Life Skills You Can Learn

When we want to excel at tennis we go to an expert, and expect to work hard and practice. When we want to develop life skills, we may not have such straightforward methods available. In fact, we may not even be aware that life skills are learnable, believing instead that the toolkit we are given by our parents should suffice for the rest of our lives. But when we look more carefully, we discover that many life skills can be improved through study, expert input and practice. Through counseling, self-help books and tapes, and workshops we can improve our ability to succeed at every-day challenges. For example, we can use our skills to increase harmony with others, increase our ability to cope, and improve our mood. Here are some of the things that we can learn.

Self talk
Most of us don't pay much attention to the continual stream of thinking inside our own mind, but whether we're aware of it or not, the things we say to ourselves influence the way we feel. For example, we may habitually think to ourselves that everything is gloomy and then wonder why we feel down. By learning about our own internal voice, we can begin to improve the things we say to ourselves. By reducing inflammatory thoughts that push our own hot buttons, encouraging ourselves instead of putting ourselves down, replacing pessimistic observations with optimistic ones, and introducing other positive self-talk habits, we can improve our mood.

Child within
When we're angry or needy, we find ourselves regressing to childish behavior. If we step back and carefully watch ourselves during these episodes, we begin to realize that powerful childish feelings lie under the surface, and when these feelings burst into awareness we become unglued. It's as if there are parts of us that never grew up. To heal these disruptive parts of ourselves, we need to learn about their roots. While we can't turn the clock back and change our childhood, we can work through our issues by processing our intimate memories. When we were helpless and starting to put together our sense of who we are and how we fit into the world, there were imperfections in our training. For many reasons, we may not have received the most warm, generous, orderly, or safe upbringing. By going back to the source, we are able to understand more about what makes us tick today. With our adult wisdom we extend compassion and support to our child-within, and allow ourselves to forgive the faults of the past and let it go. As we focus our insight and heal these shadowy places, we become the empowered adults we want to be.

Stress management and self-soothing
We all have methods for soothing ourselves, but the methods we use may not always be adequate to the challenges we face. If we can't adequately soothe ourselves, we're stuck with hurt feelings that eat away at us unchecked. As we try to stop out-of-control agitation we may turn to drugs and alcohol, overeating, or other unconstructive strategies for survival. Another way we try to protect ourselves against overwhelming feelings is to avoid situations that may over-stimulate us. The problem is that we may be avoiding valuable activities, such as meeting people, flying on a plane, confronting a child with a difficult discussion or advancing in our career. To feel better and cope more effectively, we can improve the ways we soothe our feelings. Adults can learn many new methods to supplement the ones we learned growing up. We can also pass these on to our kids. Some of the methods that can bring us peace and poise without negative side effects include learning to: breathe deeply, deeply relax muscles, meditate, develop encouraging and soothing self talk and visualize safety and peace.

Communication skills
Why do some conversations end up in arguments while others sail smoothly to a happy conclusion? We may feel that the way other people respond to us is out of our control, but if we look more closely we can find that the things that we say and do contribute significantly to the outcome of every conversation. If we are unhappy with the way people respond to us, we can learn ways to improve our communication. For example, most arguments involve one or both people feeling that the other person didn't fully listen to their point of view. Using a simple technique of summarizing what we thought we heard, we can assure the other person we're on the same page. We can also learn to choose words that are less inflammatory, and more conducive to trust. As trust increases, defensiveness goes down, and the quality of the communication dramatically improves.

Decision making
Life is made up of a series of choices. Choices are "good" when they line up with our desired outcome, getting us what we want both in the short and long term. And good choices make us feel good about ourselves, and allow us to become the person we want to be. It's not that hard to look back years later and decide which choices are good, but how do we know while we're making them? If we want to be sure our choices are taking us where we want to go, we need to pick apart our decision-making process. Intuition and "gut feelings" play a role in most choices. But choices can go wrong when they're impulsively based on immediate reward or releasing tension without considering long-term consequences for us or for others. And often, our "gut feelings" seem so natural because they are based on old habits that we've never stopped to think through. To get the most out of life, we need to slow down and explore our own decision making process, being sure to weed out old habits that take us in the wrong direction, and to include clear thinking that takes into account short and long term consequences for ourselves and for others.

Negotiating/assertiveness/conflict resolution
Often we find ourselves stuck in situations that aren't giving us what we want. Instead of moving closer to a solution, we find ourselves mired in unproductive emotions, feeling helpless, victimized or depressed. These feelings muddy our thinking, and provoke either an overly aggressive or overly passive response that gets us even deeper into the frustrating situation. To help us get what we want, we can learn the social skills of assertiveness and negotiation. First, we need to take our own needs seriously, and communicate them effectively. Then by calmly accepting that the other person also has needs we focus our attention on the process of give and take. Putting aside our instinctive defensiveness, we look at the other person as a collaborator. The outcome of a successful negotiation should draw the two parties together, giving them each what they want, and seeing each other as partners in achieving mutual success.

Raising a child is a vastly important and complex task. Yet most of our training comes "on the job" as we learn about our children from watching our parents, talking to friends or by trial and error. We have little input from experts to help us improve the results of our efforts or to handle special challenges. If our child is misbehaving, or not meeting our expectation, we may become frustrated and wish for change without any clear plan. Our child is just starting out in life, and has few tools at his disposal to change his own patterns, while we, as adults, have the opportunity to seek better strategies. Through parent-training, there is so much that we can learn about how to prepare kids to be the best they can be. Even if our child is behaving correctly, we need to remember this is a lifelong project. The more wisdom we apply towards our kids now, the healthier our family will remain, giving each other an active support network through the years of our lives.

Anger management
Anger disrupts relationships, and can ruin an hour, or a day, a job or a relationship. Yet, even as we begin to understand the damaging effects of anger, we seem to slide towards it again and again. We may minimize our own responsibility routinely blaming the other person for our anger. However, no matter how innocent we are, our own anger is ours, not the other person's. Once we take responsibility for our own state of mind, and seek to relieve these unwanted feelings, we begin to see the habits and expectations that set the stage for anger. We learn alternate behaviors and attitudes that will cool down impulse and aggression, converting the situation into an opportunity for problem solving and intimacy. Managing anger is a learned skill. Learning how to calm our feelings, reduce arguments, and put the brakes on flare-ups can help us improve the quality of life at work and at home.

Effective time management
When we are always pressured to do the things we must, and we continuously put off doing the things we want, we start to feel as though life is passing us by. Instead of giving in to this syndrome, we can fight back by learning to use time more effectively. No matter how busy we are, we can always benefit from a clear understanding of how we are using our time, and how we want to be using it. By getting in touch with the flow of our lives, we can have the best chance of directing our energy towards the goals that will make us feel good about ourselves.

Events march on, year after year, and we respond, engaging in our lives to the best of our ability. But we may not be sure where it's all headed. Without a long-term goal, our choices and actions are weighted towards short-term pay offs, and may not add up to the overall direction we would have chosen had we consciously considered where we were going. Through a soul-searching process, we can consciously define what we want to achieve and who we want to become. When we have a mission, we can apply ourselves to our accomplishments with more persistent, consistent energy. Our mission will help us find our way through the many detours and obstacles of life.

When we get up in the morning, what sort of universe are we entering? Is it a safe universe, run by a compassionate supportive higher power? Or is it a cold forbidding universe, run by a harsh or distant higher power, or none at all? Do we trust that life has a larger purpose, or do we cynically suspect that it's all for nothing? Will death drop us off into empty nothingness, or is our soul immortal? If it's immortal, do we fear what we might face, or embrace it? Do risks threaten us with failure and humiliation or do risks bring us closer to success? These beliefs about the world and our place in it provide a backdrop that inform our decisions, our goals, and even our feelings. By getting more in touch with the power our beliefs have in our every day life, we realize the importance of bringing our beliefs into harmony with the person we want to become.