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How Do You Cope? - 2/22/2010

There are two ways individuals cope with anything that provokes stress and threat.   They are fight or flight.  Unfortunately, in the long run, neither of these are effective or healthy.  You can kill anything you don’t want to deal with, but somewhere deep inside, it remains a constant threat to your sense of well being.  Consequently, you must constantly be on guard to ensure that it doesn’t rear its ugly head.  Similarly, you can never run far enough, deny  it, or become so involved in other activities that you lose sight of it.  Thus, it’s always there, hiding beneath the surface, ready to cause anxiety and stress.

There is a third alternative.  Face it.  It’s the motto I’ve advocated throughout years of giving therapy.  It’s easy to say, but difficult to do because most of you have become quite proficient at either avoiding or killing anything you perceive as threatening.  You may, however, not be consciously aware of that fact, because these anxiety producing elements manifest themselves in a myriad of ways, i.e., through physical symptoms, depression, hostility, lack of energy and a host of addictive behaviors.  

Aware or not, they are invariably destructive to you physically, intellectually, emotionally and professionally.  Despite that, many of you are willing to pay that price to avoid hearing your inner voice which can utter truths so painfully frightening, you’ll do anything not to hear them.  

For example, Harry, age 62, is one of the most cordial, kind, passive men you’ll ever meet.  He “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, but that doesn’t say he wouldn’t hurt himself.  In fact, that’s what he’s done all his life.  He’s denied who he is, what he feels and what he thinks, in order to avoid facing himself.   It shouldn’t be surprising that, growing up, Harry escaped his mother’s wrath by  never causing problems, by heeding her every word and deferring to her decisions. It’s no wonder he delayed marrying until age 38, or that the women he dated accused him of being married to his work.   They were right.  It served to protect him from any woman who might control him.  Was Harry aware of this?  Not at all.  

Of late, Harry has become depressed.  He cries, finds it difficult to sleep or concentrate and has lost interest  in his home and work.  He came to therapy at the request of his mother and his wife, but claimeh to have no idea what was bothering him.  His primary concern was his depression and the possibility he was experiencing an emotional breakdown.  

Instead, I suggested he was having an emotional breakthrough, but that it was frightening to him because it was atypical of anything he experienced earlier in life and, therefore, was emotionally overwhelming.   I noted that one interpretation of depression is “anger turned inward”.  That, after years of building up resentments related to living life passively and keeping his own feelings submerged, the pressure had built to the point that he was ready to “explode”.  But, in his case, the explosion very likely consisted of an implosion.  Intellectually, he comprehended my words.  Emotionally, he appeared unaffected.   Because of the degree of stress he was experiencing, I referred him for medication but, in no way, did I feel that it would cure his problem.  Eventually, Harry would have to face the emotions he had carried with him since childhood.  It’s the price he’d have to pay for prostituting his values, opinions and identity throughout his life.  

Some of you may have difficulty relating to Harry’s situation, in that his is an extreme case.  But, what you can see is that Harry and many of you, whether male or female,  live the same lie.  You rarely say what you feel or think.  If you do, you camouflage it, unless you’re sufficiently angry to justify uttering the truth.  

But you aren’t alone.  I recently saw a man who asked his wife to buy presents for three of his employees.  She never got around to it until the last minute, when she said, ‘It’s too late to find something meaningful.”  His retort was “One of the girls loves to go to the beauty parlor.  Get her a gift certificate to a spa.    Another loves cooking.  Go to Williams Sonoma and buy a certificate there. he third is into jogging.  What about one from a sporting goods store?”  Three hours later,  his wife called.  “It’s raining”, she said.  ‘I have to pick up the kids and I’m frazzled.  What if I just buy three gift certificates from Macy’s?”  “Alright”, he responded, but it really wasn’t alright.

I listened to his story and asked, “How much resentment do you feel toward her?  Is there a voice inside saying, ‘Damn it, I work my butt off in the office.  I asked you to do one little thing, but it’s too much trouble for you.  You know something?  I’m furious.”  “I couldn’t say that”, he said.   “Why?  Because, she might not love you?  Isn’t that what governs everything you do with her and most people you care for?  Whenever you capitulate, isn’t it “because I’m frightened I might be rejected’?  Maybe the problem isn’t her. It’s you, because you don’t have the backbone to stand up.  All I can say is, one day your anger will grow until you explode, because you’ll hate yourself for being a wuss and hate her because you fear her.  There’s another way.  Listen to your voice inside.”    “I hear the voice”, he said.  “But I hear another voice that says, ‘It isn’t worth fighting over.’”

That’s a feeling many of you can probably relate to.  It justifies a lack of courage to speak out because of your fear of losing love.  But the truth is that, although “it” isn’t worth fighting over, your feelings related to “it” are.  That being the case, you need to listen to that voice inside and act on what you hear.  Long term, it will benefit you, the people you love and your relationships.

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