s disconcerting and takes you out of your comfort zone. Predictability and control are gone; life is uncertain. You are vulnerable to influence by would-be tyrants as you cry out, “Show me ways to get back to my comfort zone. Show me how to keep America White. Show me the conspirators!”

Psychological Insecurities. What are you afraid of? What are you avoiding? Abandonment? Inferiority? Low self-esteem? Dependency? Incompetence? Are you guided by your own set of standards, morality, humility, and acceptance, or do you relive unresolved emotional conflicts from a troubled childhood? If the former, you’re coping well; if the latter, you’re not, and your hidden insecurities will keep you constantly looking for ways to keep personal conflicts hidden and suppressed. In this case, the comfort of accepting conspiracy theories will give you one way to service those hidden fears.

Need for clarity. Conspiracy theories can bring sense out of a bewildering world. Reality is full of subtleties, and people who are concrete, black/white thinkers need information that is simple and definitive. Whether it’s right or wrong doesn’t matter. Just find others who believe it and you’re on your way. You receive positive reinforcement when a conspiracy theory makes sense, and that reinforcement boosts your self-esteem.

Social isolation. Loneliness will make you vulnerable to conspiracy theories. Find a theory and others who believe it; if you believe it, you become part of their group. For instance, those with PTSD who are depressed or physically disabled, can surf the net and find similar sufferers, kindred spirits who might also subscribe to some conspiracy theory.

Justification for supporting someone or a cause. Suppose you strongly support someone who makes a poor decision that makes things worse. You’re crushed; your leader has failed you. “But wait,” you discover, “my guy didn’t fail. He was victimized by evildoers who conspired against him.” In this case, the conspiracy theory allows you to explain how your guy, through no fault of his own, was made to look bad.

Frequency and Celebrities. When you discover where you can get access to conspiracy theories, you will find that the arguments are made endlessly, again and again and again. In many cases, the arguments are also voiced by a celebrity. The key to keeping followers “in the fold” is constant repetition of the theory, and using well-known people to make the presentation.

Our list is far from complete, but long enough to make an important point about conspiracy theories. Have you noticed the common thread that runs through the above list? Every factor we describe represents a weakness – a flaw, a crack in one’s personality – that damages autonomy, independence, and conscience so much that the individual is willing to suspend rational thinking, and surrender judgment, reasoning, and empowerment to whatever quack happens to be around. That’s a pretty poor way to live

Be vigilant about your vulnerability to conspiracy theories. When you are unable to cope with life’s stressors, you could easily turn to them, even though they’re usually nonsense. But, if your personality dynamics make you susceptible, you will willingly believe the words of charlatans and accept their conspiracy theories as logical and correct. This is a decision completely incompatible with effective coping.

The Class of 2020

You’re the oldest of generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s, and you’re a member of the college graduating class of 2020. You made it! You achieved your goal of earning your college degree. Time to head out into the real world and make your way, right? Except the damn coronavirus had to get in the way of your plans.

You didn’t even get a commencement ceremony. The whole family was going to get together and celebrate with you. Bummer. But you can handle that. After all, a job application will ask if you have a college degree, not if you had a commencement ceremony.

Still, the virus has thrown a lot more curveballs your way than just that ceremony. Maybe you had a summer internship lined up, and felt pretty good it would lead to a job offer. It’s been canceled. If you majored in a field like Nursing, or Physician Assistant, you’re really in trouble. You needed to complete professional rotations over the summer before you could even receive your degree, but hospitals and medical centers have largely canceled positions for those rotations. You’re on hold. The economy is shot, the number of job postings online is in the toilet, and you’re living at home. You’re broke, and not even eligible for unemployment compensation.

You don’t see a lot of options for yourself right now, do you? Rosy statements from the President – “We’re back!” – don’t do it for you, do they? Your self-esteem is ravaged; you’re full of self-criticism and anger; your personality feels robbed, empty, helpless, and worthless; you’re spending too much time in that depressing wasteland called social media, trying to rally others to join your pity parade.

You’re trying to cope with a lot of stress, and you really don’t know to proceed. Well, consider this: Any coping challenge requires several steps:

First, you need to accept what’s going on. That includes the reality of the external circumstances around you – you can try to avoid that reality, but it will still be there in the morning – and the emotions you feel. Those emotions are you; do not be ashamed of them or try to deny them. You must use their energy in positive ways to spur you into action.

Second, you need accountability. Don’t waste your time looking for someone to blame for your predicament. It’s real and finding a scapegoat is not going to make it go away. Resolve to use your strengths – your intelligence, judgment, initiative, and social skills – to devise a plan to get you moving forward again. Be accountable to your strengths.

Third, devise a plan that includes two crucial components that only you can provide: Humility – it’s not always about you – and Empathy – you must be sensitive to the needs of others.

“Well that’s just great,” you’re thinking, “but how am I supposed to do all this fancy-sounding stuff?” Listen to what a couple of your Gen Z cohorts have to say about that. These comments come from a recent (June 1/8, 2020) issue of Time magazine.

Salvador Gomez-Colon is a teenager from Puerto Rico. Remember just a few years back when Puerto Rico was virtually demolished by hurricanes Irma and Maria? Faced with a destroyed electric grid, Salvador came up with a simple goal: For Christmas, illuminate each home in Puerto Rico with solar lightbulbs. Today, faced with the challenges of Coronavirus, Salvador is at it again, and says, “There are countless ways to support each other even as we remain physically separate, whether it’s sewing masks for vulnerable populations or writing thank-you notes to essential workers.”

Then there’s Abigail Harrison. Abby is 23 and came to national attention 10 years ago when she said she wanted to be the first astronaut to walk on Mars. Reflecting on our troubling times she says, “I’ve seen people risk their lives to care for others. And most incredibly, I’ve seen masses of people choose to cast themselves into isolation to protect people they will never know.” Abby sees the glass as half-full, and is one of those people who can squeeze the positive out of the most negative circumstances: “Losing so much control over our lives, combined with the isolation that comes from social distancing, has made the pandemic feel nearly impossible to overcome. Know what else feels nearly impossible? Going to Mars. But I assure you, they’re both possible.”

The key to coping with stress is to get into task-based mode – “I can contribute to this effort.” – and out of emotion-based mode – “This is not fair!” To cope with the challenges of your frustrating and depressing emotions, you must get off your duff and venture forward to help complete tasks. How? Well, what organizations in your area need volunteers? Contact them and offer your services. Or, ask yourself how you and your friends might organize and offer services and materials to people in your community who are suffering more than you. Feel the pain of others, reach out to them, offer your services.

There are also a number of service initiatives at a national level that offer opportunities to volunteer in areas like national parks, retirement homes, Habitat for Humanity, animal rescue, libraries, food pantries, Red Cross, and political campaigns. You may scoff at volunteer activities, but remember – they offer collateral opportunities for networking, expanding your knowledge and problem-solving skills, and discovering new career paths that fit with who you are.

I guarantee that when you get involved in service activities, you will experience satisfaction like you never have before. You will learn how working with others in a common venture will nurture your development of a social conscience. You will learn how to communicate with others – how both to speak and listen. You will discover a two-way street where you receive even as you give. You will enjoy the beauty and grace of other people, and see that there are fulfilling discoveries along a meaningful and enjoyable road of life. And when that first job comes along, you will be prepared to profit from it in ways you didn’t expect.

Wondering if your recovery is not working?

Trisha is 27-years old, married, no children. Fifteen months ago, she suffered a miscarriage while pregnant for the first time. She was devastated as only women who have had a similar experience can understand. She was in counseling for a couple of months, and eventually joined a support group of women who also experienced miscarriage.

“The problem is,” she says, “I have been in the group for 11 months. The girls are great and give me a lot of support, but whenever I tell my story, like when a new member joins, I break down and cry like it happened yesterday. It’s been over a year and I’m still a mess sometimes. I don’t know why I can’t get over this.”

People usually go into counseling or other types of support programs expecting positive results within a reasonable period of time. The problem is, what is a “reasonable time” is not etched in stone. After more than a year in treatment, should Trisha be able to relate her story without crying? Another question clients often ask is, “What actions mean I’m not coping well with my trauma?” Is Trisha’s crying, for instance, a sign of poor recovery? Should she be able to relate her story calmly and objectively to consider herself on the road to recovery?

Trying to answer these questions “yes” or “no” is difficult because the answers are usually, “It depends.” People come to recovery with different experiences, current circumstances, perceptions, attitudes, expectations, biological sensitivities, and genetics, and any one of those factors can influence recovery time and post-trauma behavior.

Trisha, for instance, may be a histrionic, emotional type who dramatizes events. Note that when she criticizes herself for being too emotional, she is focusing on her emotions as bad things, and not on them as a natural part of who she is. Instead of letting her crying suggest to her that she is a failure and not coping well with her experience, Trisha might say something like this before telling her story: “Please understand that I’m an emotional person and it’s always hard for me to talk about it. I may start crying. But that’s OK, because all of us here understand the pain, and we focus on that understanding, not on how we express our pain.”

“I need to focus on understanding my pain, not on how I express it.” That’s where Trisha should be 15 months after her experience.

When recovering from trauma – or dealing with other types of stress – don’t let self-criticism and self-absorption become part of your coping plan. Rather, accept who you are, be accountable for how you express yourself, and let communication with – and listening to – others guide you in your recovery.

I talked once with a marine who was in his 80s. As he told me he “island hopped” during WWII, he paused at one point to wipe away a tear, then said, “Lost a lot of buddies over there.” More than 50 years after his trauma, he still shed a tear, not because he was unable to cope with the memory, but because the memory was a part of him, and a tear was how he expressed the memory.

Trisha need not be concerned that she still gets emotional over a year after her trauma. Maybe one day she will be able to talk about it without crying, maybe not. That’s really not the coping issue. Of more importance is how Trisha answers questions like: “Does the memory of the event continue to generate emotions that interfere with your day-to-day living?” “Does the memory make you feel guilty, believing the event was your fault?” “Is the event straining your marriage because you are afraid to get pregnant again?”

Perhaps most important is how Trisha would answer a question like this: “Are you so wrapped up in your experience – in your needs and emotions – that you are unable to feel empathy for the others in your group?” Trisha will not resolve her issues without that empathy for others, because that empathy will show her that she is not alone in her struggle. Trisha may cry, but that’s not necessarily a sign that she is coping poorly. If she has reached an empathetic understanding of the pain others in her group are experiencing, she is well on the road to recovery because she can offer help to – and receive help from – the others in her group.

Reopen now? Lessons for personal coping.

Pandemic “stay-at-home” policies stretch into weeks, and the psychological and financial strains on those who are unable to work bring many to the breaking point. They take to the streets to demonstrate their frustration and displeasure.

From a coping context, one’s work can be a strong psychological component of one’s identity. Those who bring home a paycheck are able to look in the mirror and see a “breadwinner,” someone who is responsible, productive, and capable of caring for others. When a job is taken away, those traits are taken away. Workers also often develop intense loyalty to their place of employment, and the workplace becomes an extension of self. Losing one’s job can be a vital threat to that sense of self.

In her book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Pulitzer Prize historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talks about the noted journalist, Ray Baker. His father wanted him to join the family business after college, but Baker had discovered that business was not consistent with his sense of self. To honor his father, however, he gave it a try and returned home to learn the family business.

Baker soon realized how miserable he was: “I felt as though I were being crowded back into a kind of cocoon from which I had long ago worked free, and flown.” This rich prose captures how he could never hope to actualize himself with a career in business; the work was simply not who he was. He ended up with a productive and satisfying journalism career at McClure’s, a popular magazine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Had he ever experienced a layoff like that experienced by many today, like them, he would have been psychologically devastated.

Prior to joining McClure’s, Baker worked for the Chicago Record. One of his assignments was to report on the plight of the unemployed during the depression of 1893. He interviewed scores of jobless men, and interacted with them on the streets. He learned their stories, their misery, and how their poverty was compounded by few opportunities for them to work. He wrote, “I have seen more misery in this last week than I ever saw in my life before….The miserable living conditions, the long hours, the low wages, the universal insecurity, tended to tear down the personality, cheapen the man.”

“Tear down the personality”; “cheapen the man.” Those words eloquently capture the anxiety, the helplessness, the depression, the attack on self-esteem that being without a job launches on the psyche. The once-secure breadwinner looks in the mirror and sees “cheap.”

The current demonstrations against stay-at-home restrictions are painful to watch. Many viewers fear for their health if reopening occurs too soon, yet they are empathetic with the jobless demonstrators, understanding their psychological pain. Stress is in ample supply all around.

From a coping perspective there’s no simple answer, no magical formula that will solve the issue quickly. I think it’s worth noting, however, that a part of everyone’s stress results from the either/or manner in which we frame the issue: close or reopen; the president or the governor; liberal or conservative; medical or financial; my needs or my neighbor’s needs; us or them.

Some of the personal conflicts you face in life are either/or: Have knee surgery or don’t. If you have it, and then have regrets, too bad – the deed is done. Other conflicts, however, are more subtle: “Should I assign Pete or Joan to lead the project team?” When you see the issue as an either/or, Pete or Joan dilemma, you are putting yourself in a decision-making straitjacket that is almost guaranteed to maintain your stress level, no matter what you do. So, why not assign Pete and Joan as co-leaders? If one obviously shines, you slowly elevate that one to leader. Notice how you have removed the either/or stressor, and made the conflict data driven: “I will let their performance determine which one emerges as leader.”

As a general rule, to mitigate your stress over a conflict, change your thinking from, “Choose A or B” to, “Pick the best features from each choice.” Then you can design your plan of action around that middle ground, and continually measure (test) how well the plan is proceeding. The resolutions to most conflicts are usually most successful when they include features from all possible options, and allow for feedback (data) to evaluate their effectiveness.

In the case of reopening a state, county, city, or a town, for instance, political leaders should make the process gradual. First this business opens, next this one, and so on down the line; embedded in the plan are protocols requiring objective features, such as crowd size, social-distancing, and masks. Finally, the plan must include provisions for continuous data collection to assess what’s going on, and make adjustments if needed. Apply this model to your personal conflicts and you will likely find significant mitigation of your stress.

Is Personal Honor Dead?

“Ethics, honor, accountability, integrity, honesty, and character are dead in American society.” Now there’s a wild statement. Could you, however, look around and find examples of behavior that support the statement? How about the following:

*Many parents today enable and indulge their kids by keeping them on a tight cyber-leash. When kids get in trouble, parents “bail them out.” Are those kids learning accountability?

*What do you think about the major league baseball scandal of stealing signs? Honest? Playing fair? How about the college basketball scandal where agents offered parents bribes so their kid would choose a particular school? Honorable?

*What about forgiveness of student loans? Some argue that doing so goes against the American work ethic that expects one to compete, work hard, achieve, overcome obstacles, learn from failures, and adapt to an ever-changing environment. Is college loan forgiveness consistent with that work ethic? Why not tie forgiveness to service work completed?

*How about Presidential pardons of felons who contribute to the re-election campaign of the pardoner? Ethical? Honorable?

*How many college admissions officers would agree with this statement? “We know some kids in our entering freshman class are unprepared for college-level work and will likely flunk out in their first year. But we accepted them because we need all the tuition money we can get.” Honest? Ethical?

*Have you ever heard about someone spreading lies on social media about an ex? How about posting compromising pictures to get back at someone? Social values?

*Then there are those high-profile cases of sexual abuse of young people by college employees. The Nasser case at Michigan State involving gymnasts, and the Sandusky case at Penn State involving young boys – both show shameless attempts by high-ranking university officials to cover up the misdeeds. Ethics, honor, accountability, integrity, honesty, and character all seem to have been discarded by those officials in both these cases.

*I saw a news report of a woman protesting social distancing restrictions. She said, ” I would rather die than live like this.” Putting aside the personal pity parade going on, let’s note that the translation of this comment is, “I would rather live, even if it means infecting others.” That, my friends, is what we call narcissism, and that character trait is incompatible with having a social conscience. Is this the new America, one devoid of empathy for our neighbor?

*How many physicians in America work for a medical conglomerate? How many are told how much time they get to spend with a patient, and how many patients they are expected to see daily? Is it ethical to force physicians to work within the confines of the “bottom line,” even if that potentially compromises the physician’s efforts to be a “healer”?

“Wait a minute,” you protest. “Sure, there’s a lot of unethical stuff going on out there. But that’s always been true. For every item on your list, I could find several examples of people doing great things, helping others, and showing they really care.”

I agree. The point I wanted to make is that examples of dishonorable behavior in American society are not hard to find, and that fact has major significance for coping actions. If you want to cope effectively with challenges in your life, you need a solid foundation of personal standards, values, morality, and ethics to guide you. Without that foundation, you will drift into denial and avoidance, actions incompatible with effective coping. With so much dishonorable behavior in society, it is easy to be influenced by it, which can make establishing a moral foundation more difficult, and compromise your coping efforts.

With that danger in mind, let’s ask a simple question: “What can I do to decrease my risk of getting snared in these ethical lapses?” Think back to our dishonorable actions above. Imagine that you are the President of the University where abuse accusations have been made; that you are a player on a team with some teammates cheating; that you are protesting stay-at-home orders to protect the populace from sickness; that you are a physician who wants to heal, not just meet quotas; that you work in an admissions office that has ignored your “Do Not Accept” recommendation.

In each case, assuming you have moral standards, you are being asked to act in a way that is inconsistent with those values. Will you be guided by your standards, or by the “bottom line”? If the latter, you may suffer legal consequences, rejection, or shame by others. That’s bad enough, but failing to coordinate your actions with your values can also damage your personality, disrupt your emotional stability, and compromise your identity. You will be at risk for serious psychological difficulties, such as anxiety, helplessness, and depression.

Behaving in ways that go against your morality is definitely hazardous to your psychological well-being. So, what can you do to make it easier to choose to be guided by your ethics, character, and integrity? Here are a few suggestions:

*Give up the search for happiness.

*Examine what you value and accept those things as important to you.

*Harmonize your actions with your values. Let something like happiness emerge as satisfaction from those actions.

*Cultivate humility by taking yourself out of the equation now and then.

*Allow a focus on empathy for others to take priority over a focus on “me.”

*Listen to others’ stories before you tell them your story.

*Your legacy is how you make others feel each day. Actualize yourself by establishing positive daily legacies. Engage in actions that make others feel worthwhile.

I don’t mean to suggest that instead of acting as ordered by a superior, acting in accordance with personal values is easy to do and without risk. In many of the examples we gave, for instance, the risk would be getting fired! Still, the fact remains that being untrue to your values – untrue to the person you perceive yourself to be – also carries great psychological risk.

Only you can decide which path to take. Just remember, if your actions bring you emotional distress – you feel anxious, frustrated, helpless, “burned out” – the odds are that you chose the wrong path. Take corrective action, seek help, and consider the suggestions above.

Pandemic Masks and Psychology

Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, and whether or not to wear a safety mask covering one’s nose and mouth in public has become a highly politicized issue. Let’s put politics aside, however, and – in a coping context – look at some psychological speculations about why some people will not wear a pandemic mask.

To get a feel for some of the dynamics I am proposing, let’s take an extreme example, a narcissistic personality disorder. Extreme narcissists have very fragile self-esteem and need regular “booster shots” of praise from others. On the outside, narcissists are the self-proclaimed omnipotent ones who claim to know best, but inside they are filled with self-doubt and feelings of incompetence, being unloved, and worthlessness. These inner core impulses are very threatening to the narcissist psyche, and must be suppressed and kept hidden or else they will flood the holder with anxiety.

Narcissists must constantly fight against letting these impulses out and having to face them. Thus, they need continual praise, support, and validation from others. Those who disagree with them, or who challenge them, must be bullied, subjugated, and defeated to provide reassurance that, “I am in charge.”

The narcissist mind is like a balloon filled with “I-am-perfect” air. If it develops a small leak that threatens the self-perceived perfection, the leak must be quickly plugged or psychological chaos will ensue. Any circumstance that threatens that I-am-perfect air must be quickly dispatched.

The pandemic mask. For a narcissist it is a leak in the balloon. The mask signals vulnerability – a need for protection. Vulnerability means weakness, and weakness is a dire threat to the narcissistic psyche: “Wearing a mask tells me and everyone that I am not perfect.”

According to this analysis, the macho bravado of going without a mask is simply to cover up the fact that, deep down, perhaps at an unconscious level, feeling incompetent, inferior, and unworthy makes the narcissist fear that wearing a mask would put those insecurities on display for all to see. For the extreme narcissist, that would be a fate worse than death.

Am I suggesting that all those who do not wear a pandemic mask in public are narcissists? Absolutely not. I am suggesting, however, that there is a strong likelihood that wearing the mask can activate internal conflicts in insecure people: the macho guy who fears showing any sign of weakness in himself; the son, daughter, or spouse who fears family criticism; the young person anxious about being ridiculed by peers; the vain woman who fears looking older or less attractive; the member of a group who fears ostracism. All these people are tormented by insecurities at some level of their mind, and the mask makes these self-doubts visible to oneself as a mirror, and visible to others as a projector.

There is, of course, a coping lesson here: Accept your emotions and your insecurities. Do not let them dominate you and point you toward denial of who you are, and toward avoidance of facing your life challenges. Rather, let your emotions guide you to making empowered decisions based on solving a problem at hand. In short, be “secure in your own skin.” Choose actions not because you want others to judge you on their terms, but because you judge your actions to be in your best interest. Knowing your limits is not weakness; it is an enormous strength.

Wearing a pandemic mask is not succumbing to your demons; it is demonstrating personal empowerment, autonomy, and confidence in being able to face risk in an intelligent way. That’s what we call coping with stress!