Coping Checklist — With a Twist

How are you coping with your stressors these days? A question like that often brings answers like: “I’m too anxious about [a coming event].” “I yelled at a friend the other day and now I’m feeling guilty.” “My boss is driving me crazy. Every time I have a new idea, he shoots it down. It’s so frustrating.” “I’m afraid some of my so-called friends are trying to stab me in the back.”

Notice how all these responses refer to some emotion: anxiety, guilt, frustration, fear.  Let’s face it, those who have trouble coping with stress spend too much time focusing on their emotions that occur in response to stress. “I’m so anxious! I’m going to lose control!” Well, take a deep breath and focus on this reality: stress – and the emotions it produces – is a normal, unavoidable aspect of life. Feeling stressed does not make you unstable or inferior to others, nor does experiencing emotions like fear, frustration, anger, shame, guilt, and anxiety make you abnormal.

Do you feel threatened by your emotions? Do you think good mental health means keeping troublesome emotions in check, at a low level, and seldom having to deal with them? The truth is, feeling emotions is completely natural, and working to deny or eliminate them is counterproductive. Instead, you need to confront the situations and events that bring on the emotions, and take realistic action to deal with those events. You must become an active action-taker in your life, not a passive reactor. The goal is to bring purpose and satisfaction to your life, not by suppressing your natural emotions, but by assessing your behavior choices, and developing action plans.

Here are some introspective questions designed to help you focus on you as an actor. Note that none of them refer to emotions. These questions might help you look at your coping efforts with a broader perspective than just worrying about your emotions.


Do you feel threatened by events outside your control? Can you focus on actions more under your control?

How reliable is your memory?… your judgment?… your reasoning?… your perception of events? Can you develop these abilities to help you use critical thinking to distinguish reality from fantasy?

What to Look for: The futility of trying to control events and others beyond your control is generally well-known. Still, you may get careless and seek an easy way to lower your stress by trying to expand your control inappropriately. A periodic self-check can help you avoid the control trap, and save you a lot of emotional turmoil.

Assessment of your cognitive skills can be difficult. Fact-checking your beliefs with a variety of other people and reliable media sources can help you avoid falling prey to things like false conspiracy theories and misleading information from those who would try to make you doubt your reality.


Does attachment to others intimidate you? Can you reach out to trusted others to help you realistically assess motives of others through honest conversation?

Is your communication with others consistent, logical, and coherent? Can you learn how to speak softly and slowly, with clarity and sincerity?

Do you feel compassion and understanding for others who say they are in distress? Can you learn to ask yourself, “How would I feel in their situation? How would I want others to treat me?”

What to Look for: Assess your attitudes and behavior for telltale signs of poor coping: not trusting others; being unable to experience empathy for others; generally having your words and actions misunderstood by others.


Are you resistant to change? Can you be flexible when faced with changing coping demands? Are you willing to experiment with new courses of action? Can you accept the consequences of your actions, and modify them if necessary?

Do you consider yourself the center of it all, and indulge yourself in self-absorption? Do you engage in activities focused on serving others?

What to look for: Effectively coping with stress requires flexibility. It’s kind of ironic because people who have difficulty in dealing with conflict and stress usually adopt a strategy of keeping things orderly, methodical, systematic, and predictable. Change is threatening because flexibility means organization must give way to some frustration and turmoil. The way out of the threat is to serve others more often. The focus must move away from self-needs to other-needs. Put the latter in your life and many difficult coping puzzle pieces will fall into place.

Reminders for the New Year

Happy New Year! Here are 10 things to remember about coping with stress:

  1. Coping problems involve avoidance. Ask yourself, “What am I avoiding, and why?”
  2. Allow happiness to emerge in your life by acting in ways that bring you satisfaction.
  3. Coping well does not always mean living up to others’ expectations.
  4. When troubled in a relationship, ask yourself: “Who do I feel I have to be in this relationship to make it work? Do I like myself in this role? Is it me?”
  5. Accept your thoughts and feelings for what they are – normal thoughts and feelings.
  6. Your emotions are not the problem; inappropriate actions servicing the emotions are the problem.
  7. Your actions must be consistent with the conscience, values, and standards that guide you and allow you to venture outside of yourself. The actions are yours; the consequences are yours.
  8. Focus on optimistic actions, not words. Thoughts without actions are fantasy. 
  9. Stop having personal pity parties. You have no right to have the corners of your world padded for you.
  10. Success is easy. You must also learn to fail.

Beware the New Year’s Resolutions

            I (CB) first posted this entry on December 26, 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Do you want your New Year’s resolution to have a chance of succeeding? To increase the likelihood of success, your resolution should include a plan of action that results from your motivation to change. Second, the plan should include realistic, attainable, and specific actions and goals. Third, the plan must be connected to your values. Fourth, initiate your plan now, not at some future date.  

Christmas Therapy

The holidays are a time when a lot of folks seem to focus on happiness. It’s Christmas! Let’s gather around the tree, sing carols, laugh, and have a happy time. Unfortunately, holiday happiness can be elusive because too often people tend to center their search around “me,” always asking, what do “I” need to do to make “myself” happier? If this sounds like you, the problem here is that you’re being self-serving and looking for answers that are defined by your needs, your frustrations, your anxieties, your difficulties. “But,” you ask, “how can I possibly help myself if I don’t center my plans and actions around myself?”

Here’s a thought: Instead of putting yourself as the main ingredient in the recipe, take yourself out of the recipe. Consider the possibility that, whatever your difficulty, you can use the emotions it generates within you to increase your sensitivity to others who suffer from trauma and conflicts similar to yours. This empathy will not only help others, but yourself as well. That’s right, taking yourself out of the formula will encourage you to reach out to others. The bonus? You will discover that reaching out will bring you ample helpings of personal satisfaction – call it happiness if you want, but it’s much more – and help you cope better with your problems. Many people feel that happiness is something that is acquired, like a trophy, a promotion, or winning the lottery. Psychology research shows, however, that happiness emerges from things you do, not from things you acquire. Reaching out to others, committing to a cause, working hard at a task, persisting in spite of frustration and adversity – these sorts of things seem more related to being happy than merely acquiring something.

Viewed from this perspective, one clear road to happiness involves empathy, a social responsiveness that does not involve a search for happiness, but a desire to help others because you understand their need. For instance, if you have been previously victimized or are presently dealing with emotional upheaval in similar ways as someone else, who can understand their plight better than you? Who is better equipped to relate to them than you? The true beauty of empathy and helping others, however, is that you reap the psychological benefits of contentment, satisfaction, and self-actualization. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. It’s not that empathy brings you happiness; it’s that empathy brings you a sense of being a useful person.

Here are some comments from clients in group therapy.

“Telling my story helped me face it as real. Then I knew others’ stories were real, too. I felt less alone. New people would show up. It was hard for me to listen to them because I was reliving my own experience. But I understood them, and knew they understood me. That was so cool.”

“I discovered I could help others. Hell, if I could do that, I should be able to face myself. That brought me a lot of inner peace.”

“It was amazing. I wasn’t the only one hurting. Others were there, too. Whenever I felt like I was drowning, I threw a lifeline to others in the group. We taught each other how to save ourselves.”

Whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties. The best way to facilitate your ability to cope is to make sure that – as you travel the road to discovering that you are useful – you leave no one behind. Christmas is unique in offering you that pathway. Take it. Doing so will help you will find yourself participating in – and enjoying the richness of – the human adventure.

Merry Christmas — Unless You’re Offended

            Georgia passed someone in the hallway where she worked. It was the last day of work before the Christmas holiday. She didn’t even know this person who said, “Merry Christmas.” Georgia replied, “I’m not a Christian, so I don’t celebrate the Jesus story. I also think Christmas is a ridiculous time when stores gouge the public with their overpriced merchandise. So spare me the Merry Christmas greeting. I find it offensive.”           

Complaints about politically-correct language increase around holiday time. You know, the “happy holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” stuff. Those who whine about this issue seem to forget that PC language boils down to courtesy, respect, and empathy for others who have a perspective different from theirs.

            To one degree or another, we all see ourselves as the most important ingredient in our life recipe. The strength of this self-serving bias varies from person to person, and even within ourselves at different times. Any way you look at it, however, the bias is there and it has the potential to make using PC language distasteful to those who refuse to accept that there’s a world out there beyond their personal space.

            Being conflicted about using PC language can be a source of stress in interpersonal relations. Witness Georgia and her merry co-worker. Here’s a coping thought: Let’s soften our life recipe to acknowledge the importance of ingredients other than ourselves. Let’s ask ourselves, “What determines how others remember me?” The answer is, “People remember how you make them feel.”

What sort of daily legacy do you want to leave? Do you want people to remember you as someone who makes them feel undervalued and inferior to you? Or, do you want them to remember you as someone who makes them feel good because you understand and respect their perspective?

            Why not adopt a little humility, and decide that life is not all about you; why not take the time to make others feel worthy of your respect. Doing so will remove from your mind frivolous, nonsensical things like worrying about PC language. You will feel more empowered and independent; you will feel more productive; and those feelings will bring you more personal satisfaction. Most important, you’ll have more pleasant interactions with others.

            Danny is one of those guys who greets life each day with a smile. His co-workers love him because he’s always ready to lend a helping hand and believes in teamwork. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and loves to defuse conflict with a light-hearted comment. On the last day of work before the Christmas holiday, he was exiting the building and passed an employee he didn’t know. He said with a big smile, “Happy holidays, happy Hanukkah, happy Kwanzaa, merry Christmas, bah humbug. Choose your preference!”

Mommy, Is Santa Real?

Poor Santa. Just at that time of year when millions of children idolize the guy, some journalist or reporter comes down on him as the cause of mistrust in children toward their parents. The idea boils down to a kid discovering – usually from a peer – that there is no jolly guy flying around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and that “my parents have been lying to me all this time. I’ll never trust them again.” Ah, the simplicity of pop psychology.

Christian evangelicals are also often vocal in their criticism of presenting Santa as real. They point out that lying is sinful; your child could also be embarrassed in front of peers; even worse, your child could suffer religious confusion among peers when faced with a question like, “You believe in God? I suppose you also believe in Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny!” And, finally, many argue that focusing a child on Santa encourages them to overlook the true meaning of Christmas – the birth of Jesus.

I don’t buy these false narratives, which are not based on solid child psychology knowledge. For example, enlightened and empathetic parents can use their children’s newly-discovered skepticism about Santa as valuable life, family, and yes, religious lessons. “Hey, mom, Sally just told me that Santa isn’t real. Is that true?” I remember a conversation I had with a former student about this issue. She said that a few days before Christmas she and her 7-year-old daughter were wrapping presents. She told her daughter they could make one from Santa. “But mom, I know Santa’s not real.” When I asked mom how she handled that, paraphrasing, here’s what she said:

“Well, you know I teach elementary school, and I was ready for it. In a nutshell, I admitted that there was indeed not a bearded old man in a sleigh. But I brought up some of our family traditions and talked about them with her. Things we did, special decorations, meals, all the fun times we had at Christmas. And I asked her, ‘Has Santa been a part of all those fun times? How is Santa in this house? Could it be that we’re all Santa? You, me, your dad, your little brother? And what makes us Santa?’ She nailed this one and said, ‘We give each other presents!’ Building on that insight I went into some comments about giving and receiving, that both are blessings because they bring us together as a family. I said, ‘That’s who Santa is. All of us, and it’s one of the things that shows each of us that we love each other.’ I could tell she was really soaking all this in like a sponge. And then I took the plunge. I pointed at the Nativity scene we always had in a prominent place under the tree. And I went into the great gift that God, the ultimate Santa, gave us – his Son who would teach us to love one another.”

The pop-psychology stuff about seeding mistrust in children by lying to them about Santa is nonsense. First of all, an isolated deception about a real Santa is not going to sow mistrust of parents in an overall warm, supportive family filled with love and positive guidance. Furthermore, as Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget showed us, children’s understanding about their world progresses through stages, and the first stage is very concrete. Their understanding is primitive. Try to explain to a 2-year-old that Santa is symbolic of the gifts of giving and receiving, those things that define a family and love, including the love and redemption we receive from Christ. Good luck. But, believe it or not, the vision of a jolly, smiling guy being towed through the sky by a bunch of flying reindeer is preparing the child’s mind for understanding those greater mysteries to be grappled with at a later age, with a more physically-matured brain. The fact is, the early belief in the real Santa is not at all incompatible with appreciating at a later age the significance of what’s really going on in that Bethlehem stable.

So, what’s our coping lesson here? Put more Santa into your life throughout the year. The reality of Santa embodies the principles of effective coping with stress: Get outside yourself and give service and support to others; likewise, receive what others bring you, remembering the difference between taking – which is based on egotistical self-absorption – and receiving – which is based on understanding, empathy, and humility. Remember, receiving allows you to give to another the special blessing of giving. Keeping Santa’s Ho-Ho-Ho in your heart will help you establish a psychologically healthy daily legacy that is based on making others – and yourself – feel good.

Holiday Grief

I was reading one of those annual letters many families send out during the Christmas season. This particular one provided an excellent example of coping with grief at this special time of year. The writer’s family would be having Christmas for the first time without a woman who was a mother, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother for various members of the family. The writer noted how much the deceased loved Christmas, so the family would proudly celebrate her memory over the holidays.

The word that caught my eye was “celebrate.” Most people do not associate this word with loss of a loved one, especially at this time of year. In fact, they might expect to see the word “mourn” instead: “We will mourn her memory over the holidays.”

Mourning is indeed an important part of the grieving process, but in the long run, we will cope much better with personal loss if we resolve to honor departed loved ones by celebrating their memory, focusing on how much they contributed to our life, and considering ways to honor their memory.

With that message in mind, here’s a piece that Dr. Carlea Dries wrote for the blog on December 12, 2016, words that I like to repeat every year at this time.


It’s the most wonderful time of the year… except when it’s not. The holidays usually mean the coming together of family members. Ordinarily this is a welcome time of festive gatherings, exchanging of presents, and special memories made near a roaring fireplace. For some, however, this Norman Rockwell image is drastically different from reality, particularly when recent loss of a loved one is involved. Let’s note that “loss” is not limited to the death; it can also include divorce, hospitalization, incarceration, active duty without a holiday leave, or a family member who moved away. 

Recently, I attended the funeral for my great aunt. Though Marge was 93 and in failing health, her death hit our family rather hard, especially her daughters and sister (my grandmother, who is now the only one left of the original 11 siblings). The sermon during the church service (paraphrased herein) highlighted how this first holiday is going to be different: “You’ll notice the quiet. You’ll notice the missing [specialty food]. You’ll notice the missing chair at the table.” 

While I was at the repast, a good friend of mine texted to say that her parents are getting divorced after more than thirty years of marriage. This news was unexpected and rendered her numb. She just kept asking how it could be real and why, if it had to happen, it had to come so close to Hanukkah. This was supposed to be the first time she would be hosting her family, and now everything was changing. 

How do you cope with the first holiday season in the “next normal” or “new normal”? How do you hold on to a sense of control when things are clearly out of your control?

The most important thing to do, discussed in other blog posts, is to recognize what is in your circle of power. My grandmother can’t bring her sister back. My friend can’t convince her parents to stay together. So, they must try to do what they can: accept what it is and move forward from that point. Yes, that’s easier typed than done.

Some feel consoled by leaving a place at the table for the absent person, but many others find that much more discomforting because it is a visual reminder of the vacancy. You may, therefore, choose to remember the person in a smaller way. I have made ornaments with pictures of departed relatives, reminding me of times we spent together. Every year for Thanksgiving, my mother makes her aunt’s stuffing (though Aunt Petronella called it “dressing”). My mother-in-law uses a picture of her mother as the angel for her crèche. A friend video-chats with her husband who is stationed overseas. For the past 14 years, my father brings homemade goodies to the staff at the nursing home where his parents finished their earthly stories. A colleague mentioned that she has a “moment of reflection” during which everyone present shares a memory, story, or image of those who cannot be with them – one even sings a favorite song!

These simple gestures become meaningful traditions that do not overwhelm us with intense feelings of loss. Rather, they celebrate the lives and connections we had to those who are absent. 

Other coping suggestions include planning a totally new activity that literally takes you away from the familiar reminders of the absent one. Go on a mini-vacation. Celebrate with a different group of people. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter. Service to others is probably the most effective way of coping with personal loss. Keep your mind and body distracted, not to the point where you are ignoring, denying, or detaching from the loss, but to keep you focused on something productive instead of painful. 

No matter what options you are comfortable choosing, you must give yourself permission to feel. There will be moments when you want to do nothing but sit in silence. Other times you will want to do nothing but scream. You might even find yourself smiling or laughing and then feel guilty because how dare you be happy when you are missing someone?! Have “the big, snotty cry” if that is what you want to do. Let yourself feel. Take the time you need. It’s okay to say “no” to invitations; just be sure you don’t let your mourning stop you from living.  

There was also a message of comfort in the sermon for my Aunt (again paraphrased): Marge lives on in your hearts and memories. If you listen in the quiet, you can hear her. If you feel in the still, you can sense her. Remembering means no one ever leaves.

You might not feel better today. You might not feel better tomorrow. But at some point, you will feel that you have moved to the next normal and that will be the next best thing.

Avoiding Self-sabotage

Most of us demonstrate some level of self-destructive or self-sabotaging behavior at some time in our lives. Many actions are relatively harmless, such as nail biting, procrastinating, not flossing or brushing teeth regularly, or sitting instead of walking. Others, however, can be more dangerous: Smoking, using alcohol/drugs, gambling, refusing a vaccination or medical treatment, and excessive eating. If you engage in these latter types frequently to the point they become a lifestyle, you’re in trouble because the actions may be driven by unresolved emotional conflicts involving anger, shame, or anxiety. This process is how some people sabotage their relationships; how some suffer low self-esteem, convinced they are unlovable; how some avoid social interactions lest others manipulate them. These self-destructive beliefs lead to self-criticism, helplessness, and depression.

Brent’s life was self-destructive. He was an oppositional, impulsive child and adolescent, and never responded well to rules or authority. He underachieved in school and later in work, and was generally irresponsible and lacked motivation. He lived with a girlfriend long-term with whom he had two children. They had a chaotic, disorganized life, and used drugs. Their kids escaped to their grandparents’ house often. Eventually the girlfriend left him, and Brent fell apart. He harassed her and she got a PFA, which he promptly violated and eventually ended up in jail. He lost his job and lost the right to be with his children unsupervised. His second violation of the PFA put him in prison. After Brent was released from prison, he tried counseling. However, he lacked purpose, empathy, and commitment; he was unable to have healthy social and family relationships, and live a constructive life.

Brent’s case is extreme, but the underlying dynamics are the same we see in those who try to cope with stress every day in self-destructive ways: low self-esteem, uncontrolled emotional expression, and instability in relationships, coupled with lack of commitment and confidence, undeveloped values and goals, and fear of failure. This pattern is self-defeating and can evolve into increasing self-destructiveness as anxiety, guilt, frustration, and eventually depression, strengthen. 

It is much less stressful to “approach and chase” the challenges and responsibilities of life, rather than run from them. It is more productive to identify your values and commit yourself to work toward goals based on those values. Doing so will give you purpose and help you feel alive. There is no substitute for committed effort based on values, humility, and empathy. After all, what in life that is worthwhile and treasured comes easily? Psychological research confirms that those who are committed to a life of principled and purposeful action are healthier, have better relationships, achieve more, enjoy more positive and stable self-concepts, and have lower stress levels. Their life foundations are secure and satisfying.

Kevin is 56, widowed and on disability because of a work accident. He spends most of his days at home drinking beer and feeling sorry for himself. His self-esteem and initiative are in the toilet. He was once a burly, outgoing guy loaded with motivation, a can-do attitude, and a willingness to take on any job at his work site. One of his co-workers described him as someone who always “had a fire in his belly. When work needs to get done, Kevin’s the one to do it.” After his accident and his wife’s death from cancer, however, he switched from “out of my way, I can handle this,” to, “I’m not much good anymore.”

One day a friend, Jim, called: “Kevin! I need help. I have to deliver for Meals on Wheels, but I pulled my back. I can drive, but getting in and out of the car is agony. Would you come with me and deliver the meals?” Kevin was glad to get out of the house and said he would help. Turns out he had some unexpected experiences when he delivered the meals. One woman yelled out when he knocked, “It’s open! Just bring it in. I can’t get to the door very good!”  She was in the kitchen in a wheelchair and Kevin put the meal in the fridge for her. He started for the front door but she grabbed his arm and said, “Pray with me, please.”

Kevin returned to the car and told Jim: “I stood there holding her hand while she thanked God for me being there to help her. Prayed for me! I mean, no one ever thanked God for me! She prayed for me, Jim.” And on it went. No one else prayed for him, but at nearly every delivery one of them said, “God bless you,” or, “You’re a saint, sir. Thank you,” as he left. One old guy was on his computer, which surprised Kevin – “I didn’t know old people knew how to use a computer.” He printed out a page with inspirational sayings on it about the importance of taking care of your neighbor. He handed it to Kevin. “This is for you. Bless you for living these words. Thank you so much.” Kevin was speechless. He got in the car and said, “I swear to God, Jim, I thought I was going to cry.” Jim just smiled and nodded.

Kevin got home that day, looked around the house, and realized that he was destroying himself. He suddenly felt more energized than he had since his accident and his wife’s death. He picked up the phone and called the Office of Aging. “I want to volunteer to deliver meals.” The lady said great and added that they also needed drivers to taxi old folks around to their doctor appointments, take them shopping…wherever they needed to go. Kevin said, “I’m your guy, ma’am. Just tell me what needs doing and I’ll get it done.” The confident, can-do Kevin of old was back.

When his world crashed, Kevin’s values of commitment to self-sufficiency and getting things done well were no longer fulfilled. He was adrift, with no direction, no sense of purpose – all of which led him down a road of self-sabotage, a road that was heading toward depression. But Kevin discovered that the key to renewing his values lay in empathy, humility, and service to others in need, and that discovery allowed him to “approach and chase” life with a renewed sense of purpose. Are you ready for the chase?

Do You Impose Your Will on Others?

Jennifer is 32, single, and generally unpopular among her peers. She likes to tell others what is best for them. Whether in the workplace or in casual conversation, she has an inability to put herself in others’ place, to understand how they feel – in short, to feel empathy. She simply can’t see things beyond her own perspective.

As an example, one day Jennifer saw three of her co-workers at a dress store in the mall. One of them, Jamie, has tried on a blue dress and is checking herself in the mirror. Jennifer blurts out, “Oh, God, Jamie, not blue and certainly not that that style. Makes you look pudgy, plus blue clashes with your skin tone.”

Irritated, Jamie says, “No one asked you, Jennifer. Blue is my favorite color and I’ve worn it all my life. As for pudgy, I don’t care what you think. I like the way I look in this dress, and I’m the one wearing it, not you! So, buzz off!”

When people think of empathy, and trying to see things from another’s perspective, they often think of sympathy. If you can understand how another person is feeling, you are more likely to feel sympathy toward them, and this feeling motivates you to help them. Maybe so, but in a coping context, empathy has a much broader meaning than simply feeling sorry for someone. When you use empathy to cope, you are acting with moral strength, an attribute that extends far beyond sympathy. Such strength allows you to respect others and value them as human beings; it allows you to see things from another perspective, even though that perspective might make you uncomfortable. Jennifer obviously has an empathy deficiency, a moral weakness.

Where might an empathy deficiency come from? Jennifer is a very angry person. She may have been mistreated early in life, or she may have had emotionally distant parents. As a result, she developed a working hypothesis: “People can’t be trusted with my emotions, so I must keep them at arm’s length or they will hurt me.” That hypothesis, of course, is self-fulfilling: Jennifer believes that people can’t be trusted, so she treats them in a way that makes them reject her. The hypothesis is also damaging to Jennifer because it prevents her from ever learning to be sensitive to emotional signals from others. No doubt, on many occasions, someone has reached out to her in a positive way, but all she sees is someone out to hurt her, criticize her, reject her. This misperception makes it difficult to cope with the inevitable stress Jennifer will feel in her social interactions.

I was talking with a woman acquaintance about this analysis of why some people insist on imposing their will on others. She obviously had another issue in mind because she gave a derisive laugh and commented, “Moral weakness? Reminds me of how I’m always fascinated at how men dictate to women about their health and well-being. There’s not a man alive who can say he knows what it’s like to have a woman’s body, what it feels like to be pregnant, and anticipate childbirth. Not one. No man alive can see those things from a woman’s perspective, understand her emotions, needs, and anxieties when she’s pregnant. And yet, men have no problem dictating to us what we should, or should not, do.”

I had never thought of empathy deficiency in the context this woman mentioned. But I think her comments about men imposing their will on women show how an insensitivity to social signals from others, how an inability to conduct constructive communication with others, and how failing to show empathy for others, is totally incompatible with effectively coping with stress.

Problem Solving with Actions, Not Emotions

            Your thoughts and feelings do not make you good or bad. They are natural and part of what makes you human. You do not have to feel guilty about your thoughts or feelings. They are your normal reactions to circumstances. Even extreme, distorted, bizarre, or self-centered thoughts that you may have from time to time do not define you. In small doses they are normal, and everyone has them now and then. What defines you are your freely-chosen behaviors, and it is those behaviors that you need to concentrate on, not your thoughts and feelings.

Instead of criticizing yourself for your thoughts and feelings, accept them as a part of who you are. Examine the benefits of your traits. Such an analysis can increase your sense of control, personal empowerment, and autonomy. Otherwise, self-criticism and self-denial become chronic and bring dishonor upon you. “This is not me,” leads to, “I don’t like myself,” which leads to, “I’m unworthy,” which leads to feeling helpless when confronted with a challenge, which makes you vulnerable to depression.

Carson is the President of a division of a large company. Many nights she goes to bed with a brain filled with thoughts about how to increase productivity. Her ideas usually fall flat when presented to other company executives, and Carson is beginning to doubt her own leadership abilities. She discussed her issues with a motivational psychologist on the company staff, and he told Carson she was too hung up on emotional problem solving, that is, trying to use the power of her ideas and willpower to effect change. “Instead of relying on your thinking in that way, use it to design alternative courses of action, and then test each action to see which one gives you the best outcome.” Carson did just that. She designed three action plans and asked three of her department heads to implement one of the plans. She also assembled an independent evaluation team to assess the results. Rather than rely on just her thinking and gut emotions, she used action-outcome problem solving to obtain data. One of the strategies was clearly superior to the other two. Carson presented the results of her design to the Board and made a specific recommendation on how to implement her design throughout the company to increase productivity. The Board was impressed and gave Carson a budget to pursue her plan.