“Managing” your life is a poor way to cope. Too often, manage means to suppress – “I need to keep my anger in check” – or avoid – “If the boss wants me to make that trip, I can’t let him see I’m pissed. I’ll make up some family excuse and I won’t have to make the trip.” Suppression is a form of denial, and avoidance rewards you for running away from challenges. Neither strategy helps you cope effectively.
Coping with stress means accepting life’s challenges, and becoming empowered by facing them. The empowerment strategy involves acceptance of yourself, of your emotions, and of reality; and, a willingness to face them all. A management strategy involves denying, avoiding, and staying in your comfort zone.
Effective coping means accepting challenges that you can realistically confront with actions that are under your control. This confrontation may increase your stress in the short run, but reduced stress levels are yours in the long run. Coping often means, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
If you want to accept life rather than try and manage it, the first thing you must do is confront negative and irrational thoughts you carry around with you. All of us have these thoughts, but effective coping is disrupted when you have them frequently, and base them on one or two experiences. Here are some examples:
***Making mountains out of molehills. A stressed-out client made a minor mistake at work and immediately thought he would be fired. This thought prevented him from talking with his supervisor about how he could guard against making a mistake like that in the future.
***Taking everything personally. Do you take the slightest criticism from others as a threat to your self-esteem? Gail’s co-worker was always putting her down and she was losing her confidence at work. A friend suggested, “Put the onus on her, not you. She’s probably jealous and sees you as a threat to her promotion chances. You can’t control what she says, so go on offense and offer to help her out with what she’s working on. You’ll be in control!”
***Seeing reality as an either-or proposition: “You either trust me or you don’t.” “My plan is correct; yours is wrong.” This style of thinking is typical of the authoritarian personality and overlooks a basic truth: There are at least two sides to every story, and the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. Show people that you understand their side, are able to see the strengths of their side, and can design a solution that incorporates features of their side.
***Do you reach you reach crazy conclusions about yourself from a single incident? “I gave a lousy presentation; I’m obviously a complete failure in everything I do.” “I was turned down for a date; I’m worthless and no one wants to be around me.” “I didn’t get the promotion; the boss hates me and sees me as a liability.” Perpetual self-criticism, and inviting others to join your personal pity parades, are avoidance and denial strategies.
These examples have one thing in common: You treat failures as personal attacks on you, and accept them as inevitable because you believe you are incompetent.
You must learn to treat failures as potential learning opportunities: “When I fail, what steps can I take to improve and be less likely to fail in the future?”
Just keep it real! Coping with stress does not mean insuring that you will always be happy, successful, and feel good about yourself. When you face failure, effective coping means you know how to choose actions that are under your control; you have the confidence to modify those actions and be accountable for the consequences of those actions; you are able to act with humility and empathy for others; and, you act to feel satisfied and productive, not just to make yourself happy.