a very long post on learning what to do when bad things happen.

March 30, 2013

So over the past few years, I’ve been working on learning how to be mentally and emotionally healthy.

A lot of my history pretty much revolves around this question: when bad things happen, what do I do? It’s been one of the major unexamined issues in my life and I’ve only recently begun to engage with it on a conscious level. Learning how to respond appropriately and in a healthy way to difficult situations, and unlearning all the then-helpful, now-unhelpful ways I’ve dealt with difficult situations, have been significant contributors to my growing up. Which I’m pretty sure for me only started happening two years ago. (Those of you who knew me during university can probably attest to this somewhat.)

Bad things happen to everyone. How we learn to deal with these bad things is I think what actually shapes who we are, if we define ‘who we are’ as the habits and behaviours we display when faced with people, situations and ourselves.* This means that when something, anything, happens, how we react- insecurely, hopefully, destructively, contentedly, fearfully, peaceably, productively, unproductively, selfishly, altruistically etcetera- is entirely dependent on the strategies we’ve learned to help us process and cope with whatever has happened. Bad and good. (How people react to compliments is a decent example of good.)

This then means that how we were taught to deal with things early on in our childhood is incredibly significant. And by taught I mean overtly taught by caregivers (“Boys don’t cry, harden up-“, “How are you feeling? Are you angry? Use your words, we don’t hit- now use your words and tell me what’s wrong-“), or implicitly taught by how they behaved (when your parents are angry, they ignore each other; when your parents are angry, they shout and scream; when your parents are angry, they sit down and talk it out-) or taught by other sources, such as books and movies, friends, peers or the community you’re in- say a church environment where you see adult interactions modelled.

Which is why early childhood education is so important: it’s the first time human beings ask the question: when this happens, what do I do? And if we’re taught unhelpful strategies early on, it means later we’re going to have to unlearn these and learn better ways of dealing (which is a thing all of us do as we grow anyway, like learning a new and different way to chop an onion without crying or a more efficient method of washing dishes or a new painting technique- not just fingers anymore!- or a more productive way to study. We’re just not as conscious of the emotional ones, usually). And even if we learned helpful strategies for the age we were at, “… it could be that the strategies that worked when you were ten are not so much going to work for you when you get into adulthood, which means having to relearn a whole new set.”**

Which actually tends to happen during therapy and counselling and life-coaching. Life skills. Healthy coping mechanismsSelf-regulation strategies. Emotional hygiene. And I find it interesting that we can be aware that our cooking is sub-par, and so choose to learn a new technique to cut onions or learn how to julienne, but we often aren’t aware that our own emotional and mental techniques are sub-par- or even that they exist– that we have them and that we can change them if they aren’t doing what they should, which is helping us and other people be whole and well and loved and healthy and not fragile.

I find it interesting that we aren’t usually aware that being emotionally and mentally healthy and being a functional, capable, emotionally-stable person is something that actually needs to be learned.

It’s not an instinctive or inbuilt thing for any of us. Social techniques, learning to cope with strong emotions, learning to deal with conflict in ourselves and in other people, tools to handle pain or stress- everything is learned, is taught, doesn’t come naturally. Or was it just me? Did you guys all get the primer on How To Be Human from birth? I mean, the only reason I’m conscious of this whole idea of We Have Ways Of Coping With Things That Might Not Be Helpful; Here Are Some Alternative Ways! at all is thanks to my association with a plethora of wonderful psychologists and early childhood teachers. And the internet, which gives me plentiful access to both. Thank you, internet.


Here’s an example of learning new strategies. Strong negative emotions. I have them. Everyone has them. When I was younger, a situation developed which meant I was suddenly privy to a whole lot of deeply strong, really horrible emotions, but that same situation also meant I didn’t want to express them, because that would be a sign of weakness and of being affected by what was going on. And at that point I was sick of crying and crying and being deeply confused and crying. So I chose instead to shut down and not show anything at all- grief, rage, fear, fury, anguish, discomfort, anything- except for a consistent expression of disdain, which later became simply blankness, because I got in trouble for the disdain. I learned to go away in my head, into stories, and completely ignore- as much as was possible for an eleven-year-old- the strong emotions I was feeling, and simply endure. As a result, I also adopted a whole plethora of coping mechanisms that generally involve hiding and running away into fantasies or simply not being mentally present, all of which to some extent still exist to this day, if in a much lesser capacity.

Those were very good coping mechanisms for my circumstances. I had no other way of dealing with the situation I was in, and I believe the things I taught myself kept me alive (I’ve probably mentioned before that my earliest record of suicidal thinking dates back to when I was eleven). As I grew up, however, these mechanisms became less appropriate as strategies for handling my emotions, partially because they just didn’t. Handle them. What they did was help me avoid and ignore them as much as possible, because I didn’t know how to handle them.

My first three years in New Zealand, for example, were spent in this enormous muted rage I never even realised I was feeling, because I was trying too hard to not exist in everyday reality. It wasn’t until my second year of university- when I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety- and a theatre module in which we were doing some kind of self-explorative solo work that I realised just how deeply angry I had been for being made to move to this place where everything I had loved had been taken away from me. It had been exile. I had no choice in the matter and everything I had ever loved or wanted had been removed, just like that, and I’d found myself entirely alone in a strange land with nothing for comfort and nobody to turn to, belonging to nothing, insecure and awkward and deeply isolated and incredibly, starvingly lonely. I spent most of those years trying not to feel anything because everything I felt was horrible, and so my coping mechanisms were deeply appropriate for my circumstances.

University, on the other hand, was when I began to not avoid my emotions, particularly since I had good counsellors and psychologists and good friends as safety nets, and for once I was beginning to open up and enjoy myself outside of my head. I still didn’t have anything in place to handle how I felt, however, which meant that I spent most of my time swinging from being absolutely terrified to being incredibly depressed to being manic and high-energy and hugely, dynamically extroverted all the way back to panicking. All the extremes to excess with no real way of modulating anything, which is what happens when you take the stops off something and don’t have safety measures in place. Again, those of you who knew me consistently during university will know how volatile I was. And how much I slept. Sleep is the best way of handling huge and overwhelming Bad Feelings of Awful Badness; it cuts you right off and you feel- nothing. I’d sleep for fifteen, sixteen hours at a time if I could manage it, back then.

(And aside from binge-sleeping, sleep has actually been one of my primary strategies during these last two years of recovery, and my dependence on it has lessened as I learned other ways to handle overwhelming emotions or negative thought patterns. I still use it as a valuable tool in my box of Ways To Deal, though, particularly if it’s just one of those days where I’m feeling less capable of thinking through whatever situation I’m in or I just need a break from myself. Usually when I wake, I’m in a much better state for sorting things out in my head, which is where most of the problem usually is.)

It wasn’t until my first year out of university that I went to a seriously lovely clinical psychologist who told me about ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I don’t have a thorough knowledge of this at all, but what I did learn were useful things like mindfulness, and being present, and how to be less afraid of being overwhelmed by the awful way I felt (basically: these emotions won’t damage you. it’s okay. they’re not fun, they hurt a lot, and they’re certainly valid and real, but they are also temporary and will go eventually in the long run of your life; it is okay to allow them to be while they are here. allow that and accept that they exist. they won’t actually damage you, and who you are is essentially separate from how you’re feeling, so- observe that you’re feeling this, allow it to exist, accept that it is perfectly okay that you feel this- and let it go. (I believe this is similar to how the process of grieving is taught)).

At the same time as this was happening, I started a job where I began working with early childhood educators who were actively modelling and teaching the children how to make good decisions, how to deal respectfully with others, how to handle strong negative feelings with what resources a potentially non-verbal child has at their disposal- have you ever seen a kid in a full-blown tantrum because they can’t properly say what they’re trying to get across?- and how to be kind to themselves. I learned a lot just listening to them. And there’s always been writing, too. It’s my primary method of working through emotional trouble; I sit down at a computer and just write until I figure out what’s wrong, and then work through that until I find a solution. That’s what some of this blog is.

That began almost two years ago. Now, two years on, my ability to handle negative emotion isn’t entirely wrapped up and dealt with and I’m still learning new things to add to the Toolbelt of Coping as I go, but I’ve come a long way from completely ignoring how I feel about things and pretending I don’t exist. (It also helps that I’m not privy to a certain set of awful situations anymore and that I’ve learned strategies for dealing with those). I am still learning how to handle how I feel about things; right now, for instance, I’m feeling a bit relationally isolated here and I’ve noticed some of the older coping mechanisms resurfacing. It’s only recently, and by recently I mean within the past week, that I’ve begun to spot this: I was tracking a pattern in the things I’ve been reading and even the dreams I’ve been having, and they’ve all been forms of immersing myself in someone else’s positive relationship.

It’s interesting. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it just yet. I’m currently looking into options and alternate methods of dealing with, clearly, the fact that I’m feeling unconnected and lonely here in Auckland, because there are definitely ways of dealing with how I’m feeling that don’t involve disappearing into stories about good relationships as a kind of anaesthesia to cope alone with my own current lack. That isn’t healthy or productive for me anymore, much as I appreciate my brain very helpfully offering it as a method; it doesn’t involve actually naming how I’m feeling, paying attention to it or wrestling with it in order to find what it’s caused by and how I can solve it. It merely involves hiding from how I’m feeling so I don’t have to feel it, and doing that alone from a habit of not trusting people. And while that was appropriate in the past, now that I have better ways to handle how I feel and am actually possessed of people I can trust, it’s not an appropriate strategy now. I’m not quite sure what is a good strategy (although I have a few ideas- the friends I relate to primarily via the internet are wonderful, wonderful things) so I’m clearly going to need to think about this more. But yay progress and development! Everyone is learning!


At the end of the day, I find that just being conscious of my coping mechanisms makes a difference, because it lets me trace back to why I’m doing what I’m doing. Which is an aha moment in and of itself. All of a sudden I know what I want, which means I can start looking for ways to address it. That gives me a whole lot more choice in how I react to things, and puts me in a place where I can ask whether I should learn new ways to react if my current methods aren’t helpful to me or to others. On that note, the internet especially is a valuable fount of assistance in this, and there are many really intelligent, really thoughtful people out there who offer different ways to examine and cope with this whole tricky issue of being alive. Like this lady! Someone dropped a link to one of her articles on Facebook today and I read it and began exploring the blog in more depth. She’s an Early Childhood educator, and like many of the breed I’ve met, she is sensible. And while what she talks about tends to be specific to the healthy things one should teach a small child, those are also the healthy processes we should have in our own heads, particularly if we weren’t taught these as small children.

Or there’s this lady, who I quoted above, who is a sex educator but is actually more of a sex-and-relationships-and-generally-how-we-work-as-humans-around-other-people educator, and I’ve found a lot of what she says to be very informative and interesting. Or there’s this list of panic-and-anxiety self-care strategies which has been handed around by a few people in my Let’s Be Aware And Look After Ourselves circle (which isn’t actually a circle; is just people I love who are actively taking care of themselves). And there’s Boggle, the most adorable owl in the world. And the Calming Manatee.

And now that I’ve inundated you with links, I’m going to go reflect on Easter for a bit. And it’s your turn. Are you conscious of the things you do to deal with difficult situations? Why do you do them?





* a limited definition of ‘who we are’, yes, but given that what people believe and think about us tends to be formed by their impression of what we do and how we behave, and what we believe about ourselves is affected by our behaviour too, it’ll do for now.
** this is a quote from this youtube video where the lady who is a sex-and-relationships-and-how-we-relate-as-humans educator discusses what we need from relationships. the actual quote comes from her point about self-efficacy, roughly 2:50 minutes into the video.

One Response to “a very long post on learning what to do when bad things happen.”

  1. Thank you for including links to my work, and for your thoughtful introduction to my page! Glad we found each other! Best, Emily

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