When you visualize a toolbox, what do you see? What kind of tools are inside? Is there one tool? Or is there multiple? What is each tool used for?
A toolbox can be a great metaphor for our coping strategies and healing methods. Just like how a toolbox is used to contain tools to help with various situations, we have a ‘toolbox’ of our own that contains our coping strategies that assist us in coping and healing during different times of stress.
Some of us may have only one tool in the toolbox. Some of us may have multiple. Some of us may have no idea what is in our toolbox and just became aware of its existence. This is all okay.
The first step is knowing that your toolbox exists. The next is reflecting on what kind of tools you have inside. You can observe yourself when you become stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious, and see what you rely on to make you feel better. Consider the situation below.
Bob is a very angry person.
When Bob is at work, he yells at his employees and reprimands them for spelling mistakes in their emails. When Bob is at home, he yells at his wife for dropping and breaking a glass cup. When Bob is alone, he reads the news and comments angrily on articles, cursing and berating the state of the world as we approach the upcoming election.
When we read and think about Bob, he just seems like a very angry person — always yelling and angry at something. When he’s at work, he yells. When he’s at home, he yells. When he’s alone and online, he yells not using his voice but using capital letters.
But maybe Bob isn’t just angry. Maybe Bob only has yelling and anger in his toolbox and uses it to react to any and all kinds of situations.
When he’s at work, he is stressed about his own workload and thinks he’ll have to put in some overtime tonight. He’s tired. When he sees the emails from his new employees, he is disappointed in noticing the spelling mistakes. He doesn’t have time to deal with this. Not knowing how else to respond to his stress, disappointment, and fatigue, he does it the way he knows best — he yells.
When he’s at home, he sees his wife drop and break the glass cup. That was a cup that his late mother gave him and had sentimental value. His wife starts picking the glass up with her bare hands and he’s worried that she’ll cut herself by accident. He doesn’t know how to mourn the loss of his mother’s cup, and he doesn’t know how to tell his wife he’s worried about her getting hurt and to be careful. Instead, he does what he knows best — he gets angry and yells.
When he’s alone and online, he reads about the state of the US Postal Service and becomes concerned about mail in voting and if that will be possible. He’s also scared about students going back to school and how COVID cases are on the rise. He’s concerned and worried about the future and what it holds for him and his children. He’s feeling frustrated that he doesn’t know what to do, and he pulls out the only tool in his toolbox to cope with his frustration — he angrily writes comments on the articles in all capital letters and argues with anti-maskers and people who disagree with his views online.
When we first met Bob, he just seemed like an angry person. But when we take a deeper look, we notice that Bob is just someone who lacks tools in his toolbox. He only has that one tool — getting angry and yelling — and uses it for all situations. But even though it might be fitting to use that tool to cope with some situations, it might not work for all situations.
When he gets angry out of concern for his wife, his wife might feel in danger and not safe. She might back away from him and get alarmed, which might lead her to get injured while picking up the glass. When he yells at his employees, they may label him as a rude boss that lacks understanding. When he argues with people on the internet, he will just become more angry and concerned for the state of the world.
Bob needs a diversity of tools in his toolbox, so that when he is feeling worried, concerned, fatigued, anxious, sad, and more, he can pick and choose what tool is appropriate and what tool would work best for him.
How do we get more tools in our toolbox?
During our childhood, we learn most of our tools from our parents and guardians around us. How does my parent react to stress? Do they award me when I react in a certain way? How do the people around me react to certain situations? That is how I should react.
As we grow older, we learn more tools while we’re in school from our teachers, peers, and various social interactions.
Self reflection is a good way to take an inventory of what tools you currently possess, what works, and what doesn’t work. After this reflection, try to think of things that would help fill gaps in your toolbox. Researching on your own online is a good way to brainstorm and gather intel on tools that have worked for others and that may work for you.
Therapy with a therapist is also another way to talk through your concerns, what tools you currently have, and how they are working for you. Your therapist can help support you find tools that work for you and troubleshoot as you try the tools out.
Whether you currently have one or multiple tools, take inventory and take a moment to observe and reflect on what those tools are. Know that you have a toolbox and that you can rely on it when you need it.