DEVELOPING ATTITUDES THAT HELP YOU COPE

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 The same circumstances may crush one person, hardly concern another, and even be considered an interesting challenge by a third person. What makes the difference? One's attitude! Thus, advice-givers often suggest certain attitudes: "have a positive mental attitude," "believe in yourself," "look for the best in people," "whatever happens is for the best--it's God's will," and so on. These ideas may help some people feel better and perhaps do better, if they can figure out how to adopt the suggested attitude. Clearly, a negative attitude--dire expectations, pessimism, distrust, fear, anger, fault-finding--can create problems. A positive, excited, hopeful, confident, enthusiastic person can be a joy to be with (and he/she sells more insurance). The problem is how to get rid of bad attitudes and learn good ones.

 Our attitudes influence our behavior and vice versa (Sears, Peplau, Freedman & Taylor, 1988). Not surprising, many attitudes have already been dealt with in this book. Examples: in chapters 1 and 2, positive but realistic attitudes about self-help are advocated. In chapter 3, the importance of deciding on your major purpose for living is emphasized; the Golden Rule is advocated. A major form of therapy, Frankl's (1970) Logotherapy, means "health through meaning." In chapters 2 and 4, the belief that you can change your behavior, that your problems are solvable by you, leads to better problem solving. In chapters 5 and 6, the expectation that things will get worse and that you will be helpless produce anxiety and depression or a pessimistic attitude. In chapter 7, the view that others should have behaved differently leads to anger (and as we have seen in this chapter, determinism leads to tolerance). In chapter 8, the submissive person must start to believe she/he has a right to equal treatment in order to effectively demand her/his rights. In chapter 9, if we think of ourselves as being the result of several constantly competing parts, we will have more self-understanding. In chapter 10, we will see that our attitudes toward the opposite sex, marriage, and sexuality have great impact on our interpersonal relations, sexual preferences, commitment, etc.

 An attitude is defined as a manner, disposition, or feeling about a person, event, or thing. Recognizing the three components of every attitude may be helpful: (1) the cognitive or knowledge part (what you know, think, or believe about the person or situation), (2) the feeling or evaluative part (what emotions you have towards the person or situation), and (3) the behavioral part (your actions with the person or in the situation). Ordinarily, the cognitive aspect of an attitude is much more complex than the feeling aspect, e.g. our positive or negative thoughts about virginity are much more complex than our emotional or behavioral reactions in sexual situations. Perhaps because of it's simplicity, the emotional part of an attitude usually has more influence over our behavior than the complex, ambivalent, and easily overlooked cognitive part has, but each part may affect the other two parts (Sears, Peplau, Freedman & Taylor, 1988).

 Any one of the three parts of an attitude may be changed as part of a self-help effort to change the other two parts. Examples: First, changing your cognition or viewpoint may change your feelings and action. Most of the suggestions given below in this method illustrate this approach. Secondly, changing your behavior may also change the feeling and cognitive part of your attitude. This occurs primarily when you feel personally responsible for your decision to change (not forced or bought off--you had a choice, made it, and could have foreseen the consequences). For example, if you have had to choose--and it's a close call--between two schools or two friends or two boy-girlfriends, afterwards your thoughts and feelings about the chosen one become more positive while the rejected one is seen more negatively. Another example: If a poor student decided to study much harder next semester, managed to do so, and got better grades, his/her attitude toward studying would become more positive and his/her attitude towards socializing, TV, etc. would become more negative. Thirdly, changing the strong emotions you have about something will, of course, change your behavior and your cognition. Example: If a certain kind of sexual activity, say mouth-genital contact, were repulsive to you, but you desensitized (extinguished) this emotion, then your thoughts about this activity would change and so might your actions. Obviously, there are many ways to change attitudes.

 A self-helper needs to have hope. Even when people suffer serious losses (divorce, get cancer, permanently disabled), individuals have all kinds of reactions--sadness, anger, stress, apathy--but under certain conditions a person will strive mightily to regain his/her mastery over the situation (Sears, Peplau, Freedman & Taylor, 1988, pp. 147-152). Cancer victims, for instance, sometimes learn all they can and vigorously fight the cancer, which can be helpful. People who have been rejected by a lover try to understand what happened; that can help. Paraplegics, who take some responsibility for their accident and don't entirely blame others, cope with their paralysis better. Women, who avoid blaming their moral character ("I'm irresponsible, weak, bad...") for their unwanted pregnancies, handle having an abortion better than self-blamers. It is important to believe we can help ourselves... and to prove it by our actions.

 This method summarizes several specific methods for changing our attitudes, our expectations, or our views of the situation.

The greatest discovery of my generation (about 1900) is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.
-William James

Purposes

 There are many attitudes that may help us feel better about ourselves or others, more in control of our lives, and more accepting of whatever happens to us. Here are some suggestions.

Steps

STEP ONE: Accurately assess your attitudes.

 From self-observation, you realize certain attitudes--you are pessimistic or optimistic, religious or agnostic, extroverted or introverted, careful or impulsive, etc. From others' comments, you may suspect that you have certain traits--tolerant or critical, perfectionistic or sloppy, chauvinist or feeling inferior, etc. From tests or scales, you can get factual information about how your attitudes compare to others, for example several previous chapters provide brief measures of concern for others (chapter 3), stress (chapter 5), sadness and perfectionism (chapter 6), anger and distrust of others (chapter 7), internalizer-externalizer (chapter 8), strength of parent, adult and child (chapter 9), meaning of sex to you (chapter 10), self-esteem (chapter 14), use of defense mechanisms (chapter 15), and others. There are hundreds of attitude tests, including.......

 When our attitudes (the feelings and cognitive parts) are strong and clear, our behavior is usually in line with the attitude. But it is not uncommon for our behavior to differ from our weak or ambivalent attitude towards an act. Examples: we smoke or drink in spite of knowing the harm it can do and feeling that smoking or drinking is a nasty habit. We think we agree with the Golden Rule but we don't act that way. We procrastinate in our studies in spite of knowing many reasons to study and feeling good about doing well in school. We act friendly towards people we dislike or think badly of. This situation where you think one way but act another is called cognitive dissonance. There is a tendency--a pressure--to become cognitively consistent, i.e. to get the three parts in agreement, so we tend to change our thinking to fit our feelings or change our thinking-feelings to fit our behavior and so on. The point here, however, is that you should not be fooled by these inconsistent attitudes. There are probably many of them. Carefully attend to all three parts of an attitude--thoughts, feelings, and actions. Any of the three may be a problem or in need of strengthening.

 To understand our attitudes, we need to explore several areas:

 This kind of self-exploration will clarify your current attitude about any issue that concerns you and, in fact, may lead to changes rather automatically or, at least, help you plan for changes.

STEP TWO: Find new attitudes that seem useful.

 New or different attitudes are advocated by many sources. Religions preach certain attitudes, like love one another, respect your parents, everything comes from God, sin is punished, etc. Therapies teach us to like ourselves, take responsibility for our feelings, expect treatment to be effective, etc. Sales managers tell the sales force to think positive, to be enthusiastic, to act as though it is a foregone conclusion that the customer will give a big order, to follow up with service, etc. This book says knowledge is useful, take charge of your life, you can change things, etc. These are all attitudes.

 I have already reviewed for you (2nd paragraph) some of the attitudes discussed in different chapters. In addition, six major areas will be focused on here: meaning in life, optimism, self-efficacy, acceptance of life, crisis intervention techniques, and faith in religion or science.

 Moral self-direction: Have you found your "place," a satisfying purpose in your life, a way to make your life meaningful? Have you learned the skill of finding or making something meaningful in any situation you face? Which purposes are worth your life? That is, what activities will you spend your life pursuing? If you are seeking the highest possible purpose, Frankl (1970) and Fabry (1988) say you can never know for sure the "ultimate meaning" of life. Like religion, ultimate meaning is a personal belief or a faith, not an established, proven truth that every rational person accepts. You could search for the ultimate meaning forever. You may someday think you have found it, but others will say, "I'm glad you are at peace" and go on their way unfazed by your discovery. Of course, you could be approaching "the truth;" you just can't be certain of it. There is wisdom about purposes and meaning to be had, e.g. in religious sayings, in some laws and customs, and in the writings of great thinkers. But, in the end, each person chooses the purposes of life that are meaningful to him/her (or defaults by accepting someone else's judgments). Today, values and judgments about what has meaning are changing.

 There are lots of preachers, politicians, teachers, philosophers, elders, singers, and friends trying to persuade you of what is meaningful. My chapter 3 gives you my best shot. Please note that there are at least two steps involved here. First, you go searching for the answer, as in chapter 3 where you consider and compare many purposes of life, such as serving God, doing good for others, being happy, making lots of money, having a good family life, being successful, being content, and others. Second, after deciding on a goal--in this case an answer to "What is most important?"--you must then focus on the details of how to achieve your goals. We don't just automatically do whatever we decide we should do, right? This book and hundreds of others focus on enhancing these on-going, life-long, purposeful efforts. Surely there are advantages to knowing what your guiding principles are.

 But separate from the searching for "ultimate meaning "--an overall purpose or philosophy of life, like the Golden Rule--the logotherapists do an excellent job of helping a person find a "meaning of the moment. " You can almost always find something helpful to do in any situation, something considerate of others. Meaning, in this sense, is everywhere. How do you find special meaning in every situation, even boring or stressful ones? Fabry (1988) suggests these five guideposts for finding meaning wherever you are:

  1. How can I discover more about myself? The more you see yourself from different angles and in different settings--and the more honest you are about your feelings--the more meaning you will see in the world around you.

  2. Can I think of lots of choices I have in this situation? There are usually many alternatives. The more freedom of choice you have, the more meaning the situation has for you.

  3. Can I make a unique contribution in this situation? The more you feel that only you could or would have done what you did, the more meaning you get out of the situation.

  4. Can I take some responsibility for improving this situation? Something positive can be done in most situations. The more responsibly you behave, the more meaningful your life will be.

  5. How can I help others? How can I take care of others' needs, rather than my own? Self-centeredness--thinking about yourself--lessens the meaningfulness of a situation; altruism--thinking about others--increases it.

 These questions are designed to help your conscience decide what to do. A logotherapist focuses on your positive traits, your hopes, your peak experiences, and any other hint as to what would be meaningful to you. The idea is to feel good by finding something meaningful to do. And, meaningful acts, according to Frankl, are not seeking fun, status, money or power. But, how do you convince yourself to adopt these new attitudes? It sounds a little feeble just to say by "self-confrontation" (see chapter 3).

 Optimism: Do you believe that, in general, things will work out pretty well for you in life? Optimism is your explanatory style--your attributions and, even more so, your hopeful expectations of the future. Optimism is good for you! More and more research supports this view (Seligman, 1991, 1995; Scheier & Carver, 1992), but as a society we are becoming more and more pessimistic. Having hope and expecting positive outcomes buffer you from the ravages of psychological distress. You have better mental and physical health. Seligman says success at work requires ability, motivation, and optimism. If you don't believe you can do something, you won't try, no matter how talented you are or how much you hope for success. Underachievers tend to be pessimists, overachievers optimists. Optimism is related to but different from self-esteem, self-efficacy, and being happy. Having a hopeless view (chapter 6) contributes to depression. Because women worry and ruminate more about their problems than men (men play basketball or "do yard work" on the weekends), they are twice as depressed as men.

 A healthy optimist is not blind; he/she faces facts and problems, avoiding the denial of a pessimist. Also, do not confuse optimism with simply a Pollyanna attitude. Optimists are not always cheerful, everything isn't always "wonderful," although they are more ready and able to see different ways to see and solve a bad situation. When it is needed, they are more likely to change their diets, exercise more, give up drinking, recover from suicidal depression, etc. They see themselves as active agents influencing their futures. And, as change agents, they may tend to become overly optimistic and, in deed, their mental and physical well-being may improve as a result of their unrealistic views of their ability to change things (Taylor, 1989). How do you become a more active optimist? Should you even develop positive illusions? Taylor says yes.

 Seligman (1995) recommends raising self-reliant children to protect them from depression and provides parents with many steps for developing an optimistic child.. McGinnis (1990) also devotes an entire book to increasing optimism and suggests 13 steps: (1) face reality, expect bad times, and become a problem-solver, (2) look for the good in bad situations, perhaps there will be a partial solution there, (3) cultivate a faith in your self-control, (4) seek ways to renew your spirit, your energy, and your devotion to a cause, (5) challenge your negative and irrational thoughts, (6) learn to "smell the roses" and appreciate life, (7) use your fantasy to rehearse for future challenges, (8) smile, laugh, and find something to celebrate even in hard times, (9) believe in the awesome power of humans--and you in particular--to solve problems, (10) love many things passionately--nature, art, play, but above all love people, (11) vent your anger but temper it with empathy and tolerance, (12) don't complain, instead, share good news with others, and (13) accept what can't be changed. You will quickly realize that most of these prescriptions are described in detail in this chapter or elsewhere in this book. An optimistic attitude is a blessing. However, that doesn't mean that negative thinking can't be used to advantage in some situations.

 It is inevitable that with optimism being highly praised, there will be critics. Julie Norem (2001) has written a book that says, what should be obvious to thinking people, that negative thinking--anticipating possible pitfalls and problems--can help some people plan and prepare for trouble. This process can reduce some people's anxiety if they come to (with coping strategies) believe they can cope. Just reviewing over and over imaginary problems and worse-case scenarios (without any idea how to handle them) will not calm most of us nor make us more competent. Negative thinking can, no doubt, be an asset in some situations for certain types of people (maybe all of us); however, the advocates of "defensive pessimism" and critics of optimism are basically using negative thinking to cope better and bolster optimism. There are many different stategies.

 You will recognize that positive psychology is encroaching on a stronghold of religion, namely, positive thinking. To his credit, Norman Vincent Peale helped us think positively about the power of positive thinking. Other tele-evangelists also jumped on the bandwagon, such as Robert Schuller. The problem is this: religion relies primarily on faith and prayer to give us hope. Mental health professionals say religious optimists imply that all problems are solved quickly, easily, automatically just by simply being religious and expecting miraculous changes (Santrock, Minnett & Campbell, 1994). Science doesn't immediately accept this assumption. Psychology relies on science and the laws of behavior to discover specific, proven methods of solving problems. Knowledge is a source of power and optimism.


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