Sometimes therapists will “teach coping skills.” I was about halfway through grad school, all jazzed up about counseling, when I changed from a behavior modification service (BHRS) to a therapy service (FBMHS). Excited about the opportunity to work more deeply with people, I remember vividly being surprised when I heard several of my colleagues talk about “coping skills.” It took me a while before I had the ability to articulate why this was rubbing me in a weird way.
“Teaching coping skills” is a collusion of avoidance.
Therapists teach coping skills for the same reason clients avoid confronting their situations:
It’s a fear of not being able to change the problem – a fear of being consumed by the problem, in essence killed by the problem – a feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness. Those are all really good reasons to avoid a problem! If there’s a chance it’ll kill you, by all means avoid it!
So when people talk about coping skills, they’re often agreeing that the best idea is avoidance and maintenance of the status quo.
Let’s closely examine the concept of “coping” and let’s break it down into two categories: “indirect coping” and “direct coping.” It’s important to be skilled in both categories and it’s also important to see the difference between the two so you can choose mindfully and make sure you’re not settling for less than what you’re capable of.
An indirect coping skill is if my boss makes me angry and I go home and sprint a mile to blow off steam – or my dog dies and I have a beer – or my sister yells at my child so I beat up a punching bag. These aren’t necessarily unhealthy. Exercise is good and sometimes a beer really hits the spot. The only downside to indirect coping is if we never consider direct coping. Indirect coping skills don’t actually change anything about the problem that’s causing the need for coping.
To go a step further, sometimes indirect coping skills can cause a more serious problem when it turns cyclical: being tired so I have a cup of coffee – being broke so I take out a loan – being mad at my boss so I yell at my wife, etc.
Direct coping skills, on the other hand, is a confrontation of the problem: an approach to the thing that’s causing the discomfort. It could be internal or external.
External: approaching the boss or the sister and trying to come to a resolution. Doing “chair work” to my dog and saying how much I miss him and I hope he had a great life.
Internal: searching myself to see why the boss bothers me so much. What are the self-concept messages that get activated? Examining myself to see if I have unresolved things with sister from before my child was even born.
Again, neither coping style is inherently better than the other. When we’re functioning optimally, they’re usually intertwined: like an indirect coping skill (deep breath) in order to gather my thoughts in order to do a direct coping skill (approach my sister to ask her to consider the impact she’s having on my child).
Let’s go back to the therapy side of things. We often utilize indirect coping skills when we don’t believe we have a fighting chance against the actual problem. If I feel hopeless that I won’t be able to create any change towards my sister, I won’t take the risk. If I feel inadequate in my interpersonal skills or in my value as an employee, I won’t approach my boss in order to try and make change. So when therapists “teach coping skills” (usually meaning the indirect kind), they’re often accidentally communicating to the client: “I don’t think you (or I) have what it takes to solve the actual problem and make things lastingly better for you.” Bummer, right? This is also closely connected to the difference between intervening to “treat the symptom” versus “treating the problem.”
The last crucial piece is the very-hard-to-reach attitude of viewing problems as opportunities. This is so difficult to do in real life. It’s much easier to type about while drinking coffee.
It goes something like this:
Each problem is an opportunity. Each problem is a lesson about yourself to teach you where you’re vulnerable to get your peace, joy, and grace stolen. Each problem shows you the perfect template for the exercises you need to do in order to strengthen the whole of your personality. Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a great resource to keep this part of you burning.
In sum, it’s important to recognize the difference between “direct” and “indirect” coping. And it’s important to really ask yourself how much change you think you can make. If we only do indirect coping, we’re still spending a lot of energy… but the overall configuration doesn’t change. Are you avoiding certain exercises? Are you selling yourself short? Is it worth the risk? Is there a growth opportunity if you directly confront the problem?