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?

Cyberbullies

A girl gets into a prestigious college a few days after she breaks up with her boyfriend. He gets all bent out of shape over her acceptance and begins bullying her anonymously on social media. Before she knows it, others – strangers – join in and are merciless in their vilification of her.

In this example, there are several standard features from social psychology. First of all, the guy doing the bullying is obviously jealous of his former girlfriend, and angry at her for rejecting him and threatening his fragile ego. In short, her success frightens him, and his bullying is an effort to hide his insecurities. The girl has the upper hand and doesn’t even realize it. Second, people who don’t even know this girl join in abusing her. They’re probably harboring inner anger toward themselves and tormented by guilt and fear; attacking a stranger somehow makes them feel in control. Third, consistent with the data, our victim is female – women and people of color are much more likely to be bullied online. And fourth, our victim has achieved something not everyone does – admittance to a high-status college. Successful women are especially vulnerable to cyberbullying.

Many mental health professionals feel that cyberbullying is amplified because the bully really doesn’t understand the personal damage he is doing to his victim; in short, he has no empathy. That’s may be true in some cases, but it ignores other psychological dynamics that are frequently in play: the bully often has strong sociopathic tendencies that override empathy; the bully truly does want to inflict harm on his victim; and, the bully operates from a grotesque motivation to elevate his low self-esteem to avoid facing the fear and shame from some previous unresolved conflict. To the extent that these dynamics are in play – and I believe they are in most cases of bullying – might Retaliation be one effective strategy for the victim to use?

April had the same bullying experience as our girl above. She got so angry she enlisted the help of several of her good friends, and they saturated a variety of social media sites with vicious rumors and misinformation about her bully, including not-so-subtle belittling references to her attacker’s manhood. As expected, many strangers joined in, no doubt victims of bullying themselves from their own ex’s online tirades. April’s tormentor didn’t have a chance. He was slandered, pilloried, and denigrated so brutally that he removed his original posts against April. As April put it, “The pig could dish it out, but he sure couldn’t take it!”

What do you think? Is retaliation a good way to defeat a bully?

The “Wow” Factor

            Several years ago, a student introduced me to her family, which included her little brother, Hank, who was about five. When I said, “Hi, Hank,” he replied, “What’s your favorite word?” Kids. Ya gotta love ‘em. Surprisingly, however, – to me at least – without any thought, I just blurted out, “Wow. My favorite word is wow.” I guess he didn’t expect an answer because he just turned around and said, “Daddy, when are we leaving?” Great tonic for my ego! Thanks, Hank. Later that day I found myself wondering why my brain pulled that word out of a hat. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true. So often in my life, I find myself fascinated, surprised, shocked, or even bewildered, by someone or some event, and my usual first reaction is, “Wow.”

I think “Wow” is an indication that I am involved in an event; the event has affected me personally and I am reacting accordingly. To some extent, I guess I go through life in “Wow” mode, and – for better or worse – live and interact with the life events that unfold around me. “Wow” makes me want to enjoy and appreciate, analyze and understand an event, and resolve discrepancies between that event and my reactions. I suppose I want to be able to use the event to inspire improvement in my own life.

            Believe it or not – you might even mutter an incredulous “Wow” when you read my next comments – just the other day, right out of the blue, my brain threw me a connection between “Wow” and good coping. Really. Imagine this scenario playing out with a guy we’ll call Ken. Seems Ken got into an argument with Ray, one of his work colleagues. For the rest of the day, and into a restless sleep, Ken dwelled on the argument and didn’t know how to approach Ray the next day. “Wow,” Ken thought, “what is going on here? I never obsess over disagreements like this, conflicts with others, confrontations. What’s different here? Why is it affecting me so?”

            Ken’s “wow” is showing the first step in coping: Acceptance. Then he asks, “What’s going on? Why am I reacting differently to my argument with Ray than I normally do? These questions show he is seeking accountability from himself, the second step in effective coping with stress. There’s no doubt that Ken will probably talk with Ray about their disagreement; he will probe his attitudes toward Ray and try to discover any triggers in their disagreement that produced his atypical reactions to the disagreement. The point is, the “wow factor” will encourage Ken to formulate a plan of action – the third coping step – to resolve his stress. Right down the line, “Wow” fosters healthy coping reactions.

            OK, “wow” is good. Well, what happens when there’s no “Wow,” no concern on Ken’s part for why he is responding in a peculiar way? In this case, there is no acceptance, and no accountability. Ken’s likely conclusion is that Ray is an idiot for disagreeing; he will simply deny any unusual reaction on his part, and conclude that Ray is wrong and his opinions must be ignored. Without “Wow,” Ken’s self-absorbed denial and avoidance cast Ray as an enemy, and then Ken must find allies in the workplace who agree with him about Ray, and thus help Ken justify his rejection of Ray as incompetent. Ken will need dependency on others to maintain stability, prevent a loss of personal control, and thwart any descent into depression and self-destructiveness. Without “Wow,” Ken is nothing more than a fed-up cynic.

            What’s the moral of my story? Add “Wow” to your coping arsenal. Doing so will help you experience and appreciate life’s curve calls. “Wow” will help you see life not as threatening, but as challenging in its unpredictability – a vision that will help you be proactive and confident in dealing with unexpected and stressful events; “Wow” will help you understand that when life makes you uncomfortable, you must work to improve yourself, not deny and run away.

Self-Defeating Behavior II

When you get into a pattern of avoiding stress, you risk becoming weak, passive, and dependent on others; your self-esteem decreases as you become increasingly self-critical, and vulnerable to dysfunctions like depression. At this point, it may seem appropriate to resort to coping measures that you don’t realize are self-defeating and destructive. That is, your thoughts and actions damage your mental and physical well-being, and significantly reduce your quality of life. Therapist Michael Church has identified four self-destructive types, Direct-Active (See blog entry for November 5, 2021), Indirect-Active, Direct Passive, and Indirect-Passive. Let’s take a look at the Indirect-Active type. This type actively seeks and responds to situations by taking indirect action. Examples include excessive use and preoccupation with medical or psychiatric drugs to cope with problems, and a gallery of personality dysfunctions including paranoid, obsessive compulsive, borderline, and narcissistic tendencies.

            Don was raised in a family tradition of successful men. His father was a difficult and stern man, although highly respected in his community. He was well known and had status and influence. Don, a small and sensitive boy, was pretty much in awe of his father. His mom was a homemaker who stayed mostly in the background, but tried to be nurturant and supportive of her son. His dad could be tough on him, and they did not have a close relationship. Dad’s non-negotiable message was clear: “You will excel and stand out.” Don did so and matriculated at a prestigious college and then professional school where he completed an advanced degree. In college Don was not a partier. Quite the opposite, he was very obsessive, anxious, and a loner. He could be social when it came to advancing his status or opportunities, but having fun with the guys was not his cup of tea. His focus was always on meeting dad’s expectations to keep his own anxiety and self-doubts low.

            After college Don married and they began a family. His wife was a stay-at-home mom who kept busy with domestic duties. Don worked hard and spent long hours at the office. What looked like ambition, however, was really an effort to avoid stressors. His anxiety, self-criticism, and avoidance tendencies increased significantly when unexpected expenses arose at home, and when he had to adjust to a new boss at work. His smoking increased, and he became progressively more distant from his family. He seldom attended any of his kids’ special events, such as sports competitions, even though he could have rearranged his work hours. He worked most weekends, and when he was home, he was usually unavailable for his kids. Self-defeating actions were slowly kicking in, and they were damaging the stability of his family.

            His physician prescribed anti-anxiety medications that he took for years, even though his diagnosis was never precisely clear. From a distance, it appeared he suffered from some type of anxiety disorder, with avoidant, dependent, and narcissistic personality features. However, he never confronted his core anxieties with a professional therapist; he just kept treating his symptoms. He did not exercise and had an unhealthy, high-sugar diet. This combination of his poor health habits and poor coping skills eventually led to significant health problems. His anxiety levels rose, he became indecisive and unsure about how to deal with both work and domestic responsibilities, and he started “disappearing” for hours at a time, or staying up late to be by himself.

            As time went on, Don suffered through three bypass surgeries and bladder cancer. His poor health habits continued, and his self-destructive tendencies remained largely unchanged. Don refused to face and accept the reality that he was alienated his family, and he never accepted that he had personality dysfunctions needing to be addressed in psychotherapy. Instead, he covered them up, like he did so many things in his life. Lacking responsible adult guidance, his children learned to be self-defeating in their own ways. All of them ended up in counseling trying to understand their coping deficits and how to overcome them. Before his death from multiple health problems, Don told his kids he was aware of his negative impact and poor parenting, but confessed he lacked the strength and motivation to overcome his self-defeating ways. Don’s sole purpose for living was designed to avoid stress and discomfort at all costs. In narcissistic fashion, he was concerned only with himself, and constantly preoccupied with running from negative experiences, even while knowing he was neither providing emotional support for his family, nor being a positive role model for his kids. The result not only destroyed him, but also inflicted devastating psychological damage on his family.