The Miracle of Poor Coping Mechanisms

We in the field of mental health–at least those coming from a trauma-informed perspective–often reframe so-called problematic behaviours like substance abuse, compulsive/binge eating or restricting, and self-injury as coping mechanisms that used to work but no longer do. Or, at least, which no longer work well enough to make up for the harm they are causing now that we are out of crisis mode. This simple little cognitive reframing has been monumental–both professionally and personally.

But I think we can sometimes give these coping mechanisms short-shrift. This is for a variety of reasons–time, our own stuff coming up, other priorities. And I think it’s unfortunate. I think that we take it as a given that coping mechanisms played a positive role in our/their lives, and don’t explore that further. I think it is also easy, with more harmful coping mechanisms, to want to move ourselves and/or our clients away from them, so maybe we focus on the harm it’s doing currently, and the alternatives that are out there.

But I think this strategy misses a crucial possible moment of healing, and that is the miracle of poor coping mechanisms. I can remember clearly the first time I suggested this idea with a client and how revelatory it was for both them and me. Because here’s the thing: even with our most harmful coping strategies, the ones that actively do us harm in the now and threaten greater harm in the future, when we respond to the fear and pain and tragedy that overcomes us with a substance or a food or pain, we are saying “I hear you. I hear that need and I am responding in the best way I can right now.” We are saying, at the most fundamental, basic level of the soul, “I deserve better than this.” Because that voice has been mostly stamped out, and because it is tiny (for the time being), our best strategies to meet that need may look self-destructive from the outside, but in that moment, that amazing, sacred moment, we are affirming for ourselves that “I deserve better than this.” Whatever this is.

And when we are able to do better by ourselves, we will. But until then, or if you are looking back on behaviours you used to engage in, celebrate the fact that there is a fundamental part of you that understands this basic fact: you deserve better.


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