Cheerfulness as a coping mechanism | INFJ Forum

Cheerfulness as a coping mechanism

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Jan 31, 2011
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So, I have posted recently about defending my master's thesis, and I wanted to share a bit about a classmate of mine who defended her thesis today. To put it bluntly, she is a fairly lazy student, often puts her work off until the last minute, and her seminar presentations and classwork often have lots of typos and errors that would have been easy to catch in a single round of revision.

I don't mean this as a moral judgment against her—life is more than school—but as a factual description of her academic performance. This context matters because I have often been in the room when a professor or adviser has given her harsh criticism, telling her that these sort of habits have to change if she is going to have a successful career, etc. The criticism was gentle and constructive when she was a new student, but since her performance hasn't improved, there have been several times when her adviser has become visibly upset, asking why she would waste his time with a half-baked presentation.

Now, the thing that I find remarkable about this girl is that in the face of this kind of criticism—criticism that would turn me into a puddle of shame—she is downright cheerful. She thanks the professor profusely, says she really appreciates his feedback, and exchanges cheerful pleasantries with him over dinner. And then she incorporates absolutely none of his feedback into her work.

For example, today, she went downstairs to defend her thesis, and it took more than twice as long as was scheduled. Based on what I have seen in her seminar presentations, I think that this means that the professors asked her tough questions and she wasn't able to put together a coherent answer. It could also mean that the professors spent a lot of time in their closed session debating whether to let her graduate, or a combination of those things.

Afterwards, her advisor called her in for a private conference, and she came back out saying, "Wow, omg, maybe I'm not even going to graduate, but I will, right? Right?" You know, trying to seek reassurance from the other students in our cohort that she was going to be OK. And then she started flitting around handing out snacks, all smiles.

Again, I'm not this girl's dad, and I don't consider it my place or responsibility to point out to her that if she redirected the effort she currently puts into grinning away the criticism into actually improving her work, she might be able to avoid the criticism in the first place. But I know that she actually really dislikes being publically berated, because she has told me as much. So the thing I don't get is why her coping mechanisms are so ... bizarre. I just haven't really met anyone like this, who sole mood is one of unflagging cheerfulness, even when she is having an objectively shitty day.

My question is, what do you think is going on psychologically that has my friend stuck in this pattern, where she responds to criticism with inscrutable cheerfulness but never incorporates the criticism into her actions? Have you ever met someone like this? What sort of life experiences or personality traits could engender this sort of behavior?
 
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Headstrong. Stubborn. Refuses to listen possibly out of ego or just plain poor comprehension.

You don't know what goes on behind her mind. For all you know she's killing everyone inside her imagination already.
 
Lol, sounds like a good external response to me. If it was followed by self-reflection, of course. Professors are probably right, her approach wouldn't lead to success in academia or in scientific field. She is probably not an introvert, or at least not the type that self reflects often. She is probably someone who thinks appearing smart is more important than being smart. Not a common thing among introverts.
 
I'm kinda like that... You're right, it could be a kind of coping mechanism but also genuine part of personality. It does not mean that it is cheerfulness 24/7, I am sure though during her quiet moments a few tears are shed or her own self-criticism is loudest than anyone else's (meaning that hearing any criticism doesn't faze you at an instant)..
I wonder how her expression for anger is like though, as usually when you are cheery even when a situation clearly calls for some dissatisfactory response, but you don't have that interface, it goes somewhere.
I don't know where.. could be sadness, or indifference. The latter is more difficult, because eventually it will need attention.
 
though, I must say she sounds sweet and even if a ''fairly lazy'' student perhaps one of the last-minute kind where everything works out despite the errors and shortcomings. I don't know if this girl is a friend of yours but always good to be there, even if give a bottle of water or small gesture of 'thereness'..
 
My question is, what do you think is going on
It could well be a power game. I see my two year old grandchildren playing that sort of game and many of us carry on with it into adulthood.
 
Living is a coping mechanism for death
 
I think mainly the weirdest part here is the apparent lack of self reflection and integration of new information.
It's hard to know if they are genuinely trying at this and simply failing, or if they are actively choosing to disregard it.
I've known people who have very healthy responses to criticism and it looks more like simple acceptance than cheerfulness.
So on some level they are trying to overcompensate for the pain they feel.
 
An alternate take: some people come out of an environment where they have been told that any expression of emotion other than cheer—especially under duress—is unacceptable.

The “I’ll give you something to cry about!” environment.

Cheers,
Ian
 
She's satisfied with her performance so her main goal is to make sure the professor likes her since that blunts the negatives of her performance a bit (plus maybe she thinks it makes the meeting end sooner than if she complained back). She more or less just doesn't give a fuck about the class and is going through the motions because she perceives that as something she has to do.

That's my guess anyway.

Having reread the situation I think she's starting to realize this won't work but yeah.
 
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Reading this the thought comes to mind that narcs love trapping people like this in toxic relationships sometimes marriage given the chance as they are a lot less likely to bail out than normal but at any rate it can be really annoying to interact with sometimes and for those who have this as a personality attribute it can lead to a lot of self harm.
 
Maybe she doesn't know how else to respond, or how to change her behavior. Some people smile and run from a problem rather than face it head on.
Or maybe she doesn't intend to incorporate anything into her behavior and feels getting flustered about it won't do any good. Or at least did until now that it seems the outcome is in doubt.

It could be a combination of these things too. What do you think it is?
 
Thanks all for responding in the spirit of the question.

I am sure though during her quiet moments a few tears are shed or her own self-criticism is loudest than anyone else's (meaning that hearing any criticism doesn't faze you at an instant).

The criticism has brought her to tears before—once. But she cried for less than thirty seconds and then turned the smile back on. It was bewildering. But it revealed to me that deep down, her failures do trouble her. This is why I wonder why she keeps persisting in this ineffective coping mechanism rather than doing something about it.

I've known people who have very healthy responses to criticism and it looks more like simple acceptance than cheerfulness.

I know, right? My impression is that somewhere along her journey, she saw a TED talk that said "you should embrace criticism" and took it to heart, but only in a very superficial sense, so while she literally "welcomes," she fails to actually engage in the kind of reflection and processing that you need in order to make the "embrace criticism" mentality worth it.

An alternate take: some people come out of an environment where they have been told that any expression of emotion other than cheer—especially under duress—is unacceptable.

She's satisfied with her performance so her main goal is to make sure the professor likes her since that blunts the negatives of her performance a bit (plus maybe she thinks it makes the meeting end sooner than if she complained back). She more or less just doesn't give a fuck about the class and is going through the motions because she perceives that as something she has to do.

When I told my mom about this girl, she came up with a pet theory that seems to integrate both of these viewpoints. This girl's family is extremely wealthy, and she went to a very prestigious school in undergrad, so she will never have to worry about money or finding a job. But (according to my mom's theory), because of high society culture, it is very important to her parents/family/her that she marry a high-status man from similar circles, and in order to do so, she needs to master the feminine art of bringing comfort to others and avoiding becoming a burden. Therefore, her parents taught her from a young age that being a gracious and bubbly presence is the most important mandate in her life. Also, to marry a high-status man, she needs a master's degree, so she has no reason to give a fuck about actually doing well in class as long as she gets the diploma in the end.

Further evidence for this theory comes from the fact that she has a big sister who is constantly nagging her about her physical appearance, weight, and diet, which suggests that "gender roles for girls in their twenties" is a broader thematic issue in her family.

This theory is interesting, but the evidence is circumstantial; it's just one of many theories that could fit the fact pattern. She did have a boyfriend from another department for a few months a while back, but I assume that they broke up, because she usually spends lunch in the lab with us nowadays.

Maybe she doesn't know how else to respond, or how to change her behavior. Some people smile and run from a problem rather than face it head on.
Or maybe she doesn't intend to incorporate anything into her behavior and feels getting flustered about it won't do any good. Or at least did until now that it seems the outcome is in doubt.

It could be a combination of these things too. What do you think it is?

I think that she believes that her only valuable skill is her ability to "brighten up the room" with a cheerful demeanor. And I think that by adopting this limiting belief at an early age, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As for what caused her to adopt this belief, I really have no ideas other than the "high society culture" theory from above.
 
I think that she believes that her only valuable skill is her ability to "brighten up the room" with a cheerful demeanor.
Some of us have a 'killer app' which we expect to get us through every imaginable situation. When it doesn't it can be like running into a brick wall - a little jarring or even shocking. If your thoughts are true I could relate with them, in another life.

Though it makes me wonder, what her personal life is like and what other skillsets she uses. It's easy to make assumptions about a person based on a limited social environment we share with them. It sounds like you've seen her in others too, at least somewhat.

High society culture. Hmmm. It's an idea? it really depends on the subset. Like some don't raise their kids at all, they leave that to a third party. And others it's more important to be graceful with standards than eternally effervescent. But yes some are like how your mum described too.
 
But it revealed to me that deep down, her failures do trouble her. This is why I wonder why she keeps persisting in this ineffective coping mechanism rather than doing something about it.
Then it's most probably poor comprehension. She simply doesn't know how to do things any other way. The learning culture in your environment may not be suitable for her. Academia particularly in higher education tends to be cut a certain way, which is to each their own. You basically fend for yourself out there and then see who's the better knowledge sponge with the actual capability for application. She may need a different environment to thrive. Not everyone is cut for that.

My guess is from where she was from, she did well enough and was thus able to skirt through her prerequisites. Specialization formation isn't like that though. The general education approach will fizzle and give way to in depth knowledge formation which is far more bewildering. This is the reason why most half-assed efforts won't cut it. Her procrastination could already be a sign that within her, she doesn't know what she's doing. She's keeping the denial alive with some optimism but my best bet is she'll soon understand that she's in real trouble.

When this happens, she will have a rough time so I hope you know some people who can be there for her. Maybe that field just doesn't fit her. I'm sure your professors already know this, it's just a matter of how to break it to her now. After which, she will either persist with the field but she will not get any success until she learns to break her current patterns. She will need a tutor so her adviser will be having a pretty tough job but it isn't impossible. In my experience, at that point, we, as faculty, start discussing about which other suitable patient bloke could have the resources to help her academically.

As her friend, if you are close, you can tutor her. But chances are she won't see things as you do unless you give it to her objectively.

If I were her advisor, I would sit her down. First, I'll get the emotional blockages out of the way and try to see from an emotional standpoint what causes her refusal to change. I will try to unravel the student. I will then pull out each points in the criticism then show her a benchmark of a similar work that was done better. I will make her evaluate it before me. This is how I guage the comprehension skills. If she still won't show any improvements, I am most likely going to advise her to move on. If she will improve and will remain determined, I will push her further until she reaches the bare minimum for getting a passing grade. The process can take years.

I had a couple of similar cases with advisees in the past. It was very difficult and emotional. They question themselves profoundly and they lose a grip of what or who they are so it's very important to stay firm and still sensitive. You make them understand what the profession is about at the fundamental level again. The aha moment comes eventually with some patience and money wasted but it's not impossible. With these types of learners, sometimes the aha takes its time but when it clicks, they soar so you will never know.

When I told my mom about this girl, she came up with a pet theory that seems to integrate both of these viewpoints. This girl's family is extremely wealthy, and she went to a very prestigious school in undergrad, so she will never have to worry about money or finding a job. But (according to my mom's theory), because of high society culture, it is very important to her parents/family/her that she marry a high-status man from similar circles, and in order to do so, she needs to master the feminine art of bringing comfort to others and avoiding becoming a burden. Therefore, her parents taught her from a young age that being a gracious and bubbly presence is the most important mandate in her life. Also, to marry a high-status man, she needs a master's degree, so she has no reason to give a fuck about actually doing well in class as long as she gets the diploma in the end.

Further evidence for this theory comes from the fact that she has a big sister who is constantly nagging her about her physical appearance, weight, and diet, which suggests that "gender roles for girls in their twenties" is a broader thematic issue in her family.

This theory is interesting, but the evidence is circumstantial; it's just one of many theories that could fit the fact pattern. She did have a boyfriend from another department for a few months a while back, but I assume that they broke up, because she usually spends lunch in the lab with us nowadays.
Ah I replied too soon without having read through.

This newer information will be a problem. I say good luck to your professors, and most definitely good luck to her advisor.
 
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This is beside the point but may I ask, where are you from? High society culture from different places may vary. From the way you wrote it, it still sounds like she's from a place that sees women mostly as assets to be offered for marriage for business purposes. Am I far off?
 
This is beside the point but may I ask, where are you from? High society culture from different places may vary. From the way you wrote it, it still sounds like she's from a place that sees women mostly as assets to be offered for marriage for business purposes. Am I far off?
We are in an East Asian country, but this girl's family is very international and she had many years of schooling in the US.

I think this is a feature of narrow subsets of high society culture globally, even in ostensibly "modern" countries where there are more career paths open to women. For example, I know some families in Silicon Valley and Orange County who have a similar mentality.
 
We are in an East Asian country, but this girl's family is very international and she had many years of schooling in the US.

I think this is a feature of narrow subsets of high society culture globally, even in ostensibly "modern" countries where there are more career paths open to women. For example, I know some families in Silicon Valley and Orange County who have a similar mentality.
Oh gosh. Good luck. East Asian meritocracy can be ruthless and inflexible. She will either have to amp it up or use her connections to scare off the people who are failing her. It would be interesting to see which route she takes after that failing point.
 
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The criticism has brought her to tears before—once. But she cried for less than thirty seconds and then turned the smile back on. It was bewildering. But it revealed to me that deep down, her failures do trouble her. This is why I wonder why she keeps persisting in this ineffective coping mechanism rather than doing something about it.

So, I don't think it's a coping mechanism but actually what she is like but life changes also have tendency to change us . You mention that she is femiinnine and avoids being a burden to anyone, that does not sound difficult but at worst it's also like people-pleasing and that's not overall healthy. I do hope for the girls' sake life situations are kind but helpful to her self-growth.