If you are working on developing new coping skills, you may find that understanding the skills and how they work is much easier than actually using the skills. You may be able to tell someone else about the skill, write out the steps involved, and answer questions about it but find you do not use it in your life. You may find that you keep going back to familiar ways of dealing with emotions and stress, even when those old ways are not good for you in the long run.

A Few Reasons Using New Skills is Difficult

Changing to new coping skills is difficult because the old ways worked. Even though your past ways of coping with emotions was harmful or ineffective in the long term, those strategies probably worked in the short term.  Seeking relief from sadness, hurt, loss and other emotional pain can be a desperate situation. When you know something works to help you feel better, it makes sense that you would be very tempted to use it regardless of the long term consequences. Immediate relief has a strong pull. You may also be worried that there will be no relief if you don’t use your old ways, perhaps overeating, restricting food, shopping too much, drinking excessively, some type of self-harm, or raging.

In addition, researchers say that change is not easy because of the characteristics of habits. Habits help us function with less stress and conserve our energy. Because of these automatic behaviors, we don’t have to think about how to drive a car, what foods to eat, which laundry detergents to buy or whether to eat breakfast before or after getting dressed for work. Changing a habit requires energy, work and focus, all of which is tiring.

When the existing habit is a desired behavior, the lack of awareness required for that behavior works well. At the same time, when the existing behavior is one you want to change, the stronger your habit the less power an intention to change has and thus the harder changes are to make. Intending to change is not likely to be sufficient to create a desired behavior when the existing habitual behavior is strong.

Hint #1:  Don’t Give Up Too Soon

Perhaps you’ve heard that a new behavior takes 21 days to become a habit. Jeremy Dean, in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, says that different behaviors take different lengths of time to become a habit, up to about 284 days. That’s a lot of practice. So practice the new skill repeatedly. Don’t wait to be really upset before you practice. Practice everyday. The more you practice the more likely the new skill can be used when you really need it–it will become a habit.

One strategy to cope with the learning process is to remember what it was like when you were very young and trying to learn the letters of the alphabet. How overwhelming that must have been. Then on top of learning the letters you needed to learn how to put them together into words. Just knowing letters existed, being able to name them and say what they were supposed to do were important steps, but wasn’t enough to use them in an effective way. With lots of practice though you learned to read and write with greater and greater mastery.

Hint #2:  Plan for the Roadblocks Ahead

One useful idea in practicing a new skill is to use the contrast technique. To do this, you create a positive vision of the problem behavior being solved. Then you think about the negative aspects, the reality of what it means to solve that problem. For example, you might relish the idea of having several friends you consider close. The imagery of having close friends is probably gratifying. When you consider reality though, such as how you will cope when they annoy you, how you will deal with their wanting to do things you don’t want to do and how you will keep commitments when you sometimes have difficulty getting out of the house, your expectations of success may not be as high. From the beginning, if you’re willing to create a plan to deal with the difficulties and persevere through the learning stages, dedicating time and practice to your goal, then you are more likely to be successful than if you go forward without considering the obstacles.

Hint #3: Implementation Intention

Dean also discusses implementation intention as a specific type of plan that helps you be successful.  Implementation intention means addressing specific obstacles with specific actions before you face those obstacles. He uses an if-then format. Instead of saying I want to be kinder, you make a specific statement such as the following: If I see drivers trying to merge in traffic, I will let them in. Another example, one about food choices, would be saying that if you want potato chips, you will eat baked sweet potato chips instead of just saying you will eat healthier. So to practice imagery as a stress reducer you might say, “If I feel scared while I am at the party, I will visualize my grandmother hugging me.”

Sometimes we focus on learning more and more skills instead of practicing the ones we already know and developing mastery. Become masterful at using and applying skills is likely to be more helpful in managing emotions successfully.


photo credit: ccVince Alongi via Compfight