Let’s talk about coping.
What does it mean to “cope” with something? One definition states that coping is to “struggle or deal, especially on fairly even terms or with some degree of success.”
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t read anywhere in that definition that coping means the pain will instantly disappear or that we will feel better as soon as we use whatever “coping skill” we choose. It sucks, doesn’t it? There’s really no nicer way to put that. It’s an awful part of being a human.
This blog is being written by a therapist who has dedicated her life to helping people cope with problems. This blog is also being written by a human being who is struggling and dealing with pain in her own life. So why don’t we dig into this issue together and remember that we all struggle in life?
A disturbing trend has been taking shape in the world and it is the trend of immediate gratification. We are seeing more and more people turn to mind-numbing substances, self-harm, and suicide as a means of “coping” with emotional pain. The truth of the matter is that these are not coping skills. These are attempts at erasing the very thing that makes us human: emotions. We have been created by an amazing Creator who decided to give us the ability to FEEL advanced and complicated emotions. But with this ability comes a great deal of pain sometimes. We all enjoy the emotions that make us feel good: love, happiness, excitement, etc. It is in those times that we don’t turn to substances or self-harm. However, when those emotions creep in that are painful, like rejection, sadness, and/or hurt, we immediately look for the fastest way to numb those. I want to bring your attention back to the definition of “coping.” The definition itself says that while we are coping we will struggle. While we are attempting to move past painful emotions, we will struggle. A part of coping is acceptance that the struggle must happen. We must feel pain in order to grow. We must hurt in order to heal. The very emotions we wish to numb are the emotions that will propel us toward feeling better.
I see a great deal of teenagers in our practice and this generation, as well as the ones above it and below it, are looking for ways to circumvent the process. They are looking for ways to escape the human condition. Look at all the things in this world that offer instant gratification. You want to hear a song? YouTube. You want to buy something? Amazon. (you can even have it delivered next day) You want to talk to a friend? Shoot a text. Most likely you’ll get a quick response. You hungry? There’s an app for that. Instant gratification is everywhere. Is it no wonder that we are seeing this trend? No, it really isn’t surprising. I also know that the knee-jerk response is “take away the phones, take away the video games, take away the TV.” However, I want to challenge everyone reading this to think long-term, not short-term. How can we be proactive, not reactive? TV, cell phones, video games and whatever else technology you can think of is NOT going away. It will only continue to advance. We can’t possibly remove these influences and believe that we are solving the problem. We are only putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. We are living in a world that lacks a tolerance for discomfort. We want the problem fixed immediately, we don’t want to feel uncomfortable emotions for any extended amount of time and we are sorely lacking a realistic view of what coping really is.
We have to start understanding and teaching the reality of coping. And when I say understanding and teaching, we must start with ourselves. We must look deeply at how we cope with uncomfortable emotions. Are we modeling a realistic version of coping? Do we even know what that looks like?
Coping looks different in every person and we, as a society, need to quit thinking it’s a cookie-cutter type of thing. If someone needs to be around people while they’re coping with pain and they choose to spend their free time with friends for 7 nights in a row, who are we to say that’s a bad thing? If someone needs to be alone for a couple of nights, who are we to say there’s something wrong with that? Maybe a teenager needs to write about sad and depressing things while coping. Maybe someone needs to draw dark and ugly pictures to express how they feel inside. If someone comes to counseling with me and they start to talk about depression, about feelings of emptiness, or even suicide, I never tell them to be quiet. Why do we get alarmed when teenagers use a different form to express those very things? Why do we think talking about our problems is the only way to cope with our problems? I’m not saying that can’t help, and I always encourage counseling when someone is struggling, but we also have to recognize that coping can take many forms. Little children use play as a means to express themselves. They don’t have our advanced vocabulary yet, so what other way can they express their emotions? Through play. Teenagers, more often than not, don’t use their words quite like adults do. However, they can use music, lyrics, art and creative writing, and quite regularly, these are the avenues in which they express their emotions. The thing I enjoy most about counseling teenagers is their creative ways of expressing themselves and it’s time we, as adults, quit stifling their choices of expression because it makes US uncomfortable. Ouch, right? That should definitely hit us all where it hurts.
I’ll say it again, when someone is coping, they are struggling. However, I want to bring our attention back to the definition. It also says coping is “dealing.” So while someone might be struggling through their emotions as they cope, they are also dealing. Everyone has a process and no process is wrong, as long as self-harm and substances/addictive behaviors are not being used.
Something I always like to say to my clients is that we must respect our emotions. We must honor them and give them the attention they deserve, even the ones that we don’t like. I challenge each of us, including myself, to really start looking at how we cope. It is so important for us to look at ourselves before we ever consider looking at someone else. There is a reason we are warned in the Bible to not look at the speck in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in our own. It begins with us. We must rise up, educate ourselves on healthy, realistic coping, and then teach this type of coping to the children of tomorrow. It’s time to recognize that struggling doesn’t mean we aren’t coping and that coping doesn’t mean we won’t struggle