While starting to type this piece, I was sitting in hospital with our son who was three years old at the time. He developed an infection on a Friday, and it spread quite rapidly. I left home early on Saturday morning to get some work done for a conference where I needed to present an invited keynote talk. Later in the morning, my wife called me to say she thought we should take him to the doctor. I went home and took him to the local Accident and Emergency Clinic, and upon examining him, the doctor called the Emergency Department at Children’s Hospital and sent us there immediately.
A couple of paediatricians and surgeons did a number of checks, and then he was admitted to hospital for a couple of nights to keep an eye on him and to administer a series of intravenous antibiotics over the coming days. The nurses and medical staff were amazing, especially considering that this was over a long weekend which generally means limited hospital staffing. So, there we were, and everything we had planned for the weekend was put on hold. I tell you this story because one of the things we need to keep in mind as people who want to be more resilient is that you cannot continue doing everything you do under normal circumstances when something bigger requires your attention.
We need to face the reality of the situation, then focus on that which should be done to deal with it, maintain perspective, and don’t avoid dealing with the big challenges until they get completely out of hand.
It was pointless for me to be concerned about the keynote talk I needed to prepare for while focusing on getting our son to the doctors and emergency department. Even in the hospital, he was the primary focus; if I had also attempted to focus on the talk, I’d likely not have gotten any of that done, and my attention would also not have been on our son’s situation to ensure that he got the care he needed.
We need to adjust and accept that big situations sometimes do happen in our lives. Other responsibilities can wait, and if you have support structures in place, perhaps then it is time to also call on those resources to help.
I always say that resilience is not a personality but a set of choices and behaviors. It is a process. Resilient people are good at facing reality, focusing on what is most urgent and important, and maintaining perspective. They also do what needs to be done. Step one is to face reality. For a couple of years, I have researched a concept called avoidance coping; evidence suggests avoidance is a poor coping strategy, but it was a bit ambiguous in the research literature.
Avoidance coping basically involves cognitive (mental) and behavioral attempts to avoid dealing with a situation, person, emotion, thought, or other entity in both social and non-social settings. Avoidance could be achieved through cognitive (mental) or behavioral distraction and suppression or focusing only on positive aspects of a situation.[i] In simpler terms, avoidance is then a conscious or subconscious effort which leads to not dealing with something which should be dealt with.
Avoidance coping becomes problematic when people use it as the only means of coping with problems, especially bigger problems, or when they never return to problems they should have dealt with.
However, the relationship between avoidance coping and the subsequent effects or outcomes and consequences is not necessarily a simple linear relationship; in other words, it is not always what psychologists might term maladaptive. If, for example, someone has the presence of mind to put aside dealing with one thing whilst dealing with something more urgent and important at the time, and then returns to the other problem later on, that could well be proactive. In other words, they focus and prioritize what is most important in the moment, and then return to deal with the other matters they have put aside for a while. Avoidance coping becomes problematic when people use it as the only means of coping with problems, especially bigger problems, or when they never return to problems they should have dealt with. This is what we call maladaptive avoidance coping, and it has all sorts of negative consequences.
Researchers have also reported the distinct characteristics and benefits associated with temporarily avoiding some issues whilst dealing with more pressing issues.[ii] More recent research, for example, aimed to explore the relationship between specific types of avoidance coping and psychological and physical health[iii] in diverse samples, including working adults. The relationships indicated that reporting higher use of avoidance coping increases the likelihood of also reporting higher levels of depression, anxiety, and subjective stress as well as physical health symptoms associated with psychological distress. However, this relationship was not as strong with, for example, emotional avoidance; and it seems to further corroborate the duality of avoidance coping. In other words, emotional avoidance could potentially present short-term relief from pressure and allow people to focus their efforts and attention on a more immediate problem at hand. General avoidance and conflict avoidance showed stronger links with psychological and physical health – the more avoidance coping was used, the more symptoms of psychological and physical ill-health were also reported.[iv]
We can use reality as an excuse for our poor behavior, etc. or as a reason for doing good. There is a difference between making excuses and giving reasons based on the same reality.
One standout feature I notice in resilient people is that they face reality, but they also commit to intentionally change their perspective about reality in order to change their experience of it. In other words, reality in itself does not have meaning. It might have purpose of some sort for something or someone else and there might be significance to it for something or someone else as well as for us, but we create meaning. Our interpretation of reality gives meaning to it. What we do as a result of reality gives meaning and purpose to it. We can bestow bad meaning or good meaning to the reality that we experience based on how we think about it, feel about it and behave because of our thinking and subsequent feelings. I see a lot of people use bad things that happened in their lives as an excuse for bad habits, bad behavior, and bad attitude, etc. It is quite natural to do so, and I also have to remind myself to choose differently because for as long as I victimize myself about something, I will be at its mercy. So how do we change it? By considering consequences and then choosing the better consequence, rather than choosing the behavior associated with the bad habits we might develop and then choose to blame for these things. We can use reality as an excuse for our poor behavior, etc. or as a reason for doing good. There is a difference between making excuses and giving reasons based on the same reality. Excuses never help anyone move on from reality experienced. Reasons help to make peace with reality in order to move on. Once we know what we’re dealing with, we can start working on using our experiences constructively and align our efforts to do something good, rather than expending more energy on making up excuses or finding ways to avoid dealing with what needs to be dealt with.
- [i] Stemmet, L., Roger, D., Kuntz, J., & Borrill, J. (2015). General and Specific Avoidance: The Development and Concurrent Validation of a New Measure of Avoidance Coping. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 31 (3), 222-230.
- [ii] Cheng, B.H., & McCarthy, J.M. (2013). Managing Work, Family and School Roles: Disengagement Strategies Can Help and Hinder. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18 (3), 241-251.
- [iii] Stemmet, L., Roger, D., Kuntz, J., & Borrill, J. (2015). General and Specific Avoidance: The Development and Concurrent Validation of a New Measure of Avoidance Coping. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 31 (3), 222-230.
- [iv] Stemmet, L., Roger, D., Kuntz, J., & Borrill, J. (2015). General and Specific Avoidance: The Development and Concurrent Validation of a New Measure of Avoidance Coping. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 31 (3), 222-230.