Today’s lesson in hack, hack, hacking your way to psychological growth? Just use the tools you have handy. Even if those tools are imperfect, inelegant, not what you’d prefer to have handy– just use ’em. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, seriously.
In these experiences we call “life” and “growth” it’s kind of amazing how picky we can sometimes be about what we’ll consider “legitimate” tools to get us through.
Recently, for example, there’s been reams and reams and REAMS written about the tool of Mindfulness to get us through tough times. You know, where we kind of take a step back, take a deep breath, and deeply accept everything as it is, without demanding it be other-than-what-it-is. Starting with good ol’ Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness has made its way into pretty much every corner of the personal development universe. Everybody loves Mindfulness. Slapping “Mindfulness” on the cover of a self-help book is pretty much a guaranteed way to sell a few extra copies.
And is Mindfulness a useful tool? Sure. Most everybody can agree that Mindfulness is a fundamentally healthy habit for human beings to get into. Legitimate tool.
But what if you don’t happen to have that tool in your toolbox, yet?
There are lots of reasons why you might not have the tool of Mindfulness handy. Maybe you have ADHD, and the idea of getting pseudo-meditative is kind of an amusing abstraction to your going-going-gone attention span. Maybe you’re working through an anxiety disorder, and you’re not quite yet at the skill level where you can quiet your mind to Mindfully accept Stuff As It Is. Maybe you’re working through a trauma disorder and your brain has been wired, for the time being, to be SUPER MINDFUL OF EVERY SINGLE LITTLE STIMULI IN YOUR ENVIRONMENT AHHHHH.
Mindfulness, in other words, might be a healthy, elegant tool of psychological growth– but maybe it’s just not in your toolbox at the present moment. Much like a lot of other healthy, elegant tools of growth, such as patience, reality-testing, and perspective-taking, to name a just a few. It’d be great if we always had those elegant tools of emotional management handy, but there are times when, for whatever reason, we don’t.
Sometimes, instead, the tools we have handy come with awkward, sometimes kinda threatening, names, like “anger.” Or “jealousy.” Or “fear.”
WHAT IS THIS CRAZY TALK, DR. DOYLE? DID YOU JUST REFER TO UGLY EMOTIONS SUCH AS ANGER, JEALOUSY, OR FEAR AS “TOOLS?”
Yes, yes I did.
EXPLAIN YOURSELF, SIR!
Here’s the skinny on emotions, guys: much like the American Psychological Association, they’re meant to be tools. The very reason we have emotions in the first place, both positive and negative, is because somewhere along the way they had survival value.
The fact that blunt, ugly-feeing, uncomfortable emotions like anger, jealousy, and fear are still with us is evidence that they serve some adaptive purpose. They don’t feel good, but in the hunt for survival? They are our friends.
Fear, for example, doesn’t have to be just this set of experiences that paralyzes you and makes you kinda queasy and jumpy. Fear is actually a tool that keeps us from, you know, stepping out into a busy street and meeting a Frogger-like fate. Organisms that do not have or use the tool of fear don’t last very long in the wild. Fear, as it turns out, is a blunt, uncomfortable tool– but a pretty goddamn important one.
Jealousy’s another feeling that gets a bad rap. Yeah, it’s not a fun emotion to experience and can poison a relationship if it becomes the main emotional fuel of said relationship. But jealousy can also be a useful reminder of what we value in a relationship, and how much we value it. Jealousy often speaks in a distorted, shrill voice inside our heads– but it often points us to emotional truths that we might otherwise ignore.
And anger? Let me tell ya something about anger. Anger evolved so that when cave-people had their territory and cave-mates threatened, they’d be able to access the energy to fight back. Yup, anger is an emotion with which many of us have a complicated relationship– but getting angry about a Situation That Should Not Be is often the first step to changing or getting out of that situation.
Look, I get it. A lot of the time, we wish the tools available to us in our emotional toolboxes were more comfortable or soothing, like Mindfulness. But I’m here to tell you, in this thing called “life,” we have no choice but to start where we are, with the tools we have. And if those tools happen to be imperfect, blunt, or uncomfortable? What we can do is learn to use them for the purposes they do serve, instead of waiting for a “better” coping skill to magically evolve while we wait it out.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. No one’s handing out medals for Most Elegant Coping Tool. Just use the tool that is handy, dude.