Monday, October 24, 2022

Why Words Matter - "Coping Skills"

This article brought to you by the Peer Voices Network. 

Please consider donating to support this work. I am disabled, financially struggling, and am forced by existing social structures into producing content like this for free. I hope those with means and privilege will eventually shift priorities toward increased support for lived experience content generation and expertise sharing. Donations are never required and always appreciated. 

Donate Link:

I am also available for consultation work, curriculum development, trainings, etc.. I enjoy partnering with organizations on development of more accurate understandings of social reality. 

Find us on YouTube at:

I can be reached by email at


Pre-Article Question For the Reader 

What does the word "coping" mean to you?

It can be an illuminating exercise to pause and come up with your own personal answer before reading this article. I don't claim to own a perfect definition of this word. Your own definition is not, per se, invalid if it's a meaningful definition for you. What I do have are observations on how others might hear the term and why certain interpretations can feel oppressive or harmful. 


The term coping is everywhere in modern discussion about mental health. Coping skills. Coping mechanisms. Click Here For Ten Ways To Learn To Cope With Anxiety and Depression. As a longtime failed user of mental health services, the word has always made me feel uncomfortable and confused. I never understood what the term was precisely attempting to say and only used the term through learned association (meaning that one watches or reads others using the term and then uses it in similar ways).

Until surprisingly recently, I never attempted to learn what the term truly means. We can hold my own self partly accountable and note my struggles with so-called learned helplessness. This article is part of my effort to help own self and can report that it's been a painful challenge I wish I didn't feel forced to do by virtue of no-one else writing or helping with such an article. We could equally hold mental health professionals partly accountable for never properly explaining the term in their teachings and guidebooks, and not themselves discovering the arguable pitfalls of the word choice. 

That venting aside, what I can now clearly share with you all is that I have always sensed that something seemed "off" about the word "coping". As is typical for someone with my condition of Semantic OCD, my instincts were correct. Below are my discoveries, observations, and critiques with how the word "coping" is used and why it continues to make me uncomfortable.

Examining the Word's Definition

Cope (v) - To take action to either try to and/or succeed in managing or overcoming a problem or difficulty.

I constructed this definition as an amalgamation of dozens of existing definitions and articles about coping and even finding a nursing research paper examining and critiquing the semantics of the term. I built my definition to highlight two aspects of the term/concept that I find troublesome...

1) The term "to cope with" is extremely unclear on whether it means "to try" or "to succeed". That distinction and what it can imply matters greatly.

2) The work "to manage" heavily implies ability to control

Both those points deserve some nuance, scrutiny, and care in use. Especially when it pertains to notions of coping with mental heath distress. 

Exploring the Ambiguity 

If I tell you "I coped this week with anxiety", what does that mean?

Does that mean "I attempted to deal with it" or does it mean mean "I succeeded in dealing with it". What does "dealing with" mean? Does it mean I fully overcame and relieved/fixed the distress? Or did I shove the issues aside, forcing myself to do needed tasks but not actually resolving the problems? Did that effort come at cost and leave scars? What about even more extreme experiences like near-total disassociation? 

Everything from full success to downright injurious behavior like self-cutting all seems to fall under "coping mechanisms". And that seems unwise to me. Surely it'd be useful to add some extra distinctions? Did I defeat my anxiety or just bury it? Or did I bury my authentic self? These are three very different things. 

So when you say "coping skill" to me, it makes no sense what we're about to talk about. Especially in a situation where I say word intending to mean "I deeply buried my authentic self" and the other party might hear that as "I conquered the problem".

The Most Disagreeable Interpretation of the Term

Stitching points #1 and #2 from the definition discussion together, we can easily find a potential definition of mental health coping that says coping is the ability to successfully and fully control one's mental health.

The definition doesn't have to mean that. But it's most certainly ambiguous. The definitions online don't agree on success versus try. They don't delve into nuance about control. 

When definitions are unclear it's a breeding ground for miscommunication and mistrust. Ambiguity promotes disempowerment (because it makes the other person have to guess, assume, or attempt to verify intent). Clarity promotes trust. You can tell where people stand and what they mean.

Because of the ambiguity around the term "coping", I cannot tell what a given mental health professional or article author believes about either of point #1 or point #2 above. And that matters because I strongly disagree with any statement that even so much as hints at the notion of "you, the individual alone, are able to successfully and fully control your own mental health."

I believe the degree to which that statement is true is at least somewhat debatable. How much do we control our mind, versus our mind simply doing what it will do? And, even if we can, through personal effort, exert a high degree of personal control over cognition and emotion, is that a fair and just ask to make of the individual? Completely absent from this discussion is the role of others and society. Part of a longstanding tradition of modern Western mental health to downplay and de-emphasize external causality and external accountability for personal mental health distress.

I imagine many readers will say "well, that's not what's being implied here!". Coping skill trainings are not intending to promise or guarantee success. They never said external factors don't matter. And so on. My reply is - if you believe that, say so directly. Say so clearly. Say so prominently. 

I challenge you to work through a more nuanced exploration of what the term "coping" is truly meant to mean or say.