Two coping strategies that don’t work (and one that does!)

Coping is a skill that I happen to be well-versed in. Hell, I’m a self-employed single mother. Every day is a new lesson in coping. I’m constantly trying new strategies to just. get. through. the. day. Because it really sucks. It’s hard. I’m frazzled, stressed and totally overwhelmed. The key to avoiding trainwreckification1 though is effective coping. And moving 600 miles away from my tribe, my happy places, my family, friends and homeland (yes, I’m looking at you, Indiana), has been a crash refresher in these kinds of skills. To that end I’d like to share with you two coping strategies that DON’T work — and one that does (for me — aside from drinking heavily2.)

Talk to Pollyanna

I was talking to a friend about how it had been a week since my last shower. And when I finally got my kiddos settled to the point where I thought I could safely jump in and lather up my hair, my daughter decided to sit outside the tub and scream like she was dying because she was out of juice. So look, I was frustrated, frazzled and overwhelmed and I started crying. In the shower. With soapy hair. My friend listened to all of this, smiled and said, “Look on the brightside! Your kids love you and need you SO MUCH ALL THE TIME you’re SO LUCKY!” worse yet is when Pollyanna says something like “Well soon your kids will be all grown up and they won’t need you anymore! So think about that!” (Next time I’m sobbing in the shower?)

Why it’s not helpful

When someone tells you to look on the bright side it’s usually because of two reasons:

1. It’s easy to respond this way AND 2. They’re uncomfortable with your pain

When you talk to someone about being frazzled, overwhelmed or stressed — needing to find some way of coping, what you’re really talking about is your pain. I wasn’t just telling my friend about how I needed a shower — obviously the story ran much deeper. I was trying to communicate that I hurt because I have to do everything myself and it sucks. And when Pollyanna suggests you look on the bright side, it usually indicates an unwillingness on their part to be present with that hurt. Talking to people about unpleasant things is awkward. It’s weird and uncomfortable to see other people’s pain. Perhaps your friend is worried about the possibility of experiencing empathy — of feeling any of that yucky stuff for themselves — and will say anything to escape it as quickly and efficiently as possible. And yet — Talking to someone about the ways and the hows of my hurt is SO helpful to me. But I’ve learned that it’s important to chose those people who will really listen and allow me feel my pain rather than trying to sweep it under the curtains. And if you’re a Pollyanna who regularly dispenses this advice, stop it. It doesn’t help and it’s just so uncreative. You can do better. Start by giving your friend a hug and holding their hand while they wring out all those tears.

Make a gratitude list

I’m a grateful lady. I’m well fed, have a beautiful little (pink) house in the country. I have two children who are good looking, intelligent and healthy. I have so much to be grateful for, it’s sick really. It’s unfair to most of the world just how wonderful my life is. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck sometimes. So when I’m having a bad week — when I get behind with the housework, with sleep; when I am frustrated by a project, by a person, by my own shortcomings — and someone tells me to make a gratitude list, I seriously just want to fly into fits of rage and throw a lamp across the room at a wall, for example.

Why it’s not helpful

Gratitude is a practice that’s best instituted before you get to the actual coping bits of life. Gratitude is something that, if it’s already in your box of tricks, will help you deal with the blows before you’re in the pre-lamp-throwing trainwreckification phase. So in that sense, I do recommend that you keep it in mind — like when things are going good. I’m also a fan of noticing. It’s like gratitude but without all the touchy-feely-woo that’s going around these days. I notice what things bring me great joy (and yes, I even make lists about it sometimes) — so that when I begin to feel a little edge-worn I can call upon those energies, those spirits, those chocolates and double Americanos, for example — and that is a good coping skill. Noticing works in the opposite direction too — with equal effectiveness! If you notice what makes you psycho crazy and just keep it in mind, you can avoid it like a blistering communicable disease next time you notice it creeping up on your radar. Gratitude lists don’t work for me for (again) two reasons:

1. I can’t fool myself into this way of thinking. The gratitude list works as a way to remind you of what you have going for you. I am either too jaded or this is just too obvious for my brain. I know my problems are first-world problems. If you’re reading this, chances are your problems are first world problems too. Be grateful you have the internet right? Is it really helpful to remember that you have clean water to drink and don’t live in a war-ravaged third-world nation? I mean, yes? But still…

2. Eventually, if things got really really bad, all your list would be good for is to remind you that all that all that shit hasn’t killed you… yet. And hey, maybe that makes you feel better. It doesn’t, me.

I tried to do gratitude lists once. It didn’t make me feel better. It made me feel petty in addition to the shitty I already felt. Maybe I wasn’t being grateful enough? Maybe I’m ungrateful. Maybe I’m a horrible person. Maybe if I could be more grateful I wouldn’t be so stressed out all the time! Why can’t I be MORE GRATEFUL WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME OMG.

What does work

Roller derby.

Kidding! Okay not really. Actually I found roller derby to be an incredibly stress-relieving, perspective-inducing, edge-smoothing coping mechanism. There’s just something about getting your ass smeared all over a gym floor to really put your problems into perspective (please note: I only condone violence when all parties are wearing mouthguards and wheels).

Honor your pain

A few things – Looking on the bright side and being grateful for what you have are both good ideas. I support both plans wholeheartedly. But the positive thinking/manifesting your desires/believe-in-yourself and all your wildest dreams will come true movement seems to miss the mark on the fact that feeling shitty is just part of life. There’s a tendency to just gloss over that unpleasant detail – in self-help books, blogs, etc. Life can be disappointing. Life can suck. Everything that makes you very very very happy also has the power to make you really really really miserable. That’s the toss of the die, people. When I say ‘honor your pain’ – I don’t mean wallow in it. Having a good cry is different than not being able to get out of bed for a week. Punching a pillow is different than punching your obnoxious neighbor. If your pain is so deep that you’re unable to see the difference, please seek the help of a qualified professional who can meet you where you’re at and offer you the support you need. You’ll feel better. How to honor your pain:

1. Allow yourself to feel it – Cry. I used to cry all the time. I find I have a harder time with this now. This is, of course, me avoiding those unpleasant feelings. I always feel better when I cry though. Always. 2. Release it into the wild – I like a bit of ritual in this step. Ever hear of a bitter bonfire? Maybe host one with you friends and family. Where I’m at right now — not so appropriate to have giant bonfires. Take a candle outside. Write that shittyness down on a little slip of paper and set it on fire. If you like a bit more woo with your ritual, try it while the moon is waning, in the late evening right before you indulge in a hot bath (handful of salt in the water). 3. Make it for something – one of the ways we can honor a spirit is to give it a purpose. Make your pain good for something — even if that something is just the promise to yourself to enlist that awkward teenager down the street to watch your babies while you bathe. If you’re frustrated by work, you don’t have to release your pain and then do something drastic, like quit your job, for example. But think of something small, something useful and good that the pain can be for. Maybe it’s for taking a walk while your coworkers smoke. Maybe it’s for finding a book about writing your own business plan. Make it for something. Our brains like it when energy, even the hurtful kind, has purpose.

And finally, a spell by Valerie Worth (from Crone’s Book of Magical Words) To Dispel Sorrow When world and fate Conspire to mark Your life with lines And characters dark, Mold a tablet Of earth or clay, Write on it all You would cast away — All you regret, All that you bear, All that afflicts you, All that you fear — Break it and bury it In the ground, Saying this charm To heal the wound: Sorrow be dust And dust dissolve: Let all my grief Go into this grave.


  1. I think I just coined that term, meaning: the process of becoming a train wreck.
  2. Just kidding. About the ‘heavily’ part anyway. Kidding again. Don’t drink away your pain. Duh.

Author: Melissa

Melissa Jozefina is a poet, stargazer, and fortune teller.

  • I loved this blog, it really spoke to me-especially the part about the gratitude lists. I’ve been feeling like people try to shove these down my throat and make me feel petty and shallow as a way to make them feel less petty and shallow about their own suckiness and trainwreckification. Recently in my life, I’ve been noticing the tiny good things, the really kind of exciting but sometimes small stuff that’s been happening as I go along, and it feels good. So yea, long story short? I really like this blog post. ^-^

  • Melissa, I tried to coment but part of what I said was all caps and they came out an inch high and accidentallied all over the page. Apologies, nuke it.

    Meant to say:

    Grat­i­tude list”? Sounds like a passive-aggressive way of say­ing “I don’t care and I don’t want to hear it.”

    “Pos­i­tive think­ing”? Yeah, like peo­ple starv­ing in third world coun­tries just need to stop thinking those grumpy thoughts. Don’t send food, send “The Secret”. Ugh.

    Other peo­ples pain never hurt any­body, it’s noth­ing to be scared of. Focus­ing on try­ing to help some­body else with their prob­lem can actu­ally make your own issues fade into the back­ground. And if we believe in karma, it’s a good oppor­tu­nity to shine up our own check­ered past.

    Great post. 😀

  • Dear Melissa,

    I love this post. I’ve been feeling shitty lately, and wondering how to make myself feel better. Your post was apt, because today for some reason I came to a realization similar to yours. What do people think that happiness is a given? I think that’s part of what makes me (and other people) unhappy. Thinking we’re entitled to it, that it’s not another thing that you have to work for and appreciate and understand like other kinds of emotions. I’m not saying that people don’t deserve happiness, but I have to say I’ve observed ways in which myself and others really couldn’t yield happiness with the way they were acting/thinking. I think the problem with gratitude lists is relying on them to focus on the positive, which just creates another dichotemy (sp?) to focus on – good/bad, happy/sad. I think a more healthy way of looking at things is to “honor the pain” as you say, and also just allow things to be as they are, as shitty as they are at times. And also be okay with happiness as just another one of those things. I find that doing some physical activity that tires your body out in a good way can also help the mind.

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