Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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If At First You Don't Succeed...

"If at first you don't succeed ... try, try again"

When is this old saying good advice? Remember we're talking about stress management, and I'm introducing the reader of the Chatham County Line to new ways to cope with stress. Too often we become frustrated and "try, try again," especially when we're stressed, and don't stop to evaluate the consequences of our habitual behavior. Of course, perseverance, trying again, is a good thing -- but only if it's working or about to work. The stress management life skill I'm introducing in this column, simply put, is "stop doing what doesn't work!" Don't just laugh at the simplicity of this idea. Consider other old sayings: "sometimes we can't see your nose for your face"; "sometimes we can't see the forest for the trees." Stop, look, think. Are you getting the results you want in your life? If not, read on.

When we encounter a problem, our usual first response is to complain. We may get some temporary relief and even a little sympathy. But we continue. Complain, complain, complain! Think what happens when we complain. We begin thinking and analyzing the problem, we feel the frustration again as we speak, our insides churn, and we are caught up in visualizing the problem over and over. We feel more and more helpless as we continue to complain that nothing is working for us. So we're actually creating more stress for ourselves! The little sympathy that we've garnered is usually not worth the energy we spend complaining. Chronic complaining is guaranteed to increase your stress without ever solving your problems. Then, to compound our difficulties, when we're stressed and stuck in complaints, we often turn to comfort behaviors which may make us feel good temporarily but increase our long-term problems -- overeating, playing distracting games, alcohol, cigarettes, to name a few.

So, Doc, if we can't persist in repeating our problem behaviors and have to stop our complaining, what's a body to do? Here's one approach. Find a peaceful place to think, get into your rational mind and list the coping behaviors you been using and evaluate their results. Are you solving your problems or actually making them worse? When we're stuck in the middle of a fast-paced or stress-filled life, we usually don't ask ourselves this simple question to evaluate whether our habits are working for or against us. Are we repeating the same destructive behaviors without realizing their real consequences for us? Are we feeling helpless and powerless over life issues just because we haven't taken control?

So -- simply -- stop the thoughts, behaviors, feelings or habits which are not working for you. It's amazing how we, as rational problem-solving people, rarely take this step to actually stop habitual behaviors which are not working for us. What next? The next step is of course to make changes in your life. We do have to substitute new behaviors for habitual behaviors or they will begin to creep back into our busy lives before we even notice. So consider possible solutions. Often small changes will tip the balance of a problem. We humans are caught up in inertia. You may remember the law of homeostasis from science class which helps explain why we persist in repeating unproductive behaviors. You'll have to use your analytical and rational mind to come up with possible changes in your life which may allow you to accomplish the results you seek. There are lots of possibilities for change, and many options will work if applied in a thoughtful manner. Change creates change, and even small changes loosen the grip of a problem, restore hope and a sense of control, break the pattern, and often cascade into lasting change.

The focus of this approach is developing positive solutions to life dilemmas. Too often people get so lost in the problem they forget about possible alternative solutions. Stress generates rigidity and distress, and people lose track of the flexibility they really have available to them. As long as you continue doing things that don't work for you, you will never learn what does work. As long as you continue to blame your unhappiness on your problems, you'll be blind to the possibilities of success.

Remember the definition of insanity -- repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result!