Self-care's Shady Sister, and Why You Need to Get to Know Her


This post is adapted from Chapter 2 of “From Coping to Thriving: How to Turn Self-care into a Way of Life", which is available now for Kindle and as a PDF. Download the Kindle version before 21st August 2013 and save 40%.The number one self-care mistake that many people (myself included) make is confusing self-care and coping strategies (or, as writer and coach Jennifer Louden calls them, shadow comforts)Here, we’re going to talk about the difference between these two types of activities. This can be a tricky topic because we all have coping strategies that deep down we know are coping strategies (even if we don’t call them by the same name), and we’d rather not give them up. As we’re about to explore, coping strategies seem very similar to self-care on the surface—after all, the point of coping strategies is that they help us cope. They might appear to be sisters, but underneath they are very, very different.Let’s start at the beginning.As we grow, gain life experiences, and start to learn where our hot buttons are (where we need the most care and compassion, what situations are stressful to us, and which needs are most important), we develop a series of responses that fall into one of two categories:1. Coping strategies2. Self-CareThe difference between them is simple: coping strategies are behaviors we employ that relieve a sense of pain or discomfort in the short-term but don’t serve our well-being in the long-term. These might include behaviors like smoking, drinking, drugs, eating for comfort, and so on. These coping strategies have a similar benefit to the “short-term self-care” practices we’re going to talk about in the next chapter (except they also have many more drawbacks). They are the equivalent of slapping a Band-Aid on a wound that really needs stitches; they might provide some short-term relief, but in the long run they potentially do more harm than good.By self-care, I mean behaviors that serve our emotional and physical well-being over the short-term and the long-term. These include practices like journaling, eating nourishing, healthy food, learning to sit with our emotions rather than react to them, and so on.So if we can engage in short-term self-care practices, why do we develop coping strategies in the first place?

How do coping strategies develop?

There are many potential answers to this question, and I’m going to discuss two in brief here.First, our self-care practices might not give us the same immediate short-term release from a sense of pain or discomfort that some coping strategies will. Many coping strategies involve activities that produce chemical changes in our bodies, such as a rush of adrenaline, or the addition of external stimulants or depressants like nicotine, sugar, or alcohol.Furthermore, we are more likely to turn to coping strategies to deal with challenging or uncomfortable feelings or situations if that was how we saw other people responding to these kinds of feelings or situations as children. When we grow up with parents or caregivers who rely on substances or compulsive behaviors to deal with their feelings, we’re far more likely to employ coping mechanisms ourselves as adults. This is because that particular method of coping with stressful or difficult events is the one that’s been modeled for us (over, for example, sitting down to talk about how we’re feeling). Although we might know on a logical level that doing these things isn’t good for us in the long-term, we don’t have a template for what it looks like to deal with feelings in a healthy and productive way.When you look at their origins and their purpose, you can see that self-care and coping strategies are two very different entities.

What does the difference between self-care and coping strategies look like?

Let’s imagine we’re faced with a common stressful situation. We might be working to several deadlines and running late on all of them, we might be facing financial or job insecurity, or we might be having trouble with one or more personal relationships.In these kinds of situations, dealing with our stress using coping strategies might include:

  • Dissociating through watching TV (even programs or channels we don’t enjoy)
  • Drinking excessively or relying on a drink to “take the edge off” each day
  • Drinking excessive amounts of caffeine to “keep going”
  • Using recreational drugs
  • Smoking
  • Spending money (or living extremely frugally) to feel “better”
  • Comfort eating or limiting our food intake
  • Being “busy” and taking on too many commitments
  • Repeatedly getting into and spending time on unhealthy relationships
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Self-punishment or self-harm
  • Acting out on other people (yelling, intimidation, verbal or physical abuse)

Examples of self-care might include:

  • Reaching out to talk to someone about how we’re feeling and talking to a professional, if appropriate
  • Putting boundaries around our time
  • Setting aside time to exercise
  • Using meditation and other relaxation techniques
  • Spending time with close friends and family
  • Engaging in a creative activity, like writing or art
  • Finding a constructive outlet for intense or overwhelming emotions, such as writing in a journal or taking the space and time to cry
  • Ensuring that whatever is happening, we’re giving ourselves time to get enough sleep
  • Reducing our caffeine and alcohol intake
  • Keeping our diets clean and healthy

"Self-care”-type reactions focus on meeting the unmet needs we might have in the above situations. When we rely on coping strategies to get through the day, we are not truly meeting our underlying needs and this will show in our daily lives.Are you ready to make the switch from coping to caring? Check out the book and From Coping to Thriving: The Live Coursewhere we’ll be putting theory into practice this October.Photo Credit: James Jordan