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  • Jason McCarty

Stop Coping and Start Thriving

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 couldn’t 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?

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