Relaxation Exercises, by Brian Cook

Coping with stress is like walking across a room while carrying a cup of coffee. There are several parts in that process that make the trip across the room successful. The same is true for coping. 

You must be Aware of your situation. While carrying the cup, your pace will matter; any obstacles on the floor will influence how you proceed; a new obstacle may suddenly appear, so you have to be ready for the unexpected; finally, how you set the cup down will determine the success of the trip. 

You may have to Make Adjustments as you proceed. If the liquid tips to one side of the cup, there’s a risk some may spill out. In this case, you will have to adjust your wrist and level the cup to prevent the spillage. You might have to do this balancing act several times over the course of the trip, or even have to stop to let the liquid settle back into place before you take your next step. 

When you get across the room and finally set down the cup, it’s important to evaluate how you did. Reflect on the trip, and decide if there is anything that needs to be “cleaned up.”  If so, it’s best to address it right then. 

Coping is really one big balancing act in your life. Living is represented by carrying the cup or glass across the room; the contents of your life are constantly changing, requiring adjustments on your part. Coping is dealing with those changes – finding the actions that work best for you.

What follows are some of the techniques I use with clients to help them relax and deal better with troublesome situations, especially those that arouse anxiety. Whenever you face one of those situations, first you might want to picture yourself carrying a cup of coffee across a room. Doing so can help you focus on a task at hand, and not on the emotion you are feeling.

One of the most fundamental problems with anxiety and stress is projecting into the future: “I’m going to be so tense next week when I take that driving test, I’ll probably fail.” Have you been guilty of “future thinking”? How does it make you feel? Does such anticipation stir up your emotions and raise your inner tension? Is this how you want to spend the next few days, mired in some sort of dread condition? 

Why not focus your thinking on the present? Doing so will reduce inner tension and help you take charge of your current reality. How about living in the present moment to prepare yourself for the future? The techniques below have been shown to be quite effective in helping this process by helping you relax and block out distracting thoughts. Just remember, you may relate better to some methods better than others. That’s OK.

Deep Breathing. When you’re anxious one of the first things to get your normal breathing rate back. First, empty your lungs – “blow out the birthday candles,” so to speak. Exhale all the air you can. Then take a deep breath in through your nose for about 5 seconds. Repeat 5 to 10 times but don’t focus on the number.

Next, try to gain a rhythm, such as 3 seconds in through the nose and 3 seconds out through the mouth. No need to focus on timing things; just make each phase last a moderate time. With practice several times each day, you will become quite proficient at loosening yourself up in a stressful situation. Deep breathing should accompany all of the remaining relaxation methods.

Using Your Senses. The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 progression uses your five senses to orient your thinking to the present. First, picture five things you can see around you and describe each using an adjective or two. Ideally find objects that give you a relaxed feeling. For instance: “I see a black chair; I see a table that has a computer monitor on it; the table is on a blue rug; I see a window and bright sunshine outside; near the window is a tree full of green leaves.”

Next, describe four things you can touch, again using an adjective or two. “A part of my chair has a metal frame that is cool to the touch.” Next, describe three things you can hear – “There is a soft hum of the air conditioner.” Then describe two things you can smell – it’s OK to lean over and smell the flowers on the desk. Finally, describe one thing you can taste – take a swig of your water or coffee.  You can do these in any order but typically it works best if you follow this order of the senses as it hard to engage a number of things for each sense. For example. it’s hard to smell 5 things at once.

Serial 7’s. Say the sentence, “I will be a more positive person,” seven times. Then go back and say each word of the sentence seven times: “I, I, I, I, I, I, I, will, will, will, will, will, will, will,” etc. Then go back and say the entire sentence seven more times. You should pace yourself and follow this procedure about one word per second, fast enough so other thoughts can’t come through and distract you. This is a good technique to get your mind off whatever started making you anxious. Once again, combine this method with your breathing exercise. Also, don’t worry about the exact count. The point here is to distract you, redirect your thinking, not make sure you can count to seven!

Detailed Focusing.This distraction technique involves focusing on one thing in great detail. When you start to feel anxious, this technique involves focusing on one thing and imagining every possible detail. Then take each detail, name it, and focus on various characteristics. If you picture a car, for instance, how many details about a car can you name? There’s the engine, door handles, hood, trunk, steering wheel, etc. Any of these parts can also be broken down into parts. This sort of mental effort can go a long way toward getting your mind off of the topic that was making you anxious, and reduce much of your inner tension. If you still feel anxious after you try this once, move on to another object and continue to count the details. As always, pair this process with your breathing exercise.

Personal Activities. There are many things that you find personally satisfying and relaxing. It could be an object, a mental image, an activity – just about anything. It is these small things that can have the most effect in helping you cope with stress and anxiety. Perhaps a music playlist of your favorite songs; going for a short walk; playing with the family pet; stretching to increase your blood flow and oxygen flow. Identify those things and, if possible, activate one of them when you feel stressed. At the very least, think about how you will use one of those things later when appropriate.

To give yourself some reassurance, write on index cards those personal things that bring you tranquility and serenity. Keep the cards handy so you know you will have a quick and easy way to reduce any stress that may be coming, and readily have activities you can do that work to calm you and bring you some peace of mind.

Daily Review. Finally, it’s useful to “check in” – not obsess about! – with yourself throughout the day.  What have you been thinking about? Have your thoughts been realistic, rational, and positive? Have you been excessively focusing on some problem that may not be real, or may not be under your control? The check-in process allows you to evaluate your mental status during a typical day; failing to do so can get you into all sorts of problems and before you know it, you have thought yourself into emotional turmoil. Then, it’s time for deep breathing!

Indoctrination Consequences

When it comes to raising their two children, Ray and Kathy are in total agreement about one thing: their son, Roy, and daughter, Roxie, will be reared to value and adopt the traditional roles assigned to men and women since biblical days. That is, Roy will be taught that men are tough, unemotional, competitive, assertive, authoritarian, and dominant; Roxie will be expected to be sensitive, domestic, passive, pleasing, submissive, and supportive. Their parents’ approach to childrearing is simple: differences in sex roles are clear, obvious, and desirable, and their value must be conveyed to their children to avoid confusion, identity crises, and psychological instability. When it comes to teaching their children, for Ray and Kathy the world is black or white, this or that, the right way or the wrong way; there is no gray, middle ground.

Unfortunately for the children, Roy and Roxie, the world is not black or white, this or that; and, what is the right vs. wrong way to behave – such as, be assertive or be submissive – usually depends on the situation. In other words, in the real world, healthy adjustment to and coping with the demands of everyday life require flexibility and adjustment.

As adults, both Roy and Roxie will find their behavior restricted and inhibited in many situations. What is Roy to do in a situation that demands sensitivity, empathy, and humility? He has been indoctrinated to believe that displaying such actions would make him less of a man. Roy is destined to feel insecure when he realizes his range of actions is severely limited, and he will fall victim to self-anger and self-criticism. To avoid the anxiety of his insecurities, Roy will be forced to deny reality and lash out against competent men who can be comfortably sensitive when a situation requires them to act that way. Such men will remind Roy of his inadequacies. Thus, he will restrict himself to his tribe, his comfort group, and join them in aggression against “the others,” all in an effort to mask his insecurities.

Roxie will find herself in the same dilemma when she is in a situation that requires her to be assertive and forceful. She is unable to do that and maintain her limited self-concept that requires her to be one thing: submissive. She will join Roy in following the emotional path of self-recrimination and insecurities, and stay within her comfort group to be able to avoid and deny those self-doubts.

In 2022, we are seeing in real time millions of Rays and Kathys, who demand that their kids be indoctrinated, not educated. Books must be banned; the school curriculum must be stripped of any material that makes their kids uncomfortable; other kids must be screened carefully to make sure they conform to the Roy and Roxie cookie-cutter template. We are creating a generation of confused and frightened kids who – when confronted as adults with the nuances of life – will not know how to react appropriately. When such insecurity comingles with fear, the result is usually destructive aggression, aimed at both others and self.

There’s an irony and sadness about Roy’s and Roxie’s emotional future. Simply put, if they could overcome their parent’s restrictive childrearing indoctrination, if they could be comfortable with exhibiting a broad range of actions and emotions depending on the situation in which they find themselves – well, this flexibility would make Roy more of a man, and Roxie more of a woman. That is a valuable lesson for coping with everyday stressors.

If you appear anxious, or make a mistake, will others judge you more negatively?

Do you get all nervous because you’re meeting someone new and want to impress them? Do you think they will see that you’re a little “shook up,” and that will make you look less competent?

The truth is, many studies confirm that when others see you as being anxious, their evaluation of you is likely to be more positive. Think about it. Your own anxiety in a situation can signal that you’re a human being – vulnerable, sensitive, and modest. Most people find those traits desirable in others because it’s how they see themselves. I remember many occasions when a student would visit my office for the first time with a question or problem, and the poor kid was nervous as a dog in a room full of veterinarians. I always took their discomfort as a sign that they had a significant problem, they really cared about it, and they needed help solving it. Those impressions always aroused a fair amount of empathy on my part.

What about making mistakes? Are you one of those who gets all anxious and bent out of shape when you slip-up in front of others? You’re in an important meeting and you knock your water bottle over and get some papers wet. “Oh my God,” you think, “they’re going to think I’m an incompetent boob.” Maybe not. Many of those present will probably feel some sympathy for you; others might like you, thinking “he’s a regular guy who makes mistakes just like I do”; still others might offer to help – “Let me get you a new set of papers.” The best way to cope with public errors is to acknowledge it (“Can’t believe I did that. Sorry, folks.”); be humorously humble about it (“I shouldn’t have put that bottle there. You can see why my family doesn’t like to let me out in public too often.”); ask for help (“Anyone have a napkin?”); and move on.

Here’s the thing. You’re human, not perfect. Be rational and reasonable about your self-expectations; you’re going to swing and miss at times. If someone wants to get down on you for that, make it their problem, not yours.

Write Your Stress Away

A Theology professor shared a story with me, which I paraphrase: “I was a substitute one Sunday at a Lutheran church in a nearby town. My sermon dealt with themes developed by Paul Tillich, the Lutheran theologian who was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. I never mentioned Tillich by name in the sermon. A couple of days later I received an email from a church member criticizing my sermon. He said my message reminded him of a book he had read by a ‘guy’ named Tillich, and that I distorted his philosophy and was unclear about Lutheran Church tenets. To say the least, I was offended and wanted to respond harshly, making it clear that I had read every word written by Tillich, did a doctoral dissertation on his writings, and was quite knowledgeable about Tillich. In anger, I sat down at my computer and crafted a reply that said in so many words, ‘Buzz off, buddy! You’re out of your league!’ I felt a little better when finished, but I knew that on so many levels and for so many reasons, I should never send such a reply soaked in arrogant condescension. So, I wrote another response, this one dripping with respect, gratitude, and diplomacy. I defended my sermon, and documented my defense, but I also praised the man for his interest and for taking the time to write. I saved both replies and thought about them for a couple of days. When I went back and re-read the email and my two replies, I could only chuckle at the nasty email I composed. Plus, I was able to see that the man had made a common mistake in interpreting Tillich, and I added some ‘gentle’ words to that effect in my polite reply, which I then sent to him. I think I learned a little something about humility.”

John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the US, diligently kept a daily diary from 1779 (he was 12), right up to his death in 1848. The diary brought Adams not only personal satisfaction, but also reflections and analyses about his emotions, needs, frustrations, and insights. As an example, consider this entry quoted by biographer Fred Kaplan. Adams and his wife, Louisa, had just lost their infant daughter, who succumbed to dysentery after only 11 months of life. Adams noted the “keen and severe” pain they suffered upon her death. “She was precisely at the age when every gesture was a charm, every look delight; every imperfect but improving accent, at once rapture and promise. To all this we have been called to bid adieu, stung by the memory of what we already enjoyed.” These are the heavy words of sorrow, but they also convey gratitude for the beautiful time they enjoyed with this child. Adams’ words clearly show him taking the first tentative steps toward dealing with grief and taking something positive from their daughter’s brief life.

The power of writing. Joshua Smyth and his colleagues have done a series of studies looking at the effect of writing about personal traumas on the writer’s physical and psychological health. In Smyth’s general procedure, for a few minutes a day for several days, one group of participants is asked to write about some personal trauma or troublesome issue in their lives. A control group simply writes about their plans for the next day. After the writing period, participants receive both immune system and psychological evaluations. On both measures – physical health/immune system efficiency, and psychological strength in coping with life – the group that wrote about personal problems scored better than the group that merely wrote about the upcoming day.

Have you ever shared some problems with someone and had them say, “Maybe you should talk to a counselor about these concerns”? There it is – talk to someone. That can be good advice, but it overlooks an important party you might want to talk with – yourself! Psychologists believe that writing about personally upsetting issues helps you restructure your thinking. That is, as you write about these troublesome things, you’re actually dealing with the conflicts at some intellectual and cognitive level; you’re allowing yourself to see things in a new perspective while thinking things through. We see both of those processes at work in the two examples above, the Tillich professor and Quincy Adams.

Here we are in mid-2022. Media platforms are filled with reports from mental health professionals talking about more and more people coming to them with problems centering around depression and anxiety. I picture many of these victims, especially youngsters, alone at night, sitting in front of their device, and filling themselves with unproductive – even destructive – “conversations” with others on social media. I wonder what might happen if – on a regular basis – sufferers turned off their device, took out a pencil and paper, and began writing to themselves about what’s bothering them. The “rules” are simple: Be honest, confident, and non-critical; describe your feelings, don’t condemn them; consider your difficulties as problems requiring a solution with a positive purpose for the future, not as personal shortcomings to judge or attack; write with no restraints about what may be grammatically incorrect, poorly spelled, personally embarrassing, or “normal”; pledge to keep what is written between “me and myself.”

What insights might emerge? Your values? Elements of the purposeful life you seek for yourself? Compromises you might offer to others to resolve a conflict? Challenges to accept or reject? Questions to pursue with an objective counselor? Try the “writing therapy.” It may prove worthwhile.

“I am offended.”

Please note: This entry focuses on how certain current political strategies illustrate examples of actions that would be incompatible with healthy psychological functioning at a personal level. It is hoped that these illustrations can help readers make decisions that are useful for effectively coping with stress. There is no intent to make a political statement in this entry.

 “This makes me uncomfortable and I take offense at your position.” Have you jumped on the “I’m offended” bandwagon yet? Adherents already on the bandwagon search for “offensive” material – offensive defined as something that makes them uncomfortable – and take steps to remove it. Thus, a book is banned; a speaker or writer is vilified, denigrated, slandered, and threatened; an apology is demanded. The I’m-offended-movement is based on self-preoccupation and self-absorption, vanity, arrogance, narcissism, and just plain selfishness. “I don’t like what you are doing, and I’m going to do everything I can to ruin your life for doing it.”

When it comes to coping with your personal stressors, you should not incorporate the actions of this movement into your own life. From an individual psychological perspective, authoritarian actions like arbitrarily banning a book from a school library, demanding that educators remove material from a school curriculum, or insisting that others speak only in language that you find acceptable – all these and similar actions are forms of denial and avoidance: “I don’t like it so remove it from my presence. I should not have to deal with it. My attitudes and judgments trump yours, so get rid of it – delete it.”

If we speak from a perspective of individual psychological health and well-being, denial and avoidance are the first steps on a destructive path that leads to dangerous dysfunctions like insecurity, ambivalence about the value of life, adult dependency on parent surrogates, expanding fear and anxiety, self-criticism, and self-hurtful actions. Denial and avoidance occur in people who become anxious and frightened when they realize that others’ opinions are real, maybe even stronger than their own. So, they lash out to destroy those others. The data are clear and incontrovertible: when fear motivates you to avoid what makes you uncomfortable, you will be ill-prepared to deal with the stresses of life; you will be unable to communicate effectively with others; you will refuse to be held accountable for harm to others; and you will be unable to differentiate between reality and fantasy. In short, you will be dominated and blinded by fear.

Think about it: The whole point of life is to make you feel uncomfortable at times so you’ll work to improve yourself. By the same token, the whole point of education is to make you feel a bit uneasy with your ignorance, so you’re motivated to learn what you don’t know, and thereby remove your discomfort. Coping with stress means embracing – not fearing – discomfort. People who are psychologically sound, who have appropriate levels of self-esteem, confidence, independence, and who are able to accept their weaknesses and work to improve them – these are the competent folks who are able to cope with the stresses of life, and who are not afraid of being offended.

I heard a politician say: “I’m offended by this, and I’m offended by my colleagues that are offended by what we’re doing.” When you cut through the convoluted nonsense and self-focused drivel in this statement, you’re left with a frightened, self-centered person who is unable to confront a stressful situation in a constructive way. Is that how you want to go through life – mired in a swamp of denial and dependency, unable to adjust and improve? A servant to your fears and anxieties? Someone unguided by a system of values, a loss of direction that results in ambivalence toward the very worth of your existence?

Cameron is a company executive who very much enjoys his job. What he really loves, however, is coaching the little league team in his neighborhood. During a game one evening he sent a boy to the plate as a pinch hitter. Suddenly, a booming voice rang out, “Send that little fag back to the bench and put in someone who can hit!” The umpire yelled, “Time!” and motioned to each coach to come out to the plate.

The ump asked, “Do you know who that clown is, Cameron?”

“Yeh, I do. Father of one of my players. Usually he’s OK, but if he’s had a couple of pops he can get out of control. This time he’s really said something offensive.”

“Well,” said the ump, “I’m sure we’re all offended. I’m going to throw him out and send him home. You guys OK with that? We don’t tolerate this stuff in little league.”

One coach said, “Fine with me.” Cameron said, “His kid’s embarrassed to hell. Let me try something.”

“OK,” said the ump, “but move it along. This guy’s a jerk.”

Cameron went back and huddled with his team for about 30 seconds. Then he and one of his players, Ryan, walked over to the bleachers where loud-mouth was sitting. Cameron let the boy do the talking:

“Dad, what are you doing to me, in front of all these people and in front of my friends? Tommy is our friend, every one of us on the team, including me. I feel ashamed…I’d like to crawl in a hole. What you did is awful. Please just watch the game and cheer for us.”

And the boy turned and walked back to the team, followed by Cameron, who had no idea what would happen next. Would the dad attack him for bringing his son into the bleachers and saying what he did? “Get ready to defend yourself,” Cameron thought.

When they returned to the field, Cameron turned around. The dad was gone. And then he heard the umpire yell, “Play Ball!” Cameron sent the pinch-hitter back to the plate and thought, “Think I’ll give Ryan a ride home after the game so I can talk to his dad.”

Cameron taught a valuable coping lesson to Ryan. Who knows if he can do so with Ryan’s dad? But Cameron will face the issue and try.

Help Kids Make Appropriate Social Comparisons

Our blog entry for 9.10.21 introduced “social comparison,” a concept developed nearly 50 years ago. One aspect of people’s evaluation of themselves – “How am I doing?” – takes place when they watch and compare themselves to what others are doing. Such comparisons can be a good thing. Many young people, for instance, can become motivated to do better when they have positive examples in their lives like parents, siblings, a teacher, or a coach.

But social comparisons can also go wrong, and make anyone, young or old, get stressed out and down on themselves. Here are two examples that pose a danger: (1) A very common social-comparison error is judging yourself against others who are shining examples of success or beauty. There will always be those better than you, and worse than you, so why restrict yourself to choosing the former for comparison? For example, you might believe you have a less active social life than others, but you don’t realize you’re always comparing yourself only to the most sociable people you know. (2) Your comparison may also be based on a faulty assumption. Consider Caitlyn, a college freshman whose self-esteem and confidence were in the toilet. Seems she was convinced that all the other students in her classes – none of whom she knew – were geniuses and she was the one dummy in the class. Her social-comparison assumption was flawed.

Social comparison can be an excellent positive coping strategy when used in the correct way, but young people are especially vulnerable to messing it up. Parents and other adult figures would do well to make their kids and youngsters in general aware of ways to use social comparisons appropriately. Here are four good principles to follow: (1) Encourage kids to make social comparisons not to criticize and put themselves down, but to motivate themselves to improve. For instance, social comparisons can reinforce self-esteem when they focus on reviewing memories of good times with their friends. In fact, sharing positive feelings and good memories contributes significantly to psychological well-being because everyone in the sharing group sees that they all have much in common. (2) Suppose your daughter feels her friend is doing better than she (daughter) is doing. Help your daughter resolve to find out what the friend is doing so daughter can emulate her. In other words, point out to your daughter that she can make her friend a cohort, an ally, not an opponent. (3) Help your child engage in critical thinking, not self-criticism. If your son feels his buddy down the street is more competent and likeable, ask your son: “Do you really have to outperform him to be a worthwhile person? Should that be your goal – always striving to outperform others? Is that a rational goal?” (4) When your child seems hung up on comparing themselves to one particular person, ask them, “Why are you comparing yourself to just this one person? Yes, Bill appears outstanding and very popular, maybe even more so than you. But Jane and Fred are also pretty successful, and you stack up pretty well with them. Why focus on Bill?”

Send kids these messages on a regular basis: Social comparisons do not have to be negative, where you compare yourself to those whose superior performance brings you down. Be  selective and realistic in your social comparisons. You’ll probably discover you have a lot of positive traits, a lot of things you can work on to improve, and a lot of skills that can bring you a sense of pride and satisfaction. That’s what it means to be realistic and rational when you size yourself up against others. There will always be those who do better than you, and those who do worse than you. Find yourself and always try to improve. That’s a valuable lesson to teach your kids – and yourself.

Self-Destructive Behavior, Part III

When you habitually work to avoid stress, you risk becoming weak, passive, and dependent on others; your self-esteem suffers; you become self-critical, and vulnerable to serious problems like depression. At this point, you may resort to self-defeating – even destructive – coping actions that damage your mental and physical well-being. Therapist Michael Church has identified four self-destructive types: Direct-Active (blog entry 11/5/21), Indirect-Active (Blog entry 3/4/22), Direct Passive, and Indirect-Passive. The Direct-Passive type does not seek out or confront situations, but only reacts to problems and conflicts when perceived as threatening. Examples include people who are passive-aggressive, obsessive-compulsive in relation to anxiety and fear, panic-disordered, anorectics, avoidant personalities, hoarders, compulsive and withdrawn internet users, shopaholics, and those who commit “suicide by cop.”

            Monica was emotionally deprived of the parental attention, approval, and recognition all kids need. Growing up, she received satisfactory custodial care but not much affection, guidance, and social support. Her religious parents regularly suggested to her that she was sinful and unworthy. Monica internalized those thoughts and struggled to compensate for them. Throughout her early schooling she was a good student, eager to learn and please her teachers, but always wanting what she did not get at home: attention, approval, and feeling that she was not a bad person. After graduating from high school, she went to nursing school and received an RN degree. She started to work as a nurse and met a young man she later married. He was a handsome young man, faithful to Monica, but as time passed, she became concerned because he drank excessively. They planned to have at least one child, but Monica could not conceive. She grew unhappy, but had no insight into what was bothering her. She slowly descended into depression, became suicidal, and had to be psychiatrically hospitalized. 

            After discharge, she started outpatient therapy with Church. Testing confirmed Major Depression, significant emotional deprivation during childhood, low self-esteem, non-assertiveness, emotional dependency in relationships, and a tendency to sacrifice her wants for the sake of others – to the extent she could be characterized as co-dependent. Over the years, this pattern progressed from revolving around her parents when she was a child, to revolving around her husband when she was an adult.

            Monica talked about how she wanted a child, but worried about her husband’s drinking. She was ambivalent about staying in the marriage because of his drinking and self-centeredness. During her therapy, an infant was abandoned in the hospital where she worked. She asked her husband about adopting the child and he said he was on board. He also assured her he would cut down on his drinking.

            Everything seemed fine for the first few months after their adoption was granted and they were able to take their infant home. Unfortunately, her husband slowly reverted to his old drinking ways. Monica became increasingly responsible for caretaking and they fought and argued more and more. A few years later they separated. She bought a home and filed for divorce. Her husband got a girlfriend who joined him in drinking and partying. Monica became self-critical, blaming herself for her husband’s drinking, for the divorce, and for being a lousy mother. Her suicidal intentions threatened to re-emerge, but fortunately she stayed in therapy and received the guidance and support she needed. She also had a purpose – her child – that motivated her and committed her to the future.

             Monica continued counseling to help her from relapsing into her old pattern of self-defeating/destructive actions, which led to her depression and associated difficulties. She has a solid relationship with her now teenage son, and has primary custody. She has dated and had relations with men but has not found someone she wants to make a full commitment with, and that is okay with her. She has learned that she does not need a man, and is no longer willing to subjugate her wants and needs to someone else. If she cannot find a reciprocal and mutually satisfying relationship with a mate, she is okay without it. She looks ahead to a time when her son will be in college and she might be a traveling nurse, which would allow her to live close to him and see more of the United States and meet people she would not otherwise. She is even open to the idea of nursing in another country and going back to school to earn a graduate degree in nursing.

            Monica understands how she became depressed for so many years. In many respects she was “too good,” in the sense that her identity, autonomy, and independence got lost in the shuffle. She would often ask Church whether a particular thought or feeling “makes me a bad person.” His answer was always, “Your thoughts do not make you good or bad. They are natural for you and part of what makes you human. You do not have to feel guilty about your thoughts or feelings. Every person has some extreme, distorted, bizarre, or self-centered thoughts from time to time. Your thoughts and feelings do not define you. Your freely-chosen behaviors define you. Those behaviors are what you need to concentrate on, not your thoughts and feelings.”           

Monica came to understand that her concern about being a bad person was associated with her guilt-inducing family upbringing. These are issues that will likely plague her to some extent for the rest of her life. After all, when a child deals with shame, guilt, and self-criticism for years, those thoughts become strongly imprinting in the brain. But Monica has learned to accept, not deny, this reality. She has improved greatly in her recognition of this vulnerability to self-criticism, and how to correct it before it builds momentum and leads again to self-destructive patterns.

The Power — and Danger — of Failure

We behave, do things, and most of our actions have consequences. Some of those outcomes are mild, but others can be very intense. Some are positive and some are negative. The positives bring us varying degrees of pleasure and reassurance. We like consequences that make us feel good, so we have a strong tendency to repeat actions that bring about those positive effects. But, whether mild or strong, it is the negative consequences – our failures, disappointments, letdowns, mistakes – that are the great teachers in life. Athletic coaches certainly know this fact. Even following a win, they say things like, “We need to study our mistakes so we can get better.” They know that improvement results from focusing mostly on faults, not strengths.

Psychologists also recognize the value of failure when coping with stress. That is, life is full of negative experiences that cause you stress, and the best way to deal with that stress is to confront and examine your failures, and make necessary adjustments to improve your future actions. The spotlight is on actions that bring you anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions, not so much on effective coping behaviors. Those actions that work for you take care of themselves; it’s those actions that get you into trouble that require examination.

Unfortunately, some people “fuse” to their failures. When they act and experience a negative outcome, they direct those negative thoughts and feelings inward, at themselves. Following a bad outcome, they use terms like frustrated, fearful, incompetent, and worthless to describe themselves. Is this you? If so, you must remember that following failure, when you “fuse” to your negative thoughts and feelings – meaning you absorb your sense of self into the failure – you alter your sense of identity. You define yourself in a negative framework, and come to think of yourself as if you are your negative experiences. Obviously, getting caught in this pattern of negative thinking, and identifying your self-concept with failure, creates an identity that puts you in a whirlpool of inescapable stress. You quickly fashion a downward spiral of avoidance, depression, self-debasement, and self-destructive actions.

At this point you are especially vulnerable to stressors in your life. One way to deal with the stress is to reach out to supportive people in your life who will remind you of your positive gifts that can help you confront your negativity and change course. Family bonds can help here. Unfortunately, if constructive, supportive others are not available – or if you rebuff them – you may turn to those who willingly accept you into their sympathetic and understanding group, but who truly have only their own interests, not yours, in mind. This is how cults and other outlier extreme groups operate. They foster and encourage antisocial behavior, but give members a crutch – usually adoration of the leader, or hatred of some outside enemy – to prevent the downward spiral of self-hatred. Members of these groups can act hatefully and negatively toward others, but they do not fuse their actions with their identity as long as they have that crutch for support. Thus, to avoid the anxiety of fusing to their hateful actions and seeing themselves as evil, cult members must adore the leader, or hate the “enemy,” at all costs. The dynamics work for a while, but eventually reality will catch up and the crutch will fall – be it irrational adoration of the leader or hatred. At best, this state of affairs eventually generates dislike of self that permeates everything and leads to self-destructive behavior – aka, “drinking the kool aid.”

OK, you say, but how do I make myself less likely to fuse to my negative experiences without relying on some inappropriate model to help me? First, remember that failures can be great teachers and help you improve. Second, remember that negative reactions to failure and criticism – reactions like frustration, disappointment, anger, and questioning your competence – are natural and expected responses, and do not define your core self-concept. Third, accept that you are accountable for how you react to failure. Fourth, remember that family and trusted friends can sometimes help you meet that responsibility in an independent and autonomous way. Fifth, when confronting failure, look for solutions that are task-based – “Next time, I need to prepare and practice before facing this challenge.” – not emotion-based – “My report would have been right on the money if my lousy boss had given me more time.”  A task-based strategy will not encourage you to be unrealistic and seek continued success; rather, it will encourage you to do everything you can – within your circle of personal control – to minimize the odds of failure in the future.

Finally, remember that most life problems have no perfect solution. Your best option is often to accept life, yourself, and others even when these things can be unpleasant. This type of acceptance does not mean giving up or quitting; it means taking a realistic orientation to life that is focused on what you can directly control: your thoughts and behavior.

Being Accountable Does Not Mean Self-Blame

You suffered a traumatic experience. Maybe you were raped? Fought in Afghanistan and watched buddies die? Robbed at gunpoint while walking to your car at night? Served on a jury and recommended a killer receive the death penalty? Whatever the event, in the aftermath you are suffering post-traumatic stress, and are seeking ways to cope.

In this blog we often talk about effective coping as resting on a tripod of acceptance, accountability, and developing a coping plan. If you’re like most people, you might look at that “accountability” component and automatically assume it means, “taking responsibility for what happened.” Not always.

Sure, if you’re speeding on a rain-slicked road while a little buzzed on alcohol, and the car spins out of control causing an accident that injures others, you need to take responsibility that the accident was your fault. In most traumatic experiences, however, life throws a curve ball and – through no fault of your own – you happen to be in way. Maybe you’re one of the “others” in the accident just described. You’re driving safely for the weather conditions but you were still involved. Will you feel compelled to dwell on things you should have done, and load yourself with guilt because you didn’t? Too often, victims of trauma afterwards torment themselves with, “I should’ve done this,” a comment that cripples them with guilt.

In our coping triad, accountability does not mean admitting that you were at fault for what happened. It means, “recognizing that you are responsible for evaluating your role in the event.” In many cases, you must choose not to blame yourself, not to form a pity parade, and not to make it all about you as a sufferer. That’s what accountability means in this context: Empowering yourself to choose how best to evaluate your traumatic experience, and how best to resolve the subsequent emotions you feel.

Helen is 33 years old. When she was 8, over a period of two months she was sexually abused multiple times by an acquaintance of her parents.

 “For a long time, well into my 30s in fact, I went through the whole range of emotions and efforts to deal with the trauma. I held it in, telling no one. I blamed myself and felt guilty as hell. But I always found a way to let others know that, in general, I had a rocky childhood, and because of it I needed special handling. No wonder I had trouble with relationships. Guys didn’t want a fragile glass doll. Commitment on my part? Forget it. At some level in my mind, they were all in it to rape me. Then 5 years ago I met Rick. He was the one for sure. The night he proposed I broke down and confessed the whole sordid story. He was a rock. Encouraged me to get into counseling and a support group. He was with me all the way and we got married while I was still in treatment. But here’s the thing. I stopped being a martyr and blaming myself for the event. It happened! I didn’t deserve everyone’s sympathy because of it. I had no right to expect others to pad the corners of my world because I was abused as a child. Counseling, Rick, and my support group helped me empower myself. I’m actually ready to end the counseling sessions, but I will stay with my weekly support group. We understand each other like no one else can. We have walked in each other’s shoes and somehow that brings us strength as we help, and are helped by, each other. Yeh, I’ll stay with Rick, too.”

In the blog entry on November 15, 2019, we said, “Instead of putting yourself as the main ingredient in the coping recipe, reduce your part in the recipe. You can accomplish this by allowing your troublesome emotions and interpersonal conflicts to help you increase your sensitivity to others – your empathy toward them – who suffer from conflicts similar to yours. This sensitivity and empathy will encourage you to reach out to help them. The bonus? You will discover ample helpings of personal satisfaction to help you cope better with your own problems. In other words, happiness will emerge from your altruistic actions.”

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: The true human beauty of empathy is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy for your coping difficulties than empathetic service to others. As you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you will discover that whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties; you will realize that the best way to have coping strength emerge from your actions is to make sure you leave no one behind.

That’s what’s really meant by accountability. Not self-blame, but being there for others who, like you, need help in evaluating the reality of challenges imposed by obstacles on life’s path.

Altruism: Your Best Coping Partner

            Why do you want to cope better with the stresses and strains of living? No secret to that answer! Better coping increases the likelihood that you will experience a host of positive reactions – things like contentment, satisfaction, competence, confidence, well-being, and acceptance of who you are – that motivate you to achieve and improve. Better coping also enhances your sensitivity to the needs of others, and improves the quality of your interactions with them. When you cope well you become more comfortable with yourself, and accept that while you are far from perfect, you are close to being all you can be. That reinforcement is pretty empowering!

            In this blog, each week we discuss ways to enhance your sense of fulfillment as a useful participant in the human family. While there is no magical elixir that guarantees you will attain self-realization, serenity, and satisfaction with who you are, there are factors that come close to being absolutely essential for those outcomes: Focus on the needs of others; understand and empathize with them; and place their needs above your own. Psychological research shows that those who accept the premise, “I am not the indispensable ingredient in the recipe of life; it is not all about me.” –  those are the people who are most likely to be comfortable in their own skin, and to feel fulfilled by their participation in a life that places the needs of others above their own.

            As you read those words, however, be careful. Serving others is not like working at a salaried job that brings you material gains, nor is it like going to church hoping to become a more spiritual person. Personal contentment, fulfillment, and acceptance of who you are – these are not goals you can seek and find. Rather, they emerge from a coping style that (1) recognizes the inherent value of others, (2) understands that how you make people feel defines your true self-worth, and (3) is guided by the belief that self-knowledge can never be complete without feeling and appreciating the needs of others.

            The reality of 2022 is saturated with examples of self-preoccupation, narcissism, and attempts to dominate others. Observing all these biases against the family of humanity can be quite stressful. How do you live with that stress? Try reaching out to those in need, especially those who differ from you. Conduct yourself with honor and be guided by values that transcend your needs in deference to the needs of others. Your stressors will still be present, but they will not dominate and disrupt your daily activities. Isn’t that about the best you can expect from coping better with the stress of everyday life?