NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Developing a Compassionate Understanding of Your Unhealthy Coping Strategies

In prior articles, I've discussed various unhealthy coping strategies (see my articles about changing maladaptive coping strategies that no longer work, including avoidancepassive behavior and controlling behavior).  In this article, I'm focusing on the importance of developing a self compassionate understanding of your maladaptive coping strategies and how psychotherapy can help (see my article: Psychotherapy and Compassionate Self Acceptance).

Developing a Compassionate Understanding of Your Maladaptive Coping Strategies

Why Is It Important to Develop a Compassionate Understanding of Your Maladaptive Coping Strategies?
Maladaptive coping strategies often develop when a child or an adult is in emotional pain, their coping skills are inadequate or poor, and they don't know any other way to relieve their emotional pain.

When people develop unhealthy coping strategies to relieve pain, the main intent is to relieve the emotional pain so it won't hurt so much, even if the strategies are unhealthy.  The main intent is not to develop unhealthy coping skills per se.

The problem with these strategies is that, although they might work temporarily, they don't resolve the problem and they usually add to the existing problems and make things worse.

For instance, if a child is raised in a very punitive environment where his parents constantly punish him for even minor behavior problems and withdraw from him emotionally, he will grow up feeling ashamed.  He will internalize a feeling of being a "bad person" or an "unlovable person," even when that's not the intent of his parents (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

The emotional pain of feeling like a bad person or feeling unlovable is difficult to bear, so he will try to find ways to relieve that emotional pain that might work in the short term, but usually cause other problems in the long term.

For instance, he might numb himself emotionally or use alcohol to blunt the emotional pain.  Because the alcohol "works" temporarily to numb him to his pain, this becomes a powerful reinforcement to keep doing it, even if he knows that it can cause him physical and emotional harm and possibly ruin his interpersonal relationships and career in the long run.

Even though he knows there could be serious consequences if he continues to drink excessively, he might bargain with himself, "I'll stop after New Year's Eve" or "I'll just have one more drink and then I'll stop."  This gives him temporary relief from the fear of long-term consequences to his drinking.

But, as previous mentioned, a maladaptive coping strategy compounds the original problem. For instance, a spouse might threaten to leave the relationship or a boss might give a warning that the behavior is interfering with work.  Then, the person who is using the temporary fix knows he needs to do something else because life is becoming unmanageable.

At that point, the problem is often that shame gets in the way of getting help.  The person is now ashamed of being someone who is a bad person or an unlovable person and, in addition, he is ashamed of what he has been doing to relieve his emotional pain (see my articles: Are You Afraid to Start Therapy Because You Feel Ashamed? and Overcoming Shame).

This is where learning to be self compassionate can help to mitigate the shame so that the individual can seek help rather than continuing to avoid help due to the shame.

It's important to understand that being self compassionate doesn't mean being irresponsible or unaccountable to yourself or to others.  Self compassion isn't an excuse to continue harming yourself or others.  It's a first step in being able to resolve your problems.

A Fictional Vignette: Developing a Self Compassionate Understanding of Maladaptive Coping Strategies
The following fictional vignette illustrates how being self compassionate can allow an individual to overcome shame so he can get help.  Although I'm using alcohol as an example of the maladaptive coping strategy, the strategy could be emotional numbingoverspending, overeating, compulsive gambling, sexual addiction, and so on.

Ron was the youngest child by far of three children.  By the time he was old enough to go to school, his older siblings were already out of the house so, in effect, he was raised as an only child by two parents who were emotionally neglectful and punitive (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?)

By the time he was five, he already knew that he was an unplanned child, an "accident," as he overheard his mother say to a friend one day when she was complaining about how tired and harried she felt from raising a small child at her age.

Ron never told anyone what he heard, but he would often sit by himself in his room feeling sad about being a "burden" to his parents (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated).

He tried in every way that he knew how to be a well behaved child, to do well in school, and not to cause problems for his parents.  But both parents had little tolerance anymore for a young child, and minor things would irritate them so that they would punish Ron.

They preferred for Ron to play in his room quietly so he did not disturb them.  But sometimes, when he was playing with his toys, he would get so enthusiastic that he would raise his voice a little.

If his parents were in the dining room, they wouldn't hear him, but if they were in the living room, they could hear him playing and it would annoy them.  At that point, either his mother or father would come into his room and take away the toys he was playing with and tell him to do something where he could be quiet, like reading or drawing.

When he would cry after his parents took away his toys, they would tell him to "Stop being a cry baby" or "You're too sensitive."

As a result, Ron grew up feeling that, in order not to get punished or ridiculed by his parents, he had to make himself "invisible" and also not show his emotions.  Without Ron realizing it, this eventually led to emotional numbing by the time he got a little older.  He numbed himself emotionally to the point where he wasn't sure what he felt at any given time.

By the time he was a teenager, he learned to pretend to feel happy in order to fit in with his peers.  Most teens who knew him thought of him as being a happy person, but Ron really felt empty inside (see my article: How to Stop Pretending to Feel Happy When You Don't).

When he went away to college, he began drinking heavily with other students.  He liked drinking because he felt uninhibited and free.  Since he was shy, the alcohol acted as a social lubricant for him so that he felt free enough to tell jokes at parties or ask young women out on dates (see my article: Overcoming the Temptation to Use "Liquid Courage" in Social Situations).

When his alcohol abuse began affecting his grades, he cut back enough so that he improved his grades and graduated with a high grade point average.  During his senior year, he was recruited by a large corporation in New York City, and he and some of his college friends rented an apartment together.

Developing a Compassionate Understanding of Your Unhealthy Coping Strategies 

Even though alcohol "worked" for Ron temporarily to relieve his feelings of low self worth, he began to realize that he needed to drink more to feel good.  He was intelligent and well informed enough to know that continuing to abuse alcohol could have negative emotional and physical effects.  But he didn't know what else to do not to feel overwhelmed by his feelings of inadequacy.

A couple of his roommates, who were close friends, stopped drinking and urged Ron to get help.  But Ron felt too ashamed.  He thought of his drinking as a "moral failing" rather than a maladaptive coping strategy.

Then, one day, one of his roommates, Tom, invited his Uncle Jim to the apartment to talk to Ron. Jim was a recovering alcoholic.  He told Ron how he started drinking and how he stopped by getting help.

It turned out that Jim's early childhood history was similar to Ron's in that Jim also grew up in a home with punitive parents where he felt he was a burden to them.  He also learned to numb his feelings and eventually developed a drinking problem in college.  But his life turned around after he was arrested for DWI and mandated to therapy.

Since that time, which was 20 years ago, he said, he remained sober.  But he also said that he knew plenty of people with alcohol problems who don't get the help they need and whose lives spiraled down (see my article: People Who Abuse Alcohol Often Don't Get the Help They Need).

Ron listened to Jim tell his story, and he was amazed.  It was the first time that he had ever heard anyone describe problems that were so similar to his.

Jim also talked about how ashamed he was at first when he started therapy.  He said that he was also ashamed of himself from the time he was a young child because he felt he was unlovable.  As a child, he thought to himself, If my own parents think of me as a burden, then I must be a bad person.

After he began therapy, Jim explained, he learned to be more self compassionate at the same time that he was becoming more responsible and accountable for his life.  He realized that no one had ever taught him healthy coping skills so, before he went to therapy, he did the best that he could.

He learned in therapy that his shame contributed to his emotional numbing and drinking and it made him feel even more ashamed of himself (see my articles: How Psychotherapy Helps to Heal Shame and Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs).

He also learned to develop healthy coping skills and to work through his early childhood trauma (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Healthy Coping Skills in Therapy and Resolving Childhood Trauma in Therapy).

Developing a Compassionate Understanding of Your Maladaptive Coping Strategies

Just hearing that someone else could understand how he felt was a relief to Ron.  He accepted Jim's invitation to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) meetings.

Ron also sought out help from a licensed mental health professional to learn better coping strategies and to work on unresolved childhood trauma that was affecting him as an adult.

People, who grow up in punitive families where they feel unlovable, often internalize these feelings and believe them to be true.

If they haven't learned healthy coping skills, they will most likely develop unhealthy coping skills to avoid feeling the emotional pain.

Unfortunately, shame often becomes an obstacle for getting help, including the original shame of feeling unlovable as well as the shame that develops as a result of unhealthy coping skills.

People often feel alone with these problems, especially if they don't know anyone who has had similar problems.  They might feel defective and that they're the only ones who feel this way.

Getting Help in Therapy
As I've mentioned to in prior articles, it takes courage to get help to change (see my article: Developing the Courage to Change).

It's often the case that people wait until the pain of not dealing with their problems outweighs the shame of getting help.  At that point, they might be in an emotional crisis, but a crisis can bring about positive changes in life with help in therapy (see my article: How a Crisis Can Bring About Positive Changes in Your Life).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to develop healthy coping skills and also assist you to work through the emotional trauma that led to your developing the unhealthy coping strategies in the first place (see my articles:  The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist)

Once you have learned healthy coping strategies and worked through the underlying emotional trauma, you have an opportunity to lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapy, and Somatic Experiencing (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome traumatic experiences.

I work with individual adults and couples and I have helped many clients to develop healthy coping skills and work through emotional trauma.

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 regular business hours or email me.