Updated: Apr 23
The glass is half-full AND it's half-empty.
You come home from work and your partner asks, "How was your day?" You respond, "It was a great day!" and you list the successes of your day.
The next day, you might respond to the same question, "Oh, today was crap" with a litany of complaints about what went wrong.
But if you actually listed every little thing that happened on either day, you would find both wins and losses. How is it that some people seem to stay even-keeled about the ups and downs of every day and others are always on a roller-coaster of emotion?
It is likely that the roller coaster has to with our emotional intelligence and how we cope with negative experiences and savor positive ones. People who have more good days than bad ones have just as many challenges, on average, as people who have more bad days than good. It is really a matter of what we do to amplify the good and mitigate the bad.
We can think, therefore, of "coping" with challenges as simply the flip side of "savoring" the positive. People who have both skills firmly in place are more able to be even-keeled.
When you experience a stressful situation or a negative emotion bubbles up, you have to cope with it, one way or another. You can choose to respond in a positive way that helps you be more resilient in the future, or you can choose a negative strategy that works at the moment but is detrimental long-term (alcohol or drug abuse, for example).
There are hundreds of ways to cope with a situation that will be more or less effective at any given time. I'm just going to walk through one process here.
The first step in coping effectively is to step back and pay attention to what's going on. Your first responses to negative events or emotions might be exactly what you need, or they may be hurtful. Either way, you can't reinforce or change what you aren't aware of.
Imagine that you just finished running a big meeting. Overall, you are feeling really down in the dumps because you thought it went terribly. The catering was awful, people hadn't done the work you asked them to prepare, and the Internet went out in the middle of your presentation.
Think about the elements of the event and your level of control.
Catering: You couldn't control the caterer today. If you have control over choice of caterer, you can interview and hire a different caterer next time.
Homework: You asked people to make certain preparations before the meeting, but they did not. You don't have control over what other people do or do not do. What can you change? You can make the request for them to do the work differently. For example, you can ask their supervisors to make the homework assignment. Or, you can have backup plans in place for your next presentation in case they haven't completed the work.
Internet outage: You have no control over whether you'll have online access or not, and you can't be prepared for every single disaster contingency. You can, however, roll with the challenge and use it to your advantage. Some of us naturally do this better than others, but if you can take control of your own emotions and avoid freaking out at unexpected events, those around you will probably respond more positively, as well. (Note: I'm a firm believer in feeling what you are feeling and not stuffing emotions. But it is helpful to moderate the expression of emotions in situations where you need to do so.)
Your presentation: Other than the Internet outage, your presentation went very well. That's the piece you had total control over. You were prepared and you actually dealt unusually well with the challenges of the day.
Now that we've walked through this exercise, would you say that the day was a complete failure?
Focusing on what you can control means that you feel better about what you, personally, did well. It also gives you information to use in order to have an even better event in the future.
Self-Talk to Address the Emotions
If you came home from that meeting thinking, "That day just sucked. Everything went wrong. I am an idiot and I can't do anything right!" you would not only make yourself feel worse, you would be lying to yourself.
The Messies I know all have a great capacity for self-blame. We hold the weight of the world on our shoulders and know that when something goes wrong, it has to be our fault.
Taking the time to think through the blame you are putting on yourself is a helpful exercise. In our example, you could think back through the day of the meeting and give yourself credit for doing a great presentation against all the odds. You didn't crumble when the Internet went out, you just called for a 5-minute break and took that time to get yourself together to present without your online examples. It worked, and you are NOT an idiot. Then you take time to problem-solve the things that did go wrong and are within your control.
On the flip side of coping with negative experiences, savoring is a response to positive ones. According to Bryant and Veroff, savoring is made up of paying attention to positive experiences, appreciating those experiences, and enhancing those experiences.
Every day has some positive elements. Positive moments that we savor are seldom huge life-changing events. Even when we are struggling with the largest challenges of our lives, there are tiny moments of positivity.
Mindfulness can help us be aware of those positive moments. Stop, right now, while you are reading this article. Take a moment to savor the sensations of this moment. Explore every sensation--sight, taste, touch, sound, scent. Skim over any negative thoughts that come up for just a bit and focus on the positive.
How did that feel? Were you able to appreciate parts of your environment that you might have been taking for granted? For me, I noted the sharp smell of this morning's coffee and mentally thanked Davis for making it for us (I also thanked him verbally when I finished the exercise).
Another way to savor positive experiences is to practice the "Three Good Things" exercise I've written about before. At the end of each day, you spend a few minutes paying attention to three positive things that happened today and noting why they happened. Detailed instructions are available from Greater Good in Action, which also offers 75 different exercises for increasing well-being and happiness in your life.
It's about balance
Coping doesn't make all negative experiences go away; savoring doesn't make every experience positive. In fact, you don't want to eradicate negative emotions or experiences from your life. As the example of coping with a "failed" meeting shows, we learn and grow when we use problem-solving skills to make changes based on past experience.
Negative emotions can also help us. For example, anger might motivate you to be an advocate when someone is trying to take advantage of you or someone else. Or someone might need to change jobs when feeling unhappy and dissatisfied at work.
Still, life is happier for people who have good coping and savoring skills. Barbara Frederickson, psychologist and author of Positivity and Love 2.0 "encourages readers to experiment with their own lives, finding ways to create more micro-moments of love and positivity that work for them." For Frederickson, the goal is to have a 3:1 balance of positive to negative emotions in order to have optimum well-being. You can take her positivity test here, if you are curious about your positivity ratio.
I'll be back in future posts with more about coping and savoring. If you are looking for more strategies right now, I've created a list of 100+ self-care ideas to help you increase positivity and help you flourish. You can download it for free, from the Messy Desk Downloads Shop.
P.S. When emotions don't feel controllable
Many of us have days when the Dementors are attacking for no apparent reason. If you feel crappy, are cranky with everyone, and fly off the handle for no reason, the emotions might be biochemical in origin. It is still possible to shift the emotion to a lighter place through awareness, coping, and savoring skills. If, however, you are feeling the darkest of dark and cannot seem to find your own way out, please contact a crisis hotline or professional therapist for help. You are worth it.