The general approach to mental health focuses on identifying problems. Most respond to such problems by defining coping mechanisms to deal with them. Others may even scratch beneath the surface and try to figure out how to remedy the problem permanently by defining more elaborate coping mechanisms like comprehensive strategies and lifestyle changes.
Unfortunately, too many assume coping mechanisms to be a permanent solution. Breathing exercises, affirmations, mantras, and prescriptive techniques to practice in a given situation are all examples of coping mechanisms.
Coping mechanisms fail
While there is a place for coping mechanisms in our growth journey, I discourage the use of coping mechanisms with very good reason. Coping mechanisms, by design, are only effective within a given setting. The moment that setting changes, the coping mechanism becomes redundant, or loses effectiveness. This redirects our attention to the coping mechanism, rather than the problem at hand.
Like trying to practice a breathing exercise when we’re being pushed for an immediate response on something urgent. If we focus on the breathing exercise, we lose credibility by failing to respond as needed. Focus on the response, and the anxiety threatens to get us tongue-tied or to respond with the first thing that comes to mind, rather than a composed and rational response.
Where do coping mechanisms come from?
Coping mechanisms are usually adopted from habits that work for others. This means that we’re trying to implement something from someone whose life circumstances, resources, support structure, and most importantly sense of self is completely different to our own. Remember the problem with forcing a round peg into a square hole? Yeah, it doesn’t work.
Worse still, when we don’t obtain the same results from the coping mechanism as they do, we find more reason to question our ability to deal with whatever it is that is overwhelming us, sending us further into that dark place from which we’re trying to emerge.
Coping mechanisms are simply not sustainable, and are often not effective beyond superficial relief.
What’s the alternative to coping mechanisms?
Imagine that you need to travel from Cape Town to Cairo by road. You could take a luxury sedan, or a capable all-terrain vehicle. And no, flying there is not an option!
Both vehicles will get you there. Given that it’s a long and demanding journey, you choose the luxury sedan because why sacrifice comfort when you have the option to travel in luxury. Right? Off you go.
A short while into the journey you hit a huge pot hole and damage a wheel. A little while later, you didn’t notice that massive rock on the shoulder of the road and you break an axel. Shortly after that, you get stuck in mud because of recent rains. Each time you think you’ve had the worst of it, something else happens.
Eventually, you start expecting the worst from the road ahead, but don’t consider questioning your choice of vehicle. You’re convinced that the vehicle was the best choice to make. Until, at your next repair, some mechanic that doesn’t even know you passes a flippant remark about your choice of vehicle to drive on those roads.
Suddenly, it dawns on you. You made a mistake and are now faced with two choices. You could blame your poor choice of vehicle on the salesman who sold you the car. That could be true, but it wouldn’t solve your problem.
Alternately, you could recognise that your trust in the salesman was misplaced and instead, you could focus your attention on trying to either equip the vehicle with the right equipment to make it more resilient, or trade it in for a suitable all-terrain vehicle.
What choice do you make?
Too many remain fixated on wanting justice from the salesman who gave them bad advice or betrayed their trust, instead of simply embracing their reality and finding ways to improve their circumstances.
That salesman is a parent, a significant other, a role model, or even a friend. Someone in whom we placed so much trust that when they fall short of honouring that trust, we question why we weren’t good enough for them to want to treat us better than that.
That choice is the difference between owning your life, or choosing to cope with the life that you were given when you didn’t know better.
My approach is focused on gaining understanding about why that decision was the only decision that was possible at the time. For example, trusting that salesman. By gaining a healthier perspective of what influenced you to make a bad decision, or an ineffective one, it becomes possible to make a conscious choice on how to undo the impact of that decision.
I don’t ever advise you to abandon your goals or your dreams. Instead, I focus on helping you to realise what it is that you may be doing that hinders your progress towards achieving it.
Recognising what changes we can make to the way we see things is far more powerful than trying to adopt habits and methods to compensate for our bad decisions.
By owning that choice, we own our space in life. This allows us to change our course of action without feeling incompetent or foolish about it. More importantly, we cannot make decisions about things we’re unaware of. That’s why my focus is to help you to improve your self-awareness so that you can make conscious decisions about what works for you, rather than relying on advice from those who may not know you well enough.
It’s not about judging ourselves harshly for having made poor decisions. It’s about having a more informed perspective about the decisions that we took.
This is the root of empowering and uplifting ourselves towards creating that life that we deserve.