NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Changing Maladaptive Coping Strategies That No Longer Work For You: Avoidance

Do you ever wonder how people develop maladaptive coping strategies?

Changing Coping Strategies That No Longer Work for You:  Avoidance

Well, to begin with, we all learn different coping strategies that start out being a combination of our own particular temperament and as well as the coping strategies that we learned growing up in our home environment as children. Two children who live in the same household under the same conditions can develop very different coping strategies.

Often, there are coping strategies that might have worked for us as children to preserve our safety and emotional well-being that no longer work for us as adults. Avoidance is a particular maladaptive coping strategy.

Avoidant Coping Strategies

What are Avoidant Coping Strategies?
The following is a list of the most common avoidant coping strategies:

Social Withdrawal:
The person who uses social withdrawal or social isolation as a coping strategy disconnects from the people around him.

Social Withdrawal as Avoidance

He might disconnect by staying home alone and watching an excessive amount of TV or spend many hours on the Internet without having in-person social contact with others.

He might appear to be very "independent," but this is often a pseudo independence whose main purpose is to avoid dealing with others. People who engage in social isolation often prefer jobs where they work alone and only engage in minimal social contact.

Psychological Withdrawal:
The person who uses psychological withdrawal as a coping strategy copes by "numbing" herself emotionally.

The main goal is to keep herself from feeling overwhelmed. She might also spend a lot of time in her own fantasy world as a way to avoid dealing with the people and problems around her.

Another form of psychological withdrawal is dissociation, which can range from moderate to severe. An example of moderate dissociation is something that we all do from time to time--daydreaming. Daydreaming. in and of itself, is not necessarily avoidant.

Psychological Withdrawal as Avoidance

Many creative ideas come to us from daydreaming. However, if a person spends a lot of time daydreaming, rather than dealing with the world around her, this is considered a form of avoidant coping.

An example of severe dissociation is when a person has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. When someone has DID, most often, she has experienced severe trauma and her personality fragments as a way to compartmentalize the overwhelming experience.

Compulsive and Addictive Behavior:
Compulsive and Addictive Behavior as Avoidance

Compulsive and addictive behavior include many different types of behavior: abusing drugs, abusing alcohol, overeating, bingeing and purging food, compulsive exercise, compulsive overspending, compulsive gambling, workaholism sexually compulsive behavior, compulsive risk taking, and other tendencies that seek excitement and distraction to avoid dealing with whatever is too emotionally overwhelming.

The following fictionalized scenario, which is not based on any one person, illustrates how these avoidant coping strategies develop over time:

Jeff and his older brother, Tom, grew up in a household with an alcoholic father and a passive, emotionally overwhelmed mother. Their father, Dan, would come home from work everyday, eat his dinner alone in the den without interacting with the rest of the family, and then spend the rest of the night drinking beer and, eventually, falling asleep on the couch.

Sometimes, he would become angry and belligerent and pick an argument with his wife, Betty. Most of the time, she ignored him by retreating into the bedroom and closing the door. Sometimes, she would yell back at Dan and they would have an explosive argument. Even though he would wake up most mornings with a bad hangover, Dan almost never missed work as a train operator for the MTA subway system.

Even though Jeff and Tom were only a year apart and growing up in the same household, they each experienced their father's drunkenness in very different ways.

Jeff tended to be a very quiet child who would retreat into his room and watch TV quietly, losing himself in whatever program he was watching. If he was watching a program about an ideal family, he would fantasize that he was part of that family.

Tom would often leave the house, slamming the door behind him. By the time he was a teen, he had his own car and he would sometimes drive off in anger to get away from the home. He would meet his friends and they would go drag racing on the boulevard. He was brought home by the police a few times for speeding at 90-100 mph.

One day, Dan was sent home from work after he tested positive for alcohol on a random alcohol test at work. His supervisor told him that he would be brought up on disciplinary charges and he would either have to get into an alcohol treatment program or face losing his job.

They considered him to be too high a risk to allow him to drive the train. Before his disciplinary hearing, he would have to serve a 30-day suspension without pay.

Until then, even though he was an active alcoholic, Dan had been a good provider. Now, his job was in jeopardy, and this placed another burden on the family and created more tension in the household.

Neither his mother or his father talked to Jeff about this, but he overheard them talking quietly in the living room. He heard them say that they wouldn't tell Jeff and Tom about Dan's problems at work, so Jeff had to pretend that he didn't know and try to act "normal" around them.

When Tom got home, Jeff spoke to him quietly about what happened. Tom was furious. He told Jeff that he hated their father and he wished the father would die.

Fearing that his parents would hear Tom, Jeff tried to get Tom to be quiet, but Tom was so enraged that he ran out of the house, and sped away in his car. Jeff knew that Tom liked to speed and he worried that his brother would get into trouble. His parents were so preoccupied that they hardly noticed that Tom left in a rage.

Jeff spent the rest of the night in his room spacing out in front of the TV for hours. He had fallen asleep in front of the TV when he heard the doorbell ring late at night.

From inside his room, he heard a commotion at the front door. When he got up to see what was going on, he was not surprised to see a police officer at the door informing his parents that Jeff had gotten into an accident while speeding and he was in the local hospital. Fortunately, he survived the crash and he only had a broken leg and no one else was hurt, but the car was totalled. This was the beginning of Tom's long arrest record for reckless driving.

When Jeff got older, he moved out on his own. He had a few people that he socialized with occasionally, but he tended to keep to himself.

He was employed as a technical researcher, so he spent most of his working time alone as well. Although he tended to avoid socializing, he was often very lonely.

Part of him wanted to have close friends and a special woman in his life but, at that point, a bigger part of him was too afraid of getting hurt and disappointed.

Because he had spent most of his childhood isolating, he also lacked the social skills to go out to meet other people. And when he had opportunities to meet others in college or at work, he was too afraid to open up to these experiences.

By the time he was in his late 20s, he felt depressed and miserable. His father had long since retired on disability due to alcohol-related medical problems, and his mother was depressed and emotionally withdrawn. His brother had moved out of state and he was estranged from the family. No one knew where he was. So, Jeff felt like he had no family and no friends.

Jeff couldn't imagine spending the rest of his life in this state, so he knew he had to do something, but he felt too afraid to seek professional help.

For the next year, he went back and forth in his mind about whether he should see a psychotherapist. He realized that he was spending far too much time by himself watching TV and feeling lonely, but he couldn't get passed his fear of opening up to a stranger.

Finally, when he began having thoughts of killing himself, he called the Suicide Prevention Hot line and they gave him a referral to a therapist.

Because the pain of remaining isolated became greater than his fear of opening up in psychotherapy, Jeff decided to make an appointment to see the psychotherapist.

During the first session, he found it very hard to remain present in the session. He alternated between wanting to zone out and fall asleep.

Over time, Jeff learned how his avoidant coping strategies helped him when he was a child to avoid dealing with the situation at home, which would have been emotionally overwhelming for any child, but especially for a child who was as sensitive as Jeff.

Changing Coping Strategies That No Longer Work For You:  Avoidance

He also learned how this avoidant coping strategy was no longer working for him and that he needed to learn new coping strategies so he could live a full life and not spend the rest of his life hiding. He also needed to learn new social skills so he could meet other people and have a life outside of his work.

It wasn't easy, and there were many times when Jeff wanted to quit therapy because he felt too afraid to come out of his emotional shell. But when he thought of the alternatives, Jeff stuck with it.

Gradually, he learned to trust his therapist. Step by step, he developed better internal and external coping strategies.

Instead of losing himself in front of his TV, he incorporated new coping strategies: He began attending a yoga class and learned how to meditate in that class. He joined a local running club and met other young men and women who liked to jog and bike.

Jeff also began to date, and soon he met a woman that he really liked and they began dating exclusively.

As often happens in intimate relationships, some of Jeff's core emotional issues came up in this relationship, and he was often tempted to withdraw emotionally. However, he dealt with these issues with his psychotherapist as they came up, and he learned to cope with emotions that were difficult for him.

Even though this was a lot of hard work for Jeff, he felt like he was alive for the first time in his life. He realized that by withdrawing from difficult emotional experiences all of his life, he was also withdrawing from positive experiences as well.

Getting Help in Therapy to Change Coping Strategies That No Longer Work

He came to realize that, to survive as a child, he had blunted his emotions so that he felt almost nothing. So, taking the risk of feeling some pain came to outweigh feeling nothing.

In the above scenario, we can see several examples of avoidant behavior in Jeff's family, including alcoholism, social and psychological withdrawal, emotional numbing, and reckless risk taking behavior.

We can also see that engaging in avoidant behavior as children often allows us to survive overwhelming emotions. It comes at a cost in terms of the child's emotional development, but often the child has no choice if he or she wants to survive emotionally.

In addition, we see that the avoidant coping strategies that serve children in terms of emotional survival don't work for adults who must interact and make their way in the world.

Getting Help in Therapy
We also see that there is a lot of emotional pain for adults who recognize that they're stuck in maladaptive coping strategies, but there is also hope for those who seek the help of a licensed mental health professional.

I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing therapist in NYC.  I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many adults to overcome coping strategies that no longer work for them and learn to develop new coping skills.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also see my articles:  Coping Strategies that No Longer Work: Passive Behavior

Coping Strategies that No Long Work for You: Controlling Behavior