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I Don't Do Coping Skills

If you're looking to shush your symptoms, you've come to the wrong place.

Therapy has changed a lot over the years. Because of decades and decades of research and the development of new therapeutic modalities, there are a wide variety of methods used to approach mental health (see The Acronyms of Therapy). While new developments are always surfacing, there continues to be a population of therapists that enjoy the comforts of more traditional approaches. They teach you how to challenge your thoughts and behaviors and give you ways of minimizing or soothing your anxiety and other symptoms.

I'm not that therapist.

I like where the more modern approaches are taking us and while all theories have their flaws, I abide by the saying that "the only way out is through". We're not meant to be shushing, soothing away, or diminishing symptoms, we're meant to be listening to the information that our "symptoms" can give us and using that information to make shifts in our lives.

Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are. ―Pema Chödrön

When the therapeutic world refers to "coping skills" it generally refers to breathing techniques, muscle relaxation exercises, journaling prompts, using logic to challenge your thoughts, and other emotional regulation skills. While these "mindfulness" strategies seem helpful because they can indeed lower the heart rate and other physiological symptoms, they are actually telling the worried and upset parts of us to quiet down. Maybe we can put them off for a little while, but there remains a serious underlying problem and it's waiting around the corner of the next triggering event.

To me "coping skills" are like putting bandaids on a gaping wound and, if you've got trauma, you're going to need stitches.

Putting that bandaid on a wound is useless. Not only is it not going to heal properly because it's going to keep reopening, but it may get infected too. It's going to impact everything you do (if it hasn't already). But without treatment, it will get worse over time. The more we shush symptoms, the louder they will get because the thing that keeps these responses in place has not yet been healed.

Oftentimes people think symptoms are just a part of the lottery of life and are always chronic. You have anxiety? You just have to live with it. You have PTSD? Welcome to the suck. Not true! Symptoms don't live in a vacuum and they also don't have to be a life sentence. But it's going to take some work.

I often use the analogy that trauma work is like healing from a bad scrape on your leg. You've fallen on the road and you're a hot bleeding mess. The first thing we need to do is clean the wound. This is often the most painful part. We have to dig all of the gravel and debris out. Then, the hydrogen peroxide. It's going to sting. It's going to be painful. But if you don't do it, it can't heal. Think of me as your personal surgical technologist. I'm handing you the tools in session to suture your own wound.

Now, I understand that once you leave the office, the pain may linger. But unlike when you have surgery and you're given medication to numb the pain, in therapy we don't want to avoid it. In therapy, we lean into that pain.

Lean into pain? I know, that sounds awful; who would want to do that? Well, if we learned how to do that from the very start, we wouldn't be in this situation. We are a diet pill nation. We don't like discomfort. We don't want to talk about it and we certainly don't want to feel it. We like the easy alternative to hard work. Take the pill, lose the baggage. Easy and done with, right?


That "griefcase" is going to show up on your doorstep later like a mobster demanding the money you owe him. You're not getting out of this one. There's no way around it. Time to pay the piper.

In more modern approaches to therapy, we get curious and listen to what the brain and body are letting us know. We befriend the parts of us that are freaking out. We hold space for the sadness, the anger, and the helplessness. We keep vigil for the heart that is racing and the shoulders that are tense and raised up to your ear lobes. We process.

We don't just talk about it; we be about it. We get curious about it. We inspect it. We translate it. We tend to it and then we sew that f*cker up.

And besides, you already know all the ways to get a coping "bandaid". Any 2-second Google search and trendy new app in the play store can give you those. You don't need a therapist for that.

What you do need a therapist for is uncovering the story that is behind those symptoms. You need us to educate you on how these experiences have affected your development, teach you how to find the trailheads and help you to witness and process the memories so that you can deactivate the landmines in your psyche. You need us to help make sense of how your body is manifesting what remains unresolved within you. You need us to teach you how to listen to your internal messages. You need us to help you drain the wound and then hand you the sewing needle. You need us to be the battle buddy in your war against your traumas.

You will come out the other side.

And while I can't go home with you after you've had a long session of getting your a$$ kicked, I do encourage you to take note of your experiences and connect with what you find. We are not used to having to feel bad and sit in our feelings. Our culture prides itself on the many ways we can distract ourselves (drugs, alcohol, Netflix, TikTok, food, work, etc.) to keep emotions at bay.

The attempt to escape from pain, is what creates more pain. ― Gabor Maté

But, what if I get "dysregulated" and can't handle my emotions? With a therapist like me, whose approach is from an IFS (Internal Family Systems/"partswork") or focusing approach, I'm not just having you tell me all your traumas and then pushing you out the door. I'm teaching you in session how to sit with things and acknowledge them. I'm guiding you through the whole process. It's up to you to commit to the practice and it's up to you to keep going once you leave the couch.

By definition, the word "coping" means "to deal with or attempt to overcome". Give some thought to whether those coping skills you think you need or the coping skills you've already been using are only just an attempt and fall short of actually helping you long term.

I don't teach coping skills for temporary relief that you will have to practice ad nauseam.

I offer people a chance to heal themselves under my guidance for lasting change.



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