Coping Mechanisms

Learned Responses Based on Core Beliefs

The term “coping mechanisms” refers to our way of responding to the things that happen, both trivial and consequential on a day-to-day basis. Our reaction to events tend to be spontaneous and immediate which we usually interpret as our natural state. They come from a place of deeply held sense about what our place or role is in the situation. And, if articulated, these responses would express our convictions about what is right and proper. Because they are rarely reviewed and questioned, our responses define our underlying values in ways we are not aware of.

Where do coping mechanisms come from? If this question can be answered, there is hope that we can modify responses and achieve better outcomes. In Stages 1 and 2 of my book we are asked to review our history, the place our coping mechanisms were developed, and begin to have a better understanding of ourselves. The following three thoughts are suggested as a way to break down our internal complexities and gain insight into how we see our place and the roles we play. These three aspects are interconnected and operate simultaneously starting at a very young age.

Frist, we come to recognize a set of values that are imposed on us. These include; what actions are beneficial or detrimental, helpful or unhelpful, effective or ineffective, acceptable or unacceptable, productive or unproductive. The messages that define how we are to see the world are both subtle and dramatic and provide structure. These messages come from parents, teachers, peer groups and other authority figures. And the experiences we have within our environment continually reinforce an understanding of how the world works and what we can expect in any given situation. We adopt these values as rules to live by and are tied to them as if they were our emotional DNA.

The second element of developing coping mechanisms comes from the way we internalize, (how we see ourselves in comparison to), these values. For example, if high educational achievement is a value, we judge ourselves as either smart of dumb as students. If exemplary behavior is a value, we judge ourselves as either a good or bad person. If being respected by society is a value, we judge our character as either worthy or unworthy of respect. We make these internal assessments for a myriad of characteristics based on how others seem to react to our level of performance regarding these values. Slowly we develop a “self-image” of ourselves that is carried at a deep subconscious level where it is rarely challenged.

Finally, the third element is the overt actions that results from these values and comparisons. These are the coping mechanisms or reactive responses that are consistent with how we have internalized our ability to perform. If we see ourselves as a dumb person, we make little effort to work hard in school with the coping mechanism of being inattentive or disruptive. Alternatively, if we feel we are bright and intelligent, we revel in the praise and status of good grades. If we feel unworthy, our low self-esteem leads us to cope by being socially withdrawn. On the other hand, if we carry a view of ourselves as having a positive character, we gravitate to publicly visible positions as a leader or person of influence.

The examples provided here are admittedly over simplistic and do not account for the vast number of variations that coping mechanisms can take in real life situations. Any one characteristic exists on a continuum from very low to very high intensity. A person’s negative vs positive perspective may vary from melancholy on one end of the spectrum to ecstatic on the other end. And at the same time, coping mechanisms morph into unique variations when one is experiencing any number of other self-images such as, the ability to express oneself, the sense of being heard, the degree to which one will be misunderstood, or an underlying level of trust. When multiple factors are overlaid one on the other, is it any wonder that we are at a loss to explain our reactions?

My book outlines a process to recognize our coping mechanisms through taking responsibility for our actions and our behavior. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to start by trying to change a set of self-images in order to change behavioral reactions. It is far easier to change reactions to life situations and allow the feedback we receive from those around us to slowly modify what we think of ourselves. In the wise words of those who have experienced transformation:

We don’t think ourselves into a new way of acting rather we act ourselves into a new way thinking.

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