• Jennifer Stafford

Getting to Know Self Series: Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms


We pick up emotional scrapes and bruises when we are young. No human can escape this, it is part of our human experience as we grow and develop at the hands of other humans. The unconscious tools and tricks we embrace to handle the unpleasant emotional experiences stay with us. If we learn adaptive and supportive tools and tricks, they also stay with us. We learn to protect ourselves emotionally in childhood in order to survive our circumstances. We all do it. In the therapy world, we often call them defense mechanisms when our way of protecting ourselves is maladaptive. We call it a coping mechanism when it is a healthier and more effective way of handling stressful and unpleasant situations. Our coping style is usually learned from our family growing up. Sometimes we have coping mechanisms from childhood that we enlist that are actually helpful, healthy and help us heal. Other times, our coping mechanisms are distancing, isolating and end up hurting us in the long run. Maladaptive coping mechanisms (defense mechanisms) help us avoid or cope with pain. Figuring out which ways of coping should stay in our emotional management toolkit and which need to go can be a groundbreaking process in self-development. Get to know yourself and what you do in your mind when you feel undesirable or unpleasant emotion. Increase your awareness of what could be the nemesis of your self-navigation. Reflect on what happens for you when you feel...

Sadness

Unlovable

Guilt

Loss

Loneliness

Hurt

​Fear

Unworthiness

Jealousy

Rejection

Numbness

Shame/Embarrassment

Abandonment

Emptiness

Controlled

Are you familiar with any of the below maladaptive coping mechanisms? Addiction A tendency to seek thrill or excitement in place of painful feelings. We can become addicted to all sorts of stimulating or exciting activities, all performed to escape the unpleasantness of reality. Attacking Attacking is when an individual is leading with anger, it can be verbal and/or physical. Trying to defeat the other person is the method of protection. Boasting In boasting, the tendency is to block feelings of unworthiness by overtly highlighting one's own value. There is an underlying presence of comparison and competitiveness in boasting. Compulsiveness A tendency to engage in compulsive activities to protect oneself from the unpleasantness of an emotional experience to the detriment of oneself and/or relationships with others. Being a workaholic or immersing oneself in hobbies or projects are common examples. Compliance This is a tendency to protect oneself by attempting to placate and please others. There is an underlying presence of perfectionism in compliance. The hope is that being perfect will be protection from feeling hurt and pain. Competing Rooted in deep feelings of unworthiness. Protecting oneself by trying to be better than others is how competitiveness can be a maladaptive coping mechanism. Demanding Strong feelings of fear are used to protect oneself by demanding attention, control, significant support and help from others. Fearing feeling rejected, hurt or abandoned; this tendency can be very draining for other people. Distracting Deflecting attention from painful and unpleasant feelings. Changing the subject is a common distracting tactic. Fault Finding Ridiculing, criticizing, or belittling others sarcastically to protect oneself from their own feelings of hurt and inadequacy. Pointing out the flaws of others to distract from one's own flaws. Forgetting A tendency to quickly forget painful feelings. Protecting oneself by not remembering details that trigger unpleasant emotion. Giving Up Throwing in the towel and protecting oneself by doing nothing. Often resulting in others withdrawing from interaction with the individual. Passive Aggression Indirect action out of anger. Protecting oneself by being indirect about one's experience of hurt and anger. Revenge After experiencing hurt and pain, revenge is a tendency to plan and strategize how to inflict hurt and pain in the future. Self-Blame Protecting oneself from fear of rejection by rejecting oneself before experiencing rejection from others. Blaming oneself and taking accountability without ever changing behavior. Showing Nothing Fear of rejection and judgement. The tendency to avoid revealing anything about oneself. Showing nothing to protect from confirming outwardly feelings of hurt and anger. Triangulation This is a tendency to involve others to protect oneself from the experience of painful or hurt feelings. Turning off Using coldness and emotional withdrawing to protect oneself from unpleasant feelings. Shutting down and using minimal words.

References

Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, Kim Paleg "Coping with your Defenses" in Couples Skills: Making Your Relationship Work.

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