Developing Attitudes That Help You Cope

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,”

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). This is evidenced in many of the following ways.

  1. Positive but realistic attitudes about self-help are widely advocated in society.
  2. The importance of deciding on your major purpose for living is emphasized.
  3. The Golden Rule is advocated.
  4. A major form of therapy, Frankl’s (1970) Logotherapy, which means “health through meaning.”
  5. The belief that you can change your behavior, that your problems are solvable by you, leads to better problem solving.
  6. The expectation that things will get worse and that you will be helpless only produces anxiety and depression, or a pessimistic attitude.
  7. The view that “others should have behaved differently” leads to anger, whereas, determinism leads to tolerance.
  8. The submissive person must start to believe she/he has a right to equal treatment in order to effectively demand her/his rights.
  9. If we think of ourselves as being the result of several constantly competing parts, we will have more self-understanding.
  10. Our attitudes toward the opposite sex, marriage, and sexuality have great impact on our interpersonal relations, sexual preferences, commitment, etc.

Attitude Defined

An attitude is defined as a manner, disposition, or feeling about a person, place, thing, event, or idea.  Recognizing the three components of every attitude may be helpful:

  1. The behavioral part (your actions with the person or in the situation)
  2. The cognitive or knowledge part (what you know, think, or believe about the person or situation)
  3. The feeling or evaluative part (what emotions you have towards the person or 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.

First, 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).

Example 1: 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.

Example 2: 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.

Secondly, changing your cognition or viewpoint may change your feelings and action. Most of the suggestions given below in this method illustrate this approach.

Thirdly, changing the strong emotions you have about something will, of course, change your behavior and your cognition.

Example 3: 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).

Examples of behavioral ways of dealing with the problem

Paraplegics, who take some responsibility for their accident and don’t entirely blame others, cope with their paralysis better.  How do they take responsibility for their accident?  They decide that they had made a choice, and the fact that it is their own choice is what comforts them, and gives them hope, even though the consequences of that choice are unfavorable.  The reason for this is because it allows them to continue to feel that they are in control of their life.  The crucial issue in the persons psychological well-being is their freedom of choice.  People who feel that they were forced into an unfavorable situation against their will, will naturally find it more difficult to retain a sense of self-autonomy.

Examples of cognitive ways of dealing with the problem

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.

Examples of emotional ways of dealing with the problem

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.

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.

The most noteworthy areas of our lives in which our attitudes come into play are as follows.

  • Concern for others
  • Stress and stress tolearance
  • Sadness and perfectionism
  • Anger and distrust of others
  • Internalizing vs. Externalizing causation and responsibility
  • The assumed strength of a parent, adult or child
  • The meaning of sex to you
  • Your self-esteem
  • Your use of defense mechanisms

There are hundreds of attitude tests, including…

  • Optimism
  • Fear of negative evaluation
  • Trust
  • Altruism
  • Self-criticism
  • Self-monitoring – the masks we wear

In addition, there are six major areas of our lives, in which our attitude becomes paramount.

  1. The meaning of life
  2. Optimism
  3. Self-efficacy
  4. Acceptance of your place in life
  5. Crisis intervention attitudes and techniques
  6. Faith in religion or science.

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 psychological 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 or 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:

  • How strong are my feelings about a person, a belief, a thing, or a situation? Are these emotions changeable and in need of change? Am I prejudiced? Are my emotions irrational?
  • How detailed and clear-cut are my thoughts and judgments about this person, thing, or event? Where did these ideas come from? Are my ideas and views reasonable? Am I using stereotypes or over-generalizing? What other information do I need? Are there other ways of looking at the situation?
  • How would I like my behavior to be different? Can I change the behavior directly or do I need to change my thinking or feelings first?

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.

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. Please note that there are at least two steps involved here.

First, you go searching for the answer, 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? 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”.

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 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
  13. Accept what can’t be changed.

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 strategies.

You will recognize that positive psychology is encroaching on a stronghold of religion, namely, positive thinking. Norman Vincent Peale helped us think positively about the power of positive thinking. Other televangelists 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.

Self-efficacy: Do you see yourself as having a lot of control over what happens in your life? “Believe in yourself” is common advice. Americans are more likely to believe they can control their lives than are people in other cultures. When asked why one person succeeds while another with the same skills and training fails, about 1% of Americans say it is fate or God’s will, while 30% of people in developing countries give this explanation (Sears, Peplau, Freedman & Taylor, 1988, p. 153). What would your answer be? Perhaps this difference between cultures is due to our having more opportunities to do what we want or due to our greater need to blame the poor for their poverty or due to our thinking more of ourselves as individuals having free will or due to different religious views or due to some other factors.

The Internalizer-Externalizer scale clearly measures whether you believe you are in control of what happens in your life or not – your locus of control. It does not measure, perhaps, the degree of control you think you have – your self-efficacy (see below). But it seems unlikely that you would see yourself as an internalizer and responsible for guiding your life and, at the same time, believe you are (and actually be) ineffective in doing so. We are just learning some of the complexities involved in measuring self-confidence and personal power (see Sappington, et al. below).

Bandura (1986) believes that self-efficacy judgments, i.e. one’s belief in his/her ability to effectively control specific events in his/her life, play a role in almost everything we do, think, and feel. Hundreds of research studies support this notion, and hundreds of wonderful children’s stories, like The Little Engine that Could, illustrate the importance of a positive attitude. The average person agrees that self-efficacy influences our actions; we would call it confidence or belief in ourselves or a sense of personal power. However, self-efficacy is not used by most researchers as a global concept; it is not a single score applied to all aspects of your life. Self-efficacy is a judgment about your competence in one specific situation. It is easy to see why. To believe you could effectively handle almost any problem situation – e.g. bring peace to the world, replace fossil fuels, educate everyone, solve Russia’s problems, and stop a bad habit – would require many phenomenal skills. But some people do see themselves as being an effective change agent in many important areas of living. Others, no doubt, feel ineffective. Still others think they can shine in only a few arenas. As yet, psychology has not adopted psychological tests measuring generalized or specific self-efficacy. Instead, researchers usually ask each subject to judge what specific tasks he/she can do well (and his/her confidence in that judgment) or “How well will you do on this task?”

Self-efficacy involves or is related to four different concepts:

  1. Predicting our performance: “I think I can make 5 out of 10 foul shots”.
  2. Rationally-based (“consider the facts”) self-efficacy judgments: “I’m a good shot. I’d rate myself an ‘8’ on a ten point scale” or “I cognitively realize the fact that I’m not good at all shooting foul shots. I probably would make 1 or 2 out of 10 shots.”
  3. Gut-feeling-based (“don’t worry about the actual facts”) self-efficacy judgments: “Oh, I love basketball. I’m a good shot, I’ll make 8 or 9 out of 10!” or “I feel I’m terrible at this. I emotionally feel I can’t make any out of 10.”
  4. The extended outcome or consequences expected from your performance: “It will impress the hell out of my girlfriend if I sink 6 or 8 out of 10” or “the other players will hate me if I miss this shot.”

You can see the difference between prediction 1 (above) based on past performance and prediction 2 based on one’s intuitive feelings by realizing that a professional basketball player, averaging 76% of his foul shots, may consider himself a poor free throw shooter and lack faith in his ability to make his next shot, whereas an 8th grader averaging about 40% of his/her shots may think of him/herself as a really good shot and feel pretty cocky about the next shot. Both skill (percentage of shots made) and confidence (self-efficacy) are related to actual performance, but skill, of course, is much more important in the case of shooting baskets. (Naturally, skill and confidence are usually closely related.) Confidence is probably more important than skill in other situations, such as deciding to approach someone for a date.

Most studies have not heretofore distinguished between 2 and 3, but recent work underscores the difference between intellectual-rational assessment and emotional-intuitive judgment about your efficacy.

For instance, Sappington, Richards, Spiers, & Fraser (1988) point out that a person may intellectually know that he/she can not catch cancer or AIDS from a friend but may still feel as if it is contagious.

Our feelings are not rational, but emotions are related to performance.

For example, when patients at a pain clinic intellectually estimated (as in 2 above) their ability to reduce their own pain, it had no relationship to the actual outcome of their self-help efforts to overcome pain. But the patients’ gut-feeling estimates (as in 3 above) of their pain-control ability were clearly related (r=.53) to actual results; the higher the feelings of confidence, the greater pain reduction. The same researchers also found that students’ Internalizer-Externalizer test scores answered on the basis of emotional, gut-level feelings were related to their Abnormal Psychology test scores, but rationally answered I-E test scores were not. Students who emotionally felt personally in control of their lives did better on the classroom examination.

These results suggest the popular advice of “believe in yourself” should be modified to: “EMOTIONALLY BELIEVE DOWN IN YOUR GUT IN YOUR SELF-CONTROL.” Unemotional, intellectual belief in personal control seems less personally helpful in certain situations. However, this research is very new and primitive. We need better measures, better understanding of what is happening, more insight into beliefs in self-control and placebos, etc. Perhaps the instructions to the self-raters in 3 encourages more unbridled optimism and pessimism, which leads to more variable scores and accounts for the higher correlations with performance. Perhaps an emotionally enhanced “faith” or enthusiasm or zeal about our ability to change ourselves or a problem situation helps us conquer problems. Coaches everywhere seem to think so. So, how do you get this highly emotional, zestful, reassuring confidence? Sappington, Richards, Spiers and Fraser (1988) say it must come from an emotional experience, not from logical, factual information. For example, high feelings of confidence might be generated by:

  • Watching a person similar to you struggling with a familiar problem, then you get so emotionally involved in his/her efforts to succeed that you feel exhilarated when they master the situation,
  • Listening to a person, who has successfully coped with a serious problem, describe his/her techniques, setbacks, traumas, and other emotionally meaningful or moving experiences, and
  • Having actual, uplifting experiences that conclusively demonstrate to us that we have more control over ourselves or the situation than we thought we had.

Some psychologists believe that excessive self-confidence could cause problems, not just in terms of appearing arrogant but perhaps by causing failure since you don’t see your limitations and may, thus, overextend yourself. Or an inflated opinion of ourselves may lead us to become poor planners, lax, and prone to backslide or relapse with some bad habit we have recently overcome (Haaga & Stewart, 1992). These consequences seem likely but there is only a little evidence, thus far. Excessive negative thoughts and low self-efficacy are clearly associated with emotional problems and relapsing; excessive over-confidence may sometimes get us in trouble (relapse); moderate confidence in maintaining our desired behavior in spite of full awareness of the risks will rarely cause problems. In short, a combination of realism and confidence seems to work best.

The following discussion and summary of findings (mostly from Bandura, 1986) are based on research using each subject’s single rating of self-efficacy, not both their intellectual and emotional beliefs. People who believe they are efficacious tend to see their successes as resulting from high ability and their failures as resulting from a lack of effort. As mentioned above, an over-estimation of your ability might encourage you to test your limits and maximize the effects of positive expectations. If you can accept some failure and also feel generally confident in your self-help ability, you will feel less stress, take more risks, and try harder and longer to make the changes you desire. The harder you try, the more success you will have. Being successful increases self-efficacy, one then wants to learn more useful skills. Success and confidence alter our goals. Eventually, you can gain self-control and “produce your own future,” according to Bandura. In a similar way, managers-coaches-teachers think employees-athletes-students perform better when leaders expect them to do well, i.e. “I think you can.” This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Low efficacious people, similar to depressed people, think they lack the ability to help themselves which makes them nervous and further impairs their performance.

Examples: self-doubting students predictably avoid school work, but how much homework is done by highly anxious students is not predictable. Having strong physiological responses while socializing will not tell us if a person will act and feel shy, but self-evaluations of “I’m shy” or “feeling tense is normal” will tell us. Without confidence, most people give up… but some decide to learn some new coping skills. On the other hand, over-confident people are unlikely to feel the need to prepare in advance to meet problems and may, therefore, not do well in spite of having confidence. This complicates matters.

For example, smokers and drinkers who believe they can abstain are actually more successful in doing so, but those who believe they could overcome a relapse are not as successful at abstaining as those who think “one drink leads to a drunk” (Bandura, 1986, p.437; Haaga & Stewart, 1992).

If you are inaccurate and over-estimate or under-estimate your effectiveness in a certain situation, there can be unfortunate consequences, e.g. you might attempt impossible tasks or avoid tasks you could handle. Sometimes, as with a placebo, reality doesn’t matter.

Example: if you are taught that relaxing your head muscles prevents tension headaches and are convinced by the experimenter that you are able to relax those muscles effectively (even though you are in fact tensing the muscles), you will have fewer headaches in the future (Holroyd, et al, 1984).

Faith in doctors, pills, therapy, God, witch doctors, and self-help can be powerful forces, usually for the good. Believing we are helpless is just as powerful in the other direction.

Where does this belief in (or doubts about) your self-efficacy come from?

How can self-efficacy be increased? Bandura (1986) cites research suggesting past successes or failures –as judged by us–resulting from our efforts in relevant areas are primarily responsible for our efficacy judgments. (How many free throws have you made out of 10 in the past?) It’s not easy to change our self-appraisals. To increase our confidence we need to repeatedly (not once) handle a difficult (not an easy one) situation without working too hard and without outside help. If you have to work much harder than others seem to, you may doubt your abilities. Many people find it so hard to become and stay efficacious that they lose hope, give up personal control, and start depending on others (Langer, 1979).

Bandura contends that feeling efficacious has no consistent relation to feeling good about yourself, e.g. he says a person may feel effective (as a manipulator) but take no pride in such activities or feel incompetent (as an artist, mathematician or tight rope walker) without feeling low self-esteem. While these examples are valid, I still say that success–e.g. being an effective self-helper–in most cases raises our self-esteem as well as our feelings of self-efficacy (see method #1). In order to feel able, in most situations you need to learn to be able.

By seeing or imagining others model successful or unsuccessful responses in specific situations may give us confidence or the jitters. We get the biggest boost in our confidence by watching several persons (not one) similar to us (in traits and ability) successfully conquer a tough challenge by determined effort (not easily nor by virtue of great skill). Watching talented models will get us familiar with the situation and give us some “tips,” but such models may intimidate us. Watching failures gives us confidence if we think we can do better (failures may show us what not to do).

Other people could also model for us how to solve problems and accurately form efficacy judgments by talking aloud as they solve problems and compare their effectiveness with others. We could hear how others think, how they assess their ability. This is called cognitive modeling (Meichenbaum & Asarnow, 1979) or coaching.

We can be persuaded by a believable evaluator (perhaps not an uninformed friend), especially via encouraging feedback, that we have the ability to do something. Also, we can be cheered on to try harder (which increases our chances of succeeding). Reading inspiring books can also build our confidence.

However, persuasion has not been, as yet, a powerful means of building self-efficacy; actions seem to speak louder than words. Interestingly, it is probably much easier for negative feedback to undermine our confidence, than for encouragement to build it. Self-doubts lead to not trying or to timid efforts which quickly and easily confirm the negative self-evaluations. It is harder to be successful than to fail.

Persuasion is the approach of the super salesperson or the efficiency expert. They tell us to believe in our sales ability (or in the customers’ gullibility). Clearly, the insecure, self-doubting, nervous sales person is easy to turn down (unless he/she is 7 years old and you want to offer encouragement).

Observing how “up tight,” tired, or physically upset we are in specific situations probably influences our judgments about our efficacy. The self-doubting speaker probably interprets his/her sweating as a sign he/she is doing poorly rather than as a reaction to a warm room. The depressed person remembers previous failures while confident people remember past successes; this further influences self-efficacy estimates. A good mood and a healthy, comfortable body generate positive expectations.

Many therapies emphasize assuming responsibility for and having control over your own life, a few of these include,

  • Reality therapy
  • Gestalt therapy
  • Existential therapy
  • Cognitive-Behavioral therapy
  • Rational-Emotive therapy

Several of these therapies add another related concept: choice or “free will.” Existentialists say, “You are who you are because you want to be” (Poduska, 1976). The saying is: “No one can make you feel any way,” you choose to feel the way you do. You also choose to do whatever you do. Who else is responsible for your actions, feelings, and thoughts as much as you are? Self-help books, like this one, and psychoeducational approaches make the same point: humans can influence their own lives if they know effective methods.

Research evidence piles up suggesting that self-efficacy is related to good health, satisfying relationships, and success (Schwarzer, 1992). What is not clear, yet, is how much obtaining these outcomes in life is responsible for raising your faith in your ability to control your life vs. how much the faith alone should be given credit for producing these outcomes. That is, which comes first the confidence or the accomplishments? Clearly, it works both ways. So, raising your self-efficacy is a good idea, but there have to be accomplishments too. Indeed, if it were easier, you could surely start with the achievements first.

Certain Eastern philosophies teach a very different point of view: you are not responsible for what happens in the world. In fact, you can’t do much about it, so accept whatever happens. The oriental sages say you can only control your internal reaction to the external world. Trying to change things is like trying to stop a river with a teaspoon. So, flow with the river. Accepting the inevitable and the laws of nature are parts of the next attitude discussed. Different Eastern philosophies speak of karma, which suggests we receive from the world according to what we give. This can be positive karma: by giving love, we get more love in return; by letting others be free to make choices, we lessen our responsibility for others and increase our own freedom. It can be negative karma: by being unkind and dishonest, we will be disliked; by over-eating and over-drinking, we will shorten our lives. Today, you experience the results of yesterday’s acts, but you aren’t responsible for controlling what happens.

Acceptance: Do you accept whatever happens or are you being dragged down the path of life kicking and screaming, “This shouldn’t be happening!”? A successful and wise person has a habit of challenging Irrational Ideas and impressions of determinism. They focus on trying to accept things as they are, and avoid 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, 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 the case of empathy, the focus is on understanding, not judging, the other person. Any personality theory or insight method which increases our understanding of others also increases our acceptance. Most major religions cover the proper attitude to have in an assessment of the common conundrums of life.

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. 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, then stop worrying!

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.”

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 can learn some pitfalls to avoid; 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.

Also very importantly, 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.

It is firmly believed by almost all caring, giving people (whether religious or not) that helping others helps you feel good too. To this end, it is very important for you to 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. Therefore, if you think you want to adopt a new, more helpful attitude, you need to do the following.

  1. Be sure you really believe and accept the attitude.
  2. Modify your feelings so they are in keeping with the desired attitude.
  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. To this end, it is helpful 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 most can’t do it yet). Quite a bit is known about persuading others, mostly from 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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About Wayne

Wayne is an ordained minister of Love who studies the psychology of the Feminine Mystique during the day, and holds an undercover missionary position at night. He earned his Ph.D. in Transcendental Love Mechanics during a 12-year, self-imposed asylum in an east-Asian paradise. You can visit his solid blog for more liquid insights: Sigma Frame Where Frame is the Name of the Game!
This entry was posted in Attitude, Maturity, Personal Growth and Development, Personal Presentation, Self-Concept and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Developing Attitudes That Help You Cope

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