I’m constantly planning to teach, teaching, charting about teaching, and feeling… less excited about coping skills by the day.
“No childhood shit… I just need some strategies.”~Brene Brown
Coping is a big business, chasing after alleviating symptoms instead of going to the root cause is all the rage. I heard speculation kids today are anxiety-ridden bundles of goo because we took kindergarten and preschool away. It isn’t enough to learn how to play together and how to handle when it’s time to play apart. Young children must learn numbers, letters, and to read. Maybe it’s the phones, with Snapchat and discord, social media and texting 24/7. The rumor mill in middle and high school is now digital, with mean girls and yo’ mamma flying at the speed of electrons and “proof” of all manner of insults a screenshot away. Adults of all ages fair no better. Because we are so anxious, irritable, and unbalanced, we need more coping skills. We don’t have enough coping skills.
I call bullshit. Remember that card game? You and your friends clustered around a pile of cards, lying like crazy about the cards you had and the cards you put down, out of earshot of the responsible adult in the house. The point is to get rid of all the cards in your hand first, by whatever means necessary. If someone thought you were lying, they would say “Bullshit” and if they were right the entire discard pile went into your hand. If they were wrong, the discard pile went into their hand. Picking up the pile made the task of winning simultaneously easier and more difficult. Sure, you had more cards to get rid of, but you also held the truth in your hand. It was possible to look over the Mae West-worthy fan of cards and say “Don’t even try.”
I call bullshit on coping skills. We can either arm you with coping skills for the existential dread you feel when you hear your yesterday’s-best-friend said something catty on the social media network of your choice, or we can dig deeper into what is sparking the existential dread in the first place. The former is SMART and easy, the latter is difficult-difficult. Either you will learn and utilize up to three coping skills per week for four weeks or we can go back to the “childhood shit” and talk about why this hurts so much. I’m now looking over my fan and saying “Don’t even try.”
If I am an exhausted ball of anxiety and in need of “coping skills,” what I need is a change of activity and/or perspective. Sometimes life sucks and there is no breathing pattern or pretzeled-up yoga pose I can teach you, no pill or tumbler of fruity-flavored alcohol I can provide to make anything feel any better. Often, underlying beliefs trap us in cages of our own making.
What are you afraid of? What terrifying belief is making your heart pound and your spirit sink?
Moving along… coping mechanisms and self-care strategies. From page 58 of Judith Herman’s classic Trauma and Recovery
Stress-resilient individuals seem to have three characteristics, high sociability, a thoughtful and active coping style, and a strong perception of their ability to control their own destiny.
Brownies are not a thoughtful and active coping style. Taking on more work to prove your worth and distract from uncomfortable feelings is not a thoughtful and active coping style. A thoughtful and active coping style neither substitutes one harmful behavior for another, nor does it layer physically or emotionally painful stimuli like Van Gogh would layer oils of a painting.
To cope with having a mostly sedentary, emotionally intense day job, I lift heavy things. Lifting heavy things is restorative, as is a daily meditation practice, hot tea in the morning, a Kindle full of books, a yoga practice, a full night’s sleep, regular time with good friends, a tidy room, a mostly plant-based diet, and 10 minutes sitting outside staring at trees. Thursday I ate brownies, thinking the momentary burst of goodies would feel good and perk me back up after a hard morning. Not really. I also learned I hate the syrup-filled coffee beverages at the national coffee chain when I tried drinking one as a treat after a long day. A plain latte is just dandy.
Here’s the thing. Often, on our way to the thoughtful and active coping style we develop fast lanes to maladaptive coping strategies. I “used to” eat to cope with stress, as well as throw myself into projects and all manner of unhelpful things. Even though the last few years have taught me better ways to manage myself so I don’t need “coping skills,” those fast lanes still live in my brain and I am likely to return to them even though I know they don’t work. This is me, looking over my fan of truth, telling myself “Don’t even try.” While focused breathing or grounding exercises are a better choice than a brownie or a syrupy beverage in the moment, the solution is to dig deeper and examine what about those days made them so hard. Was I poorly boundaried? Did I over-schedule or mis-schedule clients? How has my sleep been? What fears about my work performance are driving me? How can I re-incorporate those genuinely restorative practices into my daily routine?
Here’s my statement of self-compassion: It’s okay to return to where I came from every once in a while, we all do. The important thing is to recognize this isn’t where I live anymore and to go home.