What’s the point of using coping skills anyway?

Utilizing skills in the moment may not be as pleasurable as doing that ineffective behavior to get rid of the pain, so what’s the point? The skills can be hard to use, and it can feel so much easier to do what we habitually do. Even our bodies are against us; our physiology actually wants us to do what we typically do to conserve energy! In the long run, however, we may end up with more problems than we started with. Here are some points that I have accumulated in my experience of actually working the skills and being a DBT therapist for the last five or so years.

1. It’s all about energy.

You are about to pick up that bottle of wine or text your ex after an excruciating day at work. Your boss put you on an “improvement plan” because you have been late to work, and you had to take your cat to the vet this week because she won’t stop missing the litter box. This sounds like the PERFECT reason to use not-so-great coping, right? Well, let’s break it down. You decide to drink that bottle of wine. It feels great at the moment to forget everything and relax for the night, sure. The next day, you wake up feeling not great. You go to work late because it took a smidge longer to get out of bed. After all, you had that bottle of wine. Your boss notices and goes ballistic because this is exactly why she put you on the improvement plan. You feel like shit physically AND mentally now because you were late again when you knew this had been an issue. Cycles of guilt and shame ensue for the next several days, and you feel burnt out, run-down, and all out of energy, you can’t even think about using skills. Cue the ineffective coping! Now we are texting that ex, hooking up, and feeling like shit after, and the cycle continues. You have used so much energy in attempting to avoid the pain you are feeling that now you are in the pit of despair, having to use even more energy to climb out and use skills.

Let’s rewind. Let’s say that instead of drinking that night, you decided to use your skills. Maybe you were feeling pretty heightened, so you used some distress tolerance. After using skills, you were pretty exhausted, so you went to bed. You wake up the next day, perhaps not feeling like rainbows and sunshine, but you have enough energy to get out of bed and get to work on time. Disaster with boss and ex averted! Yes, you may still be feeling some of the emotions from yesterday. However, you are not utilizing all of your energy resources to climb out of that pit of despair you have dug for yourself because of ineffective coping.

2. You can’t avoid pain

Pain is inevitable. Yes, it’s true that some folks have suffered unexplainable traumas that others can’t fathom, and for some, it may seem that when it comes to bad luck, they are the spokes child for it. At the end of the day, however, if we try to avoid the painful emotions and sensations we experience because of unlucky circumstances or past traumas, they WILL come back eventually.

So, if the pain is inevitable and pushing away the emotion doesn’t work, and skills don’t necessarily get rid of all of the pain, what the hell is the point? Well, there is a difference between experiencing pain and experiencing suffering. This concept can be broken down into 2 simple equations: pain+non-acceptance=suffering and pain+acceptance=pain.

We get to choose whether we experience just pain or suffering. Of course, the pain hurts (duh), BUT suffering is an ongoing experience. Suffering happens when we don’t move through and accept the pain we experience, so the pain compounds. It may not seem like much at first. However, you can think of it as pennies in a piggy bank: one ineffective behavior may not do much, though that increases the odds of continuing to use ineffective behaviors and suffering, adding pennies, and then before you know it, you have so many pennies you don’t know what to do with them! IF we choose to move through and accept the pain, we bypass all that suffering and cope with the pain; no accumulation of pain, no pit of despair.

3. Ineffective coping = stagnation

Think about what you want in your life. Maybe it’s loving relationships or a thriving career, or living by yourself in the woods in a cabin and homestead. Whatever it is you want (within reason here), you can attempt to build for yourself. You can move closer to these goals or further away from these goals by choosing to be skillful or not. We are all connected in a way, and there is a reason for all behavior.

Also, all behaviors lead to consequences (positive or negative). Let’s say you struggle with lashing out at others when stressed. You work a high-stakes job, and stress is, well, a once-a-week occurrence. You and some friends have planned to go out to dinner on Friday after work. You make a choice to not be skillful during the day, even though your boss’s boss has been in the office ordering you around to do things the complete opposite way you have been doing them, and it makes no sense whatsoever. So you drive up to the restaurant to meet your friends after work, go in, and start to unload on them. All the stress of the day and the week and the month. Your voice is raised, and all eyes are on you. You can’t notice how uncomfortable one of your friends is because your emotional mind has taken over, and other tables next to you are shifting their gaze because of your tone of voice. The waiter brings you your meal, and you notice it isn’t what you asked for, and boom! You are telling off the waiter. Your friends are telling you to calm down and saying it isn’t that big of a deal, and perhaps eventually, you calm down. You go home and don’t think anything of it. You choose not to use interpersonal effectiveness to apologize and think, “Eh, I wasn’t terrible.” Two weeks later, you see a picture on Instagram of the group of friends you went out to dinner with, and you realize, “Oh wow. I didn’t get an invite.” If your goal is to have loving, lasting relationships, and it was your choice not to use skills during that stressful work week, are you moving closer to your goal, stagnating your progress, or even moving further away from your goals?

We all get the f* its from time to time. They say that relapse is the rule rather than the exception, and there is a reason why it’s called “skills training.” You will get messy and not use skills sometimes, which is all part of the learning process. Though if you are noticing that you are pushing aside using your skills and often saying, “Well what’s the point? They don’t make me feel as good as _” then maybe keeping these few points in mind can help:

  • Do I want to put my energy toward cleaning up my mess or store my energy to use for doing things that bring me joy?
  • Do I want to experience pain, or do I want to experience suffering?
  • Is this choice bringing me closer to the life I want to live or moving me further away?

Shelby Milhoan, LCPC

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