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.

Image Source Pixabay

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.

Routine, Ritual, and Habit

The brain is an amazing multi-tasking sensory-processing device. I can walk down the street, taste an ice cream cone, watch children play, hear my companion talk to me and make meaning of the patterns of the sound waves, all while feeling the breeze blow through my hair and remembering the ice cream cone from last week. What I cannot do is attend to all of those things at once. On a normal day, my attention will flit from sense to sense, directed to novel, interesting, or potentially threatening stimuli. If I am “lost in thought,” I may miss part of the conversation or an oncoming car. How many times have you been urged to “pay attention!”?

Most of your behavior is cued by your environment.

What would life be like if you had to attend to everything, all the time? That would mean keep your heart beating, remember to breathe, actively think “little circles” while brushing your teeth, create a mental map and execute a path to get from your bed to the coffeepot in the morning, and so on. Life, which already feels complex, would become unmanageable. Different tasks require different levels of attention and some tasks deserve more attention. Research at Duke University showed students actively made decisions less than half of the day. In reality, most of their behavior was cued by the environment. When you realize you are living on auto-pilot, some behaviors make sense, like eating ice cream while standing in front of your open freezer at the end of a stressful day. How did I get there?

Bowl of chocolate ice cream with silver spoon

If you have a Facebook or Pinterest feed, you might see references to the importance of routines and rituals and habits. You may see the words used interchangeably. These are three different things. When speaking casually to someone in the grocery check-out line, feel free to say whichever comes to mind. When you are working on your self-awareness, behavior change, or self-care, the differences are important. If we aren’t mindful, routines and habits are accidentally built from mindless repetition and can require enormous energy to change.



Water kettle on kitchen counter, morning light






Mindfulness is the art of consciously attending to stimuli, both internal and external. When we are being mindful, we may “notice” and “name” sensations, emotions, behaviors, and thoughts as a way of turning off the auto-pilot and checking in to our experience.

What would be possible if you could change that environment?

In the next few posts, we will engage with what they are, how they work, and how you build routines, rituals, and habits to support how you mean to be.

Attribution Theory and Keeping Demons at Bay

At the moment, powerlifting is my yoga practice. The intensity of effort to move heavy weight throws my behavioral, emotional, and mental patterns into high relief in a way I craved from asana practice, and I noticed a pattern. You know how it goes, once you see a pattern you can’t stop seeing the pattern.

I want to talk about some related concepts. Attribution Theory, shame vs guilt, and maladaptive behavior.

Attribution Theory describes a relationship between human storytelling and self-image. We tend to attribute outcomes in our lives which align with our self-image to stable, internal characteristics, e.g. who we are, and outcomes which do not align with our self-image to unstable, external characteristics, e.g. circumstance or chance. Strangely enough, we reverse those attributions for people we do not know or do not like. We have a story we like to tell about ourselves and we go to great lengths to prove our story to be correct. If you want to take a snapshot of your self image, respond to the prompt

I am…

twenty times. “I am”. It is a fundamental assertion of self. The image of the Self is a lens through which we view and interpret the rest of the world via the stories we tell to explain what we see. It has limited connection to reality.

How is this related to shame vs guilt? If we check Brene Brown’s quick-start guide to shame, shame is a pervasive sense of “I am bad.” There is something about me, if you knew, which would disqualify me from receiving love and belonging. Guilt, however, is a sense of “I did something bad.” Shame is related to the perceived value of stable, internal characteristics, who you are, and guilt is related to the perceived value of unstable, internal characteristics, what you do. According to Dr. Brown, shame is correlated with eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. Shame and guilt operate on our drive to tell stories to maintain a set of beliefs about the Self. When we tell stories which attribute our despair to the core of our being, we create a sense of deserved personal exile. The fallout from the disconnection from our fellows creates tragedy. It started with a story.

I deserve disconnection because of how I am or I deserve correction because of what I did, is a story we tell ourselves.

The pattern I am seeing is the need for control and creation of order, but it could be disruption and sparking of chaos. What makes this need for control maladaptive instead of adaptive? We admire people who “punt the system” (Vaynerchuck, 2018) and take control of their destiny, health professionals urge patients to “take control of their health”, bystanders can be desperate for a parent to “get control” of a child. With clients, it is often my job to help them move from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control – a belief in their ability to steer their own ship and not be at the mercy of the seas of life. What’s the problem? The story.

From my perspective, chaos and order are value-neutral. The interesting questions are

  • What is the story you tell yourself about what you do?
  • How does what you do preserve the story you tell yourself about who you are?
  • What feeling does creating either order or chaos reinforce/alleviate?

What demons does your story keep at bay?

Don’t think, Do.

I never should have stepped on the scale. Sure, I was probably the only woman at the fitness center who whooped with excitement because I was up 10 pounds. However, now outcome measures are on my mind again. The spring semester has been a dumpster fire. I knew it would be a dumpster fire and vowed to not watch what I ate because there was no way in Hell I could keep up with Any More Things, especially things that trigger feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame. No measuring anything, no watching anything. Nada. I pretty happy lifting three times a week, playing around with being sore, and tending to the dumpster fire.

Then, out of curiosity, the scale. The number didn’t matter, right? Just step on. Just once. It won’t hurt. Dammit to Hell, it may as well have been an apple offered to me by an old woman in the forest. Up ten (10) pounds. Whoa. Seriously? The program was working? Hypertrophy is a real thing. My clothes were fitting better, so this stuff wasn’t fat. Next time in the garage, I realized the last time I wore this t-shirt, it was tight to my skin. Now it’s hanging. I started wondering about fat loss again in an unhelpful, unstructured way. The reason the hypertrophy program worked was I didn’t think about it. Show up, lift stuff, talk too much, go home, soak. Repeat. My coach did his job. The program works. Thinking is what got me into this mess. Don’t think. Do. Let him do his job.

The program changed two weeks ago. Out of hypertrophy and on to strength because of the powerlifting meet in Atlanta in June. Because of strange Spring Break schedules, we lifted Mon-Tue-Wed and played around doing each lift each day, with variations and different loading schemes. It’s not social work, outside my scope of practice, don’t ask me for specifics, we’re playing around trying to figure out how to nudge my body into doing its thing. Thursday I woke up feeling perfect. Straight up perfect. A little sore here, some extra awareness there, but perfect. This is how I want to wake up every day and I’m sad because no lifting until next Monday.

This is the Spotify playlist I lifted to on Wednesday. It’s not a traditional gym-rat, bass-heavy, drive a woman through her last rep kind of playlist. It’s full of love and grief and joy and passion. When I had athletes, it was important to me they understand their own path to peak performance. Everyone has a different optimal arousal level. Self-awareness, folks. Because this is my fucking blog and I can drop the f-bomb and have my hair be blue, the link to Vaynerchuk again –

I do my best work laughing. Not thinking. Unproductive thinking is a performance killer.

This one makes me thoughtful.

Eminem. I don’t even know. It’s Eminem.

I have never loved a darker blue, than the darkness I have known in you…

Sleep. Lift. Eat mostly veggies to appetite when hungry. Sleep. Bring it down. It was so hard Thursday to resist grasping at that feeling. It had been a long time. I will feel that way again. No need to grasp. Do, just do.

It has been a while

We are knee-deep in the MSW Project, so deep this post was almost written in APA (6th ed) format, all my children are now FMQ on the laundry technology, and I’m tired of writing. This doesn’t count. When my brain explodes, I’m binge-watching #askgaryvee for a break. Because my field placement ended, I have an unexpected 16 hours of free time per week until the new placement’s paperwork is done. Today I attended a nifty leadership seminar hosted by the Provost’s office.

What did we learn? Paying people for expertise may be a sucker’s game. Vaynerchuk is covering the same content for the cost of my time and he’s interesting. I spent some time talking to the younger undergraduates at my table. They were there because they want to be leaders and they have no idea who they are. The speakers were talking about “leadership” and how it evolves, but the people at my table had no idea where to start. Not a clue. They took careful  notes about the whats, but made few connections and did no synthesizing that I saw. Social work is leadership. This is what I learned. Leadership with a license to bill.

The Shapely Ass Project has been completely off-line since June, which is a shame because June was a great month for me. The elimination diet was a success. Regular gym attendance delivered results physically and emotionally.

Duffy, the better speaker from today, talked about focusing on what went well and trying to do more of that. Vaynerchuk preaches about playing to your strengths and hiring everything else out. This month my effort has been focused back on sleep, working on assignments in small bites, remembering who I am and taking action.

June taught me so much. Get some sleep! Take meds like clockwork. Lift heavier than you think you can. Get some sun! Do yoga for sanity. Take my own best advice.

Floss Picks and Exercise

Somewhere in the last week I read that the point of exercise is to teach you how small, consistent efforts create results. Exercise is one of those habits I’m still practicing so I look to flossing. Flossing is a very small habit. Two minutes, twice per day will let you keep your teeth until you die. The action now is very small and easy to forget, the benefit is very far off in the future and you experience the benefit as two negatives. First, your hygienist won’t be upset with your gumline and second, your teeth won’t fall out. I have never been a flosser. I have admired flossers, wished I could be a flosser, and wondered how they established the habit.

Last year I read about keeping floss picks in a soap dish on the counter as a way of “smoothing the path” to flossing. I had tried leaving rolls of floss in my desk drawer to make it convenient to floss while I surfed or caught up on social media. In the drawer, it slipped my mind.  Floss picks were something I rejected out of hand as “cheating”. It’s irrational, but human behavior. Reasons. Because. Stuff. Trying this new path meant acquiring an extra soap dish and swallowing some pride, but I was really wanting to be a flosser. The universe delivered a soap dish to me, in the form of a friend who had purchased a soap dish in the wrong color and hates to throw anything away. It worked. Leaving a soap dish full of floss picks on my bathroom counter gave me a quick and easy way to remember to floss every time I use the sink. For the first time in my life, I have healthy gums.

We believe the way to establish new habits is to “harness the elephant,” create an emotional response, and then “direct the rider” and “smooth the path”, use the rational mind to direct energy and make it as easy as possible to accomplish the task. It worked for me and flossing. How can I make this same approach work for exercising?

There is the “ideal” workout. My ideal workout involves two or more hours of my day and a trip to the gym. It also runs into my guilt at taking two hours away from household tasks, which is silly. Because human. Stuff. Reasons. This is a bigger commitment than flossing. I like working out. It’s also scary. What if it doesn’t pay off? But I know it does. Because flossing. So I made it smaller. I will creep up on my guilt and fear, feel them in small doses, and so conquer the world. Yoga. Every day. The smallest practice counts and it will all add up.

The yoga mat and block are on my back porch. It’s a pleasant place to practice. For a while I tried practicing after my morning house routine, but then the day was fairly far along and it didn’t work. Now practice comes first. We shall see.

Edgeplay, The Self-Awareness Class

There’s this class I teach called Edgeplay.

Your edge is the threshold in a pose—or moment in seated meditation—where physical, mental, and emotional resistance comes rushing to the foreground. Reaching your edge is like applying an enzyme that ignites a reaction and magnifies your physical, mental and emotional patterns. This magnification—while challenging—allows you to see yourself (and your conditioning) with greater clarity. In short, you become conscious of previously unconscious patterns. ~Jason Crandell

How will we come to the edge?

Go looking for it, of course. In six quick weeks we will watch videos, listen to podcasts, and read some essays that send us to the core of who we are, or at least allow us to examine the story we tell from a different angle. These ideas from every corner of my Nerdvana belong to their original authors, and I hope everyone who wanders through will find value in their mash-up.


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