Ch-4: Create a Positive World by Adopting a Positive World View
Part 3: Overcome Your Greatest Fears. They underlie daily fears and psychological problemsTom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
Send Feedback/Questions to: Tom.Stevens@csulb.edu
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4, Part 3, from You Can Choose To Be Happy, Tom G. Stevens
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How do we deal with "the dark side" of life and our greatest fears?
If Things seem to tend downward, to justify despondency
OUR IDEAL WORLD VERSUS REALITY--how can we be happy in an imperfect world?
How can we be both caring and happy when someone we love is miserable?
Is choosing to think positively really being honest with myself?
It would be easy to have a positive world view if everyone lived in paradise. It would be easy to have a positive world view if every part of the world was beautiful, if everyone was always treated with love and respect, and if everyone was given all they need to be happy and live forever. Unfortunately, we don't live in a world like that.
If scientists are correct, the earth started with no animal or plant life. Life on our planet has had to struggle to exist and to develop into higher forms. Life has always been a challenge and a series of overcoming problems. Evils such as illness, death, pain, unhappiness, cruelty, and destruction have been part of each generation. Even people who seem to have it all, in reality, have also experienced more pain, unhappiness, and hardship than others may ever see.
Negative life experiences can lead to a negative philosophy of life and pervasive anxiety and depression. My client was in her early 30's and had already led a life filled with tragic events. She grew up in a small Midwestern town exposed to "all American values"; except, her parents were both alcoholics and hid their secret well. On the surface her family appeared normal. Yet behind closed doors she had to take care of her younger bother and her intoxicated parents.
As a teenager, she escaped to the downtown area of Detroit. There she got involved with a man who said he would take care of her. Instead, he turned out to be a drug addict and dealer. He got her hooked on alcohol and a whole variety of drugs. Her life there was a nightmare.
Besides her drug dependence, she was physically, sexually, and verbally abused for several years. Her views of herself and the world grew very dark. She felt like she was in hell. There seemed to be no way out and suicide was a real option. Then she gave birth to her daughter. Although she had almost given up on herself, she decided that she wanted her daughter to get out of this terrible mess. So she went to Narcotics Anonymous and began a 12-step program to become drug and alcohol free.
She has now been in recovery for more than eight years and turned her life around. She began supporting herself and her daughter, went back to college, finished a bachelor's degree, and is now doing very well in a graduate social work program. She has immersed herself in self-development of all kinds. Besides Narcotics Anonymous she has taken many classes, read many self-help books, and received counseling. Thinking positively has been a foundation of her new life.
When I met her in a class I taught, I was impressed by her openness, her thirst for learning, and her ability to interpret difficult situations positively. These characteristics have been the secrets to her recovery and success. However, it has not been easy.
After the class, she came in for counseling. Whenever she heard of gangs, drugs, or violence in our area, she would feel a sense of terror. She could not understand it. Her life was going so well, how could she still have flashbacks of these feelings. We explored her underlying beliefs and we discovered that a part of her still believed that the negative, dark forces of the world are "winning" and that the positive forces are "just struggling to survive."
Her fear of the "dark forces' power" created an undercurrent of anxiety and depression that entered her thoughts daily. Her positive side had to keep fighting these negative thoughts. But in the past she had fought them on a superficial level. Instead of exploring and confronting her deeper world view, she often tried to instantly substitute positive thoughts as band-aids. She would tell herself something like, "Everything will be ok, it's silly to worry about this." Her band-aid therapy helped her feel better temporarily, but did not change the source of the negative thoughts.
For example, one of the key underlying beliefs we discovered was that there were so many "bad guys" that they were overwhelming the "good guys" of the world. When we explored her "worst possible scenario," we found a feared image of the world eventually being overrun with drug addicts and violence. I asked her to look at her beliefs about that image and the evidence for it. She realized that much of her "evidence" came from the media and their preference for presenting many more negative than positive stories.
The creative forces are inherent in all life. I questioned her belief that the "world was going to Hell." I suggested that she look at this in a broader historical perspective and look at the progress that has been made in the past 5,000 years. I pointed out that within each cell and within each living organism powerful forces are tenaciously pursuing health and harmony. These inherent forces are not just in a few "good guys," but are part of every one of us. In addition, we all have a Higher Self inside--no matter how weak it may be.
When I finished talking, she became animated and excited. She said she knew that what I said was true. She said that as I was talking she thought of her inner city experiences. Her daughter's father and the other people she lived with were hardened, violent criminals. Most people would believe that they were evil to the core.
But she knew their backgrounds and could understand how abuse by others had empowered their inner, abusive parts. They had developed hardened shells to survive. Yet, she knew them well enough to see that each had a softer, more caring part. She had seen times when each of these hardened criminals showed vulnerability, empathy, tenderness, and love. She said, "I know that if these people have a Higher Self, then everyone does."
She no longer experiences the bolts of fear when she reads the morning paper or sees the evening news. She now believes the forces of love and happiness--though gentler--are stronger than the forces of raw power. They are winning the war.
Sometimes we tend to idealize the past, and therefore believe the world is
going downhill. Sometimes we look at all the unethical, harmful people who have
achieved financial success and power--even world leaders--and think that the
"dark forces" are winning the war. However, when you have these negative
thoughts, consider the creative forces in even the worst of people. Also, consider
what Ralph Waldo Emerson (1991) wrote more than 150 years ago,
Things seem to tend downward, to justify despondency,
One of my hobbies has been to invent ideas of what a more ideal world would be like. Perhaps you too imagine what a better world would be like--at least better for you. However, I live in the world as it is today. I cannot change the past and my abilities to change the future are limited.
If we do not accept the limitations of our situation--or of ourselves; then we are choosing to be unhappy. Some of the saddest and most unproductive words we can utter are "what if." "What if I had been born wealthy, beautiful, or with a happy family?" "What if we had discovered a cure for cancer?" "What if she hadn't left me?" "What if I had gotten that job?" "What if I hadn't made that dumb mistake?" "What if. . .?" instead try saying, "It is. . .and I will make the best of it--I will find some route to happiness."
If I am to be happy,
Every creative act also produces waste and "garbage." Our bodies take in food and convert that food into energy and into structural parts of our bodies. As part of this natural, growth process, our bodies also produce waste from that food. Any manufacturing or creative process also produces a certain amount of waste and garbage. With every creative idea or action there is also a certain amount of waste or garbage that occurred in its production. Perhaps we had to make mistakes before we learned the right way to do it, or perhaps doing it produced negative side-effects.
Do you ever develop expectations that you should do something perfectly--with no mistakes or waste? I may make mistakes and I may make things worse. No matter how hard I try, I will produce a certain amount of waste and garbage.
To be happy it is necessary to accept and forgive mistakes--my own and the mistakes of others. Otherwise, we choose guilt and resentment over love and happiness. The only way to produce no waste is to think or do nothing. However, that would be the biggest waste of all! (Forgiveness of self and others is a major topic in chapter 6.)
Our limited time on earth. One client who came in because of persistent depression and frequent suicidal thoughts said, "The religions teach you that there is life after death, but I don't believe it. What good is life if it is so short? You go though a few years of living, then you die. I might as well die now."
His argument was like the fool who wished he had $100,000, but only had
$100. He threw away the $100 because he thought, "It's not worth anything."
The wise man who had $100 said, "Since I only have $100, I must spend each
dollar carefully and get the most for it--for each dollar is precious."
Our thoughts consist of different levels. At a lower (more specific, sensory, externally tied) level, we may react negatively to negative situations. However, we can overcome that initial negative reaction by viewing the whole situation from a higher, philosophical level.
Viewing it from a higher perspective can enable me to accept the situation and view it more constructively. This new view can help me feel better. We can use this method to rise above even the most painful situations. Our Higher Selves and constructive philosophies (or religious views) provide the beliefs for this higher perspective.
What seems too unacceptable or too overwhelming for you to cope with? List all the situations you believe you could not stand or could not cope with.
PRACTICE: Stop and make that unacceptables list now. Imagine the worst possible conditions that you are most afraid of--no matter how unlikely they may seem right now. What are your greatest fears? Death? Blindness? Being alone? Poverty? A boring job? Failure? Rejection?
What if these unacceptable events happen despite your best efforts? As long as you have no way of viewing these "unacceptable" events (and their effects) in a minimally positive way, then they will be an underlying source of negative emotions. Whenever you perceive any possibility that these "unacceptable events" might occur, you will feel bolts of anxiety, depression, or other negative emotions.
Some events--such as death and taxes--either are inevitable or are a threat to all of us. Some of our most feared events might include poverty, failure, prolonged periods of pain, exposure to cruelty, illness, loss of loved ones, serious financial reverses, and death. You may wonder what value there is in even thinking of such terrible things. Why not just wait until we face poverty or death before thinking about them? If we consider such terrible things now, aren't we just bringing up a lot of bad feelings unnecessarily? Isn't this negative thinking?
The strategy of avoiding these issues as long as possible may seem to work. However, even if we do not face a severe threat often, we still get less severe "reminders" that stir up fears of these unacceptables. My client's little reminders were stories about drugs and violence--what are yours?
If you live by the avoidance strategy, you will live a life full of little fears. If one of your worst fears does come true, you may be overwhelmed emotionally because you were totally unprepared. Facing your worst fears now immunizes you against all fears from those sources. It gives you earthquake insurance against both the big one that could hit anytime and the daily tremors of its reminders.
Once we learn to feel at peace about our "unacceptables," then we can feel calm about almost anything. During a workshop I gave at a professional convention, a woman, Genevieve, told this story. She had been in a severe automobile accident, and she was put in a full body cast. She was totally immobilized for more than a year, and could not use her legs, arms, or hands. It was not even possible to read or watch television. How would you feel? How would you cope with this situation for a year? Could you be happy?
Lonely people are often terrified of being alone and don't know how to make themselves happy. Yet, Genevieve learned how to be happy in these extreme circumstances. At first, she didn't know how she would cope with being so cut off from normal sources of interest and happiness. Then, she heard a true story that helped her cope. A Vietnam prisoner-of-war was confined for over a year in a mud hut so small he could not even stand up. But he chose to overcome his initial feelings of depression and resentment. Instead of thinking of himself as a helpless victim, he decided to take mental control of the situation. Instead of viewing the mud hut as his cell and his guards as his captors, he viewed the hut as his home and viewed the guards as his guests. For example, he would save bits of his meager rice ration. Then periodically he offered the rice to the guards, whom he treated as guests in his home. He found happiness in the mud hut by living according to his beliefs--not theirs.
Genevieve realized that the source of happiness was in her mind--not in the external world she was so isolated from. She overcame boredom by generating interesting and loving thoughts. When Genevieve had guests in her hospital room, she focused her attention on helping them become happier. She gave so much that her small daughter once said, "Mommy, it isn't fair that you cheer everyone else up--you're the one who is sick." Her daughter was too young to understand.
She immersed herself in thoughts about her life and her future. She changed many of her basic beliefs and values. During her year in the cast, she changed her life in many ways. Genevieve decided to pursue her "impossible dream" of getting a doctorate and a job in counseling--goals that she has since accomplished.
Before the cast she had low self-esteem; afterward she loved herself and was confident about the future. Before the cast she was shy, timid, and fearful; afterward she was outgoing and assertive. How well did she adjust to being in this full body cast for over a year? "It was the happiest and most important year of my life."
It may be time for you to face your worst possible fears. If you can develop a way of viewing them (or planning for them) so that you know how you can be happy despite being in that situation, then you will be set free from those worst fears. Genevieve said, "Now I know that I can overcome almost anything. If I could be happy in that situation, I can be happy in almost any situation."
Once you have faced your worst fears and successfully overcome them--in your mind; then you can say confidently, "Now I know that I can overcome almost anything. If I could be happy in that situation, I can be happy in almost any situation." Return to beginning
Dealing With the "Ultimate Negative Event"--death. The existentialist philosophers and psychologists recognized that there are certain types of major problems in life that we all know will happen to us. Death is one of those unavoidables. Have you ever had a strong experience with death--such as almost dying yourself, losing someone you loved, or fearing the loss of someone you loved?
Have you ever given much thought about your own death? How would you feel if your health or life was threatened for a long time? If dwelling upon any of these topics is uncomfortable for you, then you have not dealt constructively enough with the issue of death. Overcoming your fear of serious catastrophes and death is a necessary step toward achieving peace and maximum happiness.
If we can learn to deal with our fear of death, then perhaps we can use this as a model to deal with any negative event. Each different religion makes dealing with death a central theme. What is your view of death--especially your own death? How do you feel when you think of the possibility of dying?
We do not need to view death as good in order to rise above our negative feelings about it. I view it as one of the "ultimate bads"--we cannot be healthy and happy if we are dead. So how do we develop a view of death that helps us deal with the death of someone close or our own potential death? People have developed many different views that help them accept death or feel better about it. Each person must find a view that is consistent with their other beliefs--such as their religious or scientific beliefs. Some hope they will go to a better place after dying, some believe in reincarnation, some believe they will live on through their children and their children, and some focus on their accomplishments lasting beyond them.
A view of death is emotionally effective only to the degree that we can truly believe it. However, we can create our own image that is a partial solution based on our own reasoning. Even if we cannot know that it is true, we can hope that it is true. Don't underestimate the power of hope. Hope is a force that goes beyond belief. In many cases, hope can ultimately create reality as well as reflect it.
I have struggled with my fear of death from many different philosophical and religious perspectives. Currently, I focus on my belief in life as a gift and my appreciation of every moment of life. I would like to live forever because I love life. I live a healthy lifestyle to ex tend my life as long as possible. But I know that I will die someday and want to have an accepting attitude about it.
I hope for future awareness in some life form I don't currently understand. No matter how likely or unlikely that hope may be, I can still hope to be conscious at some point in the future. My knowledge is too limited to know how that could happen, but this hope comforts me and helps me accept death.
Another great fear of mine is that my wife, Sherry might die. (She fears the same about my death.) However, we both know that we are each responsible for our own happiness and have the philosophy of life and life skills to be happy--even if the other should die. That knowledge comforts us. It also helps give us confidence that we could overcome any loss. That confidence gives us a sense of security that radiates through our entire life and affects even daily "little fears." Return to beginning
Fears of poverty or lifestyle changes. I have talked with many college students who feared losing financial support upon graduation and feared not finding a job. I have talked with other college students who were leaving home (often after a conflict) and had no means of support. I have talked with people who were leaving a marriage or a partner who had been supporting them and were terrified of not being able to financially take care of themselves.
Often, these people have a real fear of being homeless and on the streets. Or they may fear drastic changes in lifestyle which seem totally unacceptable: having no car, living in a small room or rundown apartment, having no money for entertainment, or not being able to afford the type of social life they were used to. Or perhaps their fear is working in a job which is far below their potential.
Remember, the more confident we are that we can find routes to happiness in a certain scenario, the less fear of the scenario we will have. When I work with people facing poverty or restricted lifestyles, then we look at what their basic needs and values are. We look at activities they can still enjoy that are free or inexpensive--reading, walking, enjoying nature, visiting, watching TV, helping others, sports, listening to music, "personal sex," or thinking. Then the person develops a plan for what he or she would actually do if that scenario were to become a reality.
For example one client couldn't sleep because he was hopelessly in debt, was making far less money than he was spending, and could not pay his rent. He had tremendous anxiety because his mind kept going in circles. Generating this anxiety was a fear of being homeless. He kept repeating, "I don't know what I'll do, I don't know what I'll do." His lack of clear routes to happiness created the anxiety.
We explored his fear in detail and he planned what he would do if he could not afford a place to live. He could rent a storage unit and move his furniture and extra things into it. He could live in his car until he found a job and saved enough money to pay for a less expensive room. He thought living in his car would be like "camping out"--a much more positive way of looking at his situation. Immediately, he felt much better. "What a relief." Instead of viewing "homelessness" as some sort of death, he actually chose "homelessness" until he got his finances in order.
A few weeks later when I saw him again, he had found a job, had a room, and was financially stable again. He said his experience living in his car had not been bad at all. He said, "Being homeless was not nearly as bad as the fear of being homeless." Sounds like Franklin Roosevelt's statement, "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself."
Every day there are thousands of negative events occurring all over the world--people are abused, mistreated, sick, and dying. If I choose, I could focus on these events and feel miserable every minute of my life. Many of us live our lives focusing on those negative events or others closer to home. Focusing too much on these negatives creates a negative inner experience. It can lead to recurring unhappiness and depression.
If we really care about others, how else can we react? One alternative is to ignore these events. I know people who will never watch a news program or read a newspaper because of so much negative news. I can appreciate their efforts to draw boundaries and screen out a certain amount of negative inputs. That can be a partial solution to the problem.
However, we cannot completely screen out all of the negative news of the world. To do so would cause us to be become hermits and turn away from responsible involvement in the world. One result can be like a woman I met who was retired. She lived in a small apartment and constricted her world more and more until she became afraid of almost everything outside the safe haven of her apartment. Then she gradually became suspicious of her neighbors too. The more she constricted her world, the more suspicious and frightened she became. Constriction and fear became mutually reinforcing until she reached an isolated, almost paranoid state. Avoiding our fears and constricting our world is not the answer to overcoming our fears.
If we care, it is natural to have initial negative feelings to negative events. However, it is how we deal with these initial negative feelings that is important. We can let them habitually overwhelm us and entrap us, or we can develop a positive philosophy of life and world view that will help us "rise above" these negative events. Return to beginning
Do you ever feel guilty for feeling good when someone else is feeling bad? Does part of you feel like you should suffer after watching all the "bad news" on TV? If you visit a sick friend, is it better to be upset so they know you care or to be in a good mood to help them feel better? It is possible to care about the other, show concern, and feel good. The combination may help cheer them up.
"Mutual misery" versus "Mutual happiness" as a sign of caring. Many of us have learned that "If we care about someone who is feeling bad, we should feel bad too." We have learned to measure our degree of caring by how badly we feel when the other hurts. According to this mutual misery philosophy, the more you suffer when I am suffering, the more you must care about me. If, on the other hand, you feel happy when I am miserable, then you must not care about me and you are a "bad," "uncaring" person.
The logical conclusion of the mutual misery philosophy is that both people will end in dramatic expressions of suffering. You may have witnessed people who suffered together dramatically and created beautiful misery together to convince everyone how much they care. Is that what we want? Wouldn't it be better if caring could be expressed more simply and honestly, and both people could end feeling happy?
There is a philosophy other than the "mutual misery" approach. I call it the mutual happiness approach. In this approach we do not have to prove that we care for one another by our own suffering. We show our caring by our gifts of understanding, comfort, or whatever it takes to help us both feel happier.
We can express sensitivity and empathy by asking them how they feel and be willing to listen if they want to talk about their feelings. Being upset ourselves is not what the other person needs. The clients who come to see me don't want to find a therapist that gets depressed over their problems. They want someone who will listen effectively, show caring, and help them solve their problems. They want someone who is confident and realistically optimistic.
In the mutual happiness philosophy, we measure how much we care by how much we attempt to contribute to the other person's happiness. We express our caring by doing something active to help them. Or we might decide that the best gift is freedom and support so they can take care of their own needs. That is especially true in codependent relationships.
A student of mine, who had been gravely ill, recently read this section. She said that people visiting sick people needed to understand how important this section is. When she had been in the hospital, she disliked having people visit her who were too upset about the seriousness of her condition.
They not only increased the "gloom" of the situation; in addition she said, "I wanted to cheer them up; but I was so sick, I felt a tremendous burden." On the other hand, she looked forward to seeing people who were happy and cheerful--she felt no burden and their cheerfulness helped her feel better. Just what the Doctor ordered!
The best way you can help me when I am feeling bad is to feel good, because
I care about your feelings. Similarly, if you care about me, I expect you will
ultimately want me to feel good after your misfortune. Both bad feelings and good
feelings are contagious. Which do you want to give?
Being honest has always been one of my most important values. When I was 16 and first began considering a more positive view of life, I had a serious reservation about "positive thinking." I didn't want to fool myself or be naive. I wondered, "How can I think positively without being dishonest with myself? Aren't I fooling myself?"
I realized that being honest with myself is not really so simple. I knew that I wanted to be totally honest with myself, but I realized that most situations in life are ambiguous. The truth is usually not so clear. If a situation is ambiguous, there are two types of errors I can make: the first is to be too optimistic and the second is to be too pessimistic. However, I decided right then that I would rather err in the direction of feeling too positive throughout my life than err in the direction of feeling too negative.
I would rather go through life being too optimistic and happy
Our view of an ambiguous situation can profoundly affect our emotions and our actions. A sudden change in our interpretation can have dramatic effects on those emotions and our behavior. It can also dramatically affect others around us.
A 22-year-old client came in because she had been angry with her father for months. She thought that he was being "totally selfish," "no longer really cares about what happens to me," and "doesn't want me around any more." Their communication had all but stopped, they would constantly bicker about little things, and it had gotten so bad that sometimes she would purposely do things to "get even."
It did appear that her father had been doing many things in which he was reducing contact and support of her--with no explanation. However, after hearing in detail about the history of their relationship, it seemed to me that her father really did care about her.
I noticed that she had been fueling her own anger all this time by focusing only upon her negative interpretation of his behavior. I asked her why she thought her father was doing these things. The only thing she could think of was that he never really cared for her as much as she had always thought. No wonder she felt so hurt and angry! I suggested a more positive interpretation of his actions. Let's start by assuming that he really loved her. Suppose that he thought she might want more independence and want to be treated more as an equal adult. She seemed interested.
After the Christmas break, she had returned from a visit home and was elated! She said that everything was fine now. She had talked with her father and had discussed this issue in a more positive, understanding manner. She had found that his own explanation was similar to the one we had discussed; he was just trying to treat her more like an adult.
They developed a completely new and more positive understanding beyond anything she had thought possible only a few weeks before. Had we worked some miracle? By changing her interpretation to the positive, understanding one that assumed the best of her father's motives, she also changed her behavior. She became open, communicative, and viewed his words and actions more positively. What had begun as a long complaint list about her father, ended with mutual understanding and renewed affection.
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