Source: Positive Psychology
“Life’s not fair.”
How I hated hearing that as a kid. It was a phrase trotted out by my father (and probably fathers everywhere) whenever I complained about something not going my way.
I especially hated when my brother was allowed to do something I wasn’t, or when he received some kind of treat that I didn’t get.
I would whine, “But that’s not fair!”
My father would always respond with, “Well, life’s not fair.”
At the time, I had little appreciation for the underlying truth in this most basic of statements.
Now, looking back, I see what he was trying to do – he wanted to prepare me for a life in which I would be disappointed, many times over.
The truth is, no matter how great your life may be, you will eventually deal with disappointments, setbacks, failures, and even loss and trauma. Everyone must face difficult situations, and everyone must come up with effective ways to deal with and bounce back from these situations.
This is why coping is a vital human behavior, one that is necessary for successfully navigating through the challenging and often murky obstacle course that is life.
What is Coping? A Working Definition
You likely already have an idea of what coping is – it’s a common concept in the general public. However, like most concepts and constructs, there is a definition of coping as it is understood in psychological literature that you may not know.
According to the Psychology Glossary at alleydog.com:
“Coping refers to the human behavioral process for dealing with demands, both internal or external, in situations that are perceived as threats.”
This is a good start, although to fully understand coping we probably need to expand what we think of as “threats.”
In the case of coping, threats are not the only situations in which we are in physical danger, but also situations in which a piece of our self is in danger. The ego is frequently the piece in danger, along with our sense of self, our very identity, our worldview, and our inner beliefs or faith.
These threats manifest in a wide range of situations, from dealing with a romantic rejection to dealing with the loss of your spouse. The more serious the threat, the more effective the coping must be.
Renowned stress and coping researcher Richard Lazarus works off of a slightly different definition of coping:
“Coping refers to cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage (master, reduce, or tolerate) a troubled person-environment relationship.” (Folkman & Lazarus, 1985, p. 152)
This definition of coping is a more comfortable one for psychologists. Instead of unpacking the concept of “threats,” we can simply view coping as something that follows a stressful, or “troubled” situation.
Taking elements from both definitions, we can use the following common understanding of coping:
“Coping refers to cognitive and behavioral strategies that people use to deal with stressful situations or difficult demands, whether they are internal or external.”
The internal/external distinction is an important one to make.
Sometimes we need to cope with things that happen to us, and other times we must cope with things that happen within us. Some events may require us to deal with both internal and external demands.
For example, losing your job would be an external demand. Something difficult or stressful has happened to you, and you find ways to cope with the challenges that losing your job brings.
On the other hand, dealing with depression would be an internal demand. While there is no traumatic external event to deal with, you have to address the internal challenges presented by depression.