Years ago, when I was in graduate school, one of my classmates said, “I tell clients that if the only tool in their toolbox is a hammer, they need to add more.” And I couldn’t have agreed with her more. One cannot build a solid foundation and ultimately a “house” with only a hammer. We need to be prepared and have tools that fit our situations. Imagine trying to position a screw tightly with a hammer… not going to be too easy.
As we venture through our lives, we accumulate things that help us reach the next moment. Many times, these things are unhealthy and can lead to bigger problems. It’s important for each of us to be equipped with coping skills or “tools” that not only get us through, but that help us avoid making the situation worse and/or repeating that situation in the future.
I have worked with many individuals who are struggling with anger. The saying I hear frequently is that anger is a cover-up feeling; under anger is a whole slew of other feelings. Sometimes, the response to anger can be quick and may relieve our frustrations temporarily, but we may not always consider the lingering effects of such a response. By response I mean the thing(s) we do to get back at the person who angered us or the way in which we handle the source of our anger. For example, if a person finds out their partner is cheating, they may respond by cheating, fighting, yelling, or even worse. In the end, this is likely to intensify the situation to a point where any remediation is impossible. Another example may be the person who drinks when they find out they lost their job.
My personal toolbox is always being filled and reorganized. Some tools no longer serve me in my life currently, so they have been temporarily removed or placed on a bottom shelf in my box. I’m guilty of not always responding in the best ways and my history proves that I have had to work through what I was doing to cope in an effort to help me use more than a hammer to build my house.
Here are some of the skills I personally have used and ones I frequently recommend to clients:
1. Utilize realistic vs. negative self-talk – This skill is tough and one I have to work hard to utilize when my mind takes off in a negative direction. Increasing the amount of praise we give to ourselves is one of the best ways to build confidence. Furthermore, realistic self-talk can help us think about a situation in a healthier way and monitor our minds for possible catastrophizing.
2. Distract – When we are in a place where triggers are lurking and our unhealthy behaviors are calling, it can be best to distract ourselves with a walk (if recommended), a book, a phone call, or even a nap. This empowers us and helps us realize we don’t always have to give into our urges, no matter what they are.
3. Listen without judgment – HUGE for me. I have a history of being a terrible listener, which is ironic given my chosen profession. I have actively worked to build this skill and to allow myself to really hear what another person is saying before chiming in with my own perspective or my own defense. If someone is sharing their concerns with you, particularly if those concerns involve you, it is important to listen, process, and reflect what you hear them saying before responding out of anger or judgment.
4. Reach out – This is a skill many of my clients struggle with. I, too, have struggled with this as I have often been one to take care of myself, without involvement of other people. I used to think that I could handle everything myself and didn’t let others in very well. Now I know that when I try handling things solely on my own, I have a tendency to lean toward those things that formerly caused me distress. There need not be any shame in letting others know we are having a hard time. You don’t always have to go in depth about what it is you’re facing as sometimes just the connection with another person is an effective way to utilize reaching out.
5. Journal – I was a journalist before I became a therapist. In fact, it was in a newspaper article I was editing that I discovered the counseling graduate program I ended up attending. I love to write and journaling is a very useful tool when we are experiencing emotions we are uncertain how to express. It’s great because we can write just about anywhere and if we don’t have a pen, we can type something into our phones. Additionally, journaling can be a helpful tool if you are already in therapy as many clients will bring their journals to session to help them process.
6. Set boundaries – I know it can feel like we are doing something wrong or going against what we have learned when we set a boundary, particularly for those in enmeshed family systems. However, it is ever so important for us to set clear boundaries with those around us. This not only protects us, but protects others. We have the right to express our limits, what we can handle and what we can’t handle. A great book to check out on this topic is Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
7. Identify your goals – What do you want right now, in this moment? What do you want more of in life in general? What do you hope to accomplish today? Take a few minutes every night or every morning and identify what desires you have for yourself and then make a plan to begin working toward these things.
8. Recognize your accomplishments – We all need a little praise once in awhile, but if you’re like me, you struggle to recognize the things you do well. Many clients will say that if they used just one unhealthy behavior during the day, the whole day was a bust and they need to start all over. Even when we engage in one unhealthy behavior or make one mistake, or two, or three, we have still done healthy things as well. We don’t have to wipe everything out and start over. Rather, every moment is new and living in the mistakes we made will lead to a disintegration of our confidence and hope faster than we can say the words “confidence” and “hope.”
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it is a good starting place if you’re realizing the only tool you have in your toolbox now is a hammer. Explore what works best for you. Inquire about what your closest friends have done to help themselves through a hard time or if you have a therapist, speak with your therapist about what tools you could add to your personal toolbox.