Alice Boyes Ph.D.

How to roll with the punches.

Last week, I took my car to get a spare key cut. After about 15 minutes of waiting in the 100-plus-degree desert sun, the tech told me he couldn’t do it because a port in the car didn’t have power coming to it. I would have to get that fixed before he could program the key. A task I had expected to be simple would now require two more errands, and more money. Grrr!

Often, this is how life goes. Mistakes happen, things don’t work as they should, processes are inefficient. Or, we get more bad news when we’re already feeling fragile.


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Here are seven tips for learning to roll with the punches, and not feel knocked out of kilter.

1. Don’t expect life to go smoothly.

In modern, developed countries, we often expect our transactions to go very smoothly. If we reserve a hotel room, we expect it will be available when we arrive. We expect clean water to come out of the tap. We expect that if we buy a product and it’s faulty or not as described, we’ll be able to return it. And we expect the product we order will be the product that arrives, and not some other random item.

We expect reliability, and we expect physical comfort (e.g., air conditioning). And this can extend to us also expecting emotional comfort. Perhaps over-expecting it. But the more you think of discomfort (of all kinds) as something to be expected periodically, the easier it can be to handle when it arises. It’s helpful to think of these experiences as universal rather than personalizing them.

2. Notice when you are personalizing events.

I haven’t seen my mother in over two years because of the pandemic. I live in the U.S, she lives in New Zealand, and their border is essentially closed. Many New Zealanders aren’t personally affected by the border restrictions, and are grateful the border closures are keeping their lives COVID-free. However, part of me thinks, “No one cares about families like ours” who are affected by it. When I think like this, I get upset about New Zealanders in my circle who are choosing not to vaccinate, because it likely means a longer wait until my family can freely see each other again. It took me a long time to realize how much I was personalizing other New Zealanders’ attitudes to the border closure. When I did realize it, it helped me to see the big picture more.

3. Use self-compassion.

We often criticize ourselves that we should be able to handle blips, frustrations, disappointments, sadness, etc., better. You might think, “Other people wouldn’t be rocked by this. Other people would take this in stride.” Self-compassion skills should help a great deal if you’re doing this type of criticism.

4. Understand what pushes your buttons.

Cars and mechanical or electrical issues feel pretty foreign to me. Therefore, anything to do with those makes me feel out of my comfort zone. I didn’t want to figure out a car problem.

I also have health anxiety. In the last week, I found out a friend has breast cancer. Christina Applegate announcing her MS diagnosis added to my anxiety. The news rocked me, even though she is a stranger. It can be helpful to identify that not every piece of bad news or every inconvenience rattles you greatly, but just specific types.article continues after advertisement

5. Don’t predict further bad news.

In the car situation, it turned out that a wire had become detached. My neighbor fixed it in under five minutes. When unexpected issues come up, don’t automatically expect they’ll be difficult to address. Don’t expect a string of bad luck, e.g., “bad luck comes in threes.”

6. Don’t leave tasks until the last minute.

In very practical terms, you’ll be less knocked off-kilter by things going wrong if you have backup plans and haven’t left a task until the last minute. For example, if you get somewhere and they are out of stock of an item you need, it’s a lot less stressful if you have a few more days up your sleeve to get it than if you have a deadline to meet that day.

7. “This is an opportunity to be skillful at…”

When things go wrong, it’s an opportunity to be skillful at something. Ask yourself what that is. Either come at it from the angle of getting to flex your strengths or getting to challenge a weakness.

You don’t need to be a Pollyanna about everything that goes wrong. However, you can ask yourself, “What does this give me the opportunity to be skillful at?” Consider your strengths. Cars might be foreign to me, but in general, getting things done and not getting ripped off are strengths for me. You can also consider your weaknesses. I’m not great at asking for help because I’m socially anxious. This was an opportunity to overcome that and ask my neighbor for help (although, to be honest, it was my spouse who asked).

Bad news sucks. Things going wrong sucks, even when they’re minor. But there are ways of handling such occurrences that will help you cope more effectively and feel better.

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