Coping Skills

I’m constantly planning to teach, teaching, charting about teaching, and feeling… less excited about coping skills by the day.

“No childhood shit… I just need some strategies.”

~Brene Brown

Coping is a big business, chasing after alleviating symptoms instead of going to the root cause is all the rage. I heard speculation kids today are anxiety-ridden bundles of goo because we took kindergarten and preschool away. It isn’t enough to learn how to play together and how to handle when it’s time to play apart. Young children must learn numbers, letters, and to read. Maybe it’s the phones, with Snapchat and discord, social media and texting 24/7. The rumor mill in middle and high school is now digital, with mean girls and yo’ mamma flying at the speed of electrons and “proof” of all manner of insults a screenshot away. Adults of all ages fair no better. Because we are so anxious, irritable, and unbalanced, we need more coping skills. We don’t have enough coping skills.

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I call bullshit. Remember that card game? You and your friends clustered around a pile of cards, lying like crazy about the cards you had and the cards you put down, out of earshot of the responsible adult in the house. The point is to get rid of all the cards in your hand first, by whatever means necessary. If someone thought you were lying, they would say “Bullshit” and if they were right the entire discard pile went into your hand. If they were wrong, the discard pile went into their hand. Picking up the pile made the task of winning simultaneously easier and more difficult. Sure, you had more cards to get rid of, but you also held the truth in your hand. It was possible to look over the Mae West-worthy fan of cards and say “Don’t even try.”

I call bullshit on coping skills. We can either arm you with coping skills for the existential dread you feel when you hear your yesterday’s-best-friend said something catty on the social media network of your choice, or we can dig deeper into what is sparking the existential dread in the first place. The former is SMART and easy, the latter is difficult-difficult. Either you will learn and utilize up to three coping skills per week for four weeks or we can go back to the “childhood shit” and talk about why this hurts so much. I’m now looking over my fan and saying “Don’t even try.”

If I am an exhausted ball of anxiety and in need of “coping skills,” what I need is a change of activity and/or perspective. Sometimes life sucks and there is no breathing pattern or pretzeled-up yoga pose I can teach you, no pill or tumbler of fruity-flavored alcohol I can provide to make anything feel any better. Often, underlying beliefs trap us in cages of our own making.

What are you afraid of? What terrifying belief is making your heart pound and your spirit sink?

Moving along… coping mechanisms and self-care strategies. From page 58 of Judith Herman’s classic Trauma and Recovery

Stress-resilient individuals seem to have three characteristics, high sociability, a thoughtful and active coping style, and a strong perception of their ability to control their own destiny.

Brownies are not a thoughtful and active coping style. Taking on more work to prove your worth and distract from uncomfortable feelings is not a thoughtful and active coping style. A thoughtful and active coping style neither substitutes one harmful behavior for another, nor does it layer physically or emotionally painful stimuli like Van Gogh would layer oils of a painting.

To cope with having a mostly sedentary, emotionally intense day job, I lift heavy things. Lifting heavy things is restorative, as is a daily meditation practice, hot tea in the morning, a Kindle full of books, a yoga practice, a full night’s sleep, regular time with good friends, a tidy room, a mostly plant-based diet, and 10 minutes sitting outside staring at trees. Thursday I ate brownies, thinking the momentary burst of goodies would feel good and perk me back up after a hard morning. Not really. I also learned I hate the syrup-filled coffee beverages at the national coffee chain when I tried drinking one as a treat after a long day. A plain latte is just dandy.

Here’s the thing. Often, on our way to the thoughtful and active coping style we develop fast lanes to maladaptive coping strategies. I “used to” eat to cope with stress, as well as throw myself into projects and all manner of unhelpful things. Even though the last few years have taught me better ways to manage myself so I don’t need “coping skills,” those fast lanes still live in my brain and I am likely to return to them even though I know they don’t work. This is me, looking over my fan of truth, telling myself “Don’t even try.” While focused breathing or grounding exercises are a better choice than a brownie or a syrupy beverage in the moment, the solution is to dig deeper and examine what about those days made them so hard. Was I poorly boundaried? Did I over-schedule or mis-schedule clients? How has my sleep been? What fears about my work performance are driving me? How can I re-incorporate those genuinely restorative practices into my daily routine?

Here’s my statement of self-compassion: It’s okay to return to where I came from every once in a while, we all do. The important thing is to recognize this isn’t where I live anymore and to go home.


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Week 2

This is the end of the second week of the fourth semester. The assignments this time around are a little bigger, a little juicier. The faculty has, as promised, made the hoop smaller and then set it on fire.

I’m going to take a look at several topics of interest. First, complex PTSD, which doesn’t appear in the DSM 5, and its relationship to prescription anxiety medications. Second, the role of agriculture subsidies in the development of “lifestyle” diseases like Type II diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Third the relationship between health insurance and health care. These are all complicated issues and they deserve thoughtful attention. My little research papers won’t scratch the surface, which brings me to the cheap cynicism all over the internet.

My Facebook feed, news aggregators, and Twitter feed are full of reactionary cynicism. Shallow analysis would be an improvement. Right now my youngest teenager does a better job deconstructing character motivation in Voltron than some of my friends do examining their favorite hot-button issues. A sanctuary program for people who fled El Salvador, initially created because of a natural disaster nearly two decades ago, was thoughtlessly renewed year after year and people who might have returned home now call this place home. What is the right thing to do? Oxford decides to allow mathematicians an extra fifteen minutes on an exit exam because the increased time and unchanged difficulty allow more women to earn firsts. Does the extra time cheapen the accomplishment?

It depends. I’d like to talk about what these things mean, but it seems impossible. We’ve drawn up sides and no one has any facts or analysis. I can’t work with name-calling or Facebook memes anymore. All I want in my feed is cat videos and Newfie puppies.

In the meantime, there’s homework to do. My preconceived notions are about to be challenged and that’s okay.

Ask the Next Question

Today my intention was to “ask the next question,” because my assessments have been weak. I leave information on the table because I’m squeamish about asking the follow-up question. Today, I asked the next question. Setting the intention this way was a good idea.

I’ve felt mired in the “suck” for a few months. It’s an undulating suck whose waves align with the beginning and ending of semesters. Mid-degree, mid-semester is the worst. The suck of the suck means there is so much to embrace! Group projects, reflection papers, field! They are all back, again. The second year means a second chance to do a little more, a little better. More time for me, less time worrying about things I can’t control, people who don’t care, and assignments that don’t need my best.

Today’s intention was a small victory for what matters. I may try it again.

Wading to the Hip

The amazing thing about school is the well-defined beginnings and endings. Life, not so much. Things shift and meld and drift and sometimes take sharp turns, but that sense of ending, of over-ness isn’t there. Not so with school. A semester has a beginning day, a set of tasks, and an ending day. It’s over. I’m catching a nap, doing the after-action review or reflection depending on your discipline’s school of thought. I only have to do this four more times. This week I made a set of phone calls. The woman who colors my hair, a place to get a massage, a counseling service, and a personal trainer are going to help me hold it all together.

Self-awareness is part of looking at a situation and seeing what is there and not what we would prefer, then working with that. Under stress, I have have habits that re-emerge. Everyone does. Watching those habits resurface like some psychic Loch Ness Monster was as frightening as watching the looming deadlines. Rather than pretend it didn’t happen, it was a fluke, or I have it all under control, I made phone calls. One of my professors remarked to us “This semester we make you jump through hoops. Then, the hoops get smaller. Then, we are going to set them on fire!”

Add one-half metaphor, and stir. Next semester I will be trading my printed textbooks for electronics and three-ring binders for moleskins to save weight in the backpack, minding my appearance, making sure my neck can turn, and getting accountability from professionals. Wading hip-deep in uncertain waters through shrinking hoops, I will have my purple hair.

 

The Monkeys and Floss Picks and the Gym

I still have monkeys. There are people in my life. How did the experiment go when I raised my game?

First, it was great. The kitchen and bathrooms started looking really nice, consistently. Then I started obsessing about them staying that way, in a sort of crazed-manic-hand-me-the-vinegar-water-I-see-a-spot way. I “couldn’t” get to the gym until my morning routine was done, which had ballooned to an hour-long swiping fest. Meditation? No time. Yoga? I had to go!

I lost my mind. It wasn’t pretty.

That’s how new routines tend to go. I had a problem, tried a solution, overcorrected and then steered back to middle ground.

Now the routine looks more humane. The most important things are taken care of every day. Other stuff gets caught at least twice in the week. It’s okay. It’s enough. Small, daily sustainable actions win in the long run, and that’s what we’re here for.

My Life with Monkeys

“We are not now, nor have we ever been a put-it-away sort of people.”

With this phrase I acknowledge my monkeys.

When I sit on a beautifully landscaped patio at a restaurant, sipping tea and enjoying the sun, usually I’m avoiding going back to my house. My house has tea. It has a patio with dappled sunlight, chirping birds, and a breeze. It even has my favorite tea-sipping company. “What would it take to make our patio like this one?” asked Garrett on Saturday.

“Some attention.” Some attention. Repair the pressure washer. Find the hedge trimmer. Fertilize the flower beds. Plant colorful flowers… all while avoiding cleaning up my kitchen. I even have a tree to wrap in twinkling white lights for evenings with friends.

“We are not now, nor have we ever been a put-it-away sort of people.” But what am I going to do about it? I could get angry and yell at my self, husband, and kids. I could feel oppressed, abused,  unappreciated, inadequate, or worthless. I could look for a new miracle cleaner at the store. I could wait for a better dishwasher or stove.

“I can either raise my game or I can be angry. Being angry isn’t going to get anything done.” said I. If I want my kitchen to be a certain way, if it’s important to me, what can I do to make it be so? There are five (5) people in my house and we are not by nature put-it-away sort of people. There are cooking, pan-flinging, trash-generating monkeys all over my kitchen who have more interesting things to do than clean up after themselves.

Laundry and Dishes went back in my calendar as the second scheduled thing in my day. One half-hour to swipe at my monkeys. Bless their hearts. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. It would be really, really cool to wrap the oak tree in twinkle lights and sit outside on my patio on Saturday afternoons.

Coloring Outside the Lines

travel

When I was 16, I almost killed myself because I couldn’t be who I was supposed to be. Everything since then has been an attempt to climb out of that hole. I used to assume that I was the point of failure in an otherwise perfect system. I listened to the voices who told me I would be better if I would “only” or “just” do something different and thus be someone else.

Unorthodox Humanity isn’t about “creative types”, because that’s all of us. Unorthodox Humanity isn’t about celebrating rebellion, because we all have our own path and there isn’t really anything to rebel against. Unorthodox Humanity is about meeting people where they are, and helping them find and live the life for which they are meant. Sometimes when we are struggling to find that life and feel unsupported, thwarted, or punished for not conforming to others’ expectations it can be difficult to hear genuine feedback from the Universe about life. But that feedback is still there. It still counts.

Welcome to Unorthodox Humanity, where it’s okay to color outside the lines.

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