Coping as a habit of mind

I hear more and more clinicians and administrators talk about the teaching of “coping skills” as a major goal of treatment. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but I disagree with what is often meant by “coping skills.” I see people teaching clients to take a time out, think about something else, listen to music, make a phone call. And these things can be sort of useful in certain moments, but I don’t think they really help all that much in the grand scheme of things. Let me explain what I mean:

In treatment, we talk about being provided with “care,” but that’s not actually what we do as treatment providers. What we provide, professionally, as our job, is a service. We perform a prescribed set of actions in exchange for compensation. A service.

Care, on the other hand, as John McKnight & Peter Block describe in their book The Abundant Community, is “the freely given commitment from the heart of one to another.” I care about some of the clients I work with, but not all. How do I choose which ones to care about? I choose to care about the clients who care about themselves — not perfectly, and not all the time, but the ones who present enough curiosity, tenacity, grit, and ambition to at least engage in therapy and see whether they will be able to improve their lives. The ones who won’t engage at all, I don’t care for.

That’s my coping skill. I use that mental habit to cope with the plain fact that I cannot help people who will not allow me to do so. So I disengage from them emotionally. I still do my job — I still provide excellent services. But I don’t let my heart get tangled up in it. I won’t suffer if they don’t succeed.

And then, sometimes, a client surprises me, and begins to change, and I end up caring about them when I didn’t expect to.

Now, this necessitates another coping skill. Because if I went around telling people that I didn’t care about a certain percentage of my clients, people would think of me as being a bad person and a bad clinician. So I cope with that social demand by intentionally empathizing with the people who do care about the clients I don’t care about — I put myself in their shoes and I mention one or two reasons why someone might care about such a person. For example, I might talk about how they really have a lot of potential, or how scared they must be of failure to remain so disengaged. This gives people the feeling that I care, and it helps me provide better and more empathic services, and sometimes it even helps me to care about that person more.

That’s a coping skill.

Not listening to music, not talking on the telephone, not throwing ice. My coping skills are mental habits that enable me to succeed in what I’m doing — not external distractions that simply allow me to ignore my failures.