Practice in Real Life
Research on how mindfulness helps us cope keeps appearing. There are now entire scientific journals on mindfulness!
A recent study I found particularly clear and interesting is a study out of Australia (summary article here).
In that study they looked at how people cope with stressful situations. People who've developed a more present-centered attitude of "present-centered awareness" - that just being present with what is now and not dwelling so much in the future or the past - did better under pressure in three ways, which they termed: (1) coping self-efficacy, (2) values-based coping, and (3) less avoidance coping.
Coping self-efficacy: First, the more mindful folks in the study had more confidence in themselves under stress. They were likely to feel like they have the resources and ability to deal with the difficult situation.
How does mindfulness help with coping self-efficacy? With mindfulness, and this does imply being willing to really feel our feelings of discomfort and anxiety during stressful times, we are better able to weather the storm, to rise to the challenge, and to release from regrets and the extra fears and catastrophizing the mind can so easily add. And the humility and self-awareness mindfulness facilitates also means we're more likely to seek support and ask for help under stress. Both of these factors (seeing stress as a challenge not a disaster, and seeking help) also protect us against the unhelpful aspects of the classic fight, flight, or freeze stress response.
Values-based coping: Second, in this study they saw that people with a more mindful, present-centered orientation stay closer to their core values when under stress. They don't take short cuts like playing fast and loose with the truth to avoid consequences. They are less likely to tell themselves stories that justify bad behavior for instance. We've all experienced how much worse we end up feeling when we "cheat" in some way or convince ourselves of something we know not to be really true to try to avoid trouble.
Less avoidance coping. Third, they found that more mindful people did far less of what they called "avoidance coping". They were less likely to distract themselves with the various indulgences we use to try to avoid our feelings. While it can be quite healthy to get back under the covers sometimes and take a real break, we all know the effects of the many compulsive behaviors we use to try to avoid feeling uncomfortable. It works out far better, this work suggests, to stay with it and feel what we feel. Even when that's the more difficult option in the short term.
I was thinking about all of this this morning after I made a mistake. I sent a sloppy reply-all email which one of the accidental recipients might have found condescending. Nothing too bad - my poor conduct pales in comparison to recent examples on the national stage - but a mistake. And a mistake that might make it harder to move forward on a project that matters to me.
Once my colleague pointed out the mistake I certainly had that familiar "oh s**t!" feeling. And I noticed my sense of self-esteem taking an immediate nose-dive. "What an idiot I am," the inner critic was ready to tell me. And I noticed the mind spinning to regret about past: what I should and shouldn't have done. And my mind went to fears about the future: what if this results in the whole project being cancelled? And I noticed the tension in me from having acted out of accord with my values of being respectful and caring to everyone. I wouldn't have written something that reads as condescending if I were fully in touch with my values.
After the initial shock I felt some gratitude. And realized that my process of recovering from a set back like this is similar to what this study describes.
Coping self-efficacy. Even though it's painful feeling shame and embarrassment when I make a mistake I've come, over time, to have confidence that I'll weather even the worst disasters. And that part of that weathering means I can't avoid the feelings. It's painful to make a mistake and I know I can bear that pain. And I've learned to seek support. I had a helpful exchange with my colleague and then reached out to another colleague who was affected with a brief apology. (I found out later that she jumped in to reduce any potential damage from my email!).
Values-based coping. I appreciated that it was harder for my mind to try to justify or avoid the mistake because I touched in to my values. It wasn't just a bit of sloppy emailing. I shouldn't have been writing anything that is less than fully respectful. That's a core value I have and when I am sloppy with my values, trouble results sooner or later. Rather than just being more careful when playing with fire, better to not light that fire int he first place.
Less avoidance coping. And I'm grateful that I have the training and support to simply feel the "ouch" of this, feel the healthy regret. Not to wallow in shame, of course (go back to values-based coping! Self-respect is a another great value to nurture!). Reflecting on our common humanity helps here too: it's human to make mistakes! It's normal to lose track of our values from time to time.
At the moment this is still quite painful and it can stay painful as long as it needs to. Feelings what we're feeling is a key part of coping self-efficacy. Otherwise it's avoidance. Sometimes we misunderstand mindfulness as a way to instantly "move on" or "let go" of something difficult - but actually that's a kind of subtle avoidance coping mechanism that is sometimes called "Spiritual Bypass".
Wishing you strength and resilience when your mistakes happen. For they surely will!
Tim Burnett, Executive Director