Coping Skills: What Can We Learn from Those Who Succeed?

By the Duke Talent Identification Program

In his latest book, Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton, the best-selling author and philosopher, graphically chronicles the universal anxiety, often unspoken, about what others think of us and whether they judge us successes or failures by our achievements. De Botton asks, “Why do people generally seem unsatisfied?” He answers this by exploring the comparisons people make between themselves and others. People get concerned, he says, when they think of their family, friends, achievements, and acquisitions as falling short.

De Botton’s thesis holds both for young people and for their parents. In particular, gifted individuals are often hypersensitive to the world around them. Their heightened awareness of social and moral issues magnifies global concerns for them. They often compare themselves with others and are critical when they fall short in any domain. If their successes are not “perfect”—for example, if they have not achieved 100 percent on a test or if their relationships are not all that they desire—their fear of ridicule leads to self-criticism or self-blame. These individuals often do not turn to others for help because of their sense of aloneness, their pride, or their inability to ask for assistance. Fortunately, research in the field of coping shows that good coping skills can be learned and are helpful in such situations.

While gifted young people may have good problem-solving skills, they may not have good coping skills in other domains.

Coping skills are the thoughts, feelings, and actions that individuals implement when dealing with events and concerns in their everyday lives. These skills can be assigned to 18 much-researched and validated conceptual areas, which have been categorized into three coping styles: productive, nonproductive, and reference to others. These descriptions allow us to think about coping skills in ways that can be taught. Gifted students may also use other strategies, but these 18 are the most frequently used by all.

Productive coping describes positive methods of coping. Individuals successfully work to solve problems while implementing the following strategies:

  • focus on solving the problem—look at different approaches and resolutions
  • physical recreation—keep fit and healthy
  • pursue relaxing diversions—find and develop interests and activities that relieve stress
  • work hard and achieve—demonstrate commitment, concentrate on results
  • focus on the positive—look on the bright side.

Nonproductive coping designates strategies that hinder coping:

  • worry—dwell on concerns about happiness, especially future happiness
  • engage in wishful thinking—hope for the best without taking steps to ensure it
  • decide not to cope—do nothing about the problem or give up, which leads to physical and/or psychological symptoms
  • ignore the problem—consciously block out the difficulty or pretend that it doesn’t exist
  • suppress tension—attempt to feel better by engaging in negative behaviors, such as substance abuse
  • keep to oneself—withdraw from others, refuse to communicate one’s concerns and feelings
  • blame onself—see oneself as responsible for the problem

Reference to others represents the coping strategies young people use when they turn for support to external resources, such as peers and professionals. Knowing how and when to get help from others and how to get along with others are skills that contribute to success in life. Such strategies are indicative of emotional intelligence. They include the following:

  • seek social support—share problems, talk to others
  • invest in friendship—spend quality time with close companions
  • seek to belong—improve relationships by caring about and showing concern for others
  • seek spiritual support—pray for help, look for guidance from a spiritual leader
  • seek professional help—discuss concerns with a qualified individual, such as a teacher or a counselor
  • engage in social action—join and advocate with others who have similar concerns

While gifted young people may have good problem-solving skills, they may not have good coping skills in other domains or recognize that they need assistance in specific ways of coping. Capable students most frequently cope by working hard to achieve, working through problems, pursuing relaxing diversions, and taking part in physical recreation. They are less inclined to turn to others or to seek professional help, so those strategies need to be

Research with young people tells us that those who have a good sense of well-being do not indulge in self-blaming. So we want to instill in young people who have difficulty coping that self-blame is not productive. In contrast, young people who seek social support (in particular boys, who are less inclined than girls to turn to others) achieve better than they would by relying solely on their own abilities.

A better question than de Botton’s about dissatisfaction might be “What is it about people who succeed in life—especially those who achieve more than they might be expected to, given their abilities and experiences—that sets them apart from others?” To answer this question, I interviewed exceptional achievers to determine the factors to which they attribute their success. What all of them had in common were a passion for their pursuits; supportive parents, teachers, or coaches; memorable messages received from significant people in their lives; and an ability to cope with setbacks. Regardless of the preferred approach, it is possible for everyone to learn to cope better. Here’s what to do:

Use the language of coping and the strategies listed in the above categories, which tell us what to do and what not to do.

  • Be aware of the coping strategies you use, and evaluate them honestly. Are they productive or nonproductive? How do they effect outcomes?
  • Decide what sort of social role model you are. Parents, who are the most significant role models for young people, set examples for them to follow and to learn from, both consciously and unconsciously.
  • Expand your coping skills. Theoretically, a limitless range of coping strategies is available to us. Extending the ways we cope and being aware of their outcomes will help us curtail some of our negative coping habits.

As teachers and parents, we can help young people judge themselves and others less harshly. Focus on and revel in the small steps they make. Teach them not to compare themselves to others and not to regard every activity as a competition. Celebrating each person’s unique abilities will help children develop joyful self-acceptance.

Erica Frydenberg, PhD

Erica Frydenberg is a clinical, organizational, counseling, and educational psychologist. She is associate professor of psychology in the Faculty of Education and head of the Educational Psychology Unit at the University of Melbourne.

By the Author
  • Thriving, Surviving, or Going Under: Coping with Everyday Lives, Information Age, 2004
  • Beyond Coping: Meeting Goals, Visions, and Challenges, Oxford, 2002
  • Adolescent Coping: Theoretical and Research Perspectives, Routledge, 1997
  • Coping for Capable Kids, with Leonora M. Cohen, Prufrock, 1996
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