Self-Care vs. Coping Skills: how free do you want to be?

Self-care should not be an attempt to overpower or conquer oneself, but rather the free experience of oneself.

If conquering yourself—i.e., making yourself not angry, not sad, not nervous, etc.—is your primary aim, then chances are, however you go about the conquering, you will only succeeding in fortifying whatever neurosis you were struggling with in the first place.

Considering the definition of neurosis: “a relatively mild mental illness that is not caused by organic disease, involving symptoms of stress (depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, hypochondria) but not a radical loss of touch with reality” (online dictionary), I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of us are involved in some form of neurosis.

Otto Rank defined neurosis as: “the result of excessive control on the part of the individual’s will over his own nature.”

This is not only common today, it’s practically a way of life. Look anywhere you please and the compulsion to conquer oneself is vast to the point of overwhelming. What is entertainment culture, drug culture, sex culture, TV, cell phones, video games, even much of our education and work, but one continuous play of distraction; an unconscious, unwitting way of conquering through avoidance that which is real about ourselves—the real pain, the real emotion, the real fears, anxieties, insecurities?

Even some aspects of modern psychology could easily fit this mold. There are entire theories within psychotherapy which focus on little more than behavioral adjustments and coping skills, often resulting in existential self-avoidance.

(And I mention this not to completely disparage such approaches. I’ve worked in psychiatric inpatient clinics and know how useful, and sometimes necessary, such approaches can be. Some situations are so acute and volatile that the best a psychiatry team can do is help a person stabilize and cope with their situation. Sometimes just keeping a person from killing themselves or others is a homerun.)

Coping skills, when over-used, can run the risk of entrenching a neurosis rather than rectifying it. The proper use of coping skills is to use them in an effort to safely push oneself past an acute emotional situation which could result in harm to self or others.

Imagine a coping skill as something like a SWAT team. A SWAT team is only ever engaged to put down an immediate, overwhelming threat. E.g., a terrorist takes over a deli and threatens to kill one person every hour until his ransom is paid. Send in the SWAT team! You could use 10 or 20 cops to do the same job, but without special training and coordination there will likely be some very avoidable bloodshed. Same is true with an acute emotional attack: if a random panic attack rushes in, constricting one’s chest and threatening to kill him, send in the coping skill!

However, just as one would not use a SWAT team to govern an entire city, one should not use coping skills to govern one’s entire inner world. One governs a city with a police force, not a SWAT team. A city run by SWAT teams would be nothing short of a totalitarian state, and a person run by coping skills is essentially the same thing.

Freud, Adler, Jung, Rank, and Frankl all agreed that neurosis is, at essence, an “over-individualization”—the building up of one’s private inner world. They also all agreed that the solution to neurosis is to have emotional unity with something beyond the Self.

Each of the guys listed above had their own ideas about what that “emotional unity with something beyond the Self” meant, but for the purposes here I will only discuss Frankl’s conclusion.

Frankl in campWhy only Frankl? Because of all the shared education and expertise of these and other psychologists, I trust Frankl the most on this subject. He had all the academic education and clinical experience, but he also survived over 3 years in 4 different Nazi death camps. He understood self-care on a level few of us ever could.

And if I had to choose a single line from his writings to epitomize his approach it would be this: “Man does not want to be happy; he wants a reason to be happy.”

In that single word, reason, one discovers Frankl’s primary solution to neurosis and the path to true and lasting self-care. Here is a longer quote that helps contextualize what he meant:

“I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium… a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

This is self-care in a nutshell: not the freedom from tension (that’s the job for coping skills), but striving toward a “potential meaning” to which the person is called. This meaning is not simply one more step on Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs” (Maslow listed “self-actualization” as the final goal of life), but rather the conduit which makes any other need worth attaining.

In the death camps Frankl noted how time after time prisoners would die shortly after (often within hours) of losing hope. As soon as a prisoner’s grip on meaning had loosened he was already dead, and his body simply followed suit.

Maslows_Hierarchy_of_NeedsFrankl effectively flipped Maslow’s hierarchy on its head. He discovered that far from self-actualization being the final stage on the hierarchy of needs, it was actually the first (okay, minus water, air, and such, you get the point).

But self-actualization is not a suitable goal by itself. In the same way that happiness is not a suitable goal, self-actualization cannot be pursued but must ensue from one’s relationship with meaning. To make Self-actualization a goal is the surest way to cancel it out.

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced,” said the great, unofficial psychologist, Soren Kierkegaard. Self-care is the experience of one’s true self and one’s true condition in the moment, while it happens. The trouble is, often our true Self suffers unbearably, strangled beneath our multi-layered distractions, made known to us only once the distractions stop.

From this the reader may be thinking, “this sounds terrible.” If so you are definitely not alone. With all our training in avoiding Self, choosing instead to deep-dive into Self can seem daunting (or downright dangerous). But for others this may feel like staring down a path to peace too luxurious to take seriously. Whatever the hang up might be, or lack thereof, I invite you to follow with me in the next article where I’ll try to outline the deep-dive into Self, hopefully in a way that satisfies the true possibilities of a well-done practice of self-care.

Thanks for reading

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