Resilience

For the past couple of weeks now, I’ve had this word – resilience – bouncing around in my head.

To me, it seems clear that humans are wired to be resilient. We are survivors.

Let me give you an example.

Every semester, I teach a basic public speaking skills course and I frequently give this talk about how it’s normal to feel nervous before giving a speech. In fact, you’ve probably heard the reference to Jerry Seinfeld’s joke about people being more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying (and that’s actually true).

Your palms may get sweaty, your heart may race, your mouth may feel dry. These are all things that commonly happen when adrenaline is pumping through our veins. But why is it that something like simply giving a speech can cause an increase in adrenaline?

Adrenaline is our body’s physiological response to fear. When our brain tells our body that it perceives a threat – even if that perceived threat is giving a speech – our body’s response is to produce adrenaline. It gives us the stamina needed to cope with the perceived threat.

It’s our fight or flight mechanism. It’s a survival instinct.

It’s the same instinct that has allowed humans to lift cars off of their children or to outrun predators or fight back in order to survive.

Humans are survivors; we’re literally built for it. We’re resilient.

You may think I’m overdramatizing the current situation by drawing a comparison to the stress we are facing today with life-threatening situations, and the truth is, you might be right. My point here isn’t to debate how real the threat is. It’s about the perceived reality that we are all living; the immense stress under which many people are simply trying to survive.

In the past few days, I have had multiple students disclose varying degrees of mental distress, including panic attacks, loss of time, and general anxiety. I have heard many of the same stories over and over again about how much more work is involved in online coursework, how they are concerned about their ability to pay rent, how they are worried about their leases ending and not having a plan in place for moving, and how they feel incredibly alone in all of this. They’re stressed – to say the least – and so am I.

If you’re like me and you’re fortunate enough to be able to work from home, you may be feeling a bit less stressed than those who are currently out of work or those who must continue doing jobs that are essential, despite the potential risk.

And, to be clear, I really do consider myself fortunate. However, that doesn’t mean the situation is ideal. As many of you are probably finding out, teaching (or working) online requires a lot more effort. And spending most of the day in Zoom meetings can be really draining (here’s a great article that helps explain why). Add to this the fact that most of us don’t have all of the technology needed to operate well from home (I’ve crashed my Surface twice already) and you can begin to understand why it’s not really all that simple – for faculty, for students, and for others attempting to work from home.

The focus of today’s post is on offering some tips for coping with stress beyond simply surviving — in other words, how to be resilient. Some of these things have worked well for me and some are based on the ideas of others. As always, take what works for you and feel free to leave the rest. I hope you find some peace in all of this chaos.

Maintain connections. People are meant to be connected with others. It’s important to be a part of a community (or many communities) by staying connected with friends and family. While the physical isolation is a necessary precaution most of us are living, there are some ways to maintain relationships despite the physical distance. Schedule social events via Zoom (or FaceTime or House Party or another app) with friends or family. You can virtually meet with others for a coffee date or cocktails and simply catch up with each other. While it may not be at your favorite venue, the perks are that you can wear your favorite comfy cloths and you don’t need to find a babysitter (if you have tiny humans running around).

tilt shift photography of green mailbox

You could also go old school and actually take the time to pen a note and mail (yes, snail mail) someone a letter or card. You don’t even have to come up with something novel to say – you can copy down a favorite poem or quote or just write in giant letters, “I MISS YOU,” or sketch something or draw a doodle. The point is, most people (like pretty much every human I know) loves to feel like someone cares about them, and knowing you were thinking of them enough to send something through the mail will probably make their day.  

If you’re lucky enough to share your living space with others, simply being present doesn’t always translate to feeling connected with these individuals. Many of us live with children or elders or other roommates who are important to us, but may in some ways interrupt our ability to nurture relationships with others, especially partners. If you find yourself here, I know it’s hard. Be patient, things will return to normal eventually. In the meantime, try sending a text to the person across the room that says, “I was just thinking about you,” or “I love you,” or just “Hi :).” Try to take time to be alone with your partner if and when it’s possible, maybe early in the morning or late at night. Go for a walk together, watch a movie in bed (even if it’s just on your laptop), make a meal together, have a conversation. Leave notes for your partner where you know they will find them (like on their pillow or in their coat pocket). Be kind to each other.

Take time for wellness. I know I talk about this a lot, but it’s because I think it’s really important. This could be a great time to practice learning to listen to your body and what you need. Take breaks from work as often as you need them. I’m guilty of totally skipping meals because I’m so focused on what I’m doing, which is terrible for our bodies. If you find that you’re not great at taking breaks throughout the day, schedule them into your day or set an alarm (maybe every hour) to get up and stretch. Try to stay physically active by going for walks or doing home-based workouts (there are literally hundreds available for free on YouTube, including this restorative yoga video I made).

woman doing yoga meditation on brown parquet flooring

If you’re spending more time at home than usual, you may want to try out some new (or old) approaches for developing your own mindfulness practice, such as meditating, journaling, drawing, painting, etc. All of these practices can be great for helping manage anxiety, and you may just find you actually enjoy doing them. Take time to do things that bring you some joy. I’ve started baking again for the first time in years and it’s been fun. When I’m stressed, I sometimes find it difficult to focus on a task that requires a lot of mental energy like grading or writing, but baking (or organizing, or cleaning, or sorting, or whatever) can be an activity that allows me to feel productive without using a lot of mental energy (because I bake simple things like scones – this is totally not a home version of Nailed It!).

Getting adequate sleep is also really important, especially when we’re mentally stressed. If you are able to work from home, consider starting your day a little later than you typically would. To me, there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in a bit – it’s one of the perks of working from home and making your own schedule. If you find that you struggle to fall asleep at night, developing a bedtime routine can help you wind down. It may involve taking a bath, reading a book, turning down the lights, and limiting your phone use after a certain time. Again, do what works for you – no one knows you better than yourself.

Practice flexibility and adaptability. When there are so many unknown factors – like when social isolation will no longer be necessary, when a vaccine will be available, how our economy will recover, when we will be able to travel again – it’s important to keep an open mind and to practice flexibility. While it’s not easy to do, managing our expectations – as in, not having specific expectations about how or when things will change – can help us maintain a more positive outlook.

Additionally, realizing that even our day-to-day plans may falter under these circumstances and becoming adaptable  can help us develop greater resiliency. In a recent meeting (online, of course) with students in my research methods course, I encouraged students to take the path of least resistance in completing the course (let me clarify that this is not something I would typically say under normal circumstances). While I realize some of them had impressive plans for the remaining assignments, I wanted them to know that scaling back in order to better manage their time to complete their assignments (in my class as well as others) is completely okay.

The same is true for all of us. You may have had an awesome project planned for your students, or intended to work on a research proposal or to develop a new class, or maybe you were planning your wedding or graduation, or something else very meaningful, but it’s okay to let go of some of our expectations for right now. It’s okay to lessen the pressure we’ve put on ourselves. It is not a failure to do so, it is the ability to adapt under extraordinary circumstances. And, it doesn’t mean we must let go of that expectation altogether – we can simply put it on hold until later.

I encourage you to have compassion with yourself and with others.

Show some emotion. I realize that we live in a culture that does not often embrace the expression of emotion. In fact, after years of working in retail and being told that I needed to “grow a thicker skin,” I am now working to undo much of that effort and to become more in touch with my own emotions. Allowing ourselves to feel our emotions – anger, sadness, frustration, fear – is vital to our ability to process this event. We are not robots and we were not designed to subdue our emotions. We are allowed to feel bothered by the events we are experiencing because they are bothersome.

woman touch rainy glass

I encourage you to acknowledge and allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling about these current circumstances. Take the time you need to be sad or fearful or angry, and then, move forward. At the same time, I also encourage you to find joy whenever possible – perhaps in the fact that you can wear yoga clothes all day and you don’t have to put on shoes! (those are mine 🙂 ) – and to laugh when there is nothing else to be done. Realize that technology will fail sometimes. You may get kicked out of Zoom in the middle of your class or someone may flush the toilet in the room next to you when you’re talking to a student, and it’s okay. Laugh at the circumstances, at yourself, at life, and know that you are not in this alone in this.

Reach out for support. I know I’ve said this before, but if you find that you are unable to manage your stress on your own or if you fear that you could possibly harm yourself or others, please reach out for help. Many therapists are working from home at this time (including mine) and many are accepting new patients. While this may not seem ideal, there is a benefit to being able to chat with someone from the comfort of your own home. Please know that it is okay to lean on others when you are struggling. Sometimes just venting or talking through something can bring a lot of relief and I encourage you to reach out to a friend, family member, other trusted individual, or mental healthcare professional for help if you need it.

hands formed together with red heart paint

I hope you found some of these insights of use. Above all, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of showing compassion to others as well as yourself.

With much love,

Tiff

References

American Psychological Association. (2020). Building your resilience. Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020). Coping with Stress. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/copingwith-stresstips.html

Mayo Clinic. (2020). Resilience: Build skills to endure hardship. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/resilience-training/in-depth/resilience/art-20046311

Photo Credits

Cover Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Mailboxes Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Woman Doing Yoga Meditation Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Woman Touching Rainy Glass Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Hands With Red Paint Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Facing Down Fear

Due to violent content, please be advised that this material could be a trigger for some people.

It was just over four weeks ago that I was attacked while I was out for a run.

I’m okay.

This was scary — very scary — but I walked away virtually unharmed. I had a fat lip and a sore shoulder for a few days.

I’m still finding it hard to believe that this happened to me and that I was fortunate enough to just walk away.

The perpetrator of this crime is currently in jail. The intent of this post is not to talk about him, but rather to share how I think being prepared for something like this is exactly the reason that I am okay.

(If you really want to read up on the case, you can view the local news report here)

Writing this post has been more difficult than I anticipated it would be. It’s a bit like tearing off the scab on a wound. After finally starting to sleep well again, I’ve begun having nightmares since starting this post. A very good friend pointed out that this may be a sign that I’m not ready to write about the event yet, and I agree. However, I also think writing about this could be therapeutic for me. And part of me feels like if I don’t write it now, I likely never will.

The purpose of this post is to share what I think helped me so that others can, perhaps, learn from my experience. Doing this would be quite difficult without actually discussing the details of the event. That said, I’m going to give you a full run down from start to finish with the details I think are most important to include. Then, I’ll get into some advice based on this experience and the advice of others.

Before I begin, I want to be really clear about the fact that the content I’m including here is not at all intended as a guide for preventing bad things from happening. We all know that’s not possible. Life is unpredictable and scary things happen all of the time, even in places we don’t expect them. My goal here is to help us all be a little bit better prepared in the event that something does happen. While my hope is that you never have an experience like this, I believe having this knowledge for yourself or for a friend could be potentially meaningful.

In the summer months, I prefer to run after dark because it’s generally too hot to run safely in the heat of the day. I know I will be criticized for this, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with running after dark (and I still don’t). It’s really normal for me to go out between 9 and 9:30pm, once the sun has set, and run for 60-90 minutes. In fact, I’ve walked this same route a few times since the incident at approximately the same time of day (with a partner) and have found that there are (still) a lot of other people out walking or running or biking at this time of night.

The trails I run and the neighborhood around my house are mostly well lit and well populated areas. I’ve run this particular trail hundreds of times and I am always very aware of my surroundings. I keep my music turned down at a low volume so that I can hear what’s happening around me. I notice if something’s different or out of the ordinary (for instance, if there’s new construction or if a house has recently been painted). There are a couple of spots on this trail that are more remote and hidden from the view of houses and roadways where I always have my phone out and ready to dial for help if needed. (Because I’m kind of a cautious person.)

On the day this occurred, I had been out for about an hour and was only a block from returning to my house. I was cooling down, so I was walking at this point. I heard a bike come up behind me and I stepped to the right side of the sidewalk so they could pass. I turned and looked over my left shoulder to acknowledge the person (because I always do) and I was thinking to myself something along the lines of, “Oh, it’s just a kid on a bike.” I didn’t perceive this person as a threat even after I noticed him behind me.

As I was looking at him, he extended his right arm out and hooked it around my neck. He threw his body onto me, knocking me to the ground and trapping me underneath of him. It’s so strange to write out the details of this sequence now — as in, how was this physically possible? It was so fluid — it was as if it happened in slow motion.

Even as my body hit the ground, my brain couldn’t comprehend what was happening to me. I kept thinking, “You could be a student in one of my classes, what are you doing?” Thankfully, my body began reacting well before my brain caught up and I started screaming for help immediately. He shoved my face into the ground and threatened to kill me if I wasn’t quiet. This resulted in me throwing my head back and screaming as loudly as I could. He kept trying to cover my mouth to quiet me, so I kept moving my head and biting his hand whenever I had the chance.

When I run at night, I always carry pepper spray (strapped to my wrist). Unfortunately, my hands were still pinned underneath of me, so I couldn’t get to it. And honestly, even if I could, he was in such close proximity that it would have sprayed us both. All I could do was kick and try to get enough leverage behind my elbows to jab him in the ribs. I kept trying to throw my weight to one side so that I could roll out from under him, all the while still screaming at the top of my lungs.

I’m not entirely sure if he realized he was losing the battle or if the sound of neighbors scared him off, but moments after the whole thing started he was back on his bike and riding away. I immediately ran to the first house I saw with a porch light on and began ringing the doorbell. I went to dial the police and realized that I had his cell phone and pocket knife in my hands. Somehow, they had been lost in the scuffle. I dialed the police from my phone and while talking to the dispatcher (who was practically gleeful that I had his phone), neighbors began coming out of their houses. Several of them waited with me until the police arrived and even gave statements (though none of them had actually seen him or the incident, unfortunately).

The police arrived in less than five minutes. One of them drove me to the station to give my statement and to be photographed. Coincidently, after only a few minutes at the police station, a call came in reporting that the alleged perpetrator had gone back to the scene and was looking for his cell phone. One of my attentive neighbors was kind enough to call the police and my attacker was arrested that evening.

The whole thing from start to end was only about an hour.

I didn’t sleep much that night, or the next few nights. I’m mostly back to sleeping well now, but still have nightmares some nights. I will talk later about some of my coping strategies and how I’m handling the situation currently, but I want to first outline the things that I think are most important in terms of being proactive and protecting ourselves:

Be aware of your surroundings. Know where you are and be attentive to what’s happening around you. I LOVE loud music (as in, love when you can actually feel the vibrations in the things around you), but when you’re running outdoors you have to be able to hear when someone is nearby. So, leave your headphones at home or have them turned down low enough that you can hear when people are across the street or coming up behind you. If you notice a situation that seems off (like someone who might be following you), text a friend, get off the trail you’re on, and/or go to a populated area (such as a water fountain at a park). The most important thing is to get to a safe place.

Choose ideal areas. I prefer the trails I run because they are well maintained and have a good amount of foot traffic. It’s also important to consider things like good lighting (especially if you’re running after dark or under bridges). If you’re trying out a new trail or path for the first time, consider going with a partner (or even using an app that maps the path for you) so that you will have some familiarity with the area when you’re out on your own. I also prefer areas that are not as noisy due to nearby traffic or trains because it makes it easier to hear when someone is coming up from behind. I realize this may not be possible in all cases, but I generally look for more residential areas to run. 

Bring your phone. Always have your phone with you.  If you don’t want to be disturbed while you’re out, there is an awesome feature (on most phones) called “Do Not Disturb” that you can turn on while you’re out. Also, most leggings have a built-in side pocket for your phone now and if you don’t wear leggings, you can buy an arm band on Amazon for like $10 (there are a lot of other great options out there as well). Even if you don’t think you would ever need a phone for yourself, imagine coming upon someone else who could be injured and in need of help. Do you really want to run all the way home to call for help and leave that poor person alone and injured? No. So just bring your phone. 🙂

Consider running with others. I actually enjoy running alone so I feel personally conflicted about this point. If you’re someone who doesn’t mind running with others, then this is clearly a great option. For now, I’m walking with a partner when I go out after dark (because apparently none of my friends are fans of running). If you have a dog, running with your dog could be another great alternative. I considered adopting a dog for about 5 seconds and then remembered that dogs are a huge responsibility and that my cats would likely murder me in my sleep. So I’m remaining dog-less (at least for now).

Learn some self-defense basics. I was fortunate enough to have taken some basic self-defense training in the past as a job requirement (this was prior to my faculty position and totally unrelated to my current work). I also grew up in a household where I was taught to be mindful about parking under a street lamp and having my keys out and in my hand so they could be used as a weapon if needed. I am certain that all of this knowledge stuck somewhere in my brain and assisted in my quick reaction to this situation. The main point here is to educate yourself and to be aware of potential risks.

Select options that work for you. There isn’t really a perfect formula in terms of what works best in every instance. Again, the point of this post is not to prevent all potential bad scenarios from occurring because that’s not reasonable (we can’t live in bubbles). I had pepper spray with me and it was completely useless in this case. I’ve had some people recommend that I carry a gun. In this exact scenario, my attacker could have reached for it more quickly than me because I was pinned to the ground by the time I realized I was in danger. At the end of the day, the methods you choose to be proactive and to protect yourself are completely up to you. You have to be comfortable with the tools you choose because you’re the one that will be using them. For me, the most valuable things I have taken from this experience are education (e.g., how to defend yourself) and awareness (e.g., being in tune to what’s going on around you).

Lessons on being a good neighbor. There is a lot to be said for good neighbors and I am incredibly grateful to my neighbors who heard me that night. Since then, some of my neighbors have even mentioned that they are now keeping their porch lights on because that’s what drew me to the house I initially sought for safety. This experience has taught me the importance of being a good neighbor as well. It may be through keeping the porch light on, or checking things out when you hear a commotion outside (even if you think it’s probably just some kids messing around), or just mentioning to your neighbors when you see something out of the ordinary in your area. We all have the opportunity to be good neighbors simply by being vigilant and supportive members of the communities in which we live.

An honest reflection on coping and moving forward. Since this event, things have mostly returned to normal. I (successfully) defended my dissertation as planned which occurred only about a week after the attack (though I did briefly consider postponing my defense). I found it difficult to focus in the immediate days after the event, but I think part of that was the result of lack of sleep. My fat lip and bruised shoulder have fully healed, but I think the psychological impacts will take a bit of time.

I have moments of complete panic that I have never experienced previously. I have fear that I have never had before. Sometimes a thought flashes through my brain and I remember, “I thought I might die.” I know this is my way of processing this experience and that I will heal. And, I know healing will take time.

I’ve spoken openly about the event with family members and friends. I’ve gone back out running and I have taken the same route several times since the attack. I’m using my personal yoga practice as well as the classes that I teach as opportunities to practice being present in the moment and to find some inner peace.

Today, I’m writing about this event and sharing it with all of you. In the coming days, I’m going to look for a trauma counselor because I think talking to a professional could be helpful. For now, I’m trying to give myself some grace by allowing myself to feel sad or scared when those emotions arise and by giving myself plenty of time to process this event. And, I’m reminding myself that I survived and that I will be okay.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.

With love,

Tiff

References

Pinola, M. (2011). Basic self-defense moves anyone can do (and everyone should know). Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.runnersworld.com/beginner/a27559884/running-safety/

Road Runners Club of America (RRCA). (2019). Education: RRCA general running safety tips. Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.rrca.org/education/rrca-general-running-safety-tips

Spector, N. (2018). Scared to run alone? Women runners share their best safety tips. Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/scared-run-alone-female-runners-share-how-they-stay-safe-ncna935186

Triola, P. (2019). The best safety tips for running on the roads or trails. Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.runnersworld.com/beginner/a27559884/running-safety/

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

Person walking on fire. Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

People running and walking. Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash

Man and woman jogging on bridge. Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

Two bicycles near a house. Photo by Christopher Harris on Unsplash

The Truth About Self-Destruction

I have to admit that this has probably been the most difficult post for me to write to date. For me, the topic of self-destruction hits really close to home. I feel like this entire past week, I’ve been challenged to look myself in the mirror and consider the ways in which I am and have been self-destructive.

Before we delve into this conversation, I want to be very clear in stating that I am not a trained mental health care professional and I can only speak from my own experiences. In developing today’s discussion, I’ve selected sources which I believe to be the most credible and to contain the most helpful information about this topic.

On that note, I want to offer a word of caution if you plan to do additional research on this topic as there are many articles out there which I feel offer incomplete or oversimplified and even potentially harmful information about this very complex topic.

Really, it’s impossible to expect that a single blog post could provide a comprehensive discussion of everything there is to know about self-destruction. So to that end, I would encourage you to read more about this topic herehere, here, and here. These articles will be a good start to understanding this topic – for yourself or perhaps for a loved one who has self-destructive tendencies.

Some of you may be wondering what it means to be self-destructive or you may be asking if you are self-destructive. Nearly any behavior can become self-destructive when it has the potential to cause us harm.

Some of the most common self-destructive behaviors include:

  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Compulsive gambling
  • Over eating (and under eating)
  • Sabotaging relationships
  • Engaging in frequent casual sex
  • Committing self-harm
  • Smoking

The list goes on and on. Even things that sometimes appear “healthy” on the surface can become destructive – like dieting (e.g., under eating), over exercising, unnecessary self-sacrifice (e.g., which result in giving up on your own goals), or being overly independent (e.g., refusing to ask for or accept help).

Have you ever done something and then asked yourself why you did it because it seemed irrational afterwards? For example, I can think of at least a few people I know who feared that their relationship with a significant other was about to end and then they caused a huge fight with that person. Almost inevitably the relationship ended as a result. Why do we sometimes sabotage ourselves like that?

Do you know someone who seems to have a skill for making a bad situation worse? Or maybe you are that person? *raises hand* In reality,we probably all know someone who struggles with self-destructive behaviors. We see them do the same things over and over again which have damaging effects on nearly every aspect of their lives and result in disappointment and failure.

Self-sabotage or self-destruction is not a rational behavior. In fact, for the most part, we tend to know it’s a bad idea when we’re doing it. We know it’s probably going to cause us (or possibly others) harm in the long run, but we go ahead and do it anyway. Sometimes, it feels like it’s impossible to stop doing whatever it is.

In this case, logic doesn’t really work because we already know that logically, this is a bad idea. Whether you believe you may have some self-destructive tendencies or you have a loved one who is self-destructive, I think you will find the information provided in today’s post to be helpful.

I’m going to break this discussion into two major parts. First, to understand why we do this and second, to understand what we can do about. Awareness is key here because once we’re down the path of self-sabotage, it’s pretty hard to pull ourselves back. Prevention and self-care are the best tools to help us manage our self-destructive tendencies, but I’ll talk more about that later.

Part 1: Why do we do this?

Self-destruction is not an indication of someone who is broken or defective. It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we must have something ‘wrong’ with us – an addictive personality type or some other disorder that compels us to be this way. However, that’s simply not true. There are many intelligent, successful people who struggle with self-destructive behaviors. (And chances are, you know some of them.)

Self-destruction is not driven by a desire to suffer or fail. Some therapists have made this claim, but that line of thinking is outdated and completely unsupported. Additionally, when we blame ourselves and begin to believe that we are simply bad people, or that we are incapable of making the right decisions, we tend to exacerbate the situation. We create a greater sense of stress (and perhaps even guilt) and continue to behave in the same way because we have failed to understand the true cause of our self-destruction.

Self-destructive behaviors provide a sense of relief. Despite the fact that some self-destructive behaviors  seem rather unpleasant (e.g., self-harm), they share the commonality of providing a sense of relief for their actors. This relief may come through pleasure or distraction or escape or as a means of expressing emotion. Certainly, what provides a sense of relief for one person will not be the same for another. Yet, the most important thing to understand here is that the behavior is something that feels helpful in the moment, but is actually harmful over time.

Self-destruction is a coping mechanism. In the simplest terms, individuals seek relief through self-destructive behaviors because they are attempting to cope with overwhelming negative emotion. The behavior itself allows them to “turn off” the emotion even if it’s just temporary. While individuals who act self-destructively are actually very diverse, Wupperman (2018) notes that they tend to share these common characteristics:

  • Experiencing emotion more strongly than others
  • Growing up in an adverse or invalidating environment

It’s important to note that this is a great oversimplification and may not apply to every person in every situation. Again, I encourage you to learn more about this topic by seeking out qualified individuals and credible resources.

Part 2: What can we do about it?

If we understand the underlying cause for our behavior, we gain awareness to better address our self-destructive tendencies. While we will always encounter unexpected events which trigger negative emotional responses (like the death of a loved one, going through a breakup or divorce, the loss of a job, and so on), we have the opportunity to better prepare ourselves for these experiences through self-care and planning.

In a moment, we’ll get to some practical and hopefully meaningful approaches for learning how to overcome (or prevent) our self-destructive behaviors, but first I want to address what doesn’t work (because there’s a lot of poor – and just plain incorrect – information out there).

Shaming doesn’t work. Telling someone they’re going to die, or destroy their life, or whatever other consequences you can think up, by continuing their behavior will not help them stop committing that behavior. In fact, it may very well have the opposite effect because the desire and pressure for relief will likely increase. And worse, it may also alienate you from this person.

This is why the idea of letting a person hit ‘rock bottom,’ or tearing them down to build them up, or posting embarrassing pictures of them (like the ones where an obese person has a heaping plate of food in front of them) tend not to work (as in, almost never). If we acknowledge that the self-destructive behavior is being committed in order to “turn off” negative emotion, we can begin to understand why shaming simply doesn’t work.

Distraction from or avoidance of the emotion doesn’t work. You may have heard people say things like, “You just need to find a hobby to distract you from doing (whatever your destructive behavior is)” Remember earlier when I said that virtually any behavior has the potential to become self-destructive? That’s because even if you give up smoking for say snacking, you’re only exchanging one self-destructive behavior for another potentially self-destructive behavior. Substituting doesn’t work because ultimately we’re still avoiding the emotion and that’s what got us here in the first place.

This is particularly dangerous because avoidance of our emotions accumulates over time. It’s not that the emotion ever goes away when we ignore it. In reality it builds much like steam in a pressure cooker. The more we ignore our emotions, the more steam we add to the pressure cooker, until one day we simply can’t hold it in and it explodes (think mid-life crisis, nervous breakdown, etc.). We have to learn healthy ways to feel and cope with our emotions without always needing to escape from them.

The following paragraphs will include some of these healthier ways to cope with our emotions.

Stay present with the emotion. Instead of ignoring or attempting to distract ourselves from our emotions, recognize them for what they are; be mindful of them. Name them, acknowledge them, and address them with curiosity. You may find that you’re feeling particularly anxious and ask yourself why you might be feeling that way. Oftentimes, our emotional responses are justified by something that is occurring in our lives (either internally or externally). It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or frustrated, or anxious.

Acknowledging that you feel down doesn’t mean that you are in any way failing – quite the contrary, emotional experiences are a normal part of life! When we acknowledge our emotions and allow ourselves to feel without judgement, we can be empowered to move forward. Remember, the emotion is temporary and it will pass. The key is not to let these emotions impede our ability to continue living – we can coexist with our emotions, acknowledging that they are present (and uncomfortable), but that we will still persevere despite them.

Seek support and assistance from others. Finding a qualified mental health care professional can be invaluable. I want to make a point here that terms like “counselor” tend to be used rather loosely. If you’re seeking professional help, look for someone with the title of Certified Mental Health Counselor, Psychologist, or Psychiatrist to be sure you’re going to receive the best level of care from a trained and qualified professional.

Additionally, know that you may need to ‘try out’ a couple of different professionals before you find the right one. Finding the best mental health care professional for you is a bit like finding the right hairdresser (I think women may be able to relate to this example a bit better than men, but hopefully you will still get the idea). If you don’t find that you have a good connection with the first provider you meet, don’t get discouraged – simply make an appointment with someone else and try again (then repeat this until you find the right fit).

Ultimately, your ideal mental health professional will be someone who is able to provide help and support without judgement.

Practice self-compassion. Instead of beating ourselves up when we feel the need to behave self-destructively, it’s important to remind ourselves that we are doing the best we can in this moment. Practice positive self-talk like, “I know I can do this if I put my mind to it.” This is something that tends to be difficult for most people, so it may be helpful to think of what you would tell a friend in the same situation and then compassionately say those words to yourself.

When we experience negative emotions, it can also be helpful to practice self-soothing behaviors. Try listening to some calming music or taking a bubble bath or playing with a pet or going for a walk. When you find that it’s difficult to focus, taking a break to relax can be so much more productive than forcing ourselves to push through it – show yourself a little grace, you deserve it.

Find creative outlets to express emotion. Drawing, painting, dancing, playing an instrument, writing music or poetry, journaling, or any other practice that allows for creativity can be highly productive outlets for expressing our emotions.

In many ways, doing so allows us to explore our emotion with some curiosity and to face it, rather than ignore it. We don’t have to be ‘good’ at any of these art forms and it doesn’t have to be pretty (more than likely, it will result in something ugly and that’s okay). The point of this expression is that in some way, we are able let the emotion out – it’s a means of processing our feelings, and it can be very cathartic.

Learn to let go. Letting go of the past is so much easier said than done – I know. Forgiveness for ourselves and those who have hurt us can be incredibly freeing, however. You don’t even need to tell someone you’re forgiving them, you can simply have the intention and then commit to doing it. And, you can do the same in order to forgive yourself. You may even practice reciting a mantra such as, “I am worthy of compassion” to help you do this.

One activity which has been helpful for me in the past was writing a letter to someone who hurt me which said everything I wished I could say to them (all of the good, the bad, and the ugly). Afterwards, I buried the letter as a symbol of letting those things go; putting some sort of closure on the past and committing to moving forward.

Final Thoughts

You may have noticed that while I mentioned I have some self-destructive tendencies, I didn’t actually name them. I was extremely purposeful in writing this week’s post and I intentionally left this out because quite frankly, it’s not important.

Additionally, as I’ve mentioned in others posts, I don’t think it’s healthy for us to compare ourselves to others because it sets us up to think in terms of ‘better than’ or ‘worse than’ which is unproductive and damaging. One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to simply recognize ourselves for who we are as individuals and show some grace for the areas where we have room for growth.

Whether you read this post in an effort to find some help for yourself or for someone else, I hope you will walk away knowing that you are not alone. So many people struggle with self-destructive behaviors. Remember that our negative emotions will pass with time and that there are many healthy ways to practice coping.

If you have any questions or comments, I encourage you to post them below or to send me a private email.

All my best to you,

Tiff

References

Babauta, L. (2014). A guide to changing self-destructive behaviors. Zen Habits. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://zenhabits.net/destruct/

Hathaway, K. (Ed.) (2016). Dealing with negativity. University of Minnesota. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/enhance-your-wellbeing/health/thoughts-emotions/deal-negativity-healthy-way

Neuman, F. (2017). Why do some people do self-destructive things? Psychology Today. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fighting-fear/201701/why-do-some-people-do-self-destructive-things

Rollin, J. (2018).What if you changed the way that you view self-destructive behaviors? The Eating Disorder Center. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.theeatingdisordercenter.com/blog/what-if-you-changed-the-way-that-you-viewed-self-destructive-behaviors

Wupperman, P. (2018). Beyond self-destructive behavior. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-self-destructive-behavior

Photos (in order of appearance)

  1. Don’t give up, Photo by taha ajmi on Unsplash
  2. Cry, Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash
  3. Naufragus, Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash
  4. Stories: Ch. 1, Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash