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6 Ways to Make Lemonade When Life Gives You Lemons

Improve executive function by nipping self-sabotage in the bud.

Two extremes of maladaptive coping are 1) obsessing in endless, repetitive cycles, amplifying distress for oneself and others, and driving compulsive behaviors and 2) using strong avoidance to remain — more or less blissfully — unaware by eradicating unwanted inner experience. Obsession and avoidance differ on the surface — deeper, the serve the same self-protective, yet self-defeating, functions.

Avoiding avoidance and obessionalism

Maladaptive defenses or coping mechanisms interfere with the development of self-efficacy, key for self-esteem. They reduce reality to an over-simplified caricature of itself devoid of real depth or vitality, side-stepping the rich complexity of life.

Suppression and rumination share similarities with avoidance and obsession, but are fundamentally different because they allow thinking to move forward. Suppression allows us to park issues, and return to them later. Rumination literally means chewing it over mentally, and is associated with resilient coping.

Proceed with caution

During those first moments of perceived crisis, we are presented with a hypothetical fork in the road: avoidance/obsession versus suppression/rumination. This the point where many people make an impulsive decision.

Taking a different path requires cultivating presence of mind at the crucial moment, which we can cultivate through a combination of self-kindness and early detection. Noticing the earliest signs of maladaptive responses allows us to hit pause and consider who we want to be — because the choices we make will define us looking back — as we deal with whatever is happening:

1. Avoiding feelings, being stuck with limited feelings, or being numb. Many walk around with an aversion to feeling anything at all. While there is a temperamental component to this, it also depends a lot on what we learned growing up, what our role models did, and what we were told about feelings. Were emotions addressed in a healthy way in the family?

Were conflicts addressed and worked through, or was there fighting with no progress or resolution? Were some feelings frowned up, and others permitted? Was there a healthy balance of feelings or was there a preponderance of anger and a lack of sadness, grief? Catching ourselves trying to avoid feelings, or even being numb, means something is afoot.

2. Avoiding thoughts and thinking or fixating on ideas. Sometimes blocking thoughts can be a useful coping strategy for intrusive thoughts which serve no good function, or even interfere, during inopportune times. However, it’s also not unusual that we have a sense we need to deal with something, we need to think about it and work on it, but we are trying not to. This happens with distressing memories and experiences, and is also part of procrastination. We can also get too focused on other issues as a way to keep our minds off of something more important, as when someone throws themselves into work when they have relationship problems. This may be experienced as “cognitive dissonance,” discomfort and confusion experienced when people have unresolved self-contradictory beliefs, values and related inner conflict.

3. Being bound by arbitrary rules. Rigid adherence to what seems to be an inviolable rule is another sign that inhibitory processes are operating unconsciously. We’re not talking about external rules, but rather the feeling of having an inner prohibition, which upon reflection has an unclear origin, serves no specific function, and restricts our choices.

For example, having a rule not to talk about certain subjects suggests something is hidden, and having strong moral prohibitions which seem like laws of nature without a backstory is another sign of a defensive process. This is often present with perfectionism. Rather than respond to such inner rules with knee-jerk obedience, exercise a bit of healthy self-doubt.

4. Being “too nice”. It is a sure sign when we go to great lengths to be liked, avoid “making others angry” or go out of our way not to be a burden or make trouble for others. We see this with people who say they are “people pleasers” or “conflict avoidant”, suggesting a history of having been the victim or coercion or bullying, where appeasing was a way to avoid pain. When coercion is the rule, disobedience has to be on the down-low — completely repressed, or passively expressed. Conduct a mind scan for undercurrents of resentment and hostility, beneath feelings of anxiety and apprehension.

5. Bodily sensations. Defensive responses often don’t show up in thoughts or feelings, however — even when we are at our most curious. When they don’t, we can often find clues in our bodies (and behaviors, below). As traumatologist Bessel van der Kolk’s tells us, “the body keeps the score”. In those cases, a body scan can help with relaxation, and allow us to catch important clues through increasing “interoceptive awareness”, which can help with pain by increasing our ability to sense bodily, or somatic, states. Techniques used in therapies like somatic experiencing encourage us to ask where in the body we feel something, what we feel, what it is telling us — and if it seems to be connected, for example to the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Though psychiatric issues often have a somatic component, it is important to look for other underlying medical issues.

6. Other peoples’ reactions. We often play out — or “enact” — emotions and meaning in our interpersonal behavior. Most of the time, as with passive-aggression, we don’t know what we are up to or we are at best dimly aware. However, other people sure do notice, and are often more aware of our motives than we are. It’s easy to put it on the others — astute people will also consider that we ourselves may be doing something we aren’t fully aware of, and having it mirrored back to us in how others’ respond.

A common example is irritability — when we’re irritated, we tend to respond to others poorly, turning blame outward and attributing everything to them. Later one, we may recognize we were irritable and “took it out” on the other person, even with a valid grip. And irritability often is a cover for underlying feelings. Remain open to the possibility that others’ behavior in part mirrors oneself.

Course correction

Creativity and growth depend on balancing change with maintenance. Creativity hinges on divergent thinking, while resilience requires consistency and flexibility. Avoidance and obsession make it easy to get stuck, and hard to get help.

Learning to respond to distress with self-compassion, taking a “self-compassion break” rather than a “self-flagellation break” is a sea-change, paradoxically both very easy and supremely difficult. Getting grounded in order to re-orient toward core values (e.g. the evidence-based TARGET approach), is the starting point for getting traction with change. It takes persistence, as development is an evolutionary process, with plateaus, valleys, and peaks.

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Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Advocate

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