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Sunscreen in the Bottle Doesn’t Keep You from Getting Burned…

There was a spoken word song that came out in 1997 titled “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” by Baz Luhrmann, based on a graduation speech that he delivered. The lyrics speak about life lessons such as “Do one thing every day that scares you” and “Don't be reckless with other people's hearts; don't put up with people who are reckless with yours.” As an adolescent, this advice may not have fully resonated, as it can take time to process and internalize such guidance. Nevertheless, it remains a seed that can take root and grow over time. 

In psychotherapy, it takes time for the seeds of change to grow. Techniques, skills, and strategies can be spelled out and explained in sessions, but the real work happens between the sessions. I often tell my clients “I can buy the wrinkle cream, but I’m still going to have wrinkles unless I use it every day.” The same applies to mental health strategies. If something sits on your proverbial (or literal) shelf, it won’t work. 

I often hear “I tried (insert blank skill here) and it didn’t work, so I stopped” in sessions. It’s normal to become frustrated when a coping skill or strategy doesn’t work right away. Unfortunately, logic tells us that we need to practice things many times before we master a skill. When people are feeling overwhelmed with emotions, we want a quick fix that will resolve the issue right away. 

How to utilize the tools in your “toolbox” consistently:

  • Physically create your toolbox. For kids, many therapists will create actual “coping cards” listing all of the strategies they talk about in session. For adults, this could look like a list in the “notes” app on your phone, index cards, a notebook, a whiteboard, or sticky notes. Write everything down in one place so you can visualize your options. 

  • Decide on one skill that you want to implement each week. Oftentimes, clients want to try ALL of the skills and strategies at once. This leads to people becoming confused or more overwhelmed, causing clients to give up on using any strategy. Instead, look at your list and choose one skill to focus on each week. This will give you a more accurate picture of what works for you. 

  • Put it on your schedule. Identify the coping skill or strategy you want to use more often and put it on your calendar as an appointment. If you want to exercise, meditate, go to bed earlier, etc. make those things scheduled appointments. Seeing them on your calendar can serve as both a reminder and a commitment to yourself that you will engage in those activities.  

  • Be consistent. Even if the skill doesn’t work one time, that does not mean it won’t work the second or third time. Consistent implementation can help you to determine what strategies are the most helpful for you. 

  • Assess and reassess. Take a hard look at what skills you tried each week and determine how effective it was in helping you to cope. Game plan and consider in what scenarios each particular skill was most useful. 

  • Look at what got in your way. If you were not consistent in utilizing a skill or you reverted to unhelpful patterns, think about what prevented you from attempting other skills. Often if we can identify the roadblocks, this helps us to determine what new route to take. 

Be mindful of any judgments you make about implementing skills. I invite you to resolve to start again so you can truly identify what works for you.  Keep in mind that not every skill will work for every situation and skills that worked in the past may no longer work for you. Keep trying the skills on your list until you find something effective. 

“Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but in your own living room” – Baz Luhrmann  

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