What is meant by coping? In the broad psychological sense it is the way we respond to our environment and the people we live and work with. However, this article is based on the common use of the term. That is, coping is making the best of a situation; it is coming to terms with or successfully dealing with whatever comes our way. It is rolling with the punches and going with the flow. It is about handling or managing our life. Coping is about survival, about not being beaten into submission, and about not being pushed around by life. It is about rising to the occasion and taking charge of one’s fate.
Coping is more complex than it first appears. After all, when we do so, we have to cope on three levels, for we have to manage our environment, our feelings, and our body. Let’s look at an example. Suppose a coworker that I’m obligated to work with always treats me rudely. Since I don’t want that to continue, I have to handle my coworker (the environment), my feelings of frustration, disappointment, and anger, as well as my headaches, the knots in my stomach, and my tense muscles, all of which are symptoms of stress.
Imagine a seed pushing through the soil, and after breaking free, stretching upward, twisting and turning to face the sun, while digging deeply for the sustenance of water. The lives of plants and animals are lives of coping. For life is, depending on how we look at it, an endless chain of difficulties, challenges, or opportunities. This being so, it is important to learn how to cope. Failure to do so will block further progress and stunt our growth.
Coping does not mean abandoning one’s responsibly by acquiescence. For example, if the lights go off during an electrical storm, you don’t have to call a ‘Coping with the Darkness’ support group. Instead, do what you can: light candles or get a flashlight and check the fuses. Coping, then, is proactive, not passive. Take charge of life; don’t let it just happen to you.
There are many ways to cope, some are effective, others ineffective, and still others are harmful. Take Tony, for instance, he’s a teen that turns to alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs to ‘overcome’ his shyness. Instead of gaining freedom, he’s become enslaved. Even if he doesn’t become addicted, he’s become dependent on crutches to get by. Emotionally, he’s become racked with guilt, regret, and feelings of worthlessness, all of which makes him even shyer. Add to this the anxiety and worry he will experience after learning about the damage he is doing to his body. This is an example of harmful coping. But harmful coping is actually non-coping. For coping is about resolving problems, not adding to them.
Take a look at Mario. A former ’90 pound weakling,’ he decided to work out in the gym to build his self-esteem. Now, a year and a half later, he’s done much more than build his self-confidence, for he’s built his body and a reputation for supporting and encouraging deprived youth. What a difference our method of coping can make! Mario’s frequent visits to the gym are now a habit, and any stress he accumulates during the day is easily shaken off with his work-outs. He is an example of successful coping.
These simple examples should make it clear that if we are to successfully cope, we must stop before we act, go over our options, study their consequences, and choose wisely. Cigarettes or work-outs in the gym? Drugs or self-improvement? Alcohol or helping others? Progress, stagnation, or regression? Happiness or misery? We have inherited an incredible coping machine called the human brain, but it’s not much help unless we choose to use it. Don’t rely on crutches, rely on your brain. We can use rational thinking to handle our problems. Yet, we often abandon reason by giving in to fear, succumbing to anxiety, and by being swept away by stress.
When it comes to effective living, if I were to choose one trait over any other, it would be courage. After all, it is a powerful tool for coping. When we face life, we also have to face death, so how can we live without courage? Much ineffective or harmful coping arises from fear. We try to ‘solve’ our problem by avoiding it, denying it, repressing it, or hiding it. However, the courageous face their problems squarely. They prefer planning for the future instead of worrying about it. They prefer learning from the past instead of feeling guilty about it. They prefer forgiving and accepting the weaknesses of others instead of harboring resentment and anger. They prefer to focus on the right thing to do instead of focusing on their fear.
The good news is, if we’re a little low on courage, it’s very easy to boost our level. All we have to do is follow Mario’s example and work out every day. Not in the gym, but in our environment. Not with weights, but with actions. We need to get into the habit of deliberately choosing to do something we dislike and something we fear every day. By doing what we dislike, we develop discipline, and by doing what we fear we become courageous. And by acquiring discipline and courage we become successful at coping. Moreover, if we master the art of successfully coping, we become unstuck; we gain our freedom and can move from one ‘problem’ to the next. Most of all, we gain our happiness.
Heinrich Heine (1797 ~ 1856) wrote, “The weather-cock on the church spire, though made of iron, would soon be broken by the storm-wind if it did not understand the noble art of turning to every wind.” Someone else wrote, “It is a wise person that adapts themselves to all contingencies; it’s the fool who always struggles like a swimmer against the current.” Both sentiments reveal another characteristic of successful coping. We need to accept what cannot be changed. Why bang our head against the wall? Why be stubborn? Why be rigid when it’s so easy to go with the flow?
Would you stand up and fight for something of no value? Of course not. So, it should come as no surprise that those who consider themselves worthless, can’t cope. Before they can, they need to learn to value themselves. They can begin doing so by reading and applying what they learn in some of the many books on self-esteem that are available in libraries and bookstores, as well as the resources on the Internet.
Study the lives of successful people and you will discover they all had a positive attitude. They have a take-charge disposition. They may take some punches, stumble, or even get knocked down, but they refuse to stay down. They are survivors because of their inner strength or resilience, which comes about because of the discipline and courage I mentioned earlier. Where others see disasters and catastrophes, they see challenges and opportunities; where others trek on the road to despair, they pave a path of hope. It’s all a choice they made, a choice we can make.