DEVELOPING ATTITUDES THAT HELP YOU COPE

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 Acceptance: Do you accept whatever happens or are you being dragged down the path of life kicking and screaming, "This shouldn't be happening!"? Methods #3 and #4 in this chapter--Challenging Irrational Ideas and Determinism--focus on acceptance of things as they are and avoidance of the "tyranny of the shoulds." This doesn't mean we can't change things. It means trying our best to change things and then accepting whatever we can't change. It means accepting our selves and finding our own fulfilling life (Kopp, 1991). Several other viewpoints emphasize acceptance of others: Carl Rogers (1961) recommended unconditional positive regard (chapter 9) in which we respect every human being regardless of what he/she may have done. This is similar to Buber's "I and Thou" relationships in which people revere one another. In empathy (chapter 13) the focus is on understanding, not judging, the other person. Any personality theory or insight method (chapter 15) which increases our understanding of others also increases our acceptance.

Christ: Love the sinner, condemn the sin.
Buddha: Love the sinner, realize sinning is a part of life.

Blaming others for who they are, without recognizing who they may become, is short-sighted.

 Folk wisdom (Fleming, 1988) tells us that understanding and forgiving others who have hurt us are two major steps towards a healthy life (see chapters 3 and 9). Miller (1995), drawing on Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian writings, encourages us to accept life as it unfolds and resist asking for more "goodies." Seek contentment with life through compassion with others (practice it rather than being critical or suspicious), attention to the nice and wondrous things happening at the moment (rather than on past regrets and future worries), and gratitude for all the things in life that we take for granted.

Every meal is really a communion.
-An old Quaker notion

 Also, remember that many skills, such as tennis or public speaking, are performed better if you can relax and "just let it flow." That is self-acceptance, mistakes and all.

 Attitudes that help us cope with crises: Do you have the stability and internal strength to weather crises? Can you see some potential good in almost any bad situation? Well adjusted, secure, self-actualized people handle crises without depression or bitterness. Such people may, in fact, become more sensitive and caring, less vindictive, and wiser, while others are crippled by the same crisis. How do they do this? They seem to have a "center" core of calm, optimism, personal faith, and tolerance that helps them weather emotional storms. There is also the concept of "centering" which (a) involves finding the middle ground between opposites so one can have a balanced, clear view of an issue, (b) removing yourself from stresses so you can find peace, as in meditation, and (c) building a solid center of self-esteem so one is not self-critical or buffeted by contradictory reactions from others. By withdrawing into our "center," we can "settle down" and avoid many destructive emotions.

 There are several attitudes that help people cope with crises and problems:

  1. The "so what if" technique. If you are worried about something bad happening, ask yourself, "So what, if this happens?" Many people create their own anxieties, e.g. "What if I make a fool of myself?," "What if they get mad at me?," or "What if he/she left me?" These "what if..." questions imply a terrible outcome, but realistically it may not be so bad. So, to reduce some of the worries, ask yourself two questions (Lazarus, 1971):

    • How big an "if" is in "what if"? How likely is this event I'm worrying about? How often have you worried about things that never happened?

    • So what if (this awful thing) actually happens? Would it be so terrible? Could some good come of it? Do others see it differently?

     If the event is unlikely, minor, or something you can't prepare for, stop worrying (see thought stopping in chapter 11).

     If the event is likely, major, and something you can prepare for, figure out the best way to handle it, make preparations (like role playing), and then forget it. Don't waste time worrying. Some people feel better by asking themselves, "What is the worst that could happen?" and telling themselves "I could handle it" or "it could be worse, I could be handicapped."

  2. Time projection (Lazarus, 1971). If you are depressed by oppressing circumstances, ask yourself, "What will I be doing in 1...5...10...20 years?" and "What are some of the good things that could happen?" Be optimistic. The future offers so many opportunities that looking into the future is an effective antidote to gloom.

     If you are lost or unmotivated and just marking time today, ask yourself, "What do I want to be doing 30...20...10...5 years from now?" Once the long-range goals are set, then tell yourself, "if my dream is going to come true, I will have to make progress towards those goals every day." Make up a daily schedule and get moving! Reality therapy takes this approach.

  3. Lowering expectations. Some people are unhappy because they had hoped for too much. They could feel better by being satisfied with less, by lowering their goals. Make your goals reasonable and achievable. Base them on your past performance--maybe a little higher and gradually increasing. Give up impossible dreams. Examples: If you want all A's but make C's, try for a B or two next semester (and increase your study hours, study with a good student, improve your study skills, and so on). If you are working hard but making low C's in chemistry, give up the goal of becoming a doctor.

    Caution: It may be hard to find the middle ground between having frustratingly high goals and not expecting enough of yourself. Lowering your expectations may become a way of excusing oneself or of avoiding hard work, "Oh, I didn't expect (wasn't trying) to win." Having high ambitions motivates us. Having high but barely attainable goals and doing your very best are unavoidably demanding and stressful. But, how else can you fulfill your potential? However, perhaps the solution to this dilemma is to have highly inspiring dreams but at the same time be tolerant of the inevitable occasional failure. Shoot for the moon, but expect some falls.

  4. "I can think clearly and creatively. " We may be able to learn new attitudes and techniques that enable us to be more creative, more innovative, more original--to go further in our thinking than most people go (Adams, 1986; Schank & Childers, 1988). In straight thinking and common sense (method #8 above), we learned some pitfalls to avoid; in chapter 13, we reviewed decision-making. D'Zurilla (1986) recommends therapists adopt a problem-solving approach. In the last 10 years, educational specialists have tried to teach thinking skills in school via asking probing, challenging questions, group discussions, enhancing listening, attending and categorizing skills, teaching problem-solving and decision-making, and so on. We have to feel responsible and able to think before we take problem solving seriously; otherwise, we let authorities, writers, friends, and others think for us. This is an important attitude to bolster our independence.

 Faith: in a religion, in priests and healers, in science, in spirits, in others, in ourself, in drugs, in treatment and so on. Beliefs in sources of help, such as science or religion, have a powerful influence on our lives. Over 90% of Americans believe in some kind of higher power, a superior being or force. Awesome powers and consequences are thought to be involved: God answering each person's prayers, determining everything that has ever happened or ever will happen, arranging for ever-lasting life in heaven or through reincarnation, providing an intimate, personal relationship with the supreme being, and so on. In addition, many people all over the earth (and since prerecorded times) depend on God or spirits to heal physical diseases, to bring good weather, to provide necessities, and to relieve mental suffering. Examples: faith-healers like Oral Roberts, witch-doctors in Africa, medicine men among the Indians, Buddhist devotion to ancestral spirits, and shaman in primitive tribes.

 Keep in mind that 75% of the people on earth today have no access to modern, scientifically based medicine...or to psychotherapy or psychological self-help. For that 75%, spiritual help and community-family support is all that is available. Even after modern medicine and psychotherapy are make available, it takes a generation or two for a culture to give up the old beliefs and accept the new. For example, 90% of Native Americans felt helped by going to the tribe's shaman but only 40% felt helped by mental health counselors (Cordes, 1985). Having faith in your source of help is a critical factor in determining it's effectiveness, especially in religious and psychological treatment (Frank, 1974). In fact, in some instances, the power of your own belief system--the "suggestion or placebo effect"--may be much greater than the drug, faith healer, religion, therapy, or self-help method you may use. In addition, belief in culturally accepted healing methods--religious or scientific--is often powerfully reinforced by a caring community and by a supportive family. There are many reasons why the things we believe in actually work for us. Knowing the truth, however, about what really works and why should help us in the long run.

 As observed in chapter 6 on depression, becoming more "in tune with" a protective, caring, loving, omnipotent God is surely spiritually and emotionally uplifting. With religion, life definitely has some special meaning; you become significant. What could be more reassuring and comforting than to be approved of and loved by God? Many people who are lonely, depressed, anxious, self-critical, purposeless, and lost would be well advised to investigate the benefits they might get from a carefully selected and loving religious group. There are thousands of books attempting to persuade people to become religious and depend on God. Norman Vincent Peale would be an example. Many studies, however, have found little or no relationship overall between religiosity and honesty, helping others, obeying the law, or psychological adjustment. Yet, George Gallup & Jones (1992) say that the most committed 13% of the believers are the happiest, most tolerant, and ethical (compared to the less committed). Likewise, among only the more active religious youth, there is some suggestion of less delinquency (Cochran, 1989) and greater closeness with their parents. On the other hand, the highly religious seem to be more guilt prone (Richards, 1991). Some people become "addicted" to their religious beliefs. Father Leo Booth (1992) helps people escape from religious addiction. And, Winell (1994) helps former fundamentalists with their guilt, fear, anger and other losses. The benefits of religion seem to be limited primarily to the most devout, but the most devout are also the most susceptible to becoming addicted or obsessed.

 Another viewpoint is held by certain Humanists who contend that religious involvement frequently distracts us from helping others in need. For instance, some churches are much more interested in "saving souls" than in "helping the poor." Some would rather build an expensive church than feed the poor. Fundamentalists sometimes believe everything is God's will; thus, all you have to do is believe in God and pray, then the world will be as it should be. Other churches agree with the Humanists, emphasizing that we each must love one another and take responsibility for making things better. I find it hard to believe that any God would approve of 42,000 children dying every day from preventable illnesses and hunger, 600,000 mothers dying in childbirth every year from lack of medical care, and 1.2 billion people living on less than $1 a day, while others of the same species live in luxury. If religions can't influence our moral decisions (including killing for religious causes), what are they for?

 It is firmly believed by almost all caring, giving people (whether religious or not) that helping others helps you feel good too. Chapter 3 tries to help you find meaning in life, which may or may not involve religion. James Fowler (1981) says all religious faith develops in seven stages (like Kohlberg's stages of moral development) and involves making meaning out of our lives, starting with the primitive belief that "if I am good, God will be good to me," through youthful acceptance of "hand-me-down beliefs," on to maturely accepting "responsibility for deciding what is meaningful," and, finally, on to "feeling at one with God and everyone, and acting accordingly." You may want to read more about faith in order to strengthen or challenge your own beliefs.

STEP THREE: Establish the desired attitude cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally.

 As stated in the general idea above, there is a cognitive, an emotional, and a behavioral component to every attitude, just as there are five parts to every problem (chapter 2). Therefore, if you think you want to adopt a new, more helpful attitude, you need to (1) be sure you really believe and accept the attitude, (2) modify your feelings so they are in keeping with the desired attitude, and (3) start behaving in ways consistent with that attitude. Examples: If you don't live your values, they aren't really your values. If you think you want to be a people helper but don't eagerly seek out the needed knowledge and don't feel positive about the hard work involved in acquiring information about helping, your attitude towards people-helping isn't consistent; you aren't wholeheartedly committed to being a people helper. In short, cognitive attitudes or ideals must be scheduled and acted out routinely. Moreover, the thoughts and actions must be associated with positive feelings.

 Suppose you have been a perfectionist and have decided to lower your expectations because you have often been upset by failing to meet your impossibly high goals. Let's say you have cognitively set lower goals and accepted the reasoning for doing so. You can also change your behavior by becoming less driven, less obsessed, and able to attend to other activities. But whenever you fail to reach the very high, perfectionistic standards you have sought for many years (but recently decided to change), you may still get anxious, self-derogatory, and depressed. Thus, the emotional component is not yet in line with the cognitive and behavioral aspect of the attitude. Perhaps you could desensitize yourself to these "failures" (that are a part of your new rationally set lower goals); you might even need to plan to have several such "failures" in order to learn to tolerate the new standards.

 Another example: Beginning students in psychology wanting, cognitively, to become understanding and tolerant of all potential clients frequently continue to respond with strong negative or fearful emotions to psychotics, criminals, abusers, homosexuals, and so on. These are our clients. Every psychologist must conquer these critical emotions. Therapists-in-training can use desensitization, expose themselves so long to such clients that they are no longer bothered, talk themselves out of having such emotional responses, and/or become so knowledgeable about such people (and all other types) that they "understand and accept" such clients. This is the mark of a learned person; however, in no way should such an attitude imply approval of the awful actions committed by the violent criminal.

 Some additional ideas about how to change your own attitudes: once you have decided on what attitude will work best for you, mentally rehearse thinking, feeling and acting that way until you can adopt that attitude in real life. If you think your situation is awful, try to imagine a worse-case scenario, e.g. suppose you haven't just lost a sale but lost your lover or your sight or your child, or reframe the situation, e.g. rather than wanting to get drunk to escape being upset, try to figure out how you could act more constructively. Remember too that you can change your self-talk: "I-can-handle-it" talk is a lot more productive than "I-don't-know-what-to-do" talk. Encouraging sayings can help, such as "I will try for what I want; I will want what I get," "every crisis presents an opportunity," "every experience, even failure, teaches me something," "if what I'm doing isn't working, I'll try something else," "positive thinking gets me further than negative thinking," "everything passes," "the situation bothered me but it's behind me now," "maybe something good will come out of this mess," etc.

Time involved

 Most of the attitudes mentioned in this section would require considerable time to learn, if you were starting with a negative attitude. One doesn't develop a new philosophy of life or a broad belief in self-efficacy or an acceptance of others quickly. But, fortunately, most people already have many positive, helpful attitudes.

Common problems

 Each attitude would have its own problems, i.e. different obstacles to the adoption of that attitude. For instance, many people are conditioned to have negative reactions, even by age 18 or 20, to racial groups, to mental illness, to obese and unattractive people, to old people, to violent criminals, etc. As a result, the development of tolerant, understanding attitudes towards these people is very difficult. The only solution I know of is to get a lot of experience with the type of person you don't understand or don't like. Examples: If you feel negatively towards welfare mothers, get to know several intimately and find how they got in that situation. If homosexuality is disgusting to you, make friends with many gays and lesbians; empathize with their needs for love.

Effectiveness, advantages and dangers

 Very little is known scientifically about how to change your own attitudes or about the effects of doing so. There is a great deal of clinical and practical knowledge about these matters, however. Love one another is an old idea (but we can't do it yet). Quite a bit is known about persuading others (see chapter 13), mostly sales. Most of the attitudes mentioned above sound beneficial and have been advocated by outstanding philosophers, therapists, and wise people. But, the ramifications of broad general attitudes, such as "I'm in control of my life" or "tolerance of others," are so vast that the precise measurement necessary for science has not yet been done. The limited research findings (primarily about self-efficacy) are theory-oriented, proving only that thinking you are effective is associated with being effective. Research findings are not very practical thus far in terms of actually showing us how to build self-efficacy and gain control of our lives. The research will probably become more personally useful in the next 10 to 20 years.

 There are no known dangers but some are conceivable: beliefs in self-efficacy may exaggerate how much control you actually have and could lead to an unrealistic sense of self-responsibility; a demanding philosophy of life may increase stress and guilt; an accepting attitude based on determinism may reduce your zeal to wipe out injustice and so on. These risks seem small relative to the gains some of these attitudes might yield.


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