I Can’t Cope!

How many times has someone said that to me! I know the feeling, too. We all have times when we feel like we can’t cope. Everything seems to be going wrong– relationships, work, health–  you name it. And to top everything off, all your best efforts seem to avail nothing– or to even make things worse.

Those of you who are interested in cognitive therapy will have already spotted this for a cognitive distortion– in this case, a type of all or nothing thinking. Strangely enough, not only is it untrue that you can’t cope, the pendulum might even be considered to swing completely in the opposite direction– there’s nothing you can do that’s not coping.

This thought takes me back to my first psychology class, where the professor introduced us to the idea that everything that an organism does is behavior. “What about being in a coma?” the class asked. “That’s coma behavior,” the professor replied. And so on. If you address a life problem by watching nonstop episodes of The Sopranos, that could be a form of stress reduction through escapism. If you address the problem by getting a second job, that’s another form of coping– and not obviously the best one, despite seeming more virtuous that watching reruns. If for example both behaviors were done in response to having a relationship problem, they both could be attempts at coping that don’t actually tackle the problem effectively. Both could be seen as a way of disengaging from the relationship, even if I tell myself I’m getting a second job to buy wonderful things for my partner.

There are many ways we can respond to problems, of course, and they will vary in how successful they are. In some cases, problems will be things we can’t actually solve. Coping with the death of a loved one, an event that comes to us all if we live normal lives, is more of an inner task than an outward one. But taking long walks on the beach every day for a month, fair weather or foul, is likely to be a better choice than consuming a pint of rum every day for a month.

But everyone does the best they can at the time. I like Dialectical Behavior Therapy because one of its assumptions  is that everyone (client and therapist together) is doing the best they can– but that everyone (client and therapist together) needs to do better. I also like it that the originator of DBT, Marsha Linehan, came out with her own story of adolescent mental illness. DBT has been widely used with troubled adolescents and is largely a coping skills model of therapy. Depth psychology is fascinating but one cannot marshal one’s resources in response to profound insight if one has never had any behavioral resources to begin with, perhaps as the result of childhood neglect. Additionally, one is unlikely to have the time or ability to engage in introspection if one is constantly in a panic state of fight-or-flight arousal generated by making ineffective attempts at coping that either don’t adequately address a problem, or which make it worse.

True story, told by a gentleman from whom I took anger management facilitator training: a man was very upset with his girlfriend, and in response to being upset he smashed the windshield of her car with a baseball bat. When the group asked him  his motivation, he said he did it because he wanted his girlfriend to take him back! So people can really do some grossly misdirected attempts at coping.

Although most of us don’t have such inappropriate coping behavior, we all have times when we get off course.  But how to get back on course? The DBT statement above is a good start. Another piece of the puzzle is self compassion: check out http://www.self-compassion.org/ It  helps to simply recognize that what I’m doing isn’t the most effective strategy, rather than to self-judge negatively. Another piece of the puzzle is the maxim something beats nothing. This is the more abstract version of the old adage “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Much more can be said about this, but not just now.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in behavioral health, cognitive therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mental health, physical health, Recovery, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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