We always have choices about how we react to challenges
If you understand your feelings regarding life’s challenges, you can use them to help you cope better
Sometimes a belief that there is something wrong with us means that we expect others not to like us. This makes us anxious and, in turn, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Photograph: Thinkstock
How many of us can honestly say that we welcome every challenge life brings? While some challenges can be exciting and can stretch us to discover abilities and strengths we never knew we had, others may be very difficult. At any moment we can hear news that causes us to think, This is terrible; How am I ever going to cope?; This is all my fault; I didn’t do enough; or even, This is too much, I can’t take any more.
Such thoughts can cause us to feel upset, anxious, sad, angry, guilty, embarrassed, ashamed or depressed. Life’s challenges vary and something that may seem overwhelming for one person can be exhilarating for someone else.
Some people are naturally good at coping and tend not to get distressed. They tend to be flexible and adaptable and are skilled at asking for and taking help. But many of us struggle to ask for help. If we have a lot to deal with already, it may take only a very small challenge to cause us incredible distress. We may react by withdrawing, lashing out, or even harming ourselves or someone else. It can be a relief to remember that we always have choices about how we react. If that happens to you, please welcome your feelings as indicators that you may need some support, and follow up by talking to someone who cares about you and who is in a position to provide real support. This may be a family member, a friend or a GP.
How to Cope is a book of hope. While life teaches us that life can be challenging, this book invites you to welcome these challenges, and the feelings and thoughts that you have about them, so that you are better able to deal with them proactively. It does so by describing the “welcoming approach” and illustrating, through case studies, how it can be used to help people develop resilience and strength. Some of the challenges are universal; others are very specific.
Case study: Sarah’s story of rejection
There are many ways in which any of us can experience rejection. It may well be that the person or people we think are rejecting us are not in fact doing so, but our experience will be one of rejection anyway. Sometimes, because we expect people not to like us, this becomes our experience.
Sarah was 15 and struggling to fit in with her peers when her parents came to me for help. They described her as being “too bright for her own good”. She had recently been assessed as being in the top fifth percentile for her intellectual ability: that means that she was as bright as, or brighter than, 95 per cent of 15-year-olds. They explained that Sarah had always been different from her peers. She was quieter and more reserved than them. In the previous six months her parents had noticed that she had become withdrawn and no longer asked to meet friends, and they were concerned that her school work was beginning to be affected. They had made several attempts to discuss their concerns with Sarah, but each time the brief conversation ended with her bursting into tears, begging them to leave her alone.
When I met Sarah she told me everything was fine, and that her parents had the problem, not her. She agreed to work with me to explain her thoughts, feelings and actions in relation to her parents.
Sarah and I went through some questions, and I found her resistance melting a little when I asked, “What’s so bad about your parents thinking that there’s something wrong with you?” She looked at me, somewhat bewildered, and said, “Because there isn’t.”
Next, I asked her, “So what’s so bad about them thinking that there’s something wrong with you when there isn’t?” Sarah hesitated, and then said, “Because they’re right.” When I asked what she meant, she looked directly at me and said, “My parents are right. There is something wrong with me.”
Tears began to fall gently, releasing some of the pressure, as she told me about her experiences with her classmates. No matter what she did, she seemed to be wrong. If she went over to one of them and said, “Hi. I heard you talking about that new song you downloaded. Is it good?” she got a cold look and was spitefully asked, “Why do you want to know?” If she ignored everyone and sat on her own at lunchtime, she overheard nasty comments that were directed at her. She had stopped working hard in class to see whether that would make a difference, but it didn’t. All that happened when teachers asked her why her grades had dropped was that her classmates sniggered.
When I asked Sarah if this had always been her experience with her peers, she shrugged hopelessly, saying that it was. As a “rejection exercise”, I asked her to think of one particular time when she felt rejected by girls her age, thus: Where were you when you felt rejected? In the school playground. What age were you? Eight. Who rejected you? Three girls in my class. Why? They didn’t like me. What was said to you? “You can’t play with us.” Did anyone support you? No. What was it like for you to feel rejected? Awful, absolutely awful. What happened? I pretended I didn’t care. What did you learn from this experience? There’s something wrong with me.
Sarah was committed to being honest. She had confided in me that her parents were right. She wasn’t feeling happy. Doing this exercise was a revelation to her. She realised that her pattern of pretending that she was fine and that she didn’t care went back to a time when she was eight. She looked at me and said, “But I don’t even like those girls now.”
We talked about how, as an eight-year-old, she had deliberately hidden her feelings of hurt and upset when she was rejected. This had become a pattern that she continued right up to the present.
She was struck by how her belief that there was something wrong with her meant that she expected other people her own age not to like her. She realised this made her anxious, and that this had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more relaxed she was in herself, irrespective of whether her peers liked her, the better.
Sarah realised that just because she believed she was not popular, that didn’t make it true. She was only 15, so maybe she would meet people who would become lifelong friends as she got older. She realised that deliberately doing poorly in her school work as a way of becoming popular was not helpful and was actually limiting her future opportunities. It became important for her once more to do her best, irrespective of how her classmates responded.
She began to relax about needing to be included and changed her expectation of being excluded and rejected. As a result, she discovered that she felt happier. She began to see how she could use her feelings of upset and anxiety as indicators that she needed to relax and accept herself more.
As she practised this she found she had moments when she actually felt at peace. She found the following “coping sentences” particularly helpful: I feel upset because I think I’m not popular, but I choose to breathe slowly; I feel upset because I think I’m not popular, but I choose to recognise and appreciate the social skills I use every day; I feel upset because I think I’m not popular, but maybe my lifelong friends are preparing to meet me.
The character Sarah does not represent an individual but is based on Dr Hayes’s work with patients in her private practice to show how the “welcoming approach” can be used to help us become aware of and cope with pressure.
This is an edited extract from How to Cope: The Welcoming Approach to Life’s Challenges by Dr Claire Hayes, consultant clinical psychologist and clinical director of Aware, and is available in shops and as an ebook this week.
To get How to Cope delivered to you for €14.99 (including postage and packing within Ireland), click here or call 01-5009570 and quote ITGM.