I’ve been thinking about the idea of coping strategies lately. Sometimes in my work with substance abusers, or anyone struggling to deal with their lives, we discuss other ways of coping. Some substance abuse work is often centered around a relapse prevention plan and new, healthy coping strategies. Everyone tries to get the person to come up with a list themselves but it ends up looking just like everyone else’s list. Go for a walk, do deep breathing, read, journal, phone a friend, head out into nature, take up a hobby. You know, that stuff.
Does any of this stuff actually change people’s lives? No way. Is it useless? No it isn’t. It can be some very basic steps to start with in the beginning of the change process, and sometimes these small things can actually be quite helpful. But overall, it isn’t usually enough.
Who wants to just cope? In many ways, that’s what everyone’s already been doing. So they’ve been using substances, so what? Their substance use is often a very real attempt at LIVING, not just coping. This is something we have been missing for many years. Substance use and addiction are often creative strategies at living a life that isn’t just manageable but one that feels satisfying. This is created in the altered state, not necessarily in the everyday madness of addiction. But that’s important to get a sense of. It is where people go, in their consciousness, that allows them to feel like they are living more fully.
So instead of talking about coping strategies, which always feels a bit twice removed from the depth of what brings people to my office, maybe we should be talking about thriving strategies! What if the psycho-social helping professions stopped trying to run around and put out everyone’s fire (read symptoms) and instead helped people to build capacities for thriving? People know how to cope. Half of the crap we might encourage clients to do we don’t do either. It’s dumb. Sometimes I think my field needs to get a grip and get real. Stop with all the surface oriented Titantic chair shifting and start giving people who need help something substantial they can sink their teeth into!
I guess I don’t want to just see it move from one grab bag to another though. It could just look like another list of thriving strategies. But developing a WAY and a FOCUS toward this type of fulfillment would be essential. Everyone would be on the same page, having realized that half the work we have been doing with clients to help them manage their lives is worthless. I’m not saying it’s all worthless and that coping strategies and symptom reduction have no place at all. But it’s not enough and it’s not necessary for everyone. It’s not helpful for everyone. Sometimes, trying to help someone use more coping strategies just sets them up for feeling like a failure because they don’t have motivation for that particular strategy. Why? Because it isn’t meaningfully connected to them.
There are plenty of writers and theories and philosophies and religions out there attempting to provide not just coping strategies but instead, what they believe to be thriving oriented lifestyles, beliefs, and rituals. There’s plenty of room in secular culture for talking about what it means to thrive. What are the ingredients? Positive psychology has attempted to do this in a variety of ways, but has over-simplified thriving to mean “happy.” I’m not saying this. Thriving would entail the ability to live a full life, embracing the full range of emotions and human realities that occur, with some sort of framework and strategy that led to fulfillment and joy, while allowing individuals to find their way into their own sense of being-in-the-world.
This is my challenge to myself and to my colleagues. It is not enough to help people cope with their lives and sometimes it’s actually detrimental in the way that it just helps them continue living the miserable lives they were living before. Instead, what would it look like for them to change in such a way that was meaningful? What would it look like for the person sitting in front of you to thrive? What is it going to take?
The word substance has my attention lately. There is something both conceptually satisfying about it as well as experientially satisfying. Substantial, filled up, plenty, enough, solid, definitive, complete. How often are we human beings feeling this way or making decisions in our lives that are intended to bring about these kinds of descriptions? A lot of people seek answers in health professions regarding the lack in their lives. Whether it is regarding food, physical health, exercise, beauty, mental and emotional health, or spirituality. We can call it a lack of meaning or an “existential vacuum” like Viktor Frankl, or we can say people are looking to feel better (whatever that means), or we can just say that people are looking for substance. And I guess some people aren’t looking for anything really, and some of us are looking for substance in all the wrong places without knowing that we are actually looking for something substantial.
Look around you. Are you engaging in experiences, relationships, and learning of substance? What do you do with your time? Are those close to you or around you engaging in substantial experiences? Does our culture put out substantial material? Are we asking substantial questions in our lives, in the media, in healthcare, in religion, in education? Where are post-modern people finding substance in their lives? How is our high-speed, technological, drive-thru-culture providing substance?
Substance often comes from meaningful living. Not just doing things that one should do or that culture wants or education wants, but something that is meaningful to you and those close to you. Many times we are on automatic pilot with everyone else running in the same direction toward the same exact things that look the same exact way.
Meaningful means there is some sort of connection between what you are doing and why you are doing it - and the overall outcome it provides one’s life. The thing is, it’s not always what one “wants” to do or maybe even “dreams” of doing, but is fulfilling nonetheless. There is something about knowing our selves that is limiting but in a liberating way. Living from the inside out does not necessarily mean we can do whatever we want but that we live according to who we are, which is a limited person with certain skills, abilities, attributes and experiences. When we do that we are able to live outwardly and less selfishly, even though it seems focused on self at first. When we think we can do anything and try, we continue to stay focused on an ideal self (living from the outside in) we never fully attain. This leaves us with feelings of emptiness and anxiety, not fulfillment and substance.
When we operate in accordance with our limited, yet true selves, we find a substance we had been missing. When driven after “anything we want” and when driven after what others want for us, we frantically run ourselves past ourselves, missing the alignment of substantial living. When we slow down, stop, rest, listen, sit in silence, spend time with loved ones, give to others, and reflect on our true selves, we start to fit into a groove that fits so well, it leaves us with feelings of substance. You feel it in the middle of your chest.
One last thought on substance. I have worked in the substance abuse, or addiction, field for many years. Viktor Frankl said that addiction was a substitute for meaningful living, that it showed up in one’s life due to an “existential vacuum” as I mentioned earlier. From what I am saying here, using the word “substance”, it would certainly fit that a person abusing drugs, alcohol and other behaviors is engaged in “substance abuse”. Or “substance-seeking-abuse.” But it never leads to a life of fulfillment and authentic substance. It’s more like my description of the false self, where we “frantically run ourselves past ourselves.” Just something to think about when contemplating addiction and why people abuse “substances.”
Who are you? What are you doing? Why are you doing it? What are you trying to do that is completely missing YOU? What are you fighting that is only making things worse? Are you the author of your life? What is your life already telling you about what might bring you more substance? What do you need to change this week in order to find more meaning, fulfillment, and substance in your life?
After being lost for periods of time, we sometimes find our way. Or maybe I should say we find “a” way. A path, a route, that at least begins to lead somewhere other than the stuck place in which we find ourselves. It might not be the end of the story or the journey, but it relieves a pressure that had been building around inaction.
When a new adventure comes along to dislodge us from the mud, we can get excited, as though we’ve been freed for life. All our questions seem answered and all our problems seem to fade into the past. It can feel like a high. But we must be careful here. I’m not trying to be a negative party pooper, but I want to present an honest pitfall. When we see our new path or adventure as final, we will inevitably crash hard when it is no longer new and has its own issues. Then we will either become depressed or tenaciously search for the next new adventure, change, fix, etc.
Do I think new adventures should energize us, excite us, and allow us to see some areas of life with fresh eyes? Yes, I do. It is only natural and understandable and is an aspect to the journey of our lives. Their are losses and gains; let downs and successes; endings and beginnings. Embracing the reality of these continuums allows us to fully enter them honestly, instead of seeing them as false gods that evaporate in the weeks to come.
Finding a way to stay grounded as your new adventure awaits is key. Instead of only thinking about the problems it solves, try and also fully immerse yourself in the actual adventure. Don’t just envision the path and never really go down it, but get busy on it. Stay focused on the tasks at hand and really take them on. Allow the new adventure to be a learning experience about your self, life in general, and whatever it is you are doing.
I think when we understand life adventures to never be final, it opens our eyes to all the adventures within adventures. When our eyes are fixed on finding the final adventure to end all travels we miss all the smaller paths that build a much fuller map and experience of life. Feeling energized and revitalized by change and adventure is a wonderful thing - let’s not kill those experiences off by asking too much of them.
I’ve written elsewhere that you have to change to change (http://jasonmccarty.ca/2011/you-have-to-change-to-change/). Pretty simple, right? But yet we all struggle with this. Even the smallest and most mundane things we would like to change can feel difficult.
The thing about change is this: we don’t want to.
We all like to think that we are willing to do what it takes, especially when we are struggling. But are we? Sure, we say, I’m doing this and I’m doing that, I’m reading this and I’m reading that, I’m trying to figure out this and I’m trying to figure out that. But when it comes to change, I believe there is a fundamental reality that we must find our way through, and that is overcoming the fact that we don’t want to change. We must confront this. I don’t think it is always obvious because sometimes we might feel we are working hard to change.
The thing about change is this: we are not usually doing the very thing necessary to change. We are not actually changing.
Change is hard work. Do we all want to “get better” or “grow” or “find peace”? Sure we do. Many people WANT to change. Sometimes we think that if we have finally gotten to the reality that we want to change and have accepted this desire for change, that change will begin. We hope that is enough, but soon realize it isn’t. Some get down on themselves because things are not changing just yet.
If change required us to do the things we are willing to do initially for change, then we would have changed already. But change requires us to do things we DON’T WANT to do. This can be many things and seen through many lenses - it is a truth within almost every philosophy of life.
If you are looking to change something in your life, what is it that you have not been willing to do? Have you been hoping that the desire for change will carry you through? What deals have you made with yourself to get out of doing what you actually need to do? Now, what is it about the thing or things you need to do that feels so hard, so unfair, so fill-in-the-blank?
Change is hard, mostly because we don’t want to.
Read more Falling Forward articles
- Living honestly Nov 1
- Lost Oct 25
- Welcome to your life Oct 18
- Seasons of our lives Oct 4
- Why is parenting so hard? Sep 20
- The blank page of life Sep 6
- Why you want to stay stuck Aug 30
- When counselling is part of the problem Aug 23
- Can you accept the world as it is? Aug 2
- The power of walking Jul 26
- The legacy of aging Jul 19
- Why are you dying? Jul 12
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