I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t rely on something to get them through the day. For some, it’s the alluring mental-escape waiting inside a bottle of Pinot Noir. For others, it’s a trip to distraction-isle found in the center of a brownie sundae. In therapy, we often refer to these habits as coping mechanisms, for they allow us to cope with the seemingly intolerable feelings that confront us from day to day.
But what are we supposed to do when we’re working on giving up these coping mechanisms? Its common for clients to come into therapy hoping to cut back on a particular behavior they engage in regularly. Indulging in liquor and food in excess are the two that I see most often. We must first understand that these coping mechanisms are our own best attempt at mitigating feelings of discomfort. For many individuals in therapy, they’ve come to the conclusion that these coping mechanisms are no longer serving them.
Cue: Self-care. Despite the plethora of sources that will try to convince you quitting a habit is achieved through rigid discipline, I believe that change occurs through self-compassion. Let me explain. Many clients attempt to quit their vices cold turkey, yet are terribly cruel to themselves when they inevitably have a slip-up; they have fallen victim to all or nothing thinking, (i.e. “I’m either overeating and good or using food and a screw-up”). I hate to break it to you, but as humans we are imperfect. It is my contention that the sooner we understand that, the better off we are.
In so, we must change the way we treat ourselves in our most vulnerable moments, because setbacks will occur. Self-care can both prevent setbacks, as well as reduce the impact after we’ve already engaged in the undesirable behavior. Self-care is the act of attuning to your own needs. Although it sounds simple, it is frequently overlooked in favor of the “suck-it-up” mentality.
After a long week at work when you’re about to turn to your old coping mechanism, consider that you are justifiably in discomfort. Start by taking a moment to validate your own experience. You may do this by saying to yourself, “I have had an extremely challenging week, and therefore I’m burnt out.” Next, take a moment to reflect upon what you need in that moment. Perhaps you’re really feeling exhausted and are in need of a good nights sleep. Or maybe your brain is fried and you just want to engage in a mindless, yet harmless activity such as watching a favorite TV show.
Identifying activities that provide you with a sense of self-nurturance prior to the vulnerable state is called coping ahead. I will often ask clients to create a list of ways they can practice “self-care” so that in the heat of the moment when they feel too emotionally burnt out to think of anything, they have a handy list. Even more useful is the “self-care box.” A self-care box is full of items that you can turn to when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
A self-care box may include:
Photos of a loved one
A handwritten note of encouragement from yourself
A favorite movie or book
A stress ball
An adult coloring book and colored pencils
Money set aside for a massage
(Or anything else that brings you peace and joy)
You may find that just having a self-care box or list handy is enough to bring you peace of mind in a vulnerable moment. Having these resources readily available to you is an effective way to cope ahead when life inevitably throws you through a loop.