Coping mechanisms. Let’s not pretend we don’t have them. We do. We all do. To be human is to constantly be trying to cope with this crazy thing called life.
Coping mechanisms come in all colors. Basically any activity, routine, habit, attachment, affection, you name it has the potential to become a coping strategy of sorts, a way to deal with stress and anxiety, bad news and good news, celebratory times and sinking situations, and just life in general.
And this coping is not necessarily a bad thing.
There are some ways to cope that are more socially acceptable than others such as: chocolate, coffee, tea, work, watching a show, grandkids, social media, our dog, nature, reading, talking too much, staying quiet, eating ice cream, going to a therapist, exercising, calming pills, essential oils, crying, humor, shopping, a glass of wine, or a hot shower.
Then, of course, there are the ways we numb the pain or deal with the joy that are just just flat wrong (at least from our vantage point). Pick any from the list above, multiply that by two or ten or whatever you prefer and then, voila! Somehow, in our mind, they’ve now drifted from a beneficial form of coping to the category of dangerous addiction. Chemical addictions and various forms of self harm are definitely more destructive coping mechanisms based on our formulas.
We’d like to think we know exactly who has healthy or holy coping mechanisms and who doesn’t- like the guy down the road whose recycle bin is filled with beer bottles or the woman at the gym who is there way longer than we are.
Now, all of the sudden, bad stories start to bubble up in our minds. Before we know it, we’re waving a disgusted finger at someone simply because they are trying to cope with life differently than we are.
We don’t want to see ourselves in them or seek to understand. We wouldn’t say it, but we love being seen as right, superior, spiritual.
My husband drinks coffee at 9am and 3pm every single day of the week. I exercise at 7 am, six days a week. Another person watches a show every night before bed. Still others text friends back and forth throughout the whole day or scroll social media every afternoon as they wait for their kids to get home.
The lines are so blurred, aren’t they? Is this an unhealthy habit, a sacred daily rhythm, a dangerous dependency, or a beneficial coping mechanism? What is it?
We.want.to.know. The need for certainty is strong in all of us.
Before I say anything further, let me just add a personal note. I’ve felt shame (partly self-induced) surrounding my running/exercise routine/habit/rhythm/addiction for years. Because here’s the thing, at one point my little world felt upside down and confusing and everything I’d hoped for felt like it was just out of my reach.
Enter: heartache, pain, and feeling out of control. Thus, feeling my feet on pavement and my lungs expanding in and out, in combination with a few other quiet coping mechanisms, became my way to make it through alive. Oddly enough, I nearly died in my efforts to make life more bearable, but I made it and dare I say, I became a different person in the process.
Fast forward some twenty years later and I’m still running. There is even more unknown and confusion swirling around me. Life feels more out of my hands than ever. But now I’m practicing acceptance of the chaos, I’m doing my best to stand at my station in life, and face the “narratives of pain,” as Seth Haines calls them. (Note: Haines names these narratives of pain as “There’s never enough,” “No one is safe, ” and “You’re always alone.”)
I’m done condemning myself for coping. I can think of nothing more damaging to our souls than this.
I’m not sure what you were taught to think about your coping mechanisms (addictions, dependencies, habits, rules of life, etc), but for me, coming from a Christian tradition, I’m only now starting to break out of the shame I felt for relying on certain, how shall I call them, very human things to help.
If I was depending on something other than Jesus, his word, church, my devotion times, or prayer, then it was called unhealthy or in extreme cases, an idol, another lover.
Again, I wonder how much hurt are we doing to ourselves and one another when we look with leery eyes or worried hearts at our attempts to cope?
So, back to the question, Is it an unhealthy habit, a sacred daily rhythm, a dangerous dependency, or a beneficial coping mechanism? What is it?
What if, the answer is, yes, it’s all of them.
The cookies. The swimming. The walks. The tea. The wine. The cigarette. The movies. The books. The late nights. The scrolling. The shopping. The eating out. The bowl of cereal. The prayer. The kids. The church.
Every single one of these has the potential to sway back and forth from healthy to unhealthy, harmless to dangerous, or beneficial to bloody. It’s the nature of being a living human being moving through the world, trying to do our best from moment to moment.
I think it’s good and necessary to know the deeper reasons of why we do what we do. We must be aware and conscious of our actions and discover what it is we are truly desiring when we reach for our various comforts of choice. But this is not a straightforward or simple task, nor is it something we should obsess over every minute of the day.
Seth Haines, author of The Book of Waking Up, reminds us, “Without dealing with the underlying issues of dependency (what you think, how you think, why you think), we’ll move from one sleep-inducing addiction to the next, even if the next is more socially acceptable.”
And for most of us it takes years to uncover the real stories behind our coping tactics, our disordered longings, our tangled up issues, and that’s okay.
We are all finding our way through slowly.
We are on an adventure, seeking sweet relief and beauty and learning to surrender and heal with every mile we walk. Before coping is ridiculed, first, let’s recognize it is in part how we are able to keep climbing the hills of life and it will look different from person to person and season to season.
I hope, above all, we can offer more kindness towards ourselves, our fellow traveling companions, and each of our coping mechanisms.
Is it possible to sideline our quick criticism and lofty opinions about whether something is a wrong or right way to deal? Could we position ourselves in solidarity and curiosity with ourselves and one another?
I’d like to think we will always be coping and we will always be healing. And that life is a lot about learning to walk with a limp, it’s tedious, strenuous work to be sure.
Worrying about each other for all the seemingly weird ways we find to move forward only breeds distance and despair, what we really need are hands to hold and hearts that listen.
“The way of sobriety, the waking way, is a way of faith, and what is faith but the hope of a promise yet to be experienced? Wake your pain. Wake to your coping mechanisms. Wake to the Divine Love, as best you can with whatever faith you have in this present moment. If you do you’ll begin waking to the most beautiful song. Keep waking and waking and waking and the tune will grow louder, come with more clarity.”
And I would add to our waking, to also keep walking…together.