Errant Coping Styles, or How We Might Trip Ourselves Up

Personal and job-related stress can range from “daily hassles” (e.g., traffic jams) to more serious problems such as an illness or death in the family. Some of the stressors that might fall in between: depression, anxiety, or phobias; couples’ or family issues; unhealthy behaviors including substance abuse; decreased work productivity; or conflict with a colleague or supervisor. We all have different styles of coping, some more adaptive than others. Below is a compendium of ways in which we might potentially keep ourselves “stuck” when it comes to dealing with various life stressors.

Denying and Avoiding

Often taking cues from our families of origin, we might barely acknowledge personal problems and vaguely wish they would just go away. We might tend to deny obvious connections between personal stress and work-related issues (e.g., performance, satisfaction). Finally, we might discount the need for professional help, even when a problem persists or worsens.

Beating Ourselves Up

Some people manage things well in practical terms, but relentlessly judge and criticize themselves. Based on feelings of inadequacy, such “negative self-talk” can become a self-reinforcing habit: in a superstitious way, it appears to protect against failure and the disapproval of others. This fierce tendency to question and doubt, obsess and torment oneself can be a huge emotional drain and actually decrease effectiveness and productivity. And not surprisingly, such “negative self-talk” can cause (or exacerbate) symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Numbing Ourselves

Substance abuse (including caffeine and nicotine)…overeating… ”workaholism”…spending, gambling, sex, or Internet use…. Almost anything can become an addiction. Numbing oneself with addictive or compulsive behavior can be tempting, because it appears to stave off our problems for awhile. And if the behavior is not pleasurable in itself, there is usually some later reinforcement. For example, overwork gets socially and materially rewarded in many organizations, and might also seem to boost self-esteem (feeling virtuous for working so hard). Addictions and compulsions can greatly compound one’s difficulties because they delay help-seeking, and in many cases, become big problems in themselves.

Co-Dependent Caretaking

Many well-intended people get overly involved with helping others, because this is easier than seeking resolution for our own problems. Certainly we want to be supportive of people we care about, and perhaps we also want to help the needy through volunteerism. However, there is such a thing as “compulsive caretaking” – always putting others’ needs ahead of one’s own. Co-dependent people often do not know how to take care of themselves, and risk burnout and other negative consequences (i.e., to one’s job, health, relationships) because of this. The caretaking responsibilities might appear to have no end, either because the co-dependent is (a) so absorbed in “enabling” someone who will not take responsibility for his/her own problems; or (b) is getting pulled into the crises of one troubled person after another….

Creating Chaos

Are you making everything harder than it has to be? There are many ways we might “create chaos” for ourselves: taking on too much; being hurried or late everywhere we go; neglecting to plan for predictably stressful situations; and ignoring small problems until they blow up, to name a few. In Al-Anon they say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over & over, and expecting different results.” If your relatives get intoxicated at every holiday dinner…why not plan breakfast gatherings instead? If you have an important early a.m. meeting and the 11:00 news gives you insomnia, instead consider reading or listening to music before bed. The secret: structure things differently so that potentially chaotic situations cannot play out in their usual fashion.

Strong, Silent, Stoic

Also a heavily utilized coping mechanism in many families – very often reinforced by gender, racial/ethnic, religious or regional social norms. We try to avoid looking weak or burdening others (i.e., by talking about our problems) at all costs. The hope is that, if we keep everything inside, it will somehow resolve on its own. The reality is that the stress/distress we “stuff” will often surface as depression, anxiety, physical symptoms, or relationship conflict.

Talking but Not Doing

The prospect of making a change or adjustment – moving, finding a new job, leaving an unhappy relationship – can be daunting. So we often procrastinate and delay, letting other people or circumstances make decisions for us….

Along the same lines, we might seek emotional relief by talking about our problems with others, but then stop short of taking actions that could facilitate genuine resolution. While it usually feels good to “vent”, this can “morph” into chronic complaining that drains our energy and makes it harder to effect constructive change.

Talking to a Brick Wall

Some of us are okay with talking about our problems, but we consistently go to people who cannot meet our needs. Even with a genuine desire to help, friends and family might be too close to a situation to provide useful advice; too preoccupied with their own issues to give good quality attention; or simply unequipped to deal with a mental health issue that needs professional consultation. And, if you’re trying to get support from the person who is causing much of your stress (e.g., with poorly-managed anger, inconsiderate behavior), this could set you up for unlimited frustration and disappointment.

Often, there is the perception that a problem is not serious enough to warrant professional attention (e.g., medical, mental health, substance abuse), so we un-necessarily prolong our misery and risk having things worsen. Deciding to seek help makes it possible to effectively address the issue…and get on with your life!