I’m an Emotional Immunologist

I am seeing two clients now who are working on becoming emotionally immune to stresses that disproportionately dominate them. One is a young woman, Amy, with a learning disability whose boss treats her in a degrading and hostile manner, and Paul is a 76-year-old widower who feels bullied by a well-meaning friend.

Part of my job as a psychologist is to help all clients immunize their emotional lives from the inevitable stresses that are part of living. Immunities require exposure, and emotional immunities require focused exposure.

I am influenced by Buddhist teachings and my friend, Buddhist scholar Marvin Levine. We live with events and people whom we cannot control. That is a given. We can let events and people disturb us, or we can work on immunizing ourselves from the inevitable vicissitudes of life. I decidedly do not advocate being passive, but others can’t run our emotional ships.

Amy makes mistakes at work, but is responsible and tries hard. Her boss snaps at Amy, who is very sensitive, and has barked, “Haven’t you ever done this before?” Amy’s boss has demanded that Amy and other workers not talk to each other during work, and demands that Amy consult her before making any decisions. Then, after being consulted, she criticizes Amy for not taking care of it on her own. Amy feels degraded and becomes anxious whenever her boss approaches. Clearly, Amy has a hostile boss, but my job is to work with Amy so that she is not an emotional victim of a bad boss.

Paul is indecisive and unassertive. After his wife died, he became friends with a very active and bossy fellow widower, Andy. Initially, Paul was grateful to Andy for making plans to go to ball games, the theater and concerts, but was unable to say no. When Paul didn’t want to go, instead of saying, “No, thanks,” he hemmed and hawed and reluctantly relented to pressure. Resentment built up until he exploded and yelled. He recognizes Andy got him out of mourning and out of the house, but he just wanted out.

In both cases, I pointed out that this was an opportunity to learn skills:
1. Do not allow your emotions to be controlled by others.
2. Learn appropriate assertiveness skills.
I pointed out to Amy that, yes, she has a nasty boss, but since her boss is not in my office, I cannot change her. However, we can work together to learn how to handle a hostile boss and to see what actions she can take to improve her situation. Amy slowly learned to say to her boss, “You don’t have to say that in a nasty manner and you can be polite.” In addition, Amy requested a meeting with her boss and human resources to discuss making the work environment less hostile.

Andy can be Paul’s teacher. Certainly, if their relationship is toxic, either can end it. However, as in most relationships, there are benefits—in this case getting Paul active again. Paul must accept that Andy’s motives are not malevolent, but because of Paul’s unassertiveness, Andy assumes he is making life more interesting for Paul. Though Andy has been insensitive to Paul’s feelings, this is an opportunity for Paul, even at his age, to learn to say, “No, thank you” without feeling guilty. In addition, Paul should stand back and reflect, without judging either Andy or himself, about what is bothering him. He then should practice relaxation exercises, so that he can remain calm when Andy says, “You gotta go to the Knicks game! This kid Lin is tearing up the court!” Then Paul could accept or decline.

Immunities build with exposure and the development of new habits. With practice, both Amy and Paul can increase their immunities to irritations, and gradually, as they become less anxious, they will feel more positive about life. It will require work, but, “To be perfect,” as one Buddhist monk said, “one lifetime may not be enough.” More to come next month.