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Recovery Isn’t “Getting Rid” Of Negative Coping Skills, It’s Learning New Skills

If you’ve avoided recovery because giving up the only-ways-you-know-to-survive feels overwhelming, know that the goal of good therapy is not “stopping certain behaviors” – it’s SO MUCH MORE.

Drawing of a blue-tinted glass jar that has a grey screw-on cap and a label that says “Negative Skillz.” The jar is filled with three grey rocks. The corresponding text reads, “We developed negative coping skills because they worked to help us survive.”

Good therapy can hold our ambivalence about whether or not we actually want to make changes. It can help us be curious about experimenting with new ways to cope. Therapy often helps us develop a wider variety of ways to self soothe that we can fall back on, and it helps grow our capacity to choose with mindfulness. Good therapy also teaches us to have compassion on ourselves when we make choices we later wish we hadn’t – and, in doing so, it can prevent a shame spiral if we do make choices to self-soothe in harmful ways.

Drawing of a blue-tinted glass jar that has a cork stopper and is empty, except for a small spider web in the upper left corner of the jar. The corresponding text reads, “Healing isn’t ‘getting rid’ of the ways we cope.”

Note that there *are* situations in which eliminating a negative coping skill is a priority in treatment in order to prevent imminent harm to self, other, or criminal justice implications – but good treatment never removes a coping method without replacing it with extra resources (such as extended support services or medication as appropriate).

Drawing of a blue-tinted glass jar that has a grey screw-on cap and a label that reads “Jar O’ Copes.” It is filled with rocks of various colors and shapes. The corresponding text reads, “Healing is finding and *adding* healthier ways to cope so we rely less and less on coping in ways that aren’t good for us.”
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Instagram screen-grab of the coping skills post.
Image description for screen readers:
There are three glass jars drawn on the left hand side of the image with corresponding phrases on the right side. 

The first jar has a grey screw-on cap and a label that says “Negative Skillz.” The jar is filled with three grey rocks. The corresponding text reads, “We developed negative coping skills because they worked to help us survive.”

The second jar has a cork stopper and is empty, except for a small spider web in the upper left corner of the jar. The corresponding text reads, “Healing isn’t ‘getting rid’ of the ways we cope.”

The third jar has a grey screw-on cap and a label that reads “Jar O’ Copes.” It is filled with rocks of various colors and shapes. The corresponding text reads, “Healing is finding and *adding* healthier ways to cope so we rely less and less on coping in ways that aren’t good for us.”

Download the Printable Coping Skills Worksheet Bundle

A growing awareness of the ways we cope with upsetting situations and how those coping strategies are helping or harming us can be a step towards developing the capacity to choose kinder ways to cope. This worksheet is designed as a sort of fill-in-the-blank worksheet (but, like, way more fun) to list coping skills.

This worksheet invites the user to fill the jar with all the different things they use to cope with upsetting feelings. Users can write, draw, or otherwise represent their responses in the empty space of the jar and when they are finished, counselors can reflect with clients or students about whether each skill is positive, negative, or neutral. 

This worksheet bundle includes the 3 formats below, choose based on your printer’s color capacity and whether the activity will be self-directed or leader-directed.

Cartoon jars on a mockup of a printout.
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NOTE: The bright blue jar version is available as a poster-sized print on Society6, shown below. With the poster, this can be done as a group activity using sticky notes to “fill” the jar. 

A coping skills group activity.

So, What are actually coping skills? When we talk about “coping skills,” we often use the phrase very ambiguously, leaving some to wonder what exactly the phrase refers to.

Coping skills include allllll the many strategies (from super-healthy to really problematic) that we use to handle difficult situations.

Coping skills are how we manage ourselves and reel ourselves back from being very, very overwhelmed. Coping skills are tools for what’s called self-regulation: the ways we get ourselves back from freaking out into a place where we can rest, listen, learn, and grow. (In other words, back into our Window of Tolerance).

Everyone has a set of coping skills to handle daily stress and intense experiences – the problem is, some of these coping skills can actually make our problems worse in the long run. These coping skills fall into two categories: positive (aka adaptive) coping skills and negative (aka maladaptive) coping skills.

Positive Coping Skills

Positive coping skills are ways of self soothing that benefit us. When we cope using positive coping skills, we’re giving our brains and bodies tools to soothe and calm down so that we can move forward making good choices that honor ourselves and others.

Using positive coping skills- and learning to trust that they can work to manage difficult feelings- strengthens resiliency an, over time, helps us calm down from similar upsetting experiences faster in the future.

According to research done with middle school students in Australia (LewisFrydenberg, 2002), when the middle schoolers used positive coping skills when they faced challenging situations, they were able to cope more easily and effectively.

Positive coping skills include:

  • Focusing on solving the problem,
  • Investing in relationships around them (friends, parents, etc.) to gain support to face the problem,
  • Focusing on a positive aspect in the situation, and
  • Finding relaxing diversions or physical recreation to help soothe the mind and body (for example: going for a run or meditating).

There are many more positive coping skills than that list provides, but the key piece in coping positively to a situation is doing so in a way that is good for us (mentally, emotionally, physically, relationally, etc. etc.).

Negative Coping Skills

Negative coping skills work in a similar way to positive coping skills – but without any of the benefits.

Instead, negative coping skills numb us from feeling the pain, frustration, or sadness of whatever problem we are facing.

While negative coping skills are still technically coping skills, in the long run they bring harm to our future selves by damaging supportive relationships, creating new problems, and failing to deal with the actual problems we were using negative shopping skills to avoid.

The same research mentioned above found that students coped less effectively with problems when they employed negative strategies.

Negative coping skills include:

  • Ignoring the problem,
  • Blaming themselves or keeping the problem to themselves
  • Worrying about the problem,
  • Engaging wishful thinking (hoping it will get better without actively doing anything to make it better), and
  • “Tension reduction”- which includes actions or choices that numb or distract the mind/body – from something as small as drumming fingers on a desk to using substances.

The list of negative coping skills could go on and on, but what they have in common is that these strategies don’t actually soothe or work in the long run to deal with problems.

The thing is- negative coping skills kind of work- sometimes. Like gambling, that intermittent reward can be enough to reinforce negative coping skills- especially if negative coping skills were the only ones we saw modeled for us when we were kids.

After all, a tool that works sometimes is better than nothing, especially for someone who hasn’t had the resources to get their hands on a tool that works well.

Moving from Negative to Positive Coping Skills

Navigating the transition from using negative coping skills to positive coping skills is a key goal in therapy- but often people avoid therapy because they anticipate having to give up the only coping skills they have. The switch from negative to positive coping skills takes time- so good therapy allows for a slow transition as clients learn about, experiment with, and then begin to use more positive coping skills than negative.

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