We all have the thing that helps us when the world goes sideways. For me, it’s sweets, especially chocolate. It can be a serious problem for me. It’s best just to avoid having chocolate in the house unless it’s the super dark chocolate that isn’t really sweet, and doesn’t bring on a need to eat the entire package in one sitting. As negative coping skills go, this isn’t the worst. It might lead to some weight gain and high blood sugar, but I can usually catch myself in an indulgence cycle fairly quickly and move myself toward the more self-supporting coping mechanisms that I have in place in my life, such as yoga, meditation, exercise, and supportive friendships.
Some people aren’t so lucky, and their negative coping techniques are much more dangerous and self-destructive. I’m talking about the drinking, the drugs, the self-mutilation, the toxic relationships, and any number of other terrible ways that people find to soothe themselves temporarily, while setting themselves up for failure in the long run.
Modern society is set up for instant gratification, and we’ve been conditioned to avoid things that are uncomfortable in favor of things that are pleasurable. While we know that it might be better to make the effort to meal plan, grocery shop, and cook healthy dinners, it’s so much easier to go to the local take-out restaurant. And while we know intellectually that the old relationship we left was toxic for us, and that we need to walk through the pain of a broken heart to get to a whole heart again, getting back together with that destructive person is so much easier.
People who have done their work understand that these negative coping techniques are the junk food of self care, and they take care to stock their emotional cupboards with more nourishing fare. As long as life gives them the regular day to day stressors, they are able to cope in healthy ways. This is no small feat. Life is difficult, even under the best of circumstances.
But right now, life isn’t normal. While regular life is a field of hot coals for us to navigate in our bare feet, the healed understand that a fire walk is a spiritual test, and one can walk through unscathed by raising enough energy to match the fire. However, these past few months, someone turned up the heat, and instead of coals, we have a fully fledged fire on our hands, and most of us don’t walk around in fire retardant gear.
Our skin is raw and scalded by loneliness, isolation, fear, anxiety, terrible news and political unrest. In this climate, even those who usually can cope in a healthy manner, are turning to their more destructive coping skills. I know that I have been eating much more chocolate than usual, and I even baked myself a batch of brownies a couple of days ago. Now I’m in an apartment all by myself with a full batch of brownies. This is a recipe for self-care disaster in my world.
Yet, others that I’ve talked to have been faring far worse. Over the past week, I’ve spoken to a woman who relapsed after 12 years of sobriety, and another who cut herself after 15 years of recovery from self-mutilation, and yet another who is seriously considering getting back together with her abusive ex. Regressions like these are sad enough on their own, but then add in the deep sense of failure and self-judgment that these people feel, and the likelihood of stopping the negative coping techniques anytime soon is quite small.
Going back to the metaphor of the fire, it is my belief that when life is at its worst, we have two choices, we can melt away, or we can forge ourselves into stronger steel. The very worst moments in my life have led me to the most productive times of personal growth. In psychological terms, this is known as sublimation, the process of using a terrible experience to create something beautiful. We love stories of sublimation. They help us to know that even the worst of experiences can be transformed into meaning.
For instance, I recently saw an interview with the musician, Jewel, where she discussed how she wrote her first hit song when she was homeless after losing her job because she refused to have sex with her boss. That’s sublimation. I’m currently in a sublimation cycle of my own through the book I’m writing, I’m Sick, Not Crazy, in order to share the story of my own debilitating illness, and subsequent healing through yoga. My goal is to give others hope and to illuminate a path to wellness.
The difference between melting away in the fire, or forging yourself into stronger stuff through sublimation is two-fold. First, reach for the self-sustaining coping skills when things go sideways. Learn something new, talk with trusted friends and family, connect with the spiritual, journal, breathe, meditate, walk in nature, help others.
Second, when you succumb to the self-destructive, don’t beat yourself up about it and put yourself into a shame cycle that will keep you from getting back to the things that support you. Instead, tell yourself that it’s OK and understandable that you slipped, and that it happens to the best of us sometimes. This may sound counter-intuitive. Many believe that by shaming themselves, they are motivating themselves to do better. However, life and research prove this myth false. Shaming oneself only leads to a downward spiral, and often to giving up completely. Once you’ve told yourself it’s OK to make mistakes, which it always is, then make a choice to get back on your healthy path.
This sounds easy, but is quite difficult in practice. Expect that you will mess up again. When you do, tell yourself it’s OK, and go back to your healthy coping. Do this again, and again, and again. Mistakes are not failure. They are learning in disguise.
Here are some links for information on coping skills that I think can be helpful to anyone. I hope that you use them to support yourself is becoming stronger steel.