As a young boy growing up with two older brothers, I tried many times to prove myself worthy to play certain games with them. “Three flies up” was a baseball-themed game where one person was up to bat and they would hit the ball high into the air. The others raced to catch the ball before it hit the ground and the first person to catch 3 flies won that round and took their turn to hit.
Catching fly balls was much easier for me than hitting them. At the age of seven, when it was my turn, there were plenty of swings, misses and ground balls which didn’t count towards anyone’s tally. My inability to successfully hit fly balls was no doubt a source of frustration, but fortunately, I don’t remember too much ridicule from them.
On many occasions, I was too young to participate but sitting on the sidelines was never going to satisfy me. I wanted to join my brothers and the other neighborhood kids even though I was the youngest.
Although everyone’s upbring varies greatly, it is during this time when many of us develop a sense of wanting to belong and participate with others. In those situations where we cannot, we develop our own ways of coping with the predicament. It’s possible that I may have gone to my mother and cried about not being able to participate and she may have demanded my brothers let me play. I don’t remember why I acted that way nor why my brothers permitted me to play, but it was an early lesson in how I learned to interact with other people close to my age.
Many of us learn how to manage, or sometimes survive, all by ourselves. There are times when parents or other concerned adults are there to help us handle situations in a more effective manner, but basically, we are left alone to figure it out. At a young age, we also tend not to reflect or consider how good our choices were but simply struggle to make it through with as little hurt and damage as possible.
As we navigate our way through our formative, youthful years, learning valuable and successful strategies to cope rarely cross our minds. Unfortunately, the more traumatic the event, the more we merely fight just to survive. How we chose to deal with that situation may only fuel the pain in future events.
If we unknowingly develop ineffective or detrimental coping “skills,” they will become our default reactions during challenging times. Despite the fact we only narrowly survived, chances are impending difficulties will give us similarly dreadful results.
Imagine if my brothers had treated me with ridicule and disdain. What if they called me names, hid or destroyed my glove, or even beat me out of their frustrations? How would their actions have impacted my ability to handle difficult or stressful situations?
Our ability to cope is frequently influenced by the actions of others. If we are mistreated and ridiculed, there is a strong likelihood we will engage in the same cruel and insensitive conduct when the situation is reversed. Unfortunately, many fall into the trap of thinking, “If we had to suffer then why shouldn’t others?”
During the throes of an incident is never the time to rethink our coping mechanisms; survival mode simply won’t afford us that opportunity. But even when the situation passes, most of us don’t examine how successfully we dealt with the trauma but instead, cross our fingers hoping we never face anything similar again. It’s easy to see why so many people develop poor coping skills and perhaps worse, chalk it up to “that’s just who I am.”
Troubling circumstances trigger our sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight mode – which does not contribute to clear thinking and wise decision making. If we have not trained ourselves to react in a positive manner, it is likely we will default to what will be the quickest and easiest solution. Unfortunately, those choices are rarely what is best.
It’s always easier to complain than to find a solution, to mock rather than build, and to hate instead of love. Factor in group or peer pressure and we may find ourselves engaging in behavior that we normally would detest ourselves for participating in.
Perhaps thinking about coping strategies has seldom, if ever, been on your self-improvement priority list. That’s quite okay, and the one thought you don’t want is to be ashamed about that. Feeling shame will only complicate any capacity to change.
One suggestion is to take some time to recall incidents from your past and see which situation disappointed you the most in how you handled it. What are some approaches you can think of now that would have been more effective had you done those instead?
Keep in mind these were wrong choices; you weren’t a bad person. At that time, you probably did the best you could under the circumstances. It may also be helpful to forgive yourself for taking those actions. Then decide how you want to act in the future and do your best to remember the steps you chose.
If your behaviors have been detrimental, it is likely they are default reactions and overcoming them takes practice and a cognitive effort. Habits can be changed and the proverbial old dog can learn new tricks. It doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger or at every opportunity, but we all have the power to continually become the best version of ourselves.
How we initially learned to handle situations may not have always been to our benefit. However, becoming aware of our shortcomings and taking steps to maximize our coping skills will strengthen our character and improve the world around us.