JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

Having a bad day?

Posted by on Mar 21, 2020

I had a really bad day yesterday. I wonder if you did, too. It’s getting to me, this pandemic, at least that is how it felt all day.

Usually, awareness is the key: notice what I’m feeling, notice what my body is feeling, notice what I’m thinking, and then intervene. But it feels like the ground has been ripped out from under us and so the “intervention” is suspect, uncertain, and makes me wary. My baseline for anxiety and emotion is disrupted, elevated, and is causing problems. It is no longer possible to remain calm and carry on. I hate this. I hate this time in our world. I hate that greed has taken over so profoundly that our president and all his cronies’ value themselves and their stock portfolios over our health. I want to scream, “Where are the tests?” But I sit and try to wait patiently so as not to disrupt others. Is this a good strategy or a compliant one? Is this what they want, for us to give up because it is too hard to fight them? God, I hope not.

Lacking the ability to apply the usual governor switch to my thoughts, I wonder how we will survive this. What will it look like on the other side? Will we all get to the other side? What will our “new normal” be like? We have been headed for this crash for a long time. Too much imbalance for too long is not sustainable and inevitably, something breaks. Well, inevitably has arrived. I have been complicit and as much as I don’t want to admit it, I am part of the problem. Waiting for someone else to fix this problem, silently surrendering to the belief that I have no power, no ability to help, no voice to be heard, I have failed to act. And then, selfishly, I have hoped it would take longer to unravel than my life expectancy, but alas, I was wrong. I suspect you have felt this way too, and I wonder what we do now. If you are reading this, you are likely to be in fairly good shape in life. You have a job, a family, most likely a horse, you are educated, you vote, you have a community that brings you support and joy, and you want to do good. If you are like me, you are a purist, an idealist, and you were raised believing in others and trusting in our institutions. So now what? Idealism is crippling me, and I wonder how it is impacting you. I would rather die than be forced to stop believing in others so I will continue to look for those I can still believe in. But my trust in our institutions is shattered because the people we were supposed to be able to believe in have fallen prey to human nature and become unbelievable.

Human nature goes against human nature. Ha, I’ve never thought of it that way but let me try to explain. What we think we know, we don’t. Read a book like Drive, by Daniel Pink, and your head will spin. For example, financial incentives are an ineffective way to motivate people over time. Yep, that’s right, money doesn’t make you work harder or better, as much as we have convinced ourselves of that—or tried to. Those year-end bonuses are a farce and actually decrease motivation and inspiration over time. Imagine that, if you only have money to motivate you, you will quickly want to work less (think hourly wage earner or CEO). But what about all that stuff we all want all the time? I am just as guilty as the next because I want all that stuff, too. This is also a drive, its origins buried deep in the human psyche, connected to the social animal we are but try not to admit exists. Our drive for stuff comes from our natural survival instinct and competition. All that “stuff” creates a feeling of superiority, a powerful feeling releasing all kinds of goodies chemically in our bodies and brains. Superiority gives us a feeling of guaranteed survival and our brains like that. We are wired to survive so much of what “crosses our mind” is not visible to us. Yep, we are mostly mindless. Dammit. Duplicated many times, research shows that people who drive luxury (aka expensive) cars are d!*ks (that is taken right out of the report). For every thousand dollars of added value to a car, the more likely the driver is to ignore pedestrians. Pedestrians! Watch out for those ultimate driving machines the next time you are in a crosswalk. “Higher social class standing was positively associated with feelings of entitlement and narcissism.” Okay, so that is the opinion of the person writing the article, but can you see how it applies? Not one of us can deny the power of the feeling of superiority. But without regular “fixes,” it doesn’t stick around very long, making it necessary to find another hit, and then another, and then another…

Then, are we doomed? Well, if you look at where we are right now, we could make that argument. But let’s make another one, instead. We have to take a long, honest look at where we are to be able to change course. This is change management, 101. You need two points to enter in your GPS to get anywhere: where you are now and where you want to be. I would argue we are not connected to either of these points right now. We are not being honest with ourselves about the mess we have created, and we really don’t know where to go. Think about any argument you have ever been in, what did you want the other person to do? Admit they were wrong and accept responsibility. What does that take to do though? When someone behaves this way, restoring faith and trust become available. When someone lies or dodges accepting their role, it deepens the wound, even if you pretend it doesn’t. Simple, right? Well, not so much anymore. We are in the age of passing the buck and if no one is responsible for the problem, then how can we expect to fix it?

Since WE made this mess, WE need to figure out a way to clean it up. WE also need to be patient and thoughtful as we go. This did not unravel overnight, as much as it might seem to have, it has been a long time coming. Freud’s interpretation of human nature came in the form of his Defense Mechanisms. You might have heard of a few of them, my favorite being denial. I love to make the old psychologist joke, “Denial: not just a long, long river in Egypt.” Pause, think and then cue the laughter. But all of our defense mechanisms exist for a reason, mainly to defend our psyche’s from things we interpret as harm. They are instant and reflexive and do in fact protect us. When we hear bad news, especially of death, the immediate response is always, “No,” bam, denial. It comes out of our mouths before we know it, our mind’s own knee-jerk reaction to the hammer of the news. What it does is protect us. It gives us time to settle, to prepare, to process, and to gather our resources to move forward, towards the bad news. How deeply in denial are you right now? Personally, I am like a seesaw. One minute I’m in a panic, the next I am justifying and rationalizing (more defense mechanisms) my denial of how bad things are in an effort to self soothe. See how that works?

So, what do we do? We need to accept this will be a long haul to repair. Imagine a bad injury from an accident needing surgery, rehabilitation, relearning how to use our injured parts, and then creating new ways to move and perform. Things are not going to be the same again, ever, and we need to accept this so we can move from denial into action. We all need to become aware of ourselves and how our behavior impacts others. Sounds silly to say that because everyone should do all the time anyway, but we are failing at this in terrific fashion. Here is why we are failing at this. Okay, first of all, we have become isolated from each other, especially emotionally. Social media is supposed to connect us, and in ways it has, but in more ways than ever, we are alone. My theory is because we have become so addicted to the chemicals and hormones of looking good, superiority, and even self-criticism, that we hide how we feel. Emotion is a dirty word, reserved for the upset woman, making it something we ironically try to conceal. But what happens when you try to hide something? It gets bigger, worse, more irritating, and at some point, has to come out. The problem is it is coming out as anger and cruelty. It is acceptable to be angry and then to show emotion from that anger—it moves the emotion away and we think that is the solution to not having to feel it. Oh contraire. Think Supreme Court nominations, no matter what color you vote, the emotion was negative yet deemed acceptable because he was a man. If that had been a woman tearing up over anger, it would have been over for her. Also think sport coaches. I remember when college basketball coaches would throw chairs at their players and were called powerful instead of abusive. It was the culture of the time, and we need to change our culture around emotion.

We need to share our emotions and we need to make it safe for others to do the same. Emotions are uncomfortable and so as a result, we have stamped them down. Even positive emotions are uncomfortable, so don’t think it is just the negative ones we struggle with. How many times have you watched someone do something great or get a great gift and not be able to tolerate it? Have you ever told someone you care about them and they seemingly reject it when really, they just didn’t know how to take it in? Emotions are intense but they are the reason we are alive so we better start figuring out how to tolerate them better. The best/worst part about emotions is they are temporary. We need to remember this when we are struggling. They are completely dependent upon our situations—and that can include the situations we concoct for ourselves mentally. One minute you can be on top of the world and the next, crying with upset. And vice-versa. Emotions are stimulated, period. They do not pop up out of thin air…but we have convinced ourselves we have no power over them.

Then, we need to become responsible for our emotions. Yes, you are responsible for your emotions, even the good ones. This is psychology 101, and in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel bad without your consent.” Now, a global health pandemic can make you feel bad, worried, or even terrified (maybe more like definitely terrified). So, how do you be responsible then? You can always be responsible with how you react to your emotions. Don’t shit on people. Don’t blame people. Don’t take it out on people. Manage yourself. The reason why Eleanor Roosevelt has been quoted into perpetuity is because it’s true. You are going to feel bad right now, really bad, maybe even physically when you are exposed to COVID. But can you identify that you are feeling bad, ask for help maybe, and not treat someone else badly because you feel badly. Those are the keys to the kingdom. Imagine if we all managed ourselves emotionally. You are probably wondering what kind of drugs I am on, so okay, what if we all did a little better job of managing ourselves emotionally? It would be incredible. One of my favorite movies is A Fish Called Wanda, and Kevin Kline’s character, “Otto” is an absolutely brilliant example of this. If you haven’t seen it, you should, but in any case, it is about a jewel heist that goes wrong (don’t they all). Early on, Otto and Jamie Lee Curtis’s character have conspired to steal the jewels from the original thief. They sneak back to the hideout where they are supposed to be hidden, only to break into the safe to find it empty. Otto leaps up, reveals the anger in his face, shoots his gun in the empty safe and shouts, “Disappointed!” I absolutely LOVE this scene! Otto does what us psychologists have been encouraging our patients to do by labeling and expressing what they are feeling! Does it magically make the jewels appear? No. But it does relive the tension and get it out, making room for a different thought or emotion to come in.

Prepare for change. This will force us all to change our regular, mindless behaviors and we all need to get ready for that. We are actually more prepared than we think. The last years have seen a change in several things that bode well here. One is purpose. People are starting to become more and more connected to purpose and this has trickled up to corporations. Sure, companies do it mostly to keep employees happy, but still, it is important. Meaning makes motivation and that is what we need to focus on. We have had our eye on the wrong, materialistic ball for too long, making our game suck. If you haven’t done any work on finding what brings meaning to your life, you know, a purpose, now is a great time to start. The other thing that has gained traction lately is the mindfulness movement. Again, the corporate world has turned it into an industry but don’t let that decrease its importance. In order to manage your emotions successfully, you need some form of mindfulness. I have an article on how to start a meditation practice and you can refer to it or do a search and find about a thousand others.  

And breathe. Always breathe. Tune in, reach out, talk it out, and take the best care of your body you can right now. We are all in this together. If you need something, email me at DrJenny@DrJenny.com.