3 times your coping strategies become harmful.
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
What are unhealthy coping strategies and where do they come from?
Hey Readers, you asked and here it is. I previously shared an article called Vicious cycles: why controlling bad thoughts and feelings is making you worse.
Hmmm, the article name a bit long ah.
One Reader emailed to ask where do we pick up these coping strategies from, and what are the specific types of coping strategies that people generally use. Thanks for the great question and I'll try my best to answer.
It's not your fault that you've grown up thinking you should control our thoughts.
Let's go back to our distant, distant childhood. Yes way back to when we were all just young boys and girls. That's where it all began, where it's actually been taught to us that we should be able to control our feelings.
Remember when you were upset about something as a kid? What would your parents do? They would have told us to stop crying, using expressions like:
"You're a big boy and big boys don't cry one", or "Aiyo, look at this little crybaby boohoohoo".
Even when we got angry and threw a tantrum, it had to be short-lived and we had to shut away our genuinely hurt feelings in anticipation of an even worse consequence:
"Stop crying now or else I'll throw away your toys ah!"(the horror).
We've been taught again and again that we should be able to control our emotions. This really was further perpetuated by our parents themselves, who in our childlike eyes we recognise as big adults who had seemingly learned to control their feelings.
Little did we know back then, all the troubles that they themselves might have been going through behind closed doors.
When we reached school age, we were introduced to a new method of reinforcing this illusion of control: it's called Peer pressure.
If we cried in school, we might have been taunted as the "crybaby". When we were scared about something, we became the "scaredy-cat". It's an ongoing force encouraging us to hide our feelings and do as much as we can to put up a brave front.
The same happens when we become teenagers. When we got angry with a friend, others would tell us to "Chill out!" or "Relax man!".
When we were upset with something, people would tell us to be positive, or simply don't worry or think too much about it. If you didn't know, that's actually known as toxic positivity.
Even when we broke up with our first ever girlfriend or boyfriend, friends would tell us, "Just stop thinking about it lah, he or she wasn't worth it".
All these make us come to believe that whenever a negative thought or emotion arises in us, we should treat it like a threat:
It threatens how we appear to other people.
It threatens to make us look fragile or weak.
It threatens our emotional stability or appearance of resilience.
It threatens that we look like someone who isn't in control.
That last one is such a funny thing.
You see, no one's actually truly in control of their thoughts and feelings. That's because so much of our thoughts and emotions are automatic and unconscious. Only because everyone is doing the exact thing you are doing and hiding away their true thoughts and feelings that they seem to appear normal.
We're expected to shut off our negative feelings at will to the external world. Almost like a light switch, and leave the battles to be fought in our own internal world.
Coping Strategies: The usual suspects.
What are the different ways that we try to control our thoughts and feelings?
Well, much like how we deal with external threats, such as a burglar in our house or coming across a wild boar during a hike in some ulu kampong trail, our coping strategies fall into to the two categories of Fight and Flight.
In his book The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris who is a Doctor and a Psychotherapist outlines our coping strategies as below:
Hiding/Escaping: Avoiding social situations when we have social anxiety.
Distraction: Watching TV to chase away feelings of boredom or worries.
Numbing: Drinking alcohol so we don't have to feel grief.
Suppression: Pushing away unwanted thoughts into the corner of your mind.
Arguing: Going into an internal debate or trying to rationalise with yourself.
Taking Charge: Telling yourself to 'snap out of it'.
Self-bullying: You call yourself a loser and bully yourself into feeling better.
All of the above are coping strategies that try to control thoughts and feelings, either by fighting or running away. Whether we are fully conscious of it or not, we often fall back into using one of more of these coping strategies.
Think about the last time you had to deal with a difficult internal thought or problem. Which coping strategy did you use?
Well, as you read about in the initial article that inspired this one, adopting one or more of these coping strategies can land us in a vicious cycle.
Russ Harris further outlines three times when coping strategies can lead to vicious cycles, worsening the problem in itself:
Using them too excessively
Using it in situations when it can't work
Using them stops you from doing the things you truly value.
Problem #1. Using them too excessively.
Maybe like me, you enjoy a couple of beers every now and then. After a stressful day at work, it's nice to call up a friend and sit down to just chill out and lepak over a few pints. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, if performed in moderation at least.
In excess, we might start to rely on alcohol as a numbing strategy to deal with our unhappiness at work. The one drink after work turns into two, and as our tolerance rises, we need to have more drinks to attain the same numbing effect. This paves the way for a really unhealthy habit, while sucking away our energy the next day to perform well at work.
Same thing goes with any other distraction. If you were really anxious about a major project at work, you might decide to distract yourself by not thinking about it and watch some tv instead. Yet what is this distraction really doing? It's only causing you to procrastinate. You end up worrying more about the project as the deadline gets closer and closer.
Again, more vicious cycles.
Reason #2. Using it in situations where it can't work.
Imagine you're in a relationship and your partner is annoyed that you're working long hours and not spending enough time together. Each day you get home, it's the same argument over and over again. So you decide you're going to work longer hours to avoid the arguments. Is that going to work?
Nope, it's just going to get much worse.
The loss of a loved one is also a very difficult thing to deal with. Whether it's a breakup, a separation or even death, you're going to feel a lot of pain and suffering.
That's called grief, and it's a very normal reaction to a significant loss.
Many of us don't deal very well with grief. We try all sorts of coping strategies to deal with it, such as numbing ourselves with alcohol or distracting ourselves with a rebound relationship. Yet no matter what we do, it's still going to be there.
Just like all tough feelings, there's just no way for us to avoid or get rid of grief. Only when we accept what has happened and when we truly open our hearts to experience the grief, that it will pass in its own time.
All other methods will simply make us remain in that limbo stage of denial.
Reason #3. Using them stops you from doing the things you truly value.
Lastly, what do you value the most in your life?
Are they your friends?
Your partner or husband or wife?
Your Religion and Philosophies?
Having a meaningful career?
No matter what it is, each of us have some area of our lives we truly deeply cherish. When we invest our energy into those areas, it makes our lives a really meaningful one.
Unfortunately, our coping strategies can also get in the way of this. Take for example someone who has social anxiety. This social anxiety may stem from an intense fear of rejection, yet the value that sits behind this is actually the yearning for true friendship and companionship.
The more this person tries to avoid social situations because of the anxiety, the less he is able to move toward what he truly values.
What are our coping strategies really getting in the way of?
Do read this quote below by the creator of ACT, Dr. Steven Hayes:
“Pain and purpose are two sides of the same thing. A person struggling with depression is very likely a person yearning to feel fully. A socially anxious person is very likely a person yearning to connect with others. You hurt where you care, and you care where you hurt.”
Do you see where I am getting at with all of the above? Continuing to rely on your coping strategies and battling against your thoughts and emotions are only getting in the way of the things you value.
This is true for all the above examples, whether it's grief, stress, anxiety, relationship difficulties, social anxiety and so on. When you've identified coping strategies that are not helpful any more. You've already made a great start.
You've recognised the need to stop struggling with your emotions and thoughts. The constant struggle to hide it away, suppressing fragile thoughts, run away from a scary emotion is absolutely tiring, energy-consuming and, quite frankly, rather futile.
It's not your fault that you've been taught to do so, but it is your choice to change things up and pivot to a better state of mind.
Thanks for reading and I hope you get a chance to read and use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy through your own struggle. Thanks, Hernping