By Leo Babauta
You might think that when someone says, “I’m coping,” that it’s not such a big deal.
You’d be wrong.
The skill of coping is highly underrated, and our inability to cope with difficult feelings can lead to major problems, including health problems, financial ruin, work procrastination, even death.
Not such an insignificant skill!
How can the lack of coping skills lead to death and other major problems? Well, let’s say that you’re bored and lonely, but don’t know how to cope with those feelings in a healthy way. You might try to avoid these problems with distraction, food, TV, smoking, drinking. I know, because I’ve done those things myself, many times. These aren’t such a big deal once in awhile, but frequent use of these coping mechanisms will lead to eating way too much, smoking or drinking too much, inactivity (from watching too much TV or being online too much) … and these all can lead to long-term obesity and related health problems, even death from an obesity-related disease like diabetes or heart disease.
What would be another way to cope? If you’re bored, you might cope by learning something new, or tackling a new challenge. If you’re lonely, you might try to exercise, write, teach yourself a new skill, or meet new people. These are just a few examples, but you can see that these are much healthier ways of coping.
So how you cope can be the difference between a good life, and a sick one. We all have unhealthy coping mechanisms, and finding better ways of coping will help us procrastinate less, eat healthier, exercise, and be happier.
Self-compassion as a way of coping
When you find yourself facing difficult feelings, your first reaction might be to avoid thinking about the feelings.
Let’s say someone close to you has gotten sick or died — you might not want to face the pain, so you cope with it by avoiding the pain, finding ways to numb the pain or distract yourself. This is running from the problem.
If you notice yourself doing this, it’s a good time to pause. Just say to yourself, “I’m avoiding.”
Now instead of avoiding, you have the choice to gently turn toward the pain, and say, “I’m hurting.” Or “I’m angry.” This is an acknowledgement of whatever you’re going through. And it’s OK to feel these things.
Next, you can deal kindly with the pain, with the boredom or guilt or grief or anger or loneliness. These are all very difficult, and it’s OK to feel them, and it’s OK to comfort yourself with kindness, compassion, love. Wish for an end to your pain, and wish for your own happiness.
Curiosity & openness
You’ve given yourself some compassion, but what to do about these difficult feelings?
I suggest curiosity.
Stay with the feeling(s) you’re having, and be curious about what it’s like. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with a project, instead of avoiding the project and seeking distraction (procrastinating) … try staying with this feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s not a fun feeling, and you’ll want to run. But be curious — what’s it like to just feel overwhelmed without running?
Face the feeling with an attitude of openness. Be open to uncomfortable feelings, and as always, you’ll find that it’s not comfortable but you’ll be OK. You develop a trust that everything will turn out fine. It’s not pleasant, but it’s fine.
Curiosity means that we don’t instantly decide we know this is a horrible experience and try to run away … it means we decide we don’t really know what this will be like, and we’d like to find out more. It’s a learning stance, instead of one that assumes we know what things will be like.
It’s an approach of exploring new territory, and finding out what this new experience has in store for us.
The benefits of coping
This isn’t an easy practice, I’ll admit. But it’s worthwhile, because with this kind of healthy coping, you can find better ways of dealing with all kinds of things, including:
- Procrastination — instead of running from scary and overwhelming tasks, we can see what it’s like to feel afraid and overwhelmed, and still take action on these tasks. Writing a book, for example, is scary and overwhelming, but we can still write even with these feelings flowing through us.
- Anger and frustration — instead of wanting to lash out at people (or avoid them) when we’re frustrated with them, we can stay with these difficult feelings and just be curious what it’s like to feel them. And then, when we’ve stayed with these feelings (and given ourselves some compassion), we can see what it’s like to deal compassionately with someone who we’re frustrated with. To try to understand them instead of judging them.
- Unhealthy cravings for food, drink, smoking — we turn to these things for comfort when we’re feeling stressed, bored, lonely, sad … but we can stay with these feelings and be curious about them, and learn to do other, healthier actions instead, like taking a walk, doing yoga, meditating, talking with people, creating, learning, practicing a skill, and so on. These are healthier ways of coping, but we often avoid them because we don’t like to feel these feelings and want to stuff the hole in our hearts with comfort food, drugs, etc.
- Death and illness — when someone we love becomes sick or dies, the grief and sense of loss can be overwhelming and devastating. We want to comfort ourselves, and so we often turn to unhealthy ways of comforting. But instead, we can give ourselves compassion, stay with the powerfully difficult feelings, and be curious what it’s like to stay with these feelings. Really get to know these feelings, become intimate with them, and trust that we’ll be OK even if we give in to feeling them. We can deal, we can feel, we can get through this, because while it’s far from comfortable or pleasant, it’s doable. And temporary.
That’s just the start — as you learn to cope with self-compassion, staying, and curiosity, you will find that you can deal with anything life throws your way. And come out smiling.