Coping vs Changing

Coping vs Changing

The Union Path Podcast

"Coping vs Changing"

Episode Transcript:

I've had a bunch of terrible jobs. Maybe I'm just bad at picking jobs or maybe jobs are just bad at picking me. I've had the situation of being in jobs that were just absolutely excruciating so many times. In fact, one of my first experiences working a quote-unquote real job after graduating from college, I was at my first day and I was full of enthusiasm, full of excitement that I'd finally arrived, I'd finally done the thing that I'd been working for. I was so happy to be done with school. Good riddance, thank goodness. Now I was going to start my real life. Now everything was about to get good. I was going to be doing something that I was good at, I'd been hired, I'd been chosen, I'd been picked, I was going to start making some money. The future was this wide, open horizon and I was stepping into it with lots of enthusiasm and excitement. But then all of that enthusiasm and excitement pretty much melted away in about hour two.

I vividly remember, even though this was 25 years ago now, my very first day it wasn't even lunchtime yet Thinking to myself oh no, what have I done? What am I doing? Looking around, sitting at this desk, lots of other people just sitting at their desks, looking forward, looking like they're doing something, looking busy and realizing oh my god, I've just signed up for 40 years of this, 40 years of sitting at a desk, staring forward, looking busy. I can't leave. I'm stuck here, I'm trapped. And I looked around wearing these uncomfortable clothes I would never choose to wear Sitting in an office. I would never choose to spend any time in Doing a thing, honestly, that I'm not really even sure I actually care about. And all of this sounds really entitled, really self-centered, but it's the truth. We all have the ability to choose what we want to do and, yes, some of our options, especially in the short term, might be fairly limited, but I just couldn't believe that I had chosen this. But really more than that, I looked around and I couldn't believe that other people did this. I couldn't believe this is what this was, that I just finished 16 years of school for this. This is it. Wow, I couldn't believe it. I was shocked and there wasn't a sense that I'm better than this. There wasn't a sense that I don't belong here because I'm too talented or smart or special or what have you. I just looked around and in that moment, was mystified that, oh, this is what this is. I don't know what I thought it would be, but it was radically different. And now all of this enthusiasm for this future, for this long, beautiful golden road in front of me, was now shattered. And I kept this to myself because even then, at the time, I knew I had sound like a complete weirdo.

I found my first day at work. I started talking to people about how mystifying it is to me that this is what work is and that people actually do this. But at any rate, I did that. I did that for years, and in one particular job, things reach their pinnacle, things reach their peak or, from another way looking at it, things reach their absolute rock bottom of where I was working on a government contract on an army base, and what I was doing was pretty prestigious. What I was doing was good resume fodder. What I was doing was a very good anecdote that I could rip out of my back pocket of what I was doing. It was impressive.

What I was doing not only involved a lot of people, but involved a lot of money. And when you're in charge, when you oversee either one of those things, well that makes you a pretty big fish, but if you oversee both of those things. Wow, that's pretty impressive. But I noticed something pretty profound over the course of working in that job that, like all the other jobs I had, I absolutely hated it in my bones, but I never did anything about it. I just kept showing up to the same job every single day, I guess, hoping things would be better.

But then after a while I realized the futility of that. So I really started to work on myself. I really started to find ways internally to cope better, integrate some self care, do a lot of reframing, do a lot of positive thinking. Really look at, okay, how much of this situation is really on me is really my responsibility. I picked this after all, I volunteered. No one's forcing me to do this. So to feel like I'm some sort of victim or put upon by this situation is kind of nonsense. So I really went down deeply into coping, into soothing, into trying to get my mind right, trying to fix myself, trying to fix my bad attitude, fix my pessimism, be positive, see the bright side, appreciate what I have, have gratitude for what I have.

It was true I had a lot to be grateful for. I was in a situation where I was doing work that I was good at, didn't particularly enjoy it, but at least I had the satisfaction of doing work that was well done, that I could be proud of, and on the other hand, this was a pretty high paying job, and so I had the satisfaction of that as well. And just when I really break it down, I had almost infinite things to be thankful for. I was employed, I was employed on a high paying job. I had everything going for me really. Yet I was still miserable, and the funny thing about this work to be able to kind of fix my insides in this work situation is that it actually works for a little while. It actually worked for a day, a week, maybe a few weeks if I'm lucky.

But then the other thing that became pretty obvious was that the trend line that I was on was moving downward. But to put it another way, something would happen. I would take a hit on something that I would find just absolutely excruciating, just absolutely miserable, and I'd find ways to pick myself up, dust myself off, reframe the situation, find my gratitude, find my peace again, find my equanimity, find my acceptance, be okay and move on. And that worked until the next thing happened, and I was caught in this cycle of constantly coping. Something would happen, I'd cope with it, I'd get myself back to okay. Then something else would happen. I'd have to cope with that, and on and on, and on, and on it went. I was stuck in this spiral. It was the epitome of a situation where I felt like I was being squeezed and I was working so hard to just be okay with being squeezed, to largely delude and pretend that the squeeze was worth it.

This is an area of spiritual practice that I think gets pretty fraught, this idea of spiritual bypass, of where we bypass or ignore or suppress or repress our own feelings, our own knowing, because of some other virtue, some other truth. We're desperate to be true. We're frantically, and sometimes maniacally, trying to shoehorn into our beliefs, into our life. We're trying to force something to be true that actually isn't. We're deluding ourselves, we're living an illusion in a lot of ways. We're trying to manipulate the seeming uncooperative, uncompliant aspects of ourselves into what should be. We're trying to apply coercion, we're trying to apply force, we're trying to apply control and, however we can, to bring ourselves in line. And this gets really fraught because oftentimes this involves ignoring aspects of ourselves, ignoring aspects of ourselves that could very well be telling us something meaningful and necessary for us to know. It can also cause us to kind of inflate and inhabit a bubble that we live in. We're not really living in reality, we're not really feeling our feelings, we're not really aware of what's going on.

We're much more involved with living a story, with perpetuating a myth of how things should be, and so working at this job just absolutely profoundly miserable and watching in the rest of my life the down-pushing effects of doing this day after day, that, even though I'm paper, this was something that I should be grateful for. That should be good. My experience of it was the exact opposite. All of that misery from what I was doing was getting compressed inside of me, which ended up hardening into hopelessness, into depression, because I really didn't understand why what's supposed to be good wasn't good. But that's the thing about things that are supposed to be a certain way, are they? And does it really matter if something is supposed to be one way or another? Isn't it much more important how things actually are?

And if we don't appreciate something that we're supposed to appreciate, is that really a problem? Is that really something that needs to be fixed? Or are we missing? Are we ignoring Things that would actually be helpful? Are we undermining ourselves? Are we sabotaging ourselves by not listening to ourselves? And again, these are such easy habits to build of walking through our life, having bad things happen to us and just getting really good at coping, really good at distracting ourselves, really good at taking our mind off the thing that's bothering us. But what if? What if that bothering is actually helpful and useful to us? What if there's a message in there? What if there's something we're not getting? What if we're spending all of our time coping when we should be spending at least some of our time changing? Or, to put it another way, how are we avoiding necessary changes in our life by just getting better and better and more effective and more efficient at coping? And is that really supposed to be that way? Is that the way our lives are really supposed to be? That a good life is built on just being able to cope as well as we possibly can. And there's a very good reason why we get led down this path because, especially… In early adulthood, in our youth, we can have lots of funny ideas about the way the world works that are pretty self-centered, that are pretty entitled.

Not a lot of us come out of being a teenager without being at least a little bit entitled and a little bit self-centered. It seems to be the whole point of that phase of development. Is this development of self, this development of individuality, of breaking away from our parents, breaking away from our upbringing, and finding our own way in order to do that and that necessarily requires some self-centeredness that we can't really develop a self without being self-centered. But this is meant to be a temporary phase. This is a developmental phase. This is something we're supposed to move through and move on from to something more. We're not supposed to get stuck there.

There's way more to life than just being self-centered. There's way more to life than whatever it is that's geared towards our own maximum personal gain. There's way more to life outside of ourselves. We can find a much bigger life by putting effort towards and focus on things bigger than ourselves. We all know this. This isn't new information. But it is a tricky thing to balance this idea of coping and changing, because a lot of us can be coached and even coach ourselves into this default coping strategy. Because we don't want to be self-centered, we don't want to be arrogant, we don't want to be selfish, but the problem is there's a balance here that, at least in my opinion, the ideal life isn't a life-lived that's completely self-centered, but it isn't a life-lived in the attempt to not have a self either, to only think of ourselves in terms of groups.

Individualization is a critical aspect of personal development. Even if we exist as an individual within a group, it's important for us to separate the two, to understand who and what we are, as well as understanding who and what this group is, and to use the juxtaposition of the two to find our way through life. Use the two to reinforce and enhance each other, not get lost in one or the other. These are two distinct ways to live, as an individual as well as as a participant in a larger group, and I believe we're both and there's a skill, there's a practice and be able to live in both. We're able to hold two ideas at the same time and not have one completely swamp or drown out the other, because one of the things that happens when we avoid change through our own coping is we create stagnation, we foster and nurture conflict within ourselves, because there's something about what requires coping in the first place that is, asking us for change. If we're frequently upset, if we're frequently depressed, if we're frequently hopeless, if we're frequently anxious, there's something in there asking for change. When we're off our core baseline of peace and security and equanimity and calm, there's something asking for our attention. And what gets really hard is that coping is useful and change is useful. In fact, both of these things are necessary, but I think we can really see how one of them is a short-term strategy and one of them is a long-term strategy, and especially over a longer time frame.

In order to solve problems, in order to have real improvement and enrichment in our own life, we have to do both at the same time. We can't just get lost in short-term strategies, but we can't only focus on long-term strategies either. There is an element of ourselves that needs relief, that needs a pressure valve, that needs to vent, that just needs to feel better right now. There's also a part of us that needs to get underneath, that needs to get under this symptom that we're feeling of overwhelm, of defeat, of hopelessness, of upset, of angry, and move to a more sustainable long-term strategy. This is something that I think gets lost in problem-solving especially in the medical field all the time and being able to break things up into short-term versus long-term, of not just adopting a short-term strategy but being relief and then thinking we're done, that that's enough.

There is way more to life than relief, but relief can be one of the most glorious things we can possibly experience, especially if we've been in a bad place, especially if we've been in a bad way for a long time. So it's not that relief isn't valuable. Oftentimes relief can be invaluable, but there's more to it than that. It's worthwhile to keep going to not just look at relief as enough. Look at relief as a step on the way to enough. Look at relief as something that's making enough possible, as a precursor, as a prerequisite towards long-term change.

Because one of the really tragic things we can do if we're merely coping with our life and never attempting to actually change it, is that we're short-changing ourselves, the life that we could live. We're settling, we're compromising. We're usually living a life not as fulfilling, not as rich, not as enjoyable, not as meaningful. We're settling for small, we're settling for less, and oftentimes these negotiations are with ourselves. But it makes a lot of sense why we've strike these bargains, because, especially if we've been down and trodden for a while, especially if we've gotten to a pretty low, dark place, we can feel like we don't have any energy to do anything anyway, even if the change is obvious. Even if I'm in this horrible job or bad relationship or terrible living situation. I've got this awful friend, I've got this low-burning fire in some aspect of my life, but I just can't. It's just too much. I'm just going to pretend this is fine, I'm just going to find a way to cope with this, just to get through the day and move on to the next thing.

And we don't want to cheat ourselves that relief when we need it, relief can really start the process of rescuing ourselves from where we've been, from what we've been experiencing. Having some relief can be the first steps towards our escape of whatever we've been experiencing. But then the tricky thing is, once we start to feel a little better, to keep going, to maintain our long-term strategy, to maintain our focus, keeping the main thing, the main thing and if we've experienced a lot of suffering and the value of that suffering as it's illuminated what we actually want, what's actually important to us, where our life is out of alignment with ourselves, that we've tried and we've tried and we've tried to make it as good as we possibly can, and that's just not something we can ever really do. We've reached the logical end of those efforts. At some point we realize that this is just what these circumstances are, and the alchemy of ourselves in this circumstance gives us this reliable experience. We know what happens, we know what this is like, we know what's going to happen again and we know what that's going to be like.

It's kind of like if we have a relationship with someone and they tell us all sorts of things that we like to hear, but if we pay attention to what they do, they actually tell us who they are pretty quickly. You don't have to spend a ton of time with someone for them to tell you everything they need to know about them, especially when you look at the relationships that they have. What do they like the people that they're in relationship with? As a parent, that's been kind of a pretty useful life hack of learning pretty quickly that I can know just about everything I need to know about another parent by watching them with their kids, watching how they interact, watching what that dynamic is like. Obviously, it doesn't tell me everything about them as a person, but it does tell me an awful lot about what these people are like to have a relationship with, to be around.

On a similar way, if we've been going through our life only coping, are we actually paying attention to what our life is actually like to be around, to be within, to live or are we just listening to the words to the shoulds, what we'd like to believe about how our life is? Are we grounded in reality? Are we feeling our feelings? Are we honoring the truth? In what ways are we deluding ourselves? What ways are we lying to ourselves? In what ways are we wishing things were different when, over and over and over and over and over again, it's conclusive that they're not?

This isn't from a lack of trying. This isn't from a lack of effort. This isn't from being self-centered, this isn't from being finicky or flighty. We've actually spent the time, we've actually done the work. The results are in and now it's up to us to honor them. Remember, one of the most important things we can honor are the distinct, clear signals that we get from our life that change is necessary, that it's time to change. Change is needed. It's kind of like a migration signal. We're living in an environment and we become aware winter's coming. What do we do with that information? Do we stay and persevere and probably suffer a whole lot, or do we fly away? Do we move to an environment more suitable for our needs, that feels more cooperative to us, that we're not just having to fight and conquer all the time, we're not having to wage these battles, we're not having to cope with quite so much? This seems better in line, better attuned, more of a fit for who we are and what we want and, more importantly, what we need.

That frivolous, flaky bouncing from thing to thing to thing, not making decisions in haste, but really listening to our life experience, really paying attention and absorbing and acknowledging what our life is telling us, what the feedback from our life is, whether that feedback is joy or pain, enthusiasm or boredom, hopefulness or hopelessness. According to and honoring the experience of our life is challenging, is a life project, because a lot of times the change that we need to make can be pretty inconvenient, especially if you've constructed a life ignoring this feedback. It's kind of like one of those situations where, if you get into a complicated situation that you really have no experience with and you've never listened to any advice from anyone else, you've just kind of winged it the whole time. Well, that could usually lead to trouble. Maybe it would have been a little better to listen and to learn rather than thinking we can just improv our way through a difficult, challenging situation.

But what's important in all of this is first to look at our own life and look at the balance between coping and changing, because I've talked a whole lot about that being a massive imbalance towards the coping side, but the opposite, of course, can also be true. We can go through life changing way too much, causing damage, causing harm, causing chaos, but at the very least quitting things and bouncing out of things before they even have a chance to be successful, even have a chance to work. That's obviously not great, but the opposite isn't either of staying with situations way too long, of whenever we're in a situation that we don't want to be in, of finding ways to rearrange our insides to try to be okay with it. And again, this is useful over the short term. A lot of times we really can't just snap our fingers and magically transform or teleport our way out of any given situation. But we do have a tremendous amount of agency, a tremendous amount of freedom over the longer term. That, again, we can do both.

We can cope with our current situation while at the same time working to change that situation, so that coping is no longer so necessary, so pivotal, such a requirement of our life that we're not having to cope with our daily experience on a daily basis. Coping should be reserved as more of an infrequent activity, a less necessary skill that we have to lean on just to get through our life. Because that's it right there of really becoming aware of our life. And how much are we living just to get through, just to get it done? And if a lot of our life is just to get through, what coping strategies have we adopted to get us through that and are they entirely healthy? Is it kind of like one of those situations where we take a prescription drug and we find that the side effects massively overwhelm the effects? Is it the same in our life? Have we adopted so many coping strategies that now our life seems unmanageable because it just seems coping strategies all the way down?

When our life has become unmanageable because of the sheer amount and weight of coping strategies that we have to do, then I think it's really important to look at our life and say wait a minute, what change am I avoiding? Why am I having to cope so much? Why am I having to rearrange my life experience and rearrange my own insides to be able to tolerate my life experience on a daily basis? What migration signal am I ignoring? What change am I refusing to see, refusing to acknowledge, refusing to honor and maybe I have very good reasons for doing this. But how would my life be improved if I started to honor and acknowledge this necessary change, were these necessary changes? Because it might not just be one thing, especially if we have a habit of only coping and never changing. There's probably all sorts of needed changes that need to be made. We have a very dirty room because we've never bothered to clean it, so it's going to take some time to work our way through it and we can use healthy coping strategies to give ourselves a toehold to get that process started. But the point is to use that coping as an enabler for change, to do both short term and long term.

Don't just stop at relief, keep going. And if you haven't even gotten to relief yet, find some relief and then keep going, because at least it's been my experience when I've leaned the most heavily on coping strategies rather than changing a bad situation. That just set me up for endless things to cope with, and usually the trend line would lead downward Of where something would happen I'd cope with it and then something worse would happen. I'd have to cope with that. And as things got worse and worse, my coping strategies didn't really work that much anymore. I'd belt up a bit of a tolerance, or they just weren't really the right tools for the job anymore. So I had to find bigger and bigger coping strategies.

Don't let yourself ride that downward spiral. Find a way out. Find a way to change. Find a way to honor the urge to cope and the urge to change equally. Listen to both. I hope you enjoyed this video and I'll see you in the next one.

Use the discomfort, the dissatisfaction, the despair, the misery that's causing you to cope as a call for change. And if you connect with your life, you'll know what the necessary changes are. Even if you've been ignoring it, part of you knows, part of you always knows. The truth can't be completely obscured forever. No matter how much we try, no matter how much we try to deceive ourselves or distract ourselves. The truth is always there, trying for us to finally acknowledge it, to finally honor it, to finally do something with it.

Because what is all this suffering for, if not to create change? A lot of times, suffering is the raw material for incredible change, for growth. And we can choose to not block that process, to not interrupt that process, to not sabotage that process, by choosing to grow, choosing to listen, choosing to change, to have all of this suffering lead to something good, because that's the whole point. We aren't here to suffer, we aren't here to toil, we aren't here to struggle. All of this serves a purpose and we can transmute, we can transform our suffering into growth, into change, into a better life.

And we do that by listening, by honoring and, more than that, by putting into practice what we know, by pursuing what we need, by being who we are, by living a life that we want, by pursuing what we want, because pursuing what we want is being who we are, what we want deep down inside. That's us, what really matters to us more than anything else. That's the most clear representation of who and what we really are. And we need to find a way to allow that aspect of ourselves to find expression, to be expressed and lived in our life. And we can choose this. We can choose to be this, because this is already who we are, and we can choose to make our life often immeasurably better by not just coping, but by also changing.

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