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Object Constancy: What It Is and Why You Want It

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Hint: How much you have may depend on how mature you are.

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Not all stress is bad for you.

Good stress strengthens you, helps you focus, tests your mettle, and shows the world -- and more importantly, you -- what you're made of. When you're under it, you're still able to hold onto your goals and drive toward them.

If stress increases to the point of overwhelming you and overloading your ability to cope effectively, it crosses over into bad stress. At that point, you let go of your goals and instead focus on finding relief.

This is when you'll engage in self-defeating and often compulsive -- as opposed to thoughtful and disciplined -- behavior to find relief in any way you can. Compulsive behaviors -- such as withdrawing or having tantrums; excessive eating, drinking, or spending; sexually acting out; or gambling -- all have the ability to distract you from distress. But they cost you and derail you from your goals from taking constructive action.

Everybody has a threshold where good stress crosses over into bad stress. The higher that threshold, the greater amount of pressure you can handle effectively and the more successful you will be.

There is a term for this capacity. It's one of the clumsiest, but most descriptive terms in psychology, and it's called "object constancy." It's the ability to maintain an internal emotional and outward real connection -- in relationships (with your co-workers, friends, or loved ones), to goals (your commitment to them), and to hope (your ability to look forward to the future) -- after you've been frustrated, disappointed or frightened. It's the ability to keep disappointment at disappointment without it turning into discouragement; frustration at frustration without it becoming anger; and fear at fear without it escalating to panic.

Learning to feel and stay connected under stress is a matter of maturity and an ability that fewer people seem to achieve. The more mature you are, the greater your object constancy and ability to remain centered and steadfast through tumult and turmoil; the more immature you are, the lesser your object constancy. In neuroanatomical terms, it's the ability to stay in your pre-frontal (human) cortex without sliding into your animal brain and acting by reflex.

This is why children will say, "I hate you," to a friend or parent after they have been disappointed or sometimes merely told, "No." It's also why immature wives and husbands will immediately go to, "Let's get a divorce," or girlfriends and boyfriends will say, "Let's just break up," when many of them are disappointed or told, "No." It's why ineffective leaders jump too quickly from one initiative to another or alternatively stay too long when they should cut their losses.

The best lesson I've learned in life when I'm stressed from a setback or rejection is that if I can resist reacting for 48 hours in a way that makes my situation worse, I'll discover positive things (sometimes related to the rejection and sometimes not) that I never would have learned had that defeat not happened. However, if instead of doing this, I react angrily or engage in a destructive behavior, I'll then have to fix the further injury I've done to my relationships and to my own self-worth for acting out. Either of these will prevent me from learning the valuable lesson because I'll be so busy doing damage control.

Staying centered and keeping your cool is something that you learn "on the job" by facing adversity head on. The only way to learn it is to "take the hit," and when you do, bear down and resist allowing your initial upset to slide into discouragement, your frustration into anger, or your fear into panic.
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