It’s empowering to know how to take care of yourself when you’re going through a tough time. Coping skills such as journaling, spending some time outside, and talking to a trusted friend can ease difficult feelings of stress, sadness, or anger.
But are coping skills right for all of life’s challenging situations? Or are there certain things you might not want to “cope” your way through?
Coping skills can help you feel better in the moment, but they don’t actually resolve the problem triggering your emotional response. It’s especially important to be aware of the limits of coping skills in toxic situations such as unhealthy work environments, abusive relationships, and experiences of oppression – because, ultimately, no amount of coping will fundamentally change the nature of those experiences.
Coping can’t change a toxic work environment
In our age of increasing mental health awareness, more and more companies are promoting the benefits of self-care to their employees. Some workplaces hold talks about how to manage stress, throw employee appreciation events, and encourage using paid time off benefits regularly.
While those supports might feel pleasant in the moment, are you really going to be able to manage stress if your supposedly 40 hour a week job keeps you working late for an extra three or four hours every night? Does your boss really “appreciate” you if they throw your team a pizza party one day, only to bully and threaten you in a meeting the next? Will you really enjoy your time off if you’re spending it worrying if your low salary will pay the rent?
Coping skills are not a sufficient solution for the stress of a toxic work environment – larger steps such as advocating for changes in the workplace or finding a new job are more appropriate.
Coping can’t change an abusive relationship
Abuse in relationships can be insidious, especially at first – if you are in an abusive relationship, you may be tempted to think of your experience as a “rough patch” and resolve to take extra good care of yourself to build the strength you need to get through it.
Don’t get me wrong, those acts of coping and self-care are really important in the moment. Talking through things with a friend when you’re in despair can give you that important reminder that you are loved and supported. Working out can reduce stress at the physical level and reconnect you to the knowledge that you are in control of your body.
However, you should not have to be “strong” enough to live with abuse. Nobody should have to live with being harmed and fearful of someone they love, and no amount of fortifying yourself will make that experience easy or pleasant.
The only way to deal with abuse once and for all is to escape the relationship. If you’re ready to seek out confidential support, call 1-800-799-SAFE to connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Coping can’t change oppression
Too many of us have to navigate experiences of microaggressions, discrimination, or outright violence that are directed toward us because of who we are.
Perhaps you’ve had one of these (or similar) experiences:
- After hearing coworkers make jokes about people with your gender identity, you call up a friend who goes through similar things to vent and commiserate
- After browsing a store and noticing the security guard is following you around, you treat yourself to a manicure to cheer yourself up after the humiliation of the experience
- After learning someone of your religious identity has been killed in a hate crime, you gather with your community to pray and mourn
We need coping skills to handle the pain of the oppression we go through in life. However, it’s important to remember that oppression is artificial, not a fact of being.
We deserve better than to live with oppression – creating healthier cultures and advocating for structural change are necessary to truly end oppression and its terrible effects.
If you are thinking through how to make changes to resolve some of the struggles in your life, therapy can be a great space to explore some of those possibilities. I’m ready to help you talk through where you’d like life to go next – click the button below to schedule a free phone consultation, and we can start discussing what your journey could look like.