Do you ever engage in fantasy to comfort yourself? Maybe you have a job interview coming up, or a speech, or a presentation. You’re feeling a little stressed so you let that power of positive thinking kick in: “There’s really no need to sweat it. I can handle myself.”

Unfortunately, the power of positive thinking is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s great to be optimistic about life, but there’s a danger if your positive thinking, your optimism, is unrealistic.

A well-known psychologist once told me that growing up, he truly believed he could be a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. “I played baseball in college and somewhere along the line I realized it wasn’t going to happen. Contrary to what my folks always told me, I came to the realization that living in America did not mean I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be. No dream was too big, they always said. Well, playing for the Cubbies was too big.”

What we see here is the distinction between what is and what should be. It’s nice to dwell on what should be, but if you can’t translate that thought into realistic action – that is, if you can’t turn what should be into what is — then you must discard what should be as unrealistic. Our Cubs wannabe realized that professional baseball was not realistic, so he discarded that fantasy and focused on his academics.

Do you allow your mind to become trapped in the comforting, self-indulgent fantasy of what should be? If you do, what is – also known as reality – will pass you by and you will have difficulty coping with all those what is things going on in your life.

The power of positive thinking is limited, but the power of positive actions is unlimited. One of the secrets to effective coping with stress is to engage in positive actions. By positive we mean actions that bring both you and others satisfaction and comfort. Seeing yourself perform these positive actions will give you a sense of empowerment, and will also invest you with optimistic thinking that is based on reality, not on a pipe-dream. If you want to be a positive thinker, then engage in positive actions in the here-and-now.


Holiday PC Language

Every year it seems 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. 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 decide life is not all about you, and 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.


Examining Social Interactions

A lot of stress is self-inflicted, especially in our interactions with others. How often do you say or do something that produces negative reactions, such as anger, in others? How often do you consider the possibility that you, not the other person, caused the problem? Probably not too often, right?

Here’s a tip for dealing with social conflict that increases your stress: Be willing to accept some responsibility for being the cause of the conflict. This is not a comfortable process, because to pull it off, you must look inward and objectively examine your values, social conscience, and life purposes. You must ask yourself, “How do I define myself? Are my actions consistent with my self-definition, with who I believe I am?”

Only by confronting such questions will you be able to deal with negative reactions like anger — either coming from you or from another — in assertive, but respectful, ways. Only then can you see that the anger in others may be justified; by the same token, only then can others possibly see your anger as justified. In social interactions, it’s always a two-way street.

Without the honest self-examination, you’re likely to meet anger with anger, resort to profane and childish insults, and cast blame on the other party. Then, the other person will judge you as selfish, weak, defensive, and immature.

If you define yourself by your negative emotions – your anger, anxieties, fear, and sanctimony — you are on a self-defeating road. Effective coping requires you to apply your values and standards to your roles as spouse, parent, friend, co-worker, son/daughter, etc. You must determine if your actions in these roles are consistent with your conscience and purpose. If not, you must work to correct the inconsistencies.

The Coping Beauty of Service to Others

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”? The idea is pretty simple: If individual parts are put together in a certain way, something new comes out of the arrangement; something new emerges.

Country singer Hank Williams wrote a signature song titled, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The first line introduces a bird singing and asks, “Did you hear that lonesome whippoorwill?” The remarkable second line states, “He sounds too blue to fly.” What an image: Six words describe a bird so down in the dumps that he can’t even fly. Now that’s sadness!

Let’s take those six words in line two and mix them up: too, fly, sounds, he, blue, to. Not much emotion conveyed in that jumble, is there? But when the words are re-arranged in a different order, plus put in the context of line 1, something new emerges: A level of sadness that is almost incomprehensible. When the parts are arranged in a given way, something new emerges.

In psychology, the concept of emergence is generally used in the area of perception. But let’s see if we can use it more broadly to shed some light on personality functioning and coping with stress.

A lot of people are stressed out because they’re not happy. Their lives are filled with disappointments, anger, anxiety, and feelings of incompetence and low self-esteem. And so, they wail to anyone who will listen: “I need to be happy.” Now, here’s something very important: When you utter this phrase, thinking you can find happiness just by looking for it, you’re making it all about you. “I’m having a hard time!” “I deserve better.” “My needs come first.” “I need to be happy.”

We have two coping problems here: First, effective coping cannot be centered around your needs. Second, happiness is not something you can look for and find. You can’t circle a date on your calendar and write, “Today find happiness.” It’s not something laying on the ground that you can pick up. Rather, happiness is something that emerges from actions you perform.

Actions are the coping key, but those actions cannot be centered around you. 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.

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 empathic 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.


Talking to Others, Part III

In two earlier posts (April 6 and August 17), drawing on his more than 30 years of clinical psychology practice, Michael Church shared some ideas about how to talk to others who are troubled:

“Listen” to what others tell you; don’t just “hear” them. Be uncritical to show them you understand what they are going through.

Remember, it’s not about you, but about them. “Here’s what I would do if I were you,” is not a helpful comment. You are not about “being them,” so don’t go there.

Do not label them (“Jane is bipolar, so I should offer to babysit her kids.”) The labels will stereotype them in your mind and bias your interactions with them.

Rather than criticizing them, help them consider positive actions they can take when down on life.

Use caution when discussing medications. Focus your talks on their life conflicts, not on their medications.

Here are some more examples of conversations that illustrate some good ways to respond to troubled folks.

Comment:        “I don’t know why I drink so much. Things go well for a while and then I do stupid things and just hurt myself with stupid actions. It seems like I go three steps forward and four steps back. What is my problem?”

Response:        “I guess we don’t always know why we do what we do. That seems natural to me. But you’re asking some pretty deep questions about why you’re so self-defeating and self-destructive. Do you think a professional could help you find the answers?”

Notice how the commenter is cleverly trying to trap the respondent into joining the pity parade. But the respondent doesn’t fall for it, and instead directs a question at the commenter forcing him/her to focus on the solution proposed. It’s important to convey empathy to those who are troubled, but that doesn’t mean joining their pity parade.


Comment:        “I don’t know why I can’t take my medications and go to counseling like I’m supposed to. I don’t want to work or even get out of bed. It has been this way for a long time. I don’t even care about my friends and family. Who cares?”

Response:        “Sounds logical to me. Why would you care about taking your medicine or going to doctors if you have this apathy about life? Until you care you’re sure not going to be doing much of anything that makes you feel good. You’ll just keep giving yourself more pain. Is pain what you want, though? You have to decide because aren’t you the only one who can change your life? Aren’t you the only one who can decide if you have a desire to live your life to the fullest?”

This response goes a long way toward expressing acceptance and understanding of the commenter. But then a key question is raised that challenges the commenter in a positive way: “Is pain what you want?” Again, notice how the response conveys empathy, but goes on to challenge the listener.

To summarize, the main thing to remember when someone comes to you for advice and help is simple: It’s not about you; it’s about them. In these instances, we tend to say things like, “You really shouldn’t feel that way. You’re being unrealistic; plus, I have found that it helps a lot to….” Such comments, which substitute your perspective for the other person’s, show a lack of empathy and understanding on your part.

When talking to those who are troubled, resist the temptation to express your opinion. Rather than tell them what to do, encourage them to develop a feeling of empowerment by posing questions to them to help them consider possible courses of action. Take yourself out of the equation because the issue is not what you would do; the issue is to encourage them to consider proactive options consistent with their needs and abilities.

New Book

I’m happy to announce a new book by myself and Michael Church, “Using Psychology to Cope with Everyday Stress.” We are also joined by four contributors, all of whom are our former students who graduated from King’s College. David Jenkins, PhD, class of 1980, Licensed Specialist in School Psychology and Lead for Psychological Services at Lubbock (Texas) Independent School District. Carlea Alfieri Dries, PsyD, class of 2002, Nationally Certified Counselor and School Psychologist. Brian Cook, MS, NCC, LPC, class of 2004, Director of King’s College Counseling Center. Michael Mariano, MA, LPC, LCADC, ACS, class of 2009, Psychotherapist, Addiction Specialist, Clinical Supervisor.

Using Psychology to Cope  with Everyday Stress

Do not “delete” your stressors

Want to get rid of all your stress? Of course you do! Well, just settle back into a comfy chair or sofa and close your eyes.

Now picture in your mind all the people and events that give you occasional stress and sometimes cause you to have a bad day. As you go along it’s OK to open your eyes to write them down on a piece of paper. When you’re done, check out your list and see who’s on it: Mom and dad, maybe? Spouse or partner? Kids? Siblings? Co-workers? Your boss? A BFF? The dog? Christmas? Anniversaries and birthdays? Computers? Smart phones? Vacations? Facebook? We bet if you took enough time your list would be quite long.

Next, rid yourself of all your stressful times, all those bad days, by imagining your life without any of those problem people and events in your life. The goal is to imagine a world where you avoid all your sources of stress. So, close your eyes and start designing your relaxing new world by deleting all those stresses.

“Wait a minute,” you protest, “you want me to get rid of my kids, my parents, even the dog? All those people I love? Give up my job and my friends? The dog? Are you kidding me? My dog? I’m going to end up with an empty world!”

Bingo! If you work really hard to avoid stress in your life, you will stop living! Stress is a vital part of being alive, and trying to eliminate it is a losing strategy. In fact, you’ll end up not only alone, but also lonely. You’ll suffer despair, helplessness, and hopelessness; your self-esteem and confidence will be in the toilet; your world will spin out of control, and the next stop on your life path will be…. Depression.

Stress, challenges, obstacles, hard work, frustration, anger, anxiety, and a host of other things you prefer to avoid must not be avoided. Those bothersome emotions are a part of you; they are not alien invaders. To try and avoid them will compromise your very being. So rather than avoid them, accept them! Confront them, meet them head on, deal with them. Emotions and stressors are a part of your life. Once you accept them you will be able to develop coping actions that take them into account.

Here’s a simple example. You have to give a presentation to other professionals in your field. You hate speaking in front of groups; you get anxious days in advance, and by the time of the event you feel like you’ll pass out. You desperately wish you could do something to get out of it. What can you do?

Rehearse the presentation until you’re sick of it. Do it in front of a couple of knowledgeable friends who can comment on clarity and organization. Is it thorough? Anything important left out? As close as possible to the actual presentation, do a rehearsal in the actual presentation area and make sure the equipment works and that you are totally familiar with it.

As the day approaches, don’t tell yourself, “I’m going to be cool as a cucumber.” Such talk is a deal-breaker. That is, the odds are you will not be “cool as a cucumber,” and when you experience the anxiety at the time of the event, you will be devasted. “I wasn’t supposed to feel this way,” you moan. So, don’t delude yourself. If you do, you will be unprepared for the inevitable.

What you have to do is remind yourself, “I’m going to be nervous; that’s who I am. But I’m prepared. I’ve practiced and I know this thing. When the anxiety hits, I’ll just continue right through it.” You’ll be much better off if you’re honest with yourself and don’t paint some rosy, hoped-for picture that may not materialize.

Short lesson here? Denial and avoidance are lousy coping strategies that will increase your stress in the long run. Instead of running away, design a plan of attack that allows you to engage in productive actions that make you feel more confident and empowered.