Please allow me to first tell you what I mean by “coping strategy.” Many professionals in the mental health field used to talk about how we develop “defenses” that need to be eradicated in order to lead fulfilling lives. For many of us in the field, that’s changed. Why? Because a defense is something that is considered undesirable and therefore should be gotten rid of. It’s also based on a medical model, which assumes that minds get “sick” and therefore can get well.
I don’t believe that minds become sick but rather they adapt, which is more in line with a “developmental” and humanistic model than a medical one. And the coping strategies we develop were at one time extremely important for our survival. However, these adaptations that got us through those times can become very things that make it more difficult to be in long term, intimate relationships as an adult.
So, there’s nothing wrong with a coping strategy (defense) and furthermore we shouldn’t wish to be rid of it (not that you could if you tried!) – but rather the goal for most coping strategies (other than alcoholism/drug addiction/gambling/overeating) is empowerment: to use your coping strategy when you want to and not use it when you don’t want to.
We mostly developed these coping strategies, or tools, during childhood and young adulthood. We learned how to deal with family challenges and how to cope with our immediate world.
Origins of Coping Strategies
All families have areas of dysfunction, and no matter how “functional” your family was, you had to find ways to cope with these dysfunctional areas (our parents’ blind spots are our wounds). For example, most families aren’t always helpful when it comes to areas related to sexuality and sexual identity (they don’t talk about sex!) Otherwise loving parents can screw us up royally if talking about sex was forbidden or “bad”. Many of us learned not to take pleasure in our bodies and therefore it’s easy to feel a sense of shame around sex and sexuality. Most parents aren’t equipped to help their children live and love according to their nature.
Examples of coping strategies
For those of us who grew up feeling different or like we don’t fit in -or if you simply didn’t like what was going on around you- these coping strategies may have included isolating, developing a rich fantasy life (sometimes confusing reality with fantasy), being forced to get comfortable with lying, and becoming the Good Girl or Good Boy (later developing into a Pleaser). If you felt the need to cope with your environment, you most likely had to cope with the arising uncomfortable feelings all by yourself.
In a related issue, some people believe that development (as in identity development) ends at age 18. However, we never stop growing and changing. Combining the idea of development with the need to hide, it isn’t uncommon for many people to have “developmental delays.”
As an example, many people feel that they have fallen behind their peers when they reach their 20’s and 30’s. It can put you at a real disadvantage not because you are “behind,” but it can create insecurities and fears that can bleed into the world of relationships.
Added to that, the coping strategies that we learned growing up (although I believe coping strategies find us!) –to be the Good Child, to isolate, or to cover up– become the very things that make intimacy and being in a relationship more difficult. In fact, I have come up with an acronym for this: CAUSE The very coping strategies that were Creative, Adaptive, Useful, Smart, and Effective (CAUSE) are the very things that CAUSE difficulties in relationships.
Putting down old tools as you pick up new ones
Of course, reading this is only the beginning step in “tool replacement.” However, with awareness of the CAUSE of some of your relationship issues (why you put up walls, choose unavailable people, or run away) you’re already more than half-way there. As you find new ways of dealing with fear, vulnerability, and other uncomfortable emotions, you’ll find that it’s scary and unpredictable when you start laying your old tools down, which is why you should be intentional, thoughtful, and methodical when you do this (however, some of us have no choice – sometimes the old ways simply stop working).
One place to start opening up, which is a new coping strategy, is to talk about the way someone’s actions impact you. If someone hurts your feelings, you can simply say “Ouch.” If someone angers or frustrates you, mildly confront the person by saying, “I’m uncomfortable.” Alternatively, if someone does something to make you feel good, let him or her know. As you get your sea legs, you can open up more and become more forthcoming.
Another tool is to learn to be more direct in your communication; you already display how you’re feeling by not answering email or texts, giving the Silent Treatment, or being sarcastic. Instead of acting out your feelings, state them directly.
Of course therapy is one place to start playing with new behaviors and trying new ways of relating to others. You can be out in the world, give it a try, and then check in with your therapist about your progress. As I mentioned, the ideas I have laid out are simple, but simple is not synonymous with easy. And though it can be difficult, learning to replace your old coping strategies and only use them when you want to (as opposed to being a knee-jerk reaction) can lead to more fulfilling relationships and a more fulfilled life.