The Thin Line Between Purposeful Actions and Self-destructive Behavior

Michael Church, blog co-host, shares some brief thoughts on where your coping focus should be placed.

You are neither cats nor dogs who live in the present, no more than you are a computer who can avoid stress and people, and intellectualize your way through life and be satisfied. Instead, you must learn to keep your focus on your goals and purposes, and tune out the noise and chaos around you. Furthermore, you must be wary of focusing on your temporary thoughts and feelings, especially those negative ones, because that focus will misguide you to see them as your problem. But they are not your problem; it is your inaction toward meaningful goals that is the problem and that hinders your coping efforts. Effective coping requires moving toward purposeful goals, even when that pursuit causes suffering. That’s right – even when positive goal-directed actions bring you anguish, it is the discomfort that can increase a sense of meaning. You will value most the things you have worked hardest for, and suffered for the most. Inaction caused by lack of clarity of values and purposes, or an inability to overcome fear, are the primary sources of psychological stress. Almost inevitably, people who are not meaningfully engaged in purposeful commitment toward obtaining desired goals, are engaging in self-defeating actions. These types of people either underachieve by avoiding stress and growth, or they get lost in escape behaviors that temporarily give them a cheap thrill at the expense of their long-term health. Proactive coping with stress requires you to maintain a focus on your goals and purposes, and engage in actions that bring you closer to those goals.  

Setting Goals

  NOTE: Cory does not refer to any specific person. He is a composite of several cases.        

  Throughout this blog and in our books, Church and Brooks present a 3-stage coping process that involves acceptance, accountability, and developing a coping plan of action that involves heavy doses of humility and empathy. We also stress that when developing a plan of action, you must focus on overt behaviors, not on your emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Those parts of you do not make you a good or bad person; they are natural and they are you. Do not waste your time feeling guilty about them or trying to control or deny them – such as, frequently telling yourself, “I must make myself less anxious.” Focus, instead, on actions that you can choose to take, actions that are based on goals, and that bring you a sense of productivity and satisfaction.

What do we mean, “Actions based on goals”? Church shares his thoughts:

“Without appropriate, specific, clear, and objectively verifiable goals, it is unlikely there will be optimal progress, if any at all. Goals help you focus; they give you purpose to reach them; they help you persist. There are rules to follow, however. Choose goals that are measurable. Saying, ‘I will lose weight’ is inappropriate; a more appropriate goal is, ‘I will reduce my calorie consumption by 20% and increase my exercise time by 25%.’ Set attainable goals. ‘I want to be more at peace’ is vague, but vowing ‘to regularly engage in some form of relaxation, meditation, or biofeedback’ is measurable and attainable. Setting a goal to ‘save my marriage’ is also vague, whereas, ‘I will get therapeutic help individually or jointly with my spouse’ is doable, and specifies an action to take. Simply stating goals does not provide you with the motivation you need to move successfully toward them. Use the measurable and specific steps you can take to provide you with guideposts to determine whether you are making progress, and have met or exceeded them. When moving toward goals, it is crucial to be able to assess your movement.”

Cory went to a well-known university for two years and then dropped out with lack of motivation and direction. He connected neither socially nor academically in terms of making friends, studying, or finding a major. He was aimless, adrift. He returned from college depressed, and moped around until his parents told him to get into counseling or “hit the trail.” He wisely chose counseling. Once in therapy, he was able talk about his lack of self-identity, purpose, achievement motivation, and career goals.

Cory was the youngest son of highly successful professionals. He had two older brothers, both of whom had successful college experiences, landed good jobs following graduation, and were well on the road to productive careers. Cory admitted he grew up obsessed with exceeding his parents’ and brothers’ achievements, and generally felt he was in competition with them in a battle to prove himself worthy. Counseling helped Cory see he was never really in competition with his parents or siblings, but always with himself. His focus on his family’s achievements prevented him from discovering his own values, purposes, interests, and needs. He never bothered to define personal goals consistent with his standards and principles; he was always too busy concentrating on what others in the family were doing.

His counselor encouraged him to engage in values clarification in order to identify his wants and priorities in work and life in general. What kind of work did he want to do? How important was independence, salary, and flexibility? Did he want to help others or be more self-focused in meeting wants and needs? How valuable were friends and intimacy to him? Did he want to have a family and get married? If so, what kind of traits would he want in a mate? As Cory confronted these questions, he began to discover that the university he had been attending was not consistent with his answers. Simply put, this school was poorly suited to his personality. No wonder he never really felt comfortable there.

Cory found another institution that was a better match for him. The counselor also discouraged him from looking immediately for a specific career. Rather, he was encouraged to find a major he enjoyed, one consistent with his goals and values. He was assured that eventually his major would help him discover a variety of career paths that would complement his needs and interests. Before too long, Cory was no longer preoccupied with keeping up with others or worrying if others approved of his life goals and pursuits. He established his individuality and identity, focusing on who he was and what he wanted to be. For the first time in his life, he felt he was truly committed to his future. His mood became more positive, he began exercising regularly, and he reconnected with friends. He confronted his problems, sought help, defined his values, created new purposes and direction, and followed through with needed behavior changes. He accepted that it was okay to go his own way, even if it meant he might not earn the money and status of his parents and siblings. He discovered he was okay with being the best Cory he could be.

Will Positive Thinking Help Low Self-esteem?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group. “Ron” is a composite of multiple cases.

Children’s self-esteem can be enhanced by teaching them how to cope with both success and failure. Whether dealing with accomplishments or disappointments, when parents help their kids focus on things they can control – like effort – then both their achievements and self-esteem are enhanced. In fact, research shows that high achieving and high self-esteem children tend to attribute their successes and failures to effort, and similar factors that can be controlled – and changed if necessary – such as focus, organization, and planning.

These principles also apply to adults. The key is learning how to analyze and evaluate your experiences. Tackling job assignments, resolving daily interpersonal conflicts, meeting the demands of childrearing, and maintaining friendships – all these challenges are subject to success and failure. Whatever the outcome, analyze your preparation and effort before you let success – or failure – intoxicate you into believing you are better – or worse – than you truly are. When you are realistic in assessing the reasons for your successes and failures, you will maintain a stable self-concept and high self-esteem. 

Many people wonder if positive thinking is important in this process. Self-help books are filled with comments about the so-called power of positive thinking. When it comes to self-esteem, however, psychological research and clinical observation do not consistently support its usefulness. That makes sense when you think about it. To feel better about ourselves, if all we have to do is think positively, then why is it that so many people languish in a swamp of low self-esteem? Why don’t they simply snap out of the doldrums by having positive thoughts? The fact is, you can say positive things to yourself all day long, but that is not sufficient to increase your self-esteem. Let’s face it, psychologists would be out of business if all people had to do was think positively in order to enhance their self-esteem.

Positive thinking is ineffective with low self-esteem because people can see that their positive thoughts are inconsistent with their already well-established self-doubts. In short, they know better! What we’re saying is that you won’t be fooled by having positive thoughts that don’t square with your personal reality! What you have to do, therefore, is change that personal reality. And how do you do that? Simple. Engage in actions that bring you satisfaction and contentment, actions that make you feel worthwhile and productive. Such actions will provide you with positive feedback that will result in more optimistic feelings about yourself. Without appropriate actions, positive thoughts are nothing more than fantasy.

Ron was a socially unskilled young college man with relationship and emotional problems. He generally had a hard time making friends and getting dates. A psychologist told him to think positively and act assertively, and his problems would be eliminated. Beginning several days before each counseling session, he required Ron to ask co-eds for a date. As you might expect, the strategy didn’t work. The poor guy came to therapy sessions “bummed out because I was rejected again and again.” 

Ron was blinded by the “power” of positive thinking, believing that his optimism would be enough to encourage women to agree to his date request. The fact is, however, his belief in positive thinking prevented him from reasoning things out rationally. That is, how often is a young man going to be successful in asking out a woman he barely knows? Not often. Ron, however, thought, “I know she will say yes. I’ve got to think positively!” Ron may have been thinking positively, but he wasn’t thinking or acting rationally. He believed positive thinking and assertiveness would produce success; but all it led to was frequent rejection, which prevented him from analyzing why he was having social problems. Ron didn’t need positive thinking; he needed social-skills training and some cognitive restructuring! He found his way to a new counselor, and that is exactly what they worked on in therapy.

Ron had to learn to lower his expectations and re-evaluate social pressures from others to date regularly; being turned down, for instance, did not mean he was an unworthy person. Furthermore, he needed to accept the reality that many of his social problems resulted from fairly normal anxiety and discomfort when talking with women. Rather than compensate for these insecurities with fake confidence – “Hi, honey. I’m the man of your dreams!” – Ron learned to be more realistic about his poor social skills. He worked at focusing on his social abilities, and not being distracted by irrelevant positive thinking. For instance, Ron believed it was appropriate to approach a girl after class – a girl he barely knew – and say, “Hey, how about a movie with me tonight?”  He had to learn there are ways to initiate a conversation and ways not to initiate one; there are ways to keep a conversation going; there are signals from others he needed to be sensitive to, and react accordingly. The effect of working on these changes in his thinking – and coordinating his actions to those changes – was to lower his social anxiety.

Eventually, Ron asked out only the few women who showed some reciprocal interest in him after several casual conversations over a period of time. This strategy increased the odds of actually getting a date – which he did, sometimes. But he learned that expecting only occasional success was realistic, and those occasional successes were sufficient to increase his self-esteem. He accepted the realities of the dating world; he made himself accountable for adapting to those realities; he devised a plan of action. In short, with some guidance, he taught himself to cope better with his social stressors.

Helicopter Parents

NOTE: This entry is not directed at any particular person or group. The examples are composites from multiple instances.

Helicopter Parents – they hover over their kids and attempt to micromanage their lives. Combat Helicopter Parents – these guys are armed for battle, and God save you if you’re in their way! A dorm counselor at a large university received a call at 3AM from a distraught parent: “I haven’t heard from my daughter in two days. She’s not answering her cell phone and her roommate said she’s sick. I’m worried if she needs to go to the emergency room. Is she in her room? Why aren’t you people on top of this?”

Turns out the young woman was studying with some classmates who lived off-campus. The study session went late so she just “crashed” at their apartment that night instead of trudging through the campus to her dorm. When the harried dorm counselor finally found her in class the next morning, he asked, “Are you sick? Your mom’s worried.” Her reply? “Sick? No way. Well, I do have a little cold.” All the poor counselor could say was, “Call home! PLEASE!”

In the past couple of posts, we’ve discussed parenting. We can draw on some of our earlier comments to answer the question: “Why are some parents so overly involved in their kids’ lives, even when the kid is in college and officially an adult?” One possibility is that the parents are showing a pattern of control that began when their child was younger. Terrified that the kid would get into the wrong crowd and be tempted in a world of drugs and sex, they began to micromanage the kid’s activities 24/7; now they can’t break the habit. It’s also possible that the parents don’t trust the kid and never did. They see their son or daughter as lacking in ability and judgment, and believe success will only come as a result of their intervention. Maybe the parents fear their child will fail, so they become enablers who spoil the child; whatever Johnny or Sally wants is fine with them. They mistakenly believe that competence and self-esteem result from success, and failure must be avoided at all costs. So, they try to shelter the child from failure believing that high self-esteem will result – a belief that has little research support, by the way. Another possibility is that the parents reflect on their own youthful craziness, feel anxious about their ability as parents, and want to make sure their children have more focus and direction than they did.

Whatever the reason behind “helicoptering,” it’s psychologically damaging. In fact, some say it’s a form of child abuse that adversely affects emotional development. That view is supported by research and clinical observation. In the extreme, sheltered kids are more vulnerable to PTSD when adults; they are not taught how to learn from failure; they enter adulthood with low self-esteem; they feel entitled, which robs them of maintaining healthy and productive social interactions; they become self-absorbed, lacking in humility and empathy; they resist being accountable for their actions; and, most tragically, they are at risk for feeling helpless and descending into depression.

A father called his son’s university financial aid office, asking why he had not received the statement for his son’s financial aid package for the upcoming year. The staff person checked the records and told dad that his son had been sent multiple emails and regular campus mail notices that he needed to come in and sign the papers so they could be sent to his parents. Apparently, he did not see any urgency to the request, and no doubt figured he had better things to do. The staffer boldly suggested to dad that the boy was being a little irresponsible.

When dad heard about the notices sent to his son over the previous month, and the suggestion sonny was behaving in a less-than-adult fashion, he protested, “But you have to realize, he’s only 21 years old!”

The staffer was incensed, and replied, “Sir, my son is a 21-year-old soldier stationed in Iraq, and he might die for your son!” And she hung up on dad! An hour later, the boy showed up in the office to sign the papers. But you know what’s sad here? The kid showed up only after dad obviously called him and read him the riot act! This kid was overindulged, spoiled, protected, and shielded from having to face responsibility. When he graduates and enters the work force, the first time he is faced with a challenge on the job, will he call dad? “My boss gave me this assignment to finish by tomorrow! What do I do, dad? Help!”

Parenting Styles

My colleague Mike Church remembers, “One day when one of my daughters was eight years old, I told her she was cute, sweet, and smart.  She quickly retorted, ‘You have to say that Daddy because you’re my Dad.’  Suddenly, I realized she was forming her own opinions of herself, based on impressions from people in her social world. Clearly, she wanted to receive approval and recognition from more than her parental figures. She was beginning to evaluate herself based on interaction and feedback from a much larger field of influence.”

Most psychologists agree that the seeds of self-esteem are planted in childhood through early social interactions with many people, but especially with parents. This is not to say that parents should attribute their kids’ shortcomings and failures as entirely the result of how they raised the kids. After all, children are free to make choices as they grow. Thus, whereas it’s true that parents can influence their children’s development into adulthood, we don’t want to say that parents completely determine how their kids turn out.

Child psychologists have studied the influence on children of various parental childrearing styles. Here’s a summary of some of those styles. Do you see yourself in them, as either a child or a parent? That recognition can often be helpful in assessing any coping problems you may have. In other words, when you assess factors that can help you or hinder you in coping with your stressors, it can be helpful to look at yourself when you were a child, and how you may be now as a parent.

Trust and Autonomy. When parents provide a consistently loving and secure environment, they help their children develop feelings of trust in others, and confidence to be autonomous and explore their environment. Parents who are neglectful or abusive generate distrust in kids, and a tendency when an adult to feel anxious around others.

Positive Regard. Psychologist Carl Rogers focused on whether children receive conditional or unconditional positive regard from parents. Conditional love means children are loved only if they obey the dictates of the parent. Children who receive unconditional positive regard are loved and supported even when they go against parental wishes; they are secure in the knowledge that it is their behavior parents do not approve of, not them.

Good vs. Bad Mother. Many psychologists say the most important early determinant of self is the quality of the relationship with mom. Children see a benevolent and loving mom as a good person, and they tend to have high self-esteem; they view an unloving mom as bad, and are likely to have low self-esteem. These levels of self-esteem often persist into adulthood. Adults who have been neglected or abused as children or adolescents often have low self-esteem and see themselves as unlovable. In counseling they say such things as, “How could I expect anyone to love me if my parents didn’t?” With roots going back to childhood, this thinking in an adult can be difficult to change.

Intimacy vs. Rejection. Some children are given too much intimacy and are encouraged to display dependent behavior. The resulting self-concept is imbalanced, and the child grows into adult patterns of narcissism and dependency. The other extreme is found in parents who are busy trying to meet their own needs, and become emotionally distant from their children. As adults the kids suffer loneliness and depression and search for experiences that will fulfill the emotional loss from having distant parents. However, psychological damage can also be done by parents who are overly involved with their children – helicopter parents – and who over-identify with their children’s achievements. Many parents put undue pressure on them to succeed athletically, socially, and academically. Excessive criticism confuses children about the meaning of success and failure, and they see themselves as failures when they lose.

Social Comparison. Parents must be aware of children’s tendency tocompare themselves with schoolmates, same-age peers, and similar-age siblings, particularly same-gender ones. Many children have low self-esteem because they believe their sibling(s) is(are) more adequate in important areas. This negative comparison can occur even when they are performing in the above-average range academically, athletically, or socially. They still see themselves as failures in relation to an extremely successful sibling. Parents must help children put social comparison in perspective, and not use it to define to themselves who they are.

Authoritarian Parent. In childrearing, there is a huge difference between authoritative and authoritarian parents. High self-esteem can be facilitated by authoritative styles of interaction. These parents are warm, supportive, and allow children a degree of autonomy to explore their world; but the parents set clear limits to their children’s behavior and are consistent in their control of rewards and punishers. On the other hand, authoritarian parents are dictatorial, controlling, demanding, and punitive, undermining their children’s feelings of adequacy by treating them as unworthy, untrustworthy, and lacking judgment.

As we said earlier, gaining some insight into your stressors and the coping strategies you use to deal with them, can help you cope better. Just remember, reflecting on your past can be subject to lots of error; memories of childhood are tricky. Evaluating yourself in the present as a parent, however, and examining your style of interaction with your children, can provide valuable understanding when you experience undo anxiety and stress as a parent.

Parenting and Coping with Stress

NOTE: Other than describing two events that were in the news, this entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the second person personal pronoun “you” is used as a generic universal. The post presents analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

I remember taking a course in Adolescent Psychology when I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s. The professor made a comment one day and it has stuck with me over the years. He said, “Being a parent is a job, but it’s kind of unique. I don’t know of any other job where the goal is to be unemployed.” The class knew what he was saying: At some point, the child of  successful parenting will declare independence – cut the cord, so to speak – and venture forth to make his or her way in the world, thus rendering the parent unemployed.

            Two recent events made me think of that job analogy of parenthood. The first was when a Texas Senator packed up his wife and kids, age 9 and 11, and they headed with him to Cancun. Texas was in the midst of a Winter emergency as temperatures plunged below freezing for days, power went out, and water pipes burst in thousands of homes. People were running out of food and becoming desperate, while the Senator acceded to his kids’ pleas to take them somewhere warm. He said he wanted to be a good dad. I wondered: Was he doing his job as a parent? Should he have taken his kids to a food bank or a shelter and handed out food, water, blankets, and other basic necessities? Was he being a good role model by suggesting to his kids that when the going gets tough, get out of town? Was he teaching them how to cope with adversity? Was he teaching them that sensitivity to the needs of others was an honorable value? Just wondering, not passing judgment.

            The other event was a group of parents standing around a fire burning face masks. They were protesting the mandate to wear masks during the virus pandemic. Several parents had their kids – who looked about 8 -10 – with them, and the kids were helping them toss masks into the fire. I got to thinking: Is it parents’ job to educate their kids, or to indoctrinate them? Educate means explaining all sides of an issue to the kids, presenting the evidence for each position, and when their understanding is mature enough, letting them form their own opinion. Indoctrinate means convincing kids to adopt the parents’ values as being correct.

To answer all these questions, of course, parents would need to develop a job description of their parenting employment. If the family is like a company with you, the parent, in charge, what kind of product do you want to produce? An independent or a dependent kid? A kid who seeks perfection, or who seeks curiosity? A questioning or an accepting kid? An active thinker or a passive listener? A kid who values rigid, stern actions, or who values flexibility? A kid who is willing to accept challenges and work hard to overcome them by learning from mistakes, or a kid who feels entitled, wants others to do the hard work, and blames others for failures?

From a context of coping with stress, I believe that as a parent, you can only answer these questions by looking inside yourself, and including such a self-analysis as part of the parenting job description. For instance, are you trying to be a perfect parent? Do you fear losing your parenting job? If your kids choose actions and values that are not yours, will you feel you are imperfect – a loser, a failure – as a parent? Are you insecure with your own principles such that you must have your kids accept them to reinforce your beliefs and standards, and thereby allay your insecurities? Are your kids simply crutches that you use to justify who you are, and to show yourself you are a worthy person?

Success at the parenting job boils down to how you decide to cope with your stressors. In making that decision, you need to accept that the goal of your psychological life should not be self-preoccupation, inflexible thinking, and perfection in all you do as a parent. Come to think of it, success at living involves those things, too!

Planning Your Coping Strategy

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group. The post presents analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

In our 2019 book, Using Psychology to Cope with Everyday Stress, Mike Church and I presented a three-step coping model: Acceptance, Accountability, and Planning. Consider Alice – 45 years old and happily married – whose youngest child just graduated from law school and moved to a distant city to join a law firm. Suddenly, Alice is faced with an empty nest as all three of her children have relocated to far-away areas to pursue their careers and lives. Alice feels frustrated and fearful for her future. “Have I failed?” she wonders. “Should I have finished college and started a career before having kids? Am I a burden on my husband?” Alice begins to develop sleep problems and gain weight; she watches too much TV and spends too much time on social media. She sees that she is deteriorating, both physically and psychologically. One day she looks in the mirror and says with disgust: “Enough of this crap. I’m losing control. I’m calling that counseling office Ann [a good friend] said helped her. I need to put some structure back into my life and redefine myself.”

Kevin, 56, is widowed with two sons who are married and live 2,000 miles away. He is on disability because of a work accident from several years ago. Physically, he can handle most normal everyday chores and activities, but he spends most of his days at home feeling sorry for himself. His accident and his wife’s death from cancer happened within months of each other, and his behavior switched from, “Out of my way, I can handle this,” to, “I’m not much good anymore.” His depression grows almost daily.

One day a friend, Jim, called: “Kevin! I need help. I have to deliver for Meals on Wheels today but I pulled my back. I can drive OK, but getting in and out of the car is agony. Would you come with me and take the meals up to the door?” Kevin was glad to get out of the house and said he would help. At the first stop, a woman yelled out when he knocked, “It’s open! Just bring it in.” She was in the kitchen 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 prayed for me, Jim!” At later stops, no one else prayed for him, but nearly every one of them said something like, “God bless you,” or, “You’re a saint, sir.”

Kevin got home that day, looked around the house, and realized that he was missing out on life. He picked up the phone and called the Office of Aging. He said he wanted 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.”

What do Alice and Kevin have in common? They both came to the realization that they needed to take control of their lives and cope better. They accepted the reality of their situations and took responsibility for their dilemmas. No blaming others, no rationalizations – just the determined recognition that, “This is on me and I need help getting out of it.” Then they began to develop a plan. For Alice, it was deciding to begin counseling. As treatment progressed, she and her therapist developed a coping plan that made her a more active participant in life. The key was action – doing things, not just sitting around focusing on her emotions. Same with Kevin. As soon as he picked up the phone and called the Office of Aging, he was engaging his plan: Time to do things, not just sit around and focus on emotions. Each put a general plan in action, and the details would emerge as time went on.

Is your life out of balance? Do you make the mistake of focusing on your emotions and resolving to get rid of them? Are conditions like depression, anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, jealousy, anger, and frustration your reality? You must accept them as a part of you, not try to excise them from your life; you would lose a part of who you are. You must focus instead on actions to solve a problem, not to relieve you of emotions. Actions will rejuvenate you as you see yourself participating in life, doing things that bring you contentment. Your emotions will still be present, but they will not dominate you. They will take a back seat to new feelings of being worthy, strong, capable, and fulfilled – feelings that will emerge from using your actions to solve a problem and strengthen you. Acceptance, Accountability, and Planning – those are the steps to restoring a constructive, productive, and satisfying life, and coping successfully with your stressors.

Extremism Hinders Coping

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or group. The second person personal pronoun “you” is used as a generic universal. Jane’s case is a composite of conversations I have had with several professional, married women, and illustrates the coping dilemma posed by Bem. The post presents analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Coping with life stressors means making choices. Unfortunately, too often you see your task as choosing between one of two extremes, which reduces flexibility by requiring you to see one choice as “right,” and the other as “wrong.” From a coping perspective, you would do better to consider a moderate position between the two extremes.

Think about childrearing, for instance. For generations, parents followed traditional customs. They wanted their sons to be competitive and assertive. “You need to be tough, kid! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.” Daughters, on the other hand, should be sensitive and domestic. “Remember, honey, always nurture your children, support your husband, and make sure your household is well-run.”

 In the 1970s, however, psychologist Sandra Bem argued that forcing children into such rigid sex-roles limits their ability to cope well as adults. For instance, if a situation requires caring, sympathy, and emotion, the traditional man can’t show those traits without feeling he is sacrificing his masculinity and looking like a wimp. Similarly, if a situation requires assertiveness and a competitive spirit, the traditional woman is lost because to act in those ways would be – in her mind – a threat to her femininity. She’s afraid that others would judge her to be a penis-envying b***h, or some similar pejorative term.

Bem said kids should learn both sets of traits. A girl can be taught to be caring and sensitive, but she can also be taught to be forceful and competitive if the situation demands it. By the same token, a boy can learn to be dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, parents can teach him that showing emotion and tenderness is OK. And here is the key: The kids can also learn that showing this flexibility doesn’t compromise their self-esteem or respective identities as being masculine or feminine. Consider what Jane, a corporate executive, says: “The other day at a Board meeting, a couple of members were condescending toward me and said my idea for improving productivity was nonsense. I told them that I had researched my plan and had ample data supporting my position. If they disagreed with me, they should provide documentation favoring their opinion. They backed down. After the meeting, several Board members complimented me on how I held my own. Then I went home, listened with mom-sympathy to my kids complain about their lives, and cooked my husband’s favorite dish because he had a hard day at the office. He said I was the best wife ever!”

When you limit your choices in life to one extreme or the other, you force yourself into a restrictive coping strategy and lose flexibility in your actions. Effective coping requires making adjustments and adapting to change, and that requires having a variety of personal traits to call upon in a variety of situations. Extremism sabotages that flexibility. During the 2020 pandemic, colleges had to decide whether or not to play football. The extremist choice was simple: Play or don’t play. Administrators and athletic directors knew, however, that the “all in” vs. “fold” choice was restrictive and unrealistic; there was a middle ground. Specifically, schools choosing to play made a nuanced, not an absolute either-or decision: They would play, but only under conditions that were spelled out in specific safety protocols. When the protocols were met, the game could be played; when not met, the game must be canceled. Contrast that successful nuanced approach to the political arena in 2020-21. Extremism rules, and threatens to bring American democracy to the brink of destruction. Rational voices speak out against the rigid choices offered by extreme positions, but those sensible voices are vilified and punished by those at both ends of the political spectrum. The result is damaging division.

The lesson for personal coping is this: Accepting one extreme view and rejecting the other will cause you to base your life on emotion – “I am right! You are evil! – and you will live in an unchanging, static world of blame, anger, and revenge. These emotions may eventually turn inward, producing a mind divided against itself, and inundating you with more stress. If you are to cope realistically and successfully with your stressors, you must change your focus from emotions to problem-solving. The latter means you are guided by results, not by a gut feeling. Problem-solving involves taking action based on a realistic evaluation of what faces you. Over the long run, a problem-focused approach – unlike an emotion-focused approach – will allow you to be accountable for your actions, less self-preoccupied, and more socially responsible.

An attorney once shared with me a story he heard in a classroom lecture in law school. The story goes, a judge said there were times when he had to make either-or decisions during a trial – such as allow one side to present a piece of evidence, or don’t allow it. He added, “More typically, however, my decision was in a gray area. I might tell the Prosecution they can bring such-and-such into the trial. The Defense was unhappy with that decision. But I added that the Prosecution could use such-and-such only in a very limited, non-prejudicial way. Now they were also unhappy. When both the Defense and the Prosecution were unhappy with one of my decisions, I knew I had made the correct ruling, and was not bothered with second-guessing myself.”

To cope well you must be flexible, and that requires you to avoid extremism, be able to choose from multiple actions, and be comfortable with any of them. Requiring yourself to be an extremist, either this or that – but never a combination of both – in all situations is a losing, destructive strategy. It’s a form of avoidance – avoidance of the stress of falling short of your own expectations for yourself. Such avoidance disrupts any effort you make to cope with those stressors. Life is not always about finding perfection by choosing A or B; it’s knowing how to choose the best features of each.

PTSD — Am I at Risk?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) results from experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Depending on the severity of the event – falling off your bicycle and spraining your wrist would be less traumatic than being robbed at gunpoint – most people who experience trauma have only temporary difficulty; with time and good coping strategies, they usually get through it OK. Psychologists estimate that less than 10% of the population develops severe PTSD symptoms following even a harsh traumatic experience. In other words, most people handle the stress pretty well. But what about that 10%?

People who have a history of psychiatric disorders are more prone to PTSD. Also, experiencing childhood trauma leaves one vulnerable to PTSD following adult trauma, especially when the two traumas are similar – such as, being bitten by a dog as a child, and then again as an adult. Just as physical injuries leave the body vulnerable to later injury, so, too, do early psychological scars leave one vulnerable to later stress.

Some people have oversensitive nervous systems. They respond more intensely to loud noises, pain, and unexpected events, and are more prone to uneasiness and discomfort in new and strange environments. This biological make-up makes them more vulnerable to PTSD.

PTSD is also more likely among those who have lived a relatively sheltered, stress-free life, and who believe adversity and danger primarily affects others, not them. They have been indulged, and are ill-prepared for effective cognitive processing of trauma. If a trauma occurs, they react with denial – “This is not happening!” – or catastrophic thinking – “My world has ended!” Parents who go out of their way to indulge their kids and protect them from hardship and disappointment are actually engaging in a subtle form of emotional child abuse, and making their kids more vulnerable to PTSD.

Not surprisingly, people who feel isolated and lonely are more vulnerable to PTSD than those who have an extensive and supportive social network. When people are supported and helped by friends and family, they are better able to process trauma and avoid PTSD.

Those who have training about what to do when faced with trauma fare better after experiencing trauma. Soldiers undergo extensive training before they are sent into combat; school children have evacuation drills in case of fire or other emergency; some women take courses in self-defense to prepare themselves in case of personal attack. Such preparation can provide a sense of control over the unexpected, and equip people to deal with trauma more effectively.

The bottom line? PTSD is not inevitable following a frightening experience. That’s important to remember because being anxious over the possibility of developing PTSD can add to stress levels and complicate even mild symptoms after trauma. Talk about a self-fulling prophecy! “What’s the matter, Ann?” She replies, “Serving on that jury was really stressful. I’m scared to death I’m going to develop PTSD!” Ann is vulnerable to PTSD because she’s afraid she will develop PTSD!

Some other useful things to consider: When dealing with PTSD, remember that what works for someone else may not work for you – and that’s OK. Give yourself some time to process a traumatic event. You may need several days – or even a week or two – to adapt psychologically to what has occurred, and that’s OK. Premature discussions with counselors during that processing time might be ineffective, and may even worsen the impact of the original trauma.

In a supportive context with open sharing of thoughts and feelings, it’s usually helpful to talk with others who have experienced the same or similar traumas. Talking to yourself, writing about the experience, or recording yourself talking about the event may also be beneficial. Many victims find that privately expressing their deepest thoughts and feelings about what happened can help get emotions out so they can re-evaluate and process them. Finally, if appropriate, it may help to return to the place where the event took place. For many victims this step comes only after much preparation and support. The “visit” can be symbolic, as is the case when Vietnam veterans visit memorials like The Wall, or real as when veterans return to Normandy on the anniversary of D-Day.

Note that all these recovery techniques have two things in common: Neither denial nor self-blame are part of the coping process, and the process takes place in a context of what victims can control. One way or another, and at the appropriate time, victims accept the reality of the event, they take responsibility to face that reality head-on, and they take action to empower themselves for the future.

Cults II: The Cult of Self

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or group, and the second person personal pronoun “you” is used as a generic universal. The post presents possible speculations about coping with stress one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Do you distort reality and engage in twisted thinking just to hold on to a belief? Would you rather “be right” than “do right”? Is it hard for you to change your beliefs when others say your actions in service of your beliefs are irrational? It’s difficult to face these questions, but if examine objective evidence about your beliefs and discover you’re on shaky ground; if you hear friends you respect telling you often that you’re thinking irrationally; if you find yourself wanting to receive information only from those who agree with your way of thinking; if you’re troubled by emotional outbursts of anger, anxiety, jealousy, and paranoid accusations against those who disagree with you – well, if those descriptions fit you, you might consider that your thinking is cult-like, that you have become excessively dependent on a cult that is telling you what to believe.

You will likely refuse to accept this cult explanation, because – as we saw in last week’s post – cult devotion and obedience are extremely resistant to criticism or change. Why? The cult and your sense of purpose, the cult and your identity, the cult and your values – they have all merged into a single entity: “Self” and “Cult” have blended into one with no border separating them. In this case you are not really a member of some external cult. No, you are a member of the Cult of Self. Asking you to reject your cult values, principles, emotions, and ways of thinking is asking you to reject who you are. That will never work because your Cult of Self is how you hide your unresolved conflicts and maintain a fragile sense of psychological security. You are the cult and the cult is you. Doesn’t sound good, does it? And it gets worse!

Cults generally focus on “us” – the good guys – and “them” – the bad guys. But what if “us” and “them” are both you? What if your discomfort, uncertainty, and frustration about what’s going on around you boils down to your mind at war with itself? You’ve heard, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Well, a mind divided against itself cannot cope with reality, and requires scapegoats to survive. A mind divided against itself has no choice but to lash out at others, aggress against them – fight, hate, reject, retaliate, avenge. These negative emotions and actions become your world, a world you see as evil, unreasonable, and against you. That’s what the cult tells you, but in the Cult of Self, those out there are not your enemy; you are the enemy. Looking in the mirror becomes a metaphorical shouting match full of hate, fear, anger, and revulsion, and you don’t even realize it. When you fall under the spell of a cult, you declare war on yourself!

How can you break out of this prison? You must keep telling yourself: A mind that harbors anger toward itself cannot remain stable; a mind that only hears messages that give it comfort, and distorts messages it finds discomforting, cannot escape emotional disruption; a mind that cannot accept its own emotions becomes self-destructive, and slowly sinks into despair and depression. Your emotions become alien – the other, the outsiders – the “them.” A part of your mind becomes your cult leader, and renders you helpless. Is that what you want – to be helpless in the face of challenges? You see yourself as strong, capable, independent, competent, and autonomous. Well, if that’s true, why are you dominated by others who have assumed control of your mind? How did you become so weak?

Cult thinking does not survive on politics, patriotism, finances, or laws. If it did, others could help you reject your cult thinking by threatening arrest, paying you money, or showering you with guilt. Cult thinking is a psychological problem that encourages you to avoid challenges. It must be attacked with methods used by mental health professionals in a counseling context. The sources of your fears and anxieties – hidden deep in the recesses of your mind – must be attacked in ways that help you celebrate your humanity, not your helplessness and self-disgust. This will be the hardest battle you have ever fought. But you can stand on your own two feet. You can choose your values, purposes, and goals, and use them in constructive rather destructive ways. You can discover that the obstacles in your life road are not obstacles – they are the road. Choosing to travel this road will rid you of self-hatred and irrational fears, and bring you empowerment, self-esteem, and a healthy connection to yourself and others.