To cope is to make a specific alteration mentally, emotionally or physically so that you can manage or adapt to something that is causing you stress. A coping mechanism is a specific procedure, process or technique, which manages or creates adaptation to stress.
Some examples of coping mechanisms are: Addictive behaviors like cutting, binging, smoking, gambling etc. Denial, humor, attacking, regressing, overcompensation, humility, self blaming, avoidance, dissociation, positive focus, escaping into movies, books or imagination, intellectualization, distancing, disconnection, falling asleep, passive aggression, projection, repression and substitution.
Stress is serious business. A human being cannot thrive in an atmosphere of stress. When a human being goes into a state of distress, wellbeing immediately declines. And so, it is only natural that we should want to make a change to the situation as fast as we possibly can. But often the situation that is causing us distress cannot be eradicated. It is out of our control to eradicate the stressor. So we are forced to manage with it, deal with it and adapt to it. This is especially true in childhood, when we did not call the shots about our own life. The people around us did.
Many of these coping mechanisms allow us to survive distressing circumstances in our lives so we can keep on living and expanding despite the stress. They benefit us in some way when they are invented. But over time, we can see that the very coping mechanisms that benefitted us are in fact the very thing that is hurting us and the people around us. What once allowed for our expansion is now making our expansion impossible. For example, the dissociation that was a coping mechanism for a young girl to escape incest now makes it impossible for her to feel fear as an adult and so she engages in highly risky and self-destructive behaviors.
Also, when we grow up and find ourselves in situations that are absolutely changeable, where we do have the power to diminish or eradicate the stressor, we do not realize it. In accordance with the illusion of powerlessness we perceive in ourselves, we simply immediately indulge in our coping mechanism instead of actually making positive changes to our life.
It could be said that some coping mechanisms are healthy and others are not. But I will tell you today that the healthiness vs. unhealthiness of certain coping mechanisms is really a matter up for debate because half of the coping mechanisms we think are healthy are in fact not healthy.
In fact, the spiritual field is like a minefield in this respect. SO, SO many spiritual practices and spiritual beliefs/truths either serve as excuses to fuel detrimental coping mechanisms or literally are detrimental coping mechanisms in and of themselves. To make this clearer, the ego, looking to get out of distress, will select a spiritual belief and a spiritual teacher who enables, validates or creates the coping mechanism. So the ego has hijacked our spiritual practice so as to stay out of pain.
Take a look at what got you into spirituality. For so many of us, distress is what opened the door to spirituality. This isn’t bad or wrong. The doorway of suffering is the door most of us take to enlightenment after all. But if the whole reason we opened the door to spirituality is because we are in distress, it means the shadow we may need to face is that our entire spiritual practice may be one giant coping mechanism. And there is potential within any coping mechanism that we are engaged in a behavior that is more detrimental to us and those around us than it is good for us and for those around us. The positive focus, law of attraction community is a perfect example. The beliefs and practices inherent in this school of spiritual practice can and often do serve to fuel the coping mechanism of bypassing and denial. One of the most dangerous coping mechanisms there is. And people who are prone to this coping mechanism are naturally drawn to such a spiritual practice subconsciously. The beliefs and practices of asceticism can and often do fuel the coping mechanism of self-harm. And people prone to this coping mechanism are naturally drawn to such a spiritual practice.
Why is it so hard to let go of coping mechanisms? Because they don’t cause us pain on the front end. In fact, they serve to get us out of pain. It’s immediate gratification. So our subconscious mind puts them in the “good for me” category. After all, we are wired to avoid pain. Just like we see with most addictions, it often takes us years before we see the back end price for our addiction, and only then do we wake up our awareness to the realization that the coping mechanism is a problem that is hurting us and the people around us. We justify our coping mechanisms and defend them to the death until this point.
So, as I said, the most difficult thing about moving past coping mechanisms is that they are unlikely to be let go of… because they don’t cause pain upfront. Engaging in them creates relief, so we don’t often see them as a problem. Why would we go to work fixing a non - problem? The only things we are motivated to work on and let go of are problems that cause us pain. It’s easy to directly deal with and resolve a trigger because a trigger hurts. So, how do we resolve something that doesn’t directly hurt and doesn’t register in our conscious mind as a problem even though it is a problem that does lead to pain?
Here are some suggestions for how to let go of coping mechanisms:
We have to start to re-own pain and befriend it. We have to consciously practice moving towards it instead of away from it. We engage in coping mechanisms to get out of pain. Inherently, this means that we felt we could not eradicate an actual threat; so we moved our sights to the secondary threat… pain itself. We lumped the pain we felt in with the actual threat that was causing the pain and started to see pain in and of itself as the threat to our life. In reality, pain is not a threat to us at all, quite the opposite. It is a feedback mechanism. It tells us information about our environment and ourselves so we can take appropriate action. So you can understand what I mean, I will paint you a picture. To see pain as the enemy and to engage in a coping mechanism to get away from it is akin to having your arm cut off and injecting yourself with morphine and convincing yourself that once the pain is gone the threat is gone and you’re all better. When in fact the real threat is that you’re bleeding out and by not feeling the pain, you are certainly not all better.
A coping mechanism is like emotional morphine. Improper usage and you could have an even bigger problem on your hands than the original threat. Pain is not your enemy. It is perfect feedback. And discomfort is not permanent. You don’t have to be afraid that you’ll get stuck in it. Feelings don’t work like that unless you resist them. Whenever you are in pain, use the pain itself as a kind of mediation bell, awakening you to the opportunity to gain valuable feedback… it is trying to tell you something. If you engage in your coping mechanism to get away from it, you’ll never know what it’s trying to tell you and so you’ll never be able take to the right action for yourself or the people around you.
- Take a look at the things that make you feel better. Make a list of them. How do you deal with distress? These tools may genuinely benefit you. But for the sake of this exercise, play the game of becoming a philosopher or transcendental lawyer. From this perspective, look for and argue the points against these tools. How could each one be a coping mechanism? If each one was a coping mechanism, what potential downsides could there be to that coping mechanism? How does each one not work? By doing this exercise, we can become aware of some of our coping mechanisms. We also open our minds wide enough to see the potential shadow side of our strategies, including every spiritual tool we have become attached to. By doing this, we are less likely to succumb to the tool so that it uses us, instead of us using it. Awareness of the coping mechanisms you do have is priceless. Awareness after all, is the primary agent for change.
- Take a look through on line lists of coping mechanisms and see if you can identify the ones that you, yourself tend to engage in. Take a look at how it benefits you and how it is detrimental to you. What does each one give you? And what does each one take away from you? Also, for any you do not relate to, see if you have anyone in your life who does exhibit that coping mechanism. This opens your mind to the awareness of coping mechanisms in general so you can recognize them in present real time when they occur within you or within the people around you.
Undo the coping mechanism where it began, in the past. Coping mechanisms are healed the same way trauma is healed. You have to find the original causation and create resolution there so that a different reality can come to be in the present and future. When you have a coping mechanism you are feeling inclined to engage in or are currently engaged in, close your eyes and imagine not engaging in it instead. If you have someone in your life who knows you well enough to know your coping mechanisms, you might invite them to say to you… you’re doing X right now, what if you did X instead (the opposite)?
So for example, if you feel like binge eating, close your eyes and imagine not doing it. What would be so bad about not binging? See if you can feel the pain you are trying to get away from through binging. Sink into that pain where it lives in your body. Ask yourself, when was the first time I felt this exact same feeling and coped by eating. Instead of looking for the answer, let whatever memory that needs to surface, surface. And now you have your opportunity for resolution.
You can make the memory a visualization whereby you can help your past self to escape the distressing circumstances and learn a different way to cope other than the way they decided to cope. Using the binging example, perhaps you will find that you were five years old and you had a controlling parent who made you feel out of control of yourself so the only control you did have was over food. You could see this child self at five years old in this painful experience, re experience the terror and powerlessness of being out of control, validate those feelings as correct to feel given the circumstance and then take action to help the child feel more empowered. For example, you could defend the child against the controlling parent and take the child to a safe place and then explain to them anything you want to about food, so that the inner child no longer feels the desire to cope in that way. After you do this process, you will notice yourself not engaging in the coping mechanism as much.
I have created a specific process, called The Completion Process that is designed to unhook you from past traumas, including the traumas that give rise to coping mechanisms. If you are interested, you can buy a copy of the book that contains the process in detail anywhere books are sold. You can also visit www.thecompletionprocess.com
- When you become aware of yourself engaging in a coping mechanism or getting ready to, make the choice to engage in it consciously. It is not inherently wrong to engage in a coping mechanism. Better to choose to do it than to do it by default in fact. Most of us miss that it is a choice once we are aware we are even doing it. We can choose to do it anyway, even if we know it is detrimental. This may sound odd, but the freedom of choice is really important to feel if we struggle with coping mechanisms. Once you’ve done this a few times, so you fully feel that freedom of choice, try choosing a coping mechanism that you think might be beneficial to you instead of detrimental. And do that instead. You have nothing to lose by trying something new, or several new strategies. After all, if nothing works, you can go back to using your original coping mechanism.
- Practice the art of softening instead of tensing when you feel discomfort such as experience triggering thoughts or feelings or experiences. Close your eyes and imagine going soft. Tell your muscles and cells and heart to go soft and loose. Breathe into them to make them as limp as possible. This is a real checkmate move when it comes to pain. We engage in self-defeating behavior when we tense against discomfort. If we can go soft instead, not only can we learn from the discomfort, we have the opportunity to chose not to engage in our coping mechanism, a coping mechanism is after all, in and of itself a form of resistance to pain… And whatever you resist, persists, which is why our coping mechanisms so often create more pain for us on top of the original pain we were trying to use it to get away from.
We all want to find solutions to our problems so that our life feels good instead of bad. There is nothing inherently wrong with this desire. We’d be in denial if we didn’t admit that this is what we are after. But pain is not a threat. Instead it is a feedback mechanism that is alerting us to a threat. We’d do better to proactively explore options for transforming the actual threat than to make pain the threat and find any way we can to escape from pain through any number of coping mechanisms. After all, a life where all we are doing is coping is no life at all.