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Cultivating coping mechanisms

Posted: - Modified: | happy, reflection

2015-04-20b Cultivating coping mechanisms -- index card #self-care #coping

2015-04-20b Cultivating coping mechanisms – index card #self-care #coping

I'm not sure if other people do this, but I figured I'd write about how I deliberately cultivate certain coping or self-soothing behaviour, in case it resonates with anyone.

Whenever I come across a mildly stressful situation, I use that as an opportunity to practice and reinforce ways to deal with it. For example, I like getting hugs, so I've learned to create that feeling for myself and I've learned to ask people for hugs when I need it. I associate hot chocolate with comfort and self-care instead of having it as a regular luxury, so it's there as a treat when I really need it. I tell myself that it's impossible for me to stay sad when I'm eating ice cream, and that becomes the case. I practise elucidating what I'm feeling, accept it, and experiment with ways to improve the situation. I give myself permission to stop trying to do things that require a lot of thinking and energy, and to instead focus on cooking and other easy ways to create value for myself and others. I figure out good walks and relaxing forms of exercise. I guiltlessly spend time cuddling the cats.

Sometimes I'll focus on remembering what it feels like to be comforted and happy and safe while, say, mind-mapping thorny feelings, and eventually it becomes easier and easier to do so.

When more stressful situations come, I have some idea of what works for me, and I have positive associations around those techniques. I wonder if it's a little like clicker-training yourself… =) Anyway, I've been finding it easier and easier to deal with life's little curveballs. I don't know the magnitude at which things will start to overwhelm me again, but it's nice to know that I can handle more and more. In the meantime, even obstacles can be fuel for greater happiness and equanimity. =)

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Cheat uncertainty by sweetening the potential outcomes

Posted: - Modified: | decision, happy

Even with all the research you can do, you can’t remove all the uncertainty from a decision. This is life.


I cheat by making potential outcomes a little bit better with arbitrary conditions, in addition to any intrinsic value I can remind myself about. For example, I might prefer one set of results, but I’ll promise myself sushi if the outcomes don’t go my way. Or ice cream, or playing a video game, or reading, or some time spent writing. Since I don’t have ice cream and other treats that often (that’s why they’re treats), the trick works.

I also try to focus on the intrinsic value of various outcomes. My favourite outcome sweetener used to be “If nothing else, this will make a great story someday,” which is an excellent psychological benefit associated with keeping a blog. (Try it!) Other good ones for me are “Well, if it doesn’t work out, it’s good practice in equanimity,” and “I’m sure I’ll learn something.” I remind myself of that before the uncertainty is resolved so that I don’t feel like I’m sour-graping. Find whatever works for you. That said, sometimes it’s fun to have an actual treat.

This is different from, say, drowning your sorrows in ice cream after the fact. Eating ice cream because you’re sad is one thing; deciding to give yourself advance permission to eat a little ice cream if outcome B happens is another. Or at least it is for me – there’s something about the mental trick of reconciling yourself with probabilities.

While a small concession doesn’t completely make up for not getting a preferred outcome, it takes the edge off. It reminds you that nothing is a complete loss. Being grateful for the small things (even the ones that you’ve intentionally added to the outcome) can help kickstart gratitude for the rest of it. I’m good at enjoying small things, even if they happen because I decided to make them happen.

I also try to not place too much value on specific outcomes. It’s not that A is better and B is worse. They’re just different. Who knows, B might even be better for me in the long run. It’s liberating to face the uncertainty and say, “Well, I’m going to be happy either way this goes, so let’s find out what kind of happiness it will be.”

So this is how I deal with decisions that could go one way or the other: I tack on little treats for myself so that I always have something to look forward to. Even if I rarely end up going down those paths, this practice is great for being optimistic and resilient. It makes life predictably awesome, even when life itself is unpredictable. After all, that’s what consolation prizes are for.

Do you use a similar trick? How do you hack your thoughts and emotions when it comes to uncertainty?

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Optimism, happiness, and being young

Posted: - Modified: | happy

Someone remarked that I’m clearly an optimistic person, and asked me how old I was. When I told him that I’m 28, he laughed and said that I’m optimistic because I’m young, and that he’s cynical because he’s 35 and part of Generation X (and older and wiser and more experienced, probably his unspoken continuation).

I thought I’d write about this because it’s something that comes up from time to time, as if happiness and optimism are exclusive to the young and naïve.

Oddly, I never hear it from people who are also happy and optimistic. I know someone who’s well into his eighties and who is somehow more energetic and bubbly than I am. I have role models who are wonderfully engaged with work and life. That’s what makes it easy for me to grin and let the stereotyping slide right off my back. I know something many cynical people don’t accept: that it’s possible to be delighted with life without necessarily letting myself be pushed around by it. I know that because other people have shown it’s possible.

I’m patiently waiting for the time when people won’t conflate my happiness with these other confounding factors, when silver hair and wrinkled skin throw happiness into sharper relief. Then people will tell me it’s easy to be happy with such a lucky life. That’s okay. People will always find reasons.

In the meantime, for other people who are in the same boat: Life is pretty good. Some people will tell you that you only think so because you don’t know much of it yet, but you don’t have to believe them. =)

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It turns out that “I suck” moments are more negotiable than I thought

| happy, life

I was unpacking my bag at home before I realized I had forgotten cash at the bank. In the middle of catching up with W-, I found a mental void when I grasped for my memories of my errand, like sitting on a chair that isn’t there.

In preparation for an upcoming trip, I had withdrawn US dollars and Canadian dollars from the bank branch near by work. I received the US dollars, but not the Canadian dollars, and both I and the teller had forgotten about it by the time she cheerfully asked me if there was anything else I could help with. After a short conversation with an acquaintance I met, I left the branch, brainstorming ideas on the way home. And then– oh, drat.

When I realized that the cash was missing, I called the bank branch and left voicemail. Then I called the branch again. As I contemplated serial-dialing the possibly unattended phone, W- encouraged me to get back on the subway to see if I could still catch the teller on her shift. (Hooray for banks that are open late!) I left my bag, picked up some energy bars, and hurried back, rehearsing possible arguments.

On the trip there, I felt the tendrils of an "I suck" moment curling about the edges of my equilibrium. "No sense in getting upset," I reminded myself. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal: six dollars’ worth of tokens, an hour of subway time spent writing, and a little stress before a clear mind kicks in. Worst-case scenario, I’d be out the forgotten money and the time. It would be an expensive lesson, but I could consider that tuition for a lesson that might save me a lot of grief later, the entrance fee for an experience that might be worth writing about, and the fluctuation that tests the capacitance of my happiness.

Fortunately, the bank staff resolved the problem in less than three minutes. The teller had remembered shortly after I’d left, and she cancelled the CAD transaction so that it didn’t affect my account. A quick chat with an available teller, and everything was sorted out. Relieved (and with the withdrawal tucked securely into my bag), I headed home.

I found it interesting that tranquility was easy to recover. Years ago, I might have let that “I suck” moment throw me off my balance. I still occasionally run into this situation at work. Even after a positive resolution, I might still have begrudged my absentmindedness the effect on my schedule, berating myself for inattention. I tested it mentally by considering this: what if I’d ended up losing the cash for good? It would be inconvenient, but I don’t think I would have let it spoil my day.

Keeping a tranquil mind was much easier when I didn’t give in to the temptation to mentally berate myself. It turns out that “I suck” moments can be dealt with. Reflection helped me grasp a situation and know that I can wring an idea or a story or an aha! out of it, which means there are never really any total losses. That comforting thought minimized the initial stress, and then I had enough mental space to focus on what I can do next, what’s going well, and what can be improved.

Do you occasionally get those “I suck” moments too? What could help you hit eject on the DVD of negative self-talk and focus instead on making the most of the next moment, and the next, and the next?

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Embracing Pollyanna

| happy

Happy people are sometimes derided as unrealistic Pollyannas, other people’s way of bringing them down to earth. I’ve heard it from people who don’t yet understand how I can be so optimistic. The dictionary defines “pollyanna” as an excessively or blindly optimistic person. Curious about this, I requested Eleanor Porter’s book Pollyanna from the library. In the pages of this easy-to-read book, I discovered a philosophy similar to the one I live.

You see, Pollyanna’s life centers on the Glad Game that she plays – the game of finding at least one thing to be glad about in any situation. An orphan taken in by her stern aunt, she inspires the town and eventually her aunt into playing this game. Invalids are comforted, quarrels are patched up, life gets better all around. When she runs into her own challenges, the whole town pitches in to help her play the toughest Glad Game she’s ever faced.

I play something like the Glad Game too. Grew into it unknowingly, took it as my own. It becomes easier – almost instinctive – as you do it. In the book, Pollyanna says:

“Why, Nancy, that’s so! I WAS playing the game—but that’s one of the times I just did it without thinking, I reckon. You see, you DO, lots of times; you get so used to it—looking for something to be glad about, you know. And most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.”

The game I play isn’t quite the Glad Game, though. I don’t stop at being glad. I guess I play the Learn-Share-Do Game. What can I learn from this situation? How can I share what I’m learning? How will I respond – what will I do about this situation? This turns every joy and success into something greater, and every heartache into part of the story.

It’s a blend of the infectious optimism of the 11-year-old Pollyanna and the resolute freedom of the Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who wrote this:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

There is no shame in being a Pollyanna, on facing life with conscious optimism and deliberate gratitude. Optimism can be firmly rooted in reality, finding nutrients in its depths, using the rocks of life as anchors.

I play the Learn-Share-Do game. What game do you play with life?

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Sketchnotes: Gretchen Rubin, Happiness Project book tour

Posted: - Modified: | happy, sketches, sketchnotes

Full-size version of my sketch notes from Gretchen Rubin’s talk and book signing of the Happiness Project, Chapters Indigo Bay/Bloor Toronto, January 17. (You can also click on the image for the large version.)


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Sometimes you have to work at being happy

Posted: - Modified: | happy

Here's one of the secrets to happiness: Sometimes you have to work at being happy. This is normal. Preparing makes it easier.

When I find myself getting frustrated or annoyed about something, I make lists. What do I like about it? What can I do to make things better? What alternatives would I consider, and in which situations would those alternatives be better? These things keep me firmly focused on moving forward.

I particularly like the practice of listing what I like. This is a good exercise in gratitude, and it makes it even easier to deal with future hiccups.

For example, before I married W-, I wrote a long list of things I appreciated about him. It's an incomplete list, but I'm sure it will help us get through future disagreements. I haven't needed it yet. Ditto for work. Yes, I've written down a list of reasons why I like IBM. When I feel like sticking my tongue out at a frustrating problem or process, I review my list–and often find myself adding a few more reasons why.

I like focusing on what I can do to make things better, too. It's fun. Sometimes I need to ask other people for help, and that's good practice as well.

It's easy to forget your reasons when you're tired or frustrated or annoyed or angry. No point in getting sucked into that spiral, though. Work around your limitations by writing things down before you get into that situation, and focus on productive thoughts when you need to deal with something.

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