Updated: Nov 16, 2020
Are your strategies for dealing with challenges and difficulties in life giving you the outcomes you want?
Challenging times can happen at any time to anyone. Difficult circumstances that were not in our plans, all of sudden make their way into our lives. More often than not, bad things seem to happen all at once like in the popular saying "It never rains but it pours"...
It is during these difficult times that we become "triggered" to respond in ways that are familiar to us, even when our responses do not serve us well.
Under stress, our coping mechanisms default to survival mode and our thoughts, emotions and resulting behaviour become a product of our past experiences.
When we were children we learnt to cope with stress by modelling the behaviour of the meaningful adults in our life. The learning process is always unconscious and as children, we do not have neither the life experience nor the critical capacity to make distinctions and to logically assess which behaviours we should model and which ones we shouldn't. We just absorb like sponges what we see and then re-enact it. If nothing interferes with this process (i.e. we do not learn different ways of behaving and coping with stressful situations, for example, at school, from our peers, or from a relevant adult such as a teacher or mentor), we develop a repertoire of coping strategies that are based on life-diminishing belief systems about ourselves, others and the world/life.
If we are lucky to grow up in a heathy and stable family environment, we eventually learn a range of coping strategies and as we grow up and live our own experiences we also become capable of accessing inner resources to make our own decisions based on trial and error, assessing, more or less accurately, what responses to life difficulties contribute to enhancing or diminishing our opportunities.
However, those of us who did not grow up in healthy and stable family environments often struggle to learn healthy and life-enhancing ways to cope with stress and when faced with life challenges, we tend to regress to patterns of behaviour that do not serve us well, unconsciously creating our own life traps.
These patterns of behaviour tend to have self-destructive elements in them. For example, if we grew up in an environment where the meaningful adult/s dealt with stress by resorting to violence, we are likely to use some form of violence as a way of coping with problems in general. Although we may not be physically violent towards other people, we may become passive or overtly aggressive towards others, particularly when under pressure. Or, we may exercise violence against ourselves, by self-neglecting, self-harming or by displaying self-destructive behaviours that expose us to violence from others, i.e. abusive partners, toxic friendships, exploitative bosses, etc.
As another example, if we grew up in an environment where the meaningful adult/s coped with life challenges by adopting addictive habits and behaviours, as adults, we may have learnt to cope with pressure and stress by consuming addictive substances or by displaying self-destructive, potentially addictive behaviours such as gambling, self-harming, over-exercising, over-working, emotional eating, etc. The danger with substances and self-destructive behaviours is that even though, under normal circumstances, they may happen occasionally, we may find them comforting during challenging times, eventually causing us to become trapped in a cycle of addiction from which we may find it almost impossible to escape by ourselves.
If you recognise that the strategies you are using to deal with stress and challenging life circumstances have the potential to lead you down the path of self-destruction, or, if after having had many similar experiences, you recognise that your coping strategies are not helping you to solve your problems, it is time to take a step back, and take a deeper look at what is really going on.
Where should you start? Here are some ideas:
1. Commit to being brutally honest with yourself: The first step in the process is to commit to being brutally honest with yourself. Although easier said than done, it is important to make a commitment to yourself that no matter how unpleasant the truth, you are going to face it and that you are going to stop making excuses as to why you do the things you do. What matters here is the intention that you create rather than your actual capacity to face the truth because the fact is that your ability to be honest with yourself is directly proportional to your degree of self-awareness. If you are a master at self-deception, it is unlikely you will be able to acknowledge certain things about yourself at the first attempt but you have to start somewhere, and making a commitment to yourself and creating an intention around it is the first step to change.
I have found through experience that putting your intention in writing helps to remind yourself of your commitment. An example could be:
"I deeply commit to try really hard to see the truth behind my behaviours when dealing with challenging circumstances. Although I know this may be difficult at times, I commit to making the effort to stop making excuses for behaviours that do not serve me well."
2. Become aware of your triggers: To tackle responses that do not serve you, you need to become aware of your triggers. You can keep an ABC diary. ABC stands for:
Activating event: what happened that caused you to feel or react in a certain way?
For example: "My colleague asked me if I had completed the report that she gave me two weeks ago"
Behaviour: Specifically, what did you do? How did you respond? Try to be as descriptive as possible. Behaviours also include your thoughts and your emotions.
For example: "I thought, who is she to ask me about the report and I felt really angry at her so I snapped that I had not had the time to do it"
Consequence: What happened as a result of your response? Here you keep a record of what happened as a result of your response.
For example: "She reacted badly and then stopped talking to me, so our relationship is now in a very bad place"
3. Think of alternatives: Once you determine what happened, then you can ask yourself: Is this the outcome I wanted? and then, what could I have done differently?. It is important that you elaborate on your thoughts and emotions when answering these questions (remember your commitment to be brutally honest with yourself). It is through taking the time to describe what really happened that you will begin to see a pattern emerging in your responses to certain events.
Is this the outcome I wanted?: No, I didn't want us to be in bad terms because I need her to do some work with me as part of being in a team and I also don't want to be in bad terms with people at work because it makes my job unbearable.
What could I have done differently?: I could have apologised and explained that I have a lot of work to complete and that I am feeling quite stressed at the moment with all the restructuring going on and that I will make the time to complete it within the next 5 days.
I now realise that I become very snappy when I feel overwhelmed and react badly to people's requests.
4. Assess the costs: When you begin to see that there is a pattern in the way you tend to respond to certain events, ask yourself: what is this way of responding costing me?
This is a key question because it is not until you clearly see and acknowledge that the response is not serving you, that you will be fully committed to change it.
For example: My relationships at work are very strained and I noticed people do not chat with me like they used to. This makes me feel like an outsider and I feel unsupported and alone, which in turn makes me feel on edge.
5. Commit yourself to changing one specific behaviour in relation to the pattern: it is easier to begin with something simple. For example: when someone comes to ask me for something at work, I commit to speaking to them with respect and in a professional manner regardless of the reason for the request.
6. Be patient and exercise self-compassion: change does not happen in one day. There are ups and downs. Sometimes, you will feel you did well and other times, you will feel that you failed. That's totally fine. Remind yourself that you are on the process of becoming and that it is on-going for a lifetime. In the process of becoming there is no place for perfection. Perfection is an illusion and you are aiming for that which is real and true in your life.
7. Open yourself up to receiving support: to be open means that you aim to become receptive to receiving help from different sources without having preconceived expectations of what kind of help you are going to receive and who is going to give it to you. This does not mean that you will sit and wait for something to happen. It means you will take responsibility for your life and do what you need to do but you will also be open to receiving help from different sources.
These sources can be: spiritual, people, groups, organisations, trained professionals (such as counsellors, coaches, mentors, teachers, spiritual support, etc.), books, online videos, inspirational material, educational resources, etc. Sometimes, all we need to do is to ask for help to something bigger than ourselves and become open to receiving the help. Be open to receiving help from unexpected sources. Sometimes, we also need to openly communicate to others that we need help without demanding or manipulating. If asking for help is outside your comfort zone, then, practise the ABC and the questions above and be curious about what comes up as to the reason why it is difficult for you to ask for help.