Coping with reality

Imagine you have a bag full of papers you carry with you everywhere. Each paper has a set of instructions. Every time you experience a strong enough negative emotion, you instinctively pull one of these papers. You do that because you know you will feel better after you follow the instructions. You’ve done this for years, and it’s always worked, so you’ve learned to do it without fail. 

Let’s say your boss gives you feedback that hurts your feelings, and you pull a piece of paper out of the bag. The paper says, “Remind yourself of a time you’ve handled this successfully in the past,” so you follow the instructions, “My boss has given me feedback before and actually praised me on my ability to respond to feedback. She’s probably confident that I will rise to the occasion and that’s why she is being candid with me.” You feel happier—because the feedback doesn’t shake your confidence anymore—and you put the paper back in the bag. You haven’t deceived yourself; you’re coping by calling upon a past success. 

There are all sorts of different papers and instructions in the bag. So you could also just as easily have pulled one out that says, “Tell yourself that what the other person is saying isn’t valid,” and you’ll follow those instructions, “My boss doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Why am I being singled out when my coworkers all do the same thing?!” You feel happier—because you’ve invalidated your boss’s comment—and you put the paper back in the bag. You wouldn’t want to admit it, but you’ve deceived yourself; you’ve instinctively only looked for evidence to defend yourself against your boss’s feedback, and you aren’t looking for any reasons that she may be right.

In The Scout Mindset, Julia Galef puts forward this metaphor, and makes the case that coping mechanisms (the instructions on the piece of paper) don’t need to involve self-deception or reality distortion. Julia suggests some coping mechanisms that can boost your morale while still keeping your judgment rooted in reality:

  • Make a plan: Even a simple hypothetical plan can bring clarity to a situation. “Let’s say my boss is correct. Here are three steps I can take to improve…” When you do this, you can also tell yourself, “This plan is helpful, and whatever happens, I am going to figure this out.” When you share this plan with your boss and work on it together, it may help alleviate some of her concerns.
  • Notice silver linings: You’re not looking for a sweet lemon—a rationalization that you’re happy something negative happened—but that there’s some positive that came out of a generally negative outcome. “Well, at least my boss cares enough to give me this feedback now—instead of three months in the future when it became a real problem.” Or, “I really wish my boss didn’t deliver the message that way, but I am really glad she pointed it out. Nobody has taken the risk to tell me that before. She is really kind.” 
  • Focus on a different goal: Redefine what success looks like to you. “I don’t need my boss to think that I am perfect—or even the best person on the team—it’s more important to demonstrate my improvement over time.”
  • Things could be worse: Make a list of things you are grateful for right now. “That was a difficult conversation, and I don’t feel great. Still, there are many other things I appreciate about this job, such as…”

There are some additional coping mechanisms that I’d noticed:

  • Take a breath: You may react to someone’s feedback by dogpiling on it, and start beating yourself up. A more helpful response would be to stop that cycle, by taking a moment and doing a quick breathing exercise to soothe yourself. “Let me give myself a moment to gather my thoughts…”
  • Think of the long-term benefits: While you’d probably be happier if you didn’t face this challenge in the near-term—like, right now—there’s a chance you could make it so that it brings you greater long run happiness. You can practice choosing how you feel. “There is no happily ever after, and I’m going to face more challenges like this—so I can choose to use this as an opportunity to improve.”
  • Focus on the next step: If your brain speeds too far into the future, tame your foresight. Focus on applying this feedback to your next assignment. Then the next. And the next. It can sound something like, “I am not going to ruminate about how I’ll change what my boss thinks about me, but whether or not I am making the maximum effort during every project because I realize that that is where the true value lies.”

You don’t need to distort reality or lie to yourself to feel better about the situation. When you accept reality on its terms, you also keep your mind clear and practice good judgment—while tapping into a more sustainable source of energy and optimism you need to move forward.

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