Coping with “Big” Changes

We have known students who – during their junior or senior year of college – expressed concern about their post-graduation plans. Jenny is a junior and her case represents the issue: “I’m majoring in psychology but never really wanted to work in the field. But now I do. I’ve decided to get a Master’s in Counseling and get licensed. The problem is, my Dad wants me to join the family business after graduation. We always talked about this and I thought it would work, but now I don’t think so. Any advice on how to tell him?”

That’s a tough question. Jenny needs to be true to herself, and she’s hoping that dad – even though disappointed – will see that letting her go “her chosen way” is in her best interests. Maybe it would help if Jenny took time over the upcoming summer to give working with Dad a trial run. She could see what’s involved and if she likes it. If not, she can honestly say, “It’s not for me, Dad.” Furthermore, Jenny can be reassured that in the future, she need not fear her Dad saying, “Well, you could have at least given the family business a go.” She did! Also, Jenny would not have to worry about going through life wondering, “What would have happened if…?” Once again, she can say, “I gave it a try and I know it’s not for me.”

Trevor’s dilemma happened several years after graduation. In college he was a Business Administration major and an academic superstar. After college he landed a great job with a major company and seemed well on his way to a rewarding and lucrative professional career.

After two years on the job, he contacted one of his college professors and said: “I’m doing really well. Great evaluations from the boss; already two raises; colleagues I enjoy working with…” The professor interrupted, “Sounds like a ‘but’ is coming!”

            Trevor laughed. “Yeh, a big ‘but.’ The business culture doesn’t fit with my values. Bottom line, bottom line, bottom line – always the bottom line. I analyze spread sheets showing budget reductions requiring employee termination and I think, who are these people being let go? Do they have kids? A mortgage? College loans to repay? I just can’t get away from the people angle. It’s more important to me than the bottom line.”

            “So, what are you planning to do?” asked the professor.

            “I have to help people. Nursing school. Or be a dentist!” replied Trevor.

            Trevor’s choice is not as wild as it sounds. He always had what he called a “latent” interest in medicine, but business and accounting “grabbed” him in college. Now, with his change of heart, the problem was that he had taken none of the science courses required for admission to any medical professional school.

            He discovered that the university where he lived had a special program where he could take a concentrated year-and-a-half of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics to give him the requisite courses to apply to professional schools in the medical field.

            Would you agree that this would be a gutsy move on Trevor’s part?  Of course, if nothing else, he would show himself to be willing to take on the challenge because he didn’t want to go through life wondering, “What if…?”

Two situations: choosing against family wishes; and, making a radical career change. What might they have in common? Two things in particular: the importance of having a realistic coping Plan of Action, and Accountability in carrying out the plan. Jenny has a plan, but she must be responsible for respectfully and lovingly communicating her decision to Dad; Trevor also has come up with a plan, and he is responsible for meeting the professional conditions put on him if he is to be successful in carrying out this revised career plan.

Are you one of those people who experiences considerable stress because of being in a job you dislike? Do you stick with it because you hate change? Do you focus on your negative emotions the job produces – anger, anxiety, frustration, helplessness, and maybe even depression? Jenny’s and Trevor’s stories show the importance of not worrying about the emotions, but focusing instead on a purposive plan – engaging in actions that are under your control, and that meet the realities of the of the goals you want to attain. When put in the appropriate task-focused coping context, even the wildest life changes can be realized.

Projection

Susan is a college freshman. During a recent Economics multiple-choice test, she glanced at her neighbor’s answer sheet and copied some of his answers. When she returned to her dorm room, her roommate asked, “How was the econ test?” Susan replied it was pretty tough and added, “I can’t believe how many kids were cheating. Unreal.”

John, 42, is plagued by low self-esteem and lack of confidence. He refuses to face these self-doubts, but is quick to see them in others. Just the other day at work, his project team was discussing ways to improve a production plan. At one point, John said, “I hate to say this, but the problem is that you people are not willing to take some risks and test out the plan on a pilot basis. Why can’t you get some confidence here and trust in the team and get off the dime?”

Roger, 28, is depressed and angry that his bride of two months, Kasey, was killed by a drunk driver while he and Kasey were riding their bikes. Roger doesn’t see that deep inside he blames himself for what happened. He doesn’t reach out to his or Kasey’s family because he feels they are all angry at him and blame him for what happened. “They act like they want to help me,” Roger says, “but I can see that they hate me for what happened.”

Susan, John, and Roger are all using the ego-defense of Projection. They have some unpleasant emotions in themselves that they just can’t face, so they project these undesirable qualities onto other people. Susan is upset with herself about cheating, but she soothes her guilt by believing other students also cheated. John, of course, projects his own shortcomings onto the others so he can blame them – not himself – for problems with the production plan.  Roger blames himself for his wife’s accident, but says that others blame him. Thus, he can criticize them, not himself.

In each case, note how the use of projection is a form of anxiety avoidance. They don’t want to face unwanted traits in themselves, so they see those traits in others. What a great way to avoid the stress of self-examination!

Unfortunately, like all forms of stress avoidance, projection prevents psychological growth, self-awareness, and development of self-empowerment to face life challenges. It also prevents being vigilant for signs that – like Susan, John, and Roger – you are using projection to hide what you can’t face in yourself. Such signs would be failure to hold yourself accountable, being excessive and repetitive in your criticism of others, and disengaging from social interactions.

Projection is also a close cousin of hypocrisy. From a coping perspective, it pays to heed comments from friends and acquaintances that you are criticizing others for actions you yourself have taken in the past. For instance, Bruce points out to a co-worker, Adam, that he is insensitive to the needs of Sharon – a co-worker – who has a disability that confines her to a wheelchair. “Uh, Bruce,” says Adam, “I remember just last week when you told me that Sharon uses her disability to make us feel sorry for her so we’ll do her job for her. Remember how you said, ‘Sharon really plays the disability card’? That was kind of insensitive, don’t you think?” Adam’s comments should be a warning to Bruce that he is projecting his own insensitivity toward Sharon onto Adam.

Let’s note that projection need not be bad, and can be used as part of healthy coping. Jennifer’s best friend, Alyson, is grief-stricken because her dad, 55, just died of cancer. Jennifer is trying to console Alyson, and at one point she says, “I know how you feel, Aly. I remember how I felt when my dad died two years ago. My world ended, and I saw no hope. If you want to talk it’s OK because I’ve been there. I understand.”

Note how Jennifer is able to project herself and her emotions into Alyson because she has been down the same road. In this case, projection has become empathy, literally feeling how another person is feeling. Jennifer takes herself out of the equation, projects her own experience and memories into Alyson, and thereby is able to help her through the grief as if they were one. Jennifer understands that it’s not all about “me,” and she is willing to allow Alyson to unload on her, even though that interaction risks reawakening painful memories for Jennifer. That, my friends, is the essence – and beauty – of effective coping.

Unfolding Yourself

I want to put this post in the context of three memories I have. First, I remember some years ago when the US Army ran a recruiting campaign with the slogan, “Be All You Can Be.” Second, I recall a football coach saying to me, “Football doesn’t build character; it reveals character.” Finally, I remember a college history professor speaking to a group of parents and saying, “I don’t teach history; I teach our students.”

These memories seem unrelated, but they all carry the same message: Coping is about putting yourself in situations where who you are – your traits, your qualities, your individuality – can unfold for you to see. If you don’t like what you see, then it’s up to you either to keep yourself out of those situations, or – if that’s not possible – to modify your actions and express your traits in more desirable ways.

During my years as a college professor, I met with dozens of high-school students and their parents when they visited King’s College to see if the school was a fit for them. I always ended our meeting with variations on these words: “Visit all the colleges you’re interested in – if possible, more than once. Experience the school’s culture. Stay overnight in the dorm; eat in the cafeteria; attend some classes; talk to professors like we’re doing now; talk to as many students as possible. Once you’re back home, ask yourself, ‘Is this school a place where I’m comfortable, where what’s already inside me can unfold and allow me to see who I am?’”

In a sense, I was asking the students to decide if King’s was a place where they felt they could “Be all you can be,” where “You can confidently reveal your character,” and where you can “Allow teachers to show you how to evaluate information around you.”

When it comes to coping with stress, it helps to be the Army recruiter and remind yourself, “I should strive to be all I can be.” It also helps to be the football coach, and encourage yourself to find challenges that allow you to unfold in ways that reveal your character. Finally, it helps to listen to those who inspire you, and find role models whose actions are consistent with your values.

Here are some questions to ask yourself, questions I think capture what the recruiter, coach, and teacher are saying:

Do I “pay” myself adequately? Are you overly self-critical, always putting yourself down? How often do you march in your own special pity parade? How much do you ruminate about the past and how others were mean and rejected you? Do you complain that others do not appreciate how hard you try, and then internalize that criticism by giving yourself a pessimistic evaluation of your abilities? If so, maybe it’s time to give yourself a psychological “pay” raise – a symbolic pat on the back, so to speak – by complimenting yourself on a job well done. Engage in some positive self-talk now and then: “They said I was really helpful. I need to do stuff like that more often.” It never hurts to focus occasionally on your actions that have positive results.

Do I give myself growth opportunities? If you are going to empower yourself to cope effectively with life, you need to have challenges in front of you, and to give yourself the chance to tackle those challenges head-on. Thus, you need to provide yourself with opportunities to venture outside your comfort zone and experience new things. Seek out situations that challenge you, that let others help you grow, and that allow you to develop a sense of purpose.

Why do I need a sense of purpose? Without a guiding rationale behind your actions, you will find that it’s hard to be productive and satisfied with your efforts. Being committed to purposeful goals will encourage you to examine your values, morality, integrity, character, and personal standards. Finding purposeful actions that bring you satisfaction will help you develop your own moral compass.

How do I develop feelings of ownership of my life? Be realistic, confident, and humble about your competencies and skills, and act within the constraints of reality. Above all, be accountable for your actions, and use failure to help you improve. Accountability will give you a sense of pride and ownership about your actions. You will become less vulnerable to those who would dominate you, and use you for their purposes. Being accountable will give you the confidence to be autonomous and independent – to take charge of your life and move confidently in directions you choose.

The answers to these questions are revealed when you look in the mirror honestly. No one else in the world can see what you see. Only you. What do you see? What do you feel?

#Me Too should not impact childrearing

            I recently saw a newspaper headline that asked, “How should dads talk to sons at this #MeToo time?” Three things about this headline struck me.

            First was the reference to the #MeToo movement. Are you telling me that prior to this movement, parents were not concerned about teaching their sons it’s wrong to assault girls? That’s ridiculous. Responsible parents do not need #MeToo to tell them assault is wrong.

            Second, the headline only mentions dads and sons. Is the message that moms have nothing to offer, or that raising girls in the #MeToo context is irrelevant? Just teach them to cook and everything will be fine?

            Third, the headline is typical of subtle, implicit sexist messages that denigrate women and assign them second-class status compared to men. The subliminal message is that dads need to provide their sons with knowledge to protect themselves against accusations from girls, but #MeToo makes this teaching difficult.

            Psychology has a lot to tell us about how to raise children. Consider Sandra Bem’s work in the ‘70s on teaching children to embrace a variety of emotions and characteristics. Bem said parents should certainly teach sons that they will find themselves in situations when they should be forceful, competitive, and dominant. “Man up, kid! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.”

            But Bem also said parents must teach boys that sometimes sensitivity, caring, and empathy are appropriate. Teach boys that showing such traits does not destroy their masculinity. Don’t tell them that they must always show tough-guy masculinity, because then they will be unable to participate in a broad range of productive interactions with others.

            Bem also argued that parents can teach girls to be nurturant, supportive, sensitive and understanding. But parents must also teach them that sometimes they need to be assertive, competitive, forceful, and decisive, or they will find themselves dominated by those around them. Plus, girls should be taught that firmly standing up for themselves in no way sacrifices their femininity.

#MeToo boils down to living together with mutual respect, and striving for empathy when conflict arises. Sure, girls should be taught to be caring and sensitive, but if the situation demands it, they should be aggressive and competitive. Likewise, boys should be taught to be dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, it’s OK to be emotional, sympathetic, and soft. Our kids should be taught that having a range of emotions and actions available does not make them less of a woman or less of a man.

One final thought: In the wake of the #MeToo movement, and seemingly endless accusations by women made against abusive men, some men complain that the whole atmosphere puts tremendous pressure on them. Men grumble about anxious concerns – “Am I doing something to offend? Will I be taken to court?” – that make their world a scary place where avenging women are out to get them. What nonsense!

There’s nothing new here, folks. During the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s, the same specious cries of alarm came from men. Hugh Hefner called the “libbers” man-haters. Wimpy men whined, “I’m scared. Do I call her Miss, Mrs., or Ms.? I’m walking on eggshells!” Others moaned, “Can I compliment her without being accused of harassment?” Guess what? These spineless comments notwithstanding, the vast majority of young men survived. They learned to respect women, got married, helped raise the kids, and even (gasp!) did the dishes now and then.

Focus Coping Efforts Outward, not Inward

Gena is frightened of her husband because he is physically abusive. She says, “I’ve got to conquer this fear so I can deal with this situation.”

Frank is angry at a co-worker, Adam, because he is always undermining Frank at work. Adam spreads false rumors about Frank; he lies to Frank to trick him into acting in ways that irritate the boss; and he tries to sabotage Frank’s work to make him look bad. Frank says, “If I don’t take some anger management classes I just may injure this nut.”

Kim’s neighbor, Taylor, is always flirting with Kim’s husband, Seth. Kim gets really jealous when she sees them laughing together, and she’s mad at herself because she knows Seth has no romantic interest in Taylor, or any other woman for that matter.

Gena, Frank, and Kim are all feeling stress and trying to cope with it as best they can. But notice the context in which they focus their coping efforts: Their emotions! Gena doesn’t like her fear; Frank is worried about his anger; Kim is ashamed of her jealousy. Each one of them is engaging in self-criticism, self-absorption, and self-pity, because they make their problems about them and their emotions.

In situations like these, focusing on yourself and your emotions is not the way to cope with stress. Rather, try letting empathy toward your tormentor kick in. “Huh?” you ask. “You want me to feel sorry for the person who’s making me miserable?”

Absolutely not. In this example, by empathy we mean focusing on and understanding the motivations and issues of the other person, and meeting the challenge they pose within that context, not within the context of your emotions. Gena, Frank, and Kim, for instance, need to accept that the emotions generated by their dilemmas are quite normal, and that they need to take action not against themselves, but against their persecutors.

Gena enlists the help of a divorce attorney, the police, a women’s shelter, and friends and neighbors who know what’s going on and can corroborate Gena’s accusations. She lets her husband know that she will no longer be the target of his power trip and she has the resources behind her stop him.

Frank confronts his co-worker and tells him he is ready to file a harassment complaint with the Human Resources Office. He lets Adam know he has a detailed log of incidents and will bring it to the attention of their superiors if necessary.

Kim tells her husband how his flirtations make her feel, and it’s time for him to “man-up” and act like a responsible husband who values his marriage and family. If he wants to play like he’s single, she will accommodate him!

All these actions form what we mean by empathy. Gena, Frank, and Kim must make it clear they are not looking for pity from their tormentor, but are prepared to stand up to them in the context of the bully’s issues, not in the context of their own emotions. Doing so gives them the upper hand because each demonstrates that, “I understand your motives and where you’re coming from, and I can handle you.” See how empathy is involved? “I understand your motives” is putting empathy to work for you.

The absence of empathy is denial. Gena, Frank, and Kim can choose to deny the reality of their tyrants’ motives and continue to suffer. Empathy, on the other hand, can be used to generate acceptance of what is going on, and assertiveness of what they can do about it. They turn the tables by forcing their adversary to make a choice; they have made theirs.

New Book, The Honorable Self

We are pleased to announce publication of The Honorable Self, by psychologists Charles Brooks, PhD and Michael Church, PhD. In this brief book, we explain how Acceptance, Accountability, Values, Humility, Empathy, and Planning provide the key to understanding who you are, and how you fit in the challenging adventure of living your life. Your satisfaction and productivity are greatly enhanced when you keep before you the importance of maintaining your honor – your integrity, ethics, decency, morality, and conscience – and finding your Honorable Self.  

Stress Is…?

Stress is a word we use almost daily, but it’s hard to find a decent definition because it is such a complex concept. But we can at least discuss some common misconceptions about stress, and note what stress is not.

Should stress be avoided? No! It is a necessary part of life. Besides, you can’t run from it. As long as you are alive you will experience stress. Even enjoyable experiences like Christmas or getting married can be very stressful. Any experience that requires adjustment and change – whether it be positive or negative – is stressful.

Is stress equal to anxiety? Again, no! Stressful events can produce anxiety, yes, but stress can also generate emotions like anger, jealousy, envy, depression, and guilt.

Does stress damage the body? Not necessarily. Evolution has built you to withstand daily stress brought on by the challenges and demands of daily living. Plus, if you don’t experience some minimal amount of daily stress, you’ll get bored at best, and agitated or depressed at worst.

Does stress weaken performance? Not always. In fact, heightened arousal, a dose of apprehension, and even some anxiety can enhance performance of well-learned skills. That’s why we can get superb performances from musicians and athletes when the stakes are the highest. On the other hand, if skills are in the early stage of development, stress can weaken performance. Stress can negatively impact the performance of poorly-learned responses. If you’re poorly prepared, stress will harm performance. Want to put stress to work for you? Prepare thoroughly with extensive practice.

Does avoiding change reduce stress? Put another way, are you better off staying in your daily, predictable, unchanging comfort zone? Not in the long run. Yes, change is stressful. Marriage, having a baby, seeking a job promotion, retiring – all are stressful and require adapting to something new. Would you say, however, that avoiding those things is in your best interest?

Avoiding change to reduce short-term stress leads to stagnation. Should you tolerate a mediocre job, or face the stress of seeking a new and more challenging position? The long-term result of avoiding change and never taking risks can be devastating. On the other hand, confronting the challenge of taking on something new can be exhilarating and rewarding! 

Don and Mary were struggling with whether to have a second child. Mary said yes, Don said no. They were financially secure and had a solid marriage. Don, however, was comfortable with their organized lives, and he worried about disrupting things by adding a second child. Ultimately, sensitive to his wife’s desires – which he valued greatly – Don decided that adding to the family could strengthen something else he valued greatly – his marriage.

Notice how Don analyzed his dilemma as a problem to be solved – not as an emotion to be avoided – and how he brought his values into the equation. Approaching things from a problem-based perspective, and assessing how his values could be coordinated to his actions, Don made the issue a challenge to be faced by partners, not a source of stress he should selfishly avoid. When he decided to stop running from his anxiety, and face a new challenge with his partner, that partnership improved and was infused with new energy and enthusiasm.

Stress and Health

Research has linked stress to many health problems: the common cold, ulcers, asthma, headaches, menstrual discomfort, skin disorders, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, stroke, appendicitis, glaucoma, diabetes, back pain – to one degree or another, all have been connected to stress. Emotional hassles, of course, may not be the primary cause of physical ailments, but the strain and pressure of everyday living can definitely complicate physical health. That being the case, coping effectively with stress is definitely a health-enhancing behavior.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that the “solution” to stress is not to try and avoid it. This strategy may give you temporary relief as you retreat to your comfort zone, but over the long run, consistent avoidance of stressors causes low self-esteem, self-criticism, and – eventually – depression. So, what alternate strategies to avoidance are available to you, and without those negative side-effects?

Identify what you value. If you value yourself and the roles you play in life – roles like parent, spouse, employee, or friend – but at the same time let yourself become less effective in these roles, how can you expect to feel better about yourself? Act honorably – with sincere commitment and dedication – toward those things you value in life.

Coordinate your actions with your values. Do you put off investigating diets (an action) even though you say, “I care about my health” (your value)? Do you put off joining a gym (an action) even though you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value)? Do you make excuses for continuing a health-compromising habit like smoking (an action), even though you say, “I know it’s bad for me” (your value)? Coordinating your values to health-enhancing actions will help you initiate and maintain those actions.

Modify your interpretation of stressful events. Some students facing final exams might see exams as threats that will reveal incompetence and lack of intelligence. Other students might see exams as challenges that require preparation, and present opportunities to demonstrate learning and academic skills. This latter interpretation will foster a sense of control and empowerment. The stress will not be eliminated, but feelings of helplessness when confronted with that stress will be significantly reduced.

Write about things troubling you. Writing down your inner-most thoughts about stressful events has been shown to bolster the immune system. This “self-dialogue” encourages restructuring your perceptions of stressful incidents into manageable coping tasks, thus lowering stress. Talking with trustworthy others can have the same positive effect.

Strive for Realistic Optimism. A powerful antidote to the harmful effects of stress is having an optimistic attitude – as long as the positive outlook is realistic.  Research has shown that two months after beginning law school, optimistic students – “I can get through this OK if I manage my time, make school my top priority, and work with other students.” – showed better immune system functioning than pessimistic students – “I’m in over my head and just don’t have the ability to handle this work load. I’m screwed!” Again, notice the importance of interpretation: The optimist sees stress as a challenge that can be successfully overcome with effort; in other words, stress is a problem that needs to be solved. The pessimist sees stress as an unconquerable foe that generates anxiety and fear; the pessimist becomes obsessed with uncontrollable emotions, which leads to helplessness and depression.  

If optimism improves immune-system functioning, can we say that it also increases survival rates when a terminal illness like cancer is involved? Unfortunately, no. An optimistic attitude can improve the quality of a cancer victim’s life, but there is no definitive evidence that optimism affects disease progression or survival rates. This statement, however, should in no way downplay the importance of attitude on your adjustment to disease – or to life in general.

For instance, there are many positive effects of optimistic thinking for cancer victims: Compared to pessimists, optimists are better able to express their feelings to others, and more likely to be liked by others; they are more resistant to depression; they are more likely to form positive attitudes about their disease, such as seeing how their illness brought their families closer together; they are better able to restructure their attitudes about their illness, reduce their stress levels, and have a higher quality of life during the illness. Therefore, although coping strategies like optimism may not result in a higher survival rate, sufferers and their families and friends should act like it does!

These are just some ways to cope with stress without resorting to avoidance. The key is to find strategies that help you generate “passion” about life, because passion fosters seeing the value of active participation in life. Being passionate encourages you to “connect” with life, not avoid it, and to devote yourself to focusing on effort, not emotions.

Hardiness

Psychologists use the term Hardy to describe people who respond relatively well to stress. Hardiness is associated with three C’s: Control, Challenge, and Commitment. 

Control. When you fail to control what is under your influence – or try to control things that are not – you create stress for yourself. Good coping strategies involve taking appropriate control over life situations you can influence. This approach is a lot like the Serenity Prayer used in Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the serenity to change the things I can/The courage to accept the things I cannot change/And the wisdom to know the difference.”

You must identify situations in which you have control. The fact those situations may be stressful is irrelevant. You must act within your circle of control by facing stress, and generating positive consequences of your actions

Challenge. If you knew what tomorrow will bring, what would your life be like? Boooring! Let’s face it, uncertainty and anxiety-provoking adventures make life exciting and challenging. You find yourself faced with a continuous series of problems and tasks. If you perceive your problems, responsibilities, and obstructions as challenges – not as potentially catastrophic events – you will be less stressed and perform better over the long run.

Yes, you increase your stress over the short term by facing challenges, but as you resolve them you experience lower stress and better psychological health over the long term.

Commitment. Psychological research shows it is less stressful to be committed to the demands of life, such as work, relationships, and parenting. If you are not committed to your responsibilities, problems will build-up and, over the long haul, you will have more stress. You will also have fewer feelings of accomplishment.

It’s the bottom of the 9th inning and your team is ahead 3-2. You are playing shortstop, and the bases are loaded. You have a choice. You can think: “God, I hope the ball is not hit to me. I could make an error and lose the game.” Or, you could think: “I want the ball to come to me. This is my opportunity to help win the game. After all, isn’t that why I’m out here?” Which “you” will enjoy the game more and have a greater chance of success? 

Control, Challenge, Commitment. Accept the importance of maximizing these three “C’s.” By doing so you may face more hurdles, but you will also be more successful in overcoming them. Avoiding obstacles is a losing coping strategy; facing obstacles will bring you more confidence, higher self-esteem, and provide you with more satisfaction about your role in life.

Coping With Disappointment

Last summer I was taking a walk and saw four young people in the park, each wearing their graduation cap and gown. They were laughing and having a great time as they posed for pictures taken by each of them in turn.

I wasn’t sure what high school they had attended, but it didn’t matter because every school in the area had canceled graduation exercises because of the coronavirus. But these four kids were doing a great job of coping with what had to be a disappointing time for them. Good for them!

Hara Estroff Marano wrote about the high-school class of 2020 in Psychology Today (August 2020). Marano said these kids have been thrown a wicked curveball by life, a pitch that deprived them of a ceremony signaling achievement, and filled with accolades and pride. “Life needs such events,” said Marano. “Taking the time to acknowledge them…works as a kind of push-off to the challenges ahead. The future feels less certain, rockier, without the landmarks.”

I imagined myself spouting this stuff to the four students in their graduation garb and just began laughing. Their future will be rougher without experiencing a ceremony? Nonsense! You know what I think? Years down the road those kids will have kids of their own, and one day their kids will suffer a terrible disappointment, and the parent will take them aside and say, “You think you have it bad? Let me tell you what happened when I graduated from high school!” Kind of like when our grandparents tell us how they walked five miles to school each day, usually in a foot or two of snow, uphill both ways.

As I continued walking, I began to think about how we cope – or don’t – with disappointment. Life is full of disappointments, beginning when we discover that we may not get fed before those hunger pangs begin, or we may not get a clean diaper right away. Then we reach that age when we can walk, and we long to discover all the wondrous things surrounding us – only to learn that the most frequently-used word in the language is, “NO!”

In my 41 years of teaching and advising college students, I had numerous student office visits – not to talk about coursework, but to talk about some disappointment in their lives: broken romances; family finances that could preclude their return to college; alcohol/drug problems; acquaintance rape; sexual identity; roommate problems; parents trying to dictate their life, etc., etc.

My most memorable one was when a student came in at the end of a semester and said that her wedding scheduled in 10 days had to be canceled because the groom decided to back out. As you might expect she was pretty emotional about the whole thing, although angrier than anything else. One thing for sure, she wasn’t going to cancel the honeymoon that was booked. Turns out she and the bridesmaid took the trip and they had a ball. Everyone they met assumed they were a lesbian couple, and they just let that story ride.

No matter what the issue, when chatting with “disappointed” students, I tried – not always successfully – to follow this model: Let them monopolize the conversation; show understanding and empathy, not criticism; ask them to identify what options – realistic ones – they had to solve the issue. In a few cases, I referred them to the Counseling Center, or to an outside mental health service. Most of the time, however, I discovered that they wanted to hear someone say, “I understand,” and, “It’s not your fault”; then they began to handle their problem on their own.   

Parents don’t always do a good job of preparing their kids for disappointment because they believe that the road to healthy self-esteem for their kids is paved with success. Thus, they work hard to protect their kids from failure, and to help the kids enjoy success in all they do. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to teach children how to cope with the reality of failure and disappointment.

Kids need to be taught that success is never guaranteed, and comes from preparation and effort. Likewise, they must learn that failure does not mean they are worthless. In fact, they need to discover that failure provides learning opportunities by giving them information about where they need to improve so they can increase their chance of success in the future.

When parents structure their children’s environment to make success easy, the children don’t learn the importance of preparation and effort; they don’t learn to ask if their evaluations of their abilities are realistic; nor do they learn the danger in assuming that someone will always be there to bail them out.

These points apply to all of us, not just to kids. Your biggest coping enemy is trying to avoid failure, because then you will never learn to correct mistakes and improve. To cope well, you must accept challenges, face your failures, examine the information they provide, and correct your mistakes to increase your chances of success.