You can cope with tough things
I have something important to share with you. You can cope with tough things.
I know this because I have learned that I can cope with tough things.
When it comes to your mental health, you may be wondering (or have wondered) “What is wrong with me?” or “Am I crazy?” or even “Is it just me?” As a psychotherapist, these are all questions I have heard from many people over the years. I have been asked these questions by a spectrum of people, which leads me to believe that most, if not all, of us ask them. Even so, my answers to these three questions have never wavered.
You are an imperfect human; nothing is wrong with you. You aren't crazy. We are all challenged by our mental health. Our mental health challenges us in ways that are unique to us and shift across our developmental lifespan. And finally, most important, it is not just you; it is all of us. That’s right, I said it; in fact, let me reiterate: WE ALL HAVE MENTAL HEALTH CHALLENGES. It only feels isolating because we don't talk about it. We don't talk about it because we fear something may be wrong with us, that we may very well be crazy, or that it must just be us who is struggling. Sound familiar? Yeah, me too. Remember, I am the professional. I have the language, education, support system, and motivation to live my best mental health life, and I still struggle. You likely struggle too, maybe not always, and maybe not to the point that you have a mental health diagnosis or have ever sought mental health treatment, but I see you there, fellow human, and I am giving your permission to admit your challenges. When we acknowledge our challenges, we can stop fighting them, and it is only then that we can learn to cope with them. The purpose of this book is to shine a light on some mental health challenges that you may be experiencing and to encourage you to EMBRACE them, even when you don’t think you can cope with them. Especially when you don’t think you can cope with them.
The worst part of these types of critical questions is that they obscure the most important question: “How will I cope?” The short answer to that question is that you must learn how you cope. You have to figure that part out on your own; no one else can do that for you. The answers are within you, and you must do the work to cultivate them.
The long answer is in the next 200 or so pages. It’s important to note that you don't have to prescribe to my method, but you must face your mental health and how you cope with it at some point. If you are interested in living a contented, meaningful, and fulfilling life, this is work you will have to do.
Coping is important; it is key to taking care of our mental health. As a culture, we have been avoidant to our mental health and all the consequences of it. It turns out that when you spend your time invalidating your mental health, there isn't much need to develop a more helpful universal language. We've encouraged ineffective coping through our inability to discuss our murky and abstract minds. As a result, we have lost out on a significant amount of meaningful learning, development, and growth.
While one in five of us will meet the criteria for mental health pathology within our lifetimes, 100% of us struggle with our mental health. Just because you are not depressed does not mean you do not struggle with sadness or grief. Just because you do not have generalized anxiety disorder does not mean you will not ever struggle with your anxiety. While you may not have experienced a mental health crisis yourself, that does not mean that you have not had someone you love experience one,[A1] which is itself a difficult thing to cope with. Unfortunately, often mental health education is only made available to individuals with pathology. You should not need a diagnosis to access information on how to cope with your mental health, just as you do not need a diagnosis for your struggle with mental health to be valid.
All that being said, I need to be clear that this book's approach is to provide a baseline intervention—one which we all need to undertake. It is not intended to devalue or replace the role of pathology and associated interventions within mental healthcare. If you are having a mental health crisis or dealing with any type of pathology, this book will not fix, remove, or change those very real challenges. You cannot simply cope your way out of depression or schizophrenia. It would be irresponsible and unethical of me not to be clear about that. The goal of this approach is only to change how you view and relate to your mental health and, by doing so, find more intentional and proactive ways to cope. Your mental health may include pathology; mine sure does! Or it may not. In my mind, it does not matter if pathology is present or not. Changing your relationship with your mental health and learning how to cope with it is important work for everyone. However, the simplicity of this approach should not be used to minimize the diverse range of mental health challenges that we all face. This book is intended to be a starting point.
As a practicing psychotherapist, people sometimes think I have magic answers or quick fixes; I do not. However, my work as a psychotherapist allows me to be curious about myself and others, and it is through this curiosity that I found my life’s work. I am passionate about helping people learn about themselves, their mental health, and how they cope. My goal for this book is to contribute to the greater conversation of mental health by encouraging you, the reader, to get curious about your mental health, specifically how you cope with it. I so appreciate you taking the time to join me on this journey.
It is surprising to see my life take me to a place where I write a book on coping. I’m confident the crowd I ran around with when I was in my early 20s would not believe that someone who coped so messily then would ever be able to help others learn how to cope. They wouldn’t be alone in having those thoughts. I’ve wondered if I, a person who has coped very ineffectively at times, have any right to write a book on coping. The thing is, my career has afforded me a very special purview into the world of mental health. It’s not just me, and it’s not just you; it’s all of us. We all struggle, certainly not to the same degrees, not in the same ways, but all of us, across our lifespans, have mental health challenges.
I have struggled with my mental health throughout my life. My mental health struggles created extra stress and challenges in my life. I’ve had many seasons when I have coped ineffectively with these things and some when I have coped effectively. When I think back to those messy times that make me cringe, I am astonished by how well I am coping now. It is strange to catch yourself coping well after years of not coping so well—it’s like catching yourself in the mirror unexpectedly and liking what you see. An energizing reminder that you have something to feel proud of.
So, what changed? Well, my perspective changed. Slowly, I started to shift into a new way of being. I started doing things for myself that were healthier and more intentional; I started paying attention to how I was coping and strategically coping in ways that got me closer to what I wanted out of life. I learned to feel it all instead of hiding from it all. Instead of ignoring my boundaries and numbing the anger I felt when people violated them, I started asserting and maintaining my boundaries. I learned to cope with and, by default, increase my tolerance to guilt. I learned how not to let uncomfortable feelings deter me. I learned how to be simultaneously happy AND sad, and just as importantly, I learned to accept that these opposing truths can collide. I practiced radical acceptance of all the things within me, over which I have no control. It has been a grind, but here I am coping effectively and writing a book about it.
I have been grappling with this project for a long time, primarily because I did not have the language to accurately express what I was experiencing, let alone what I wanted to accomplish with this book. In terms of mental health, language is the most valuable tool we have. Yet, woefully, most of us are not well equipped with verbiage to help ourselves accurately and effectively explain our emotional experiences to ourselves or others. Let alone how you cope with them.
Another challenge in authoring this book was that so much of our focus on mental health has been pathology. A big part of the reason for this is that if there is something wrong or defective in our mental health, then that means there must be a fix for it. And to be blunt, there is a lot of money to be made in finding quick fixes for hard things in life. People have long looked to find something to fix within themselves when the answer has never been to fix. This is where acceptance comes in. If we can learn to embrace our internal and external challenges and learn how to cope with them, a fix becomes unnecessary. It’s an out from the never-ending fight with your mental health; you don’t have to be defined by your challenges if you learn how to cope with them. The deal is that this is ongoing, challenging work in which you must invest. This book gives you a road map for this work. It acts as a flexible guide, one you can shift, mold, or adapt in any way that works for you.
It is worth noting here that I am writing this at a time when we know more about mental health than ever, but we still know so little. Presently, we are in what I assume to be the early days in developing knowledge about mental health and its associated care. There is still so much to learn. There may be a time in which the message of my book becomes obsolete because we understand the fundamentals of mental health differently. I am at peace with that outcome if it comes, but in the meantime, we must do the hard work of taking care of our mental health and learning how to cope effectively.
It is time to take a different approach to our mental health and view it as a sacred part of human nature. One that is honored, not demeaned. The truth is that in our contemporary culture, you wouldn’t necessarily think that feeling your feelings, taking care of your mental health, and consciously coping with all the challenge, chaos, and uncertainty the universe provides would be a radical thing, but it is. It takes courage, intention, and energy to do these things, and the act of doing so should be applauded, not ridiculed.
We must shift this toxic avoidance enabled by our perfectionist myths. We need a new, more compassionate approach to taking care of and gauging our mental health. A framework that is rigid enough to support us AND flexible enough to adapt to all the varied challenges we encounter. One that makes space for the deeply personal nature of this work. And, most important, a model that is grounded in the actual value of taking care of your mental health and provides an accessible and concrete way to do so. This book intends to present a thoughtful and innovative model to meet this need. EMBRACE is my best guess, and I welcome and encourage your modifications of it. After all, you are the ultimate expert on yourself, and I look forward to hearing how you consciously cope.