There are times when things will go pear-shaped… and then there are the times when that pear will be all squished, mouldy and have a big fat worm in it. Sadly, horrible pears happen. So, how do you deal with them?
Let’s imagine the classic country music scenario. The love of your life has just run off, your dog has died and you are having to sell the family farm. All sorts of uncomfortable emotions are flying your way, faster than that plague of locusts which ate your last crop. What will be your go-to coping strategies?
Avoidant coping strategies
Highly popular, yet terribly ineffective, are what psychologists call avoidant coping strategies. Be employing these strategies, we temporarily avoid dealing with difficult thoughts, uncomfortable emotions and the actual sources of our pain. Instead we try to replace all this ickiness with feelings which are more pleasurable, exciting or at least different. All of us use avoidant coping strategies to some degree. After all, suffering isn’t pleasant and who doesn’t like a quick fix? The problem is that if we come to rely on avoidance strategies, they can easily erode our resilience and exacerbate our suffering.
A readily accessible mind-altering chemical, alcohol is a favoured form of self-medication. Alcohol depresses the nervous system, which slows the mind and allows one to feel more relaxed and disinhibited. While some people may temporarily succeed in dulling difficult thoughts and emotions, alcohol misuse can have horrible consequences in the short term (hangovers, accidents, terrible drunken decisions) and highly problematic in the long term (alcohol dependency, serious physical and mental health implications).
2) Punching something
While this strategy has helped many hand surgeons afford really nice homes, it has done very little for anyone else. Violent outbursts always occur when the wise mind is absent and are typically a cause for future shame and regret. While the adrenaline and energy that accompanies anger can seem preferable to feeling frustrated and powerless, regularly resorting to anger can be extremely damaging for yourself and those around you.
3) Stoically carry on
Many of us deal with uncomfortable emotions by not really dealing with them at all. We’ve been taught that bottling things up is tough and respectable, whilst having a normal human reaction is somehow shameful. Rather than experience and release uncomfortable emotions, we carry them around and get straight back on with the job. Repressing emotions will not however get rid of them and this strategy can actually make us far less resilient, cause sustained stress and future pain.
Often it is in the times that we most need support that we are least inclined to ask for it. We worry about being bad company. We worry about being a burden. We worry about revealing our pain or letting anyone see us with big salty tears streaming down our cheeks. Instead of opening ourselves to friendship, warmth and support from those we love, we close ourselves off, withdrawing to suffer in silence. Whilst we all struggle with difficult emotions, the shame we feel about this can easily rob us of one of the most powerful protective resources and leave us feeling isolated in our time of greatest need.
5) Chasing temporary highs
Any number of other avoidant coping strategies exist in which unpleasant emotions are exchanged for things which bring us temporary feelings of excitement, pleasure or joy. Some people feed money to poker machines, while others opt for online shopping, drugs, video games or giant bowls of ice cream. Become reliant on avoidant coping strategies and what began as a welcome distraction, can easily morph into something far more harmful.
Adaptive coping strategies
Adaptive coping strategies are the vegetables of the psychological world. While extremely healthy and good for you, they are often dismissed in favour of the pleasant sugar-hit of avoidant coping strategies. When the going gets tough, it’s time to make like Popeye and down some spinach! These adaptive coping strategies will help you become more resilient, recover well and experience less long-term suffering.
1) Recognising and acknowledging emotions
Emotions are messengers and if locked out, they will continue knocking, determined to get their message heard. A far more effective strategy is to take a mindful pause. In this pause, we can recognise our emotions, honour them and understand the values they are attached to. By creating space for our emotions in this way, we can begin to process them and fully integrate our experience.
Some of the most uncomfortable emotions are actually the most valuable – they tell us what’s important and what we care about. They can inform us about when a situation is no longer in alignment with our values. When we acknowledge our emotions, they can help us understand what matters most to us, allow us to make better decisions and lead us to a life of meaning and purpose.
2) Offering self-compassion
Often, we are incredibly hard on ourselves. We punish ourselves for past mistakes, pick apart perceived faults and ruminate on all those things we “should” have done better. Instead, it is far more helpful to acknowledge that we are human and perfectly imperfect. When suffering, it is an immense help to offer the same kindness to ourselves that we would offer to anyone else experiencing difficulty.
The key to self-compassion is understanding that it involves taking action. In the wise words of Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “compassion is a verb”. Simple acts of self-care such as taking time out, eating nourishing food or doing an enjoyable, restorative activity, can all greatly aid in recharging, recovering and building resilience. A simple first step to engaging in this process is considering, which activities help you feel grounded, calm and more yourself?
3) Practising self-care while integrating
When you find yourself in a horrible pear-shaped country music scenario, things won’t immediately get better. It will take some time to integrate, adjust to the situation you find yourself in and return to your regular, fully-functioning state. During this period, you may find you have difficulty sleeping, a lot of tension in your body and a dull ache in your achy-breaky heart. While your motivation may be low, this is the time to offer yourself every possible kindness. Concentrate on doing those small, simple things which nurture and support every part of you. Stretch, get out in to the sunshine, have a shave or look after yourself in whatever other small way you can.
4) Reaching out for support
A far braver act than withdrawing, sharing your thoughts with someone you trust can be extremely helpful in moving through periods of emotional difficulty. The most resilient people are very good at reaching out for support. Mindful support is not judgemental or focused on fixing problems. Rather it is about providing understanding, empathy and the chance to reflect on what matters most.
You may trust a family member, a friend or a colleague to provide this type of support, which is often referred to as “holding space”. In some cases, you may seek the professional guidance of a psychologist who can offer an unbiased point of view and equip you with the right skills and strategies to manage your personal challenges. This professional guidance can be useful at any time, but may be particularly important when you encounter those horrible pear/country music scenarios.
5) Writing a song about it
Out of great pain can come great art. It can also produce reams of terrible (yet highly therapeutic) poetry. Narrative therapy is widely used by psychologists as a way to help people release emotions, identify values and approach difficult situations from different perspectives. It also supports taking the time to integrate everything that you have experienced and all that you have learnt on your journey so far. Putting pen to paper can enable us to gain ownership of our stories, resolve past hurts and explore creative ways forward. The words don’t have to rhyme or take any particular form (you can also swear as much as you like). Whether you wish to turn your pain into a country and western hit is completely your decision.
6) Taking valued actions
While repeatedly going over the past will do little of benefit, taking small valued actions can provide motivation and a strong sense of purpose. If experiencing this tragic country music scenario, you may focus on winning back the love of your life, building a memorial for your departed dog or working to buy back the family farm. Another course of action may be to make peace with these losses and begin pursuing some other personal values. Even small steps in a fresh direction can bring about feelings of purpose and renewal. Taking regular small steps will help to honour your values and get your life moving in the direction you want.