To cope effectively, you must evaluate how you respond to reality. If you’re a downer, you’ll find yourself in conflict with others, and eventually alone. Your emotional approach to life will influence your social network and the number of supportive friends you have. Ask yourself: “How do I explain my life circumstances?” We all experience failure and have setbacks; we are all rejected at times by others. How do you interpret these events in general? Do you blame yourself? Sometimes you are to blame, but if self-blame is your habitual pattern of approaching setbacks, you’re setting yourself up for future problems.

For instance, how would you react if the president of the company you work for called you in to pick your brain about a proposed strategic plan? If you are prepared and see meeting him in his office as a chance to demonstrate your skills, you are viewing the session as a challenge you can meet successfully. Your preparation and optimistic frame of mind will put you in a relaxed and confident state that will increase the likelihood the president will be impressed. But if you view the situation as threatening, as something that will expose your weaknesses and shortcomings, your pessimistic outlook will almost guarantee that what you fear will indeed happen. Your pessimistic demeanor will make you more defensive, less likeable, and the meeting just might be what you thought it would be – a disaster.

Your views of reality must also be realistic. Young people often look at their future as some sort of hopeful fantasy world, and adults can also fall victim to this tendency, especially if they are insecure about the future. One of my college students invited me to sit in on a presentation about her research to a 10th-grade high-school class. When she was done, the teacher asked if any of the kids had a question for her about becoming a psychologist. One kid blurted out, “No psychology for me; I’m going to be a Bill Gates and make billions.” The teacher pointed out that he needed to improve his grades so he could get into a good college. The kid replied, “Bill Gates dropped out of college so I don’t need to go to college to become rich.” Maybe so, but the kid was overlooking the fact that Gates dropped out of Harvard, which means he had a proven high-school record of high grades and other indices of high intelligence and a strong work ethic. I could only wonder, “Does this kid think he has the stuff to gain admission to Harvard?”

One last thing to note is that your perception of reality need not be based on how “happy” you are. Effective coping does not require that you try to achieve “happiness.” Good coping means developing a realistic and optimistic lifestyle, not a momentary state of being, that empowers you to initiate autonomous actions to give you feelings of personal control and satisfaction. On the other hand, developing a pessimistic perspective and waiting for your “ship to come in” will encourage you to turn sheepishly to others to manage, direct, and control your actions. That’s what happens when adults turn to cult leaders, charismatic politicians, and even parents, to direct their lives and tell them how to think. Pessimism fosters dependency on another. Such dependency is the enemy of objectivity, and it precludes effective coping.

There’s really no secret to effective coping. In your personal struggles with everyday life, your focus must be realistic, optimistic, and guided by your values (which we’ll have more to say about in a later post) and your capabilities. From that context will emerge a productive and satisfying way of living.

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