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Ch-8: Rise Above Anxiety, Anger, and Depression

Mental Control Strategy 3: Understanding; Episode Analysis

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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> Chapter 8, Part 4, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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Mental Control Strategy 3:


Understand the situation and create
a road map to success


 How can you create a road map to success?
 How you can understand a complex situation
 How to teach yourself a new skill
Our brains automatically create expectation
 Overcoming difficult situations with understanding at a higher level
 SUMMARY: Mental Control Strategy 3: UNDERSTANDING

As a child I would become very frightened or angry with my father when he would go into one of his "tirades," call me names, or say whatever he could to make me feel as bad as possible. Today, we would call that "psychological abuse." But as a child I just knew it hurt a lot and I either felt guilty, hurt, or angry. Clearly, he was giving me a lot of input that was overwhelming to me. I didn't know how to cope with it effectively, so I felt upset.

With all this confusion in my mind, I needed a way to cognitively structure his verbiage (get mental control over it). I could not understand why he would get so upset and abusive. It was especially hard to understand, since mom never got abusive--no matter what I had done.

Eventually, I learned how to understand him better. I learned four major lessons about my anger toward him that have lasted throughout my life.

 Boundaries of responsibility. I may have made a mistake, but his excessive criticism and name-calling was due to his problems not mine. I wasn't more guilty just because he was more angry. His anger went far beyond my actual misdeeds.

 He was punished by natural consequences. While I hurt from his verbal attacks, he suffered more from his temper than I did. It undermined his happiness throughout his life. That helped me lose my need to "get even" with him for his abuse.

 He really cared about me, but couldn't do any better. Underneath all of his anger and abuse he actually loved me very much. The great irony was that it was partly because he loved me that he got so angry.

Part of his problem was that he didn't know how to be a good teacher. He thought getting angry and making me feel bad would "teach me a lesson" so that I would grow up being the kind of person he thought would be best for me.

 If he couldn't control me (or important aspects of my life), I needn't fear him. I never allowed myself to become too dependent upon him. Even though he often told me he wanted me to go into business with him someday, I never wanted to work with him. I set my own career goals independently.

After I understood these lessons about my dad and my anger, I could remain calm and effective even when he went into a tirade. His attacks rolled off me like "water off a duck's back." I still loved him; but I felt sorry for him, because he was suffering from his anger far more than I. The key to overcoming dad's abusive behavior was understanding, empathy, acceptance, and control of my own values. It came from a deeper understanding of my father--and of my own reactions to him.

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A ROAD MAP TO SUCCESS--How do we get what we want?

Satisfying values leads to happiness. We can think of satisfying each value (or goal) as a destination that we are attempting to reach. But if we do not know the path to an important goal, then we will feel confused and anxious.

Knowledge, skills, and a plan of how to get there increase mental control. Marge's husband suddenly fell over in their living room grasping his chest. She panicked, "He must be having a heart attack, will he die?" She ran in all directions at once and felt helpless. Finally, she called 911. While she was waiting, she ran around in circles feeling her own heart would burst.

Our brains automatically know when we know how to do something. When the brain lacks adequate cognitive structure, complex inputs overwhelm it and the brain system becomes overstimulated. That causes overarousal emotions. Marge panicked because she didn't know how to cope with this vital episode.

If we feel overarousal emotions such as anxiety, anger, or confusion, then we need to increase understanding and planning. If Marge had had Cardio-Pulmonary-Resuscitation training, she would have become calmer by channeling her energy into CPR instead of running all around the house.

For really important events, greater advance knowledge and planning usually increase chances of success. Any team going into the Superbowl will have an elaborate game-plan and rehearsed different scenarios over and over again--until they feel thoroughly prepared.

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Have others found the path? If so, the path exists and they can lead us. Do you doubt your ability to reach some important goal in your life? Have you partly given up hope that you can have the kind of job, marriage, or life that you really want? Perhaps you need to accept the reality of your current situation--or perhaps not.

What if that path to happiness really exists, and all of this time you have simply not found it! One important question to ask yourself is, "Has anyone else found success and happiness in a similar situation?" No matter what the situation is, someone in the world has probably learned how to enjoy it--even cleaning toilets or doing taxes.

For example, my wife Sherry has a friend who hated washing dishes for many years. Then he tried to get over his dislike. Her friend began to view dishwashing as an art form--cleaning each dish with care and admiring the result. He created beautiful mental images--such as recalling images of his dinners or friends he shared them with. He was so successful that he now values dishwashing as a special time to relax. Quite a reversal!

Once just one person finds the road map to success and happiness, we can potentially learn their secrets and apply them to our own situation. Many self-help organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous were created by people who found the path to solving a deep problem.

AA has been successful because people in recovery teach others how they did it. AA has condensed its knowledge into a 12-step program. New members feel reassured by working with a "sponsor" who has already overcome many roadblocks to recovery.

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During the hot summer (when I was seven years old), I loved to go to a local park in the hot summer in Oklahoma City. I watched all the other kids swimming around in the "deep" (3 feet deep) water. I wanted to learn how to swim so badly, but there were no lessons available and I had no one to teach me.

Not knowing what else to do, I watched the other kids. First, I tried to figure out who the best swimmers were. They became my "models." Then, I tried to analyze how they swam. I looked at how they moved their arms and legs. I tried to imitate their movements. I swam without "breathing" in the shallower part of the pool. One step at a time I learned to swim until I became pretty good.

Learning how to teach myself skills by watching "expert models" became a valuable skill in itself. I have learned golf, tennis, and skiing by watching experts or pictures of experts. As a teenager and young adult, I learned how to become more assertive and diplomatic by observing and analyzing people who had exceptional interpersonal skills.

Graduate students (under my supervision for their theses) made a series of self-instructional, "Life Skills Training" videotapes to help students learn various self-management and interpersonal skills. The interpersonal skills presented were often based upon careful observation and analysis of "experts" (with exceptional life skills) compared to "average" people. Our research showed how these tapes could help people who were very shy and unassertive improve their skills and gain confidence.


Compare the differences between experts and novices
to discover the "secrets" of how to be successful at any activity.
Do "Episode Analysis" to understand "HOW."
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The EPISODE's three phases--the situation, the causal forces, and the outcome. (3) All activities can be analyzed as an episode consisting of three basic phases--the situation, the causal forces that occur in that situation, and the outcome. The situation is the state of the internal and external systems at the beginning of the episode. During the episode, various internal and external causal forces interact--producing some outcome. The outcome is defined as the state of the internal and external systems at the end of the episode.

Episodes may also include goals, activities, and the outcome relevant to each goal. The motivation and skill of the performer(s) are major causes of the outcome. However, they are not the only causes--many outside factors (often called "luck") also intervene. In the game of tennis, the motivation and skills of the other player, the weather, the referee, and many other factors can affect the outcome of the match. Many of these forces are outside the control of the tennis player. We have seen how important it is to make clear mental boundaries between the causes we can control and the causes we cannot control.

The episode is everything that occurs during that time interval. In practice we are not able to perceive everything that occurs in a particular time interval, and we are not interested in everything that occurs. We can arbitrarily define what an episode consists of. For example the game of tennis consists of one match. A match usually consists of three sets. Sets consist of games and games consist of points. Points consist of strokes. So a tennis episode could be a stroke, point, game, set, or match--depending on the level of detail you want to analyze.

In a match episode, the situation would be the states of the players and score at the beginning of the tennis match. The players are rested and ready to play and the score is all zeros (or love) for points, games, and sets. The outcome would be the states of the players at the end of the match--probably tired with one being a "winner" and the other a "loser." There would also be a final score. From the point of view of the game, the final score is the most important outcome.

However, from the point of view of each player, there may be many other values that are important. Outcomes important to me include the enjoyment from playing tennis per se, socializing with others, and health benefits.

Causal analysis of the episode. To get a deeper understanding of an episode, look at the causal forces involved in the episode. Start with deciding which outcomes are most important to you. If you want to maximize your own performance, then focus on the forces you can directly control--your own behavior and your own internal state. Just as I learned to swim by watching the older kid "experts," I learned to play tennis by watching frame-by-frame pictures of various tennis strokes, and read what the world's top tennis players and coaches said about how to hit the ball and what tactics to use.

I learned to play golf by watching frame-by-frame pictures of golf swings by top golfers. When I learned to ski, I bought a book called World Cup Ski Techniques which showed detailed frame-by-frame pictures of the top skiers in the world. It also explained principles of biomechanics, which helped me understand why certain movements were important. I have taken only a few lessons but have learned these sports well from these self-help books and videotapes.

Good self-help books in any area will give detailed information about how to improve your performance in that area of your life. For example, learning the CHUG-OF and O-PATSM systems are examples in this book of step-by-step descriptions of key life skills. You can decide which causal forces you want to look at. You can look at very specific causal forces or very global ones. Both are important. The novice will tend to focus more on the global aspects, while the expert will tend to focus on the details. But often the expert also needs to get a new view of the whole.

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Analyze both external and internal causes. Use external, behavioral task analysis (such as analyzing tennis strokes or interpersonal interactions) to find which actions lead to successful outcomes. Actions are relatively easy to observe. However, other causal forces aren't as easy to observe. The thoughts, expectations, arousal states, and attentional focus of the players may have been important underlying factors that also influenced their level of play.

Use internal state analysis to find how internal conditions such as sensations, cognitive states, thoughts, emotions, and arousal conditions affect the outcomes. In this type of inquiry, we attempt to find out what is in the mind of the tennis player that produced the winning combination.

Use this SKILLS TRAINING PROCESS to improve performance for any skill in life. Whether you want to improve your skills in a sport, interpersonal situations, writing, math, self-management, or any other life area, the following process can help.

(1) Find the best proven experts to study. Use books, videotapes, people you know, classes, individual instruction, or any method you can think of.

(2) Do episode analysis as described above. Ideally, the experts will have done most of this for you and you can read the key rules and step-by-step analyses of how to do it. If not, do your own step-by-step analysis of what you observe the experts doing. Contrast them to your own behavior. Concentrate of identifying the key differences in behavior that make the biggest differences in outcomes.

(3) Experiment and practice, practice, practice. 

(4) Get feedback. Observe yourself, actively seek feedback from experts or others who observe you, try videotaping or audiotaping performances, and get feedback. When you are ready for your next lesson, go back to step one and recycle until you reach your personal goals.

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                                                        and it automatically produces powerful expectations!

What I described above was an example of conscious, purposeful episode analysis. However, our brain performs a type of automatic episode analysis--for which we often have little awareness. For example, when we meet another person for the first time, our mind automatically does a lot of information processing. Our cognitive system observes their dress, physical characteristics, body language, and the content of their speech and actions. It categorizes the person by their sex, ethnic origin, age, and personality characteristics. It gives us an almost instantaneous "first impression" of the person.

Our cognitive system also classifies the situation. Is it a business meeting with an important customer? Is it a potential situation leading to dating? Is this someone who might try to harm me or rob me? The internal experts, thoughts, and behaviors that are activated toward that person will be determined by what "type of episode" we anticipate this to be. We would not treat a potential robber the way we would a potential date or a potential client.

When automatic episode analysis is inadequate, use conscious episode analysis. In most daily life situations, our inner experts function so automatically that we barely notice them. However, when we are faced with a overly complex situation, then our inner experts become confused and we need to apply conscious episode analysis methods.

Once we understand the episode better and develop a plan to deal with it, then we will immediately feel more confident and improve our chances for success.

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My client was a very caring and warm person who would never harm anyone. Yet one night while walking home, a man of her own ethnic group wearing a hood brutally grabbed her and raped her. She came in for counseling because she was having terrible nightmares about being raped and because she had become afraid of men. She was terrified when men of her own ethnic group came near her--especially if they approached her from behind.

Though normally a very nice, quiet woman, she was enraged. She had frequent fantasies about mutilating her assailant. She even thought of mutilating other men. Her rage was out of control and was causing her a great deal of unhappiness. The question she kept asking was, "Why? Why would he do this to me?"

It may seem obvious why she felt so afraid, but how could she get over her nightmares, her terror, and her anger? The key was her understanding of the situation. She could not understand why anyone would grab her, beat her up, and rape her. She had never known anyone who was capable of such deeds.

We had many issues to resolve. First, my client was worried about her own safety as never before. She needed to develop plans to get as much control over her own safety as possible. She took a self-defense class. However, her safety plans had only a small effect on her fear or anger.

If we cannot understand at a lower level, we can understand at a higher level. She wished that she could look inside the man who raped her and find out why he did it. Yet, she would probably never even find out who this man was. She had not seen him before, or since; and she had no idea who he was. Nevertheless, the question haunted her--"Why would he do that to me?"

She was not really so upset about why this particular man would hurt her, but why anyone would hurt her so brutally--with no justification. She had done nothing to hurt him (or anyone). This act had threatened her underlying core belief that the world is a fair place. Our core beliefs help hold our world together. When these higher level beliefs are threatened, then we experience greater overstimulation (such as anxiety and anger) than when lower level beliefs are threatened.

To solve her problem, we looked at four higher level belief issues. We looked more at the issue of why anyone would brutally hurt or rape someone else.

(1) We looked at typical reasons why men rape--such as sexual gratification, domination, and hostility against women in general. We discussed scenarios about how someone could become a rapist. These discussions increased her understanding of why someone would rape her. She began to understand that the brutality was probably not directed at her personally, but directed more toward women in general.

(2) We questioned her assumption that the world is a fair place. She learned to accept that life often is not fair. She chose to view life and all we receive as a gift and replace the goal of fairness with the goals of growth and happiness.

(3) She learned that psychological justice can help balance the scales. She was enraged that his man would probably go unpunished by the law. But she learned that any rapist is probably tormented for years--not by just his misdeeds. He must be a psychologically disturbed person to commit such a brutal act.

(4) Finally, she wanted to find some higher level positive meaning in this awful experience. Like Victor Frankl and the other prisoners at Auschwitz, she needed to find some positive meaning in her suffering to help ease her frustration and helpless feelings. She used her Christian perspective to look upon this experience as God's will for her to learn new lessons about understanding and forgiveness. She thought she was a wiser, stronger person because of these lessons.

After three sessions, she stopped having the nightmares, felt much more comfortable talking with men, and could even forgive her attacker. She felt sorry for him. Six months later, she was still sleeping well, friendly to men, and much happier.

Having a strong Higher Self and philosophy of life is our safety net. We need a well thought out, understanding, and positive Higher Self to deal with the "dark side" of life. Our philosophy of life and world view will color the meaning of every event. (See earlier chapters.) If we do not have strong Higher Selves, then we are like the high wire walker with no safety net.

Having already dealt with issues such death, serious illness, poverty, violence, and injustice help us remain calm in the face of specific threats. Looking at these threats from functional higher level beliefs and a broader frame of reference gives us more mental control to process the threatening inputs.


In the midst of the night, when all is dark around me,
and I look the monster in the face, it appears overwhelming.
But when I bring it into the light of day,
where I can also see the trees, the flowers, and the sky,
I find that it isn't a monster at all--just my active imagination.

PRACTICE: Look at a problem from a higher level of understanding and a broader frame of reference. Find an emotional problem that you have repeatedly tried to solve--such as not being able to understand or forgive someone. Use your Higher Self beliefs to try to develop an empathetic, realistic understanding of the person. If you cannot form a positive, understanding view from understanding that particular person, time, or problem; form a point of view that takes a broader point of view. Look at the problem over a broader frame of reference--a longer time frame, or a larger number of people, or considers background factors which might have caused the event to happen.

SUMMARY: Mental Control Strategy 3: UNDERSTANDING
Cognitive structure (such as knowledge and plans) reduce anxiety.
Also, understanding gives us power and control.
Episode analysis can help us build knowledge and skills for success.
If we cannot understand at a lower level of analysis,
then we can still understand at a higher, more philosophical, level.
High level understanding gives us a mental safety net and
is our highest road map to success.
Return to beginning
Go to next section of Chapter 8


3.  Dr. Donald Ford has written the 664-page Humans as Self-Constructing Living Systems (1987)--a theory of psychology in which he also makes "episodes" and their analysis a central idea. Independently, I arrived at very similar conclusions and used the term "episode" in a monograph, Stevens (1986). I recommend his book for professionals desiring to learn more about the psychological systems point of view.


The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

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