“Every one of us is a minor tragedy. Most of us learn to cope.”
Almost daily, as humans we are faced with problems. Some as small and easy to handle. Others are more complex and take more decisive measures. And then there are events that are beyond the magnitude of every day stress. No matter what the size of the problem, stress arises. The level of stress connected to each situation usually has a direct coincide. Small matters equal a low stress level. But the bigger the problem, the higher the stress level.
Throughout our problematic lives, we develop coping mechanisms to handle the discomfort that comes along with our problems. Some of our coping mechanisms are extremely helpful to reduce the amount of stress we feel. Others were helpful to us at one point, but when we continue to use them, later in life they have the potential to harm us in ways we may not fully understand. In our tool box of coping mechanisms, there are those that no longer serve us and need to be disposed of. The first problem lies in lack of knowledge about the tools in our boxes.
The identified types of coping mechanisms are nearly boundless. Merriam-Webster defines coping mechanisms as: “Any effort directed to stress management, including task-oriented and ego defense mechanisms, the factors that enable an individual to regain emotional equilibrium after a stressful experience. It may be an unconscious process.” It may be an unconscious process, and until you know what coping mechanisms are, it will be an unconscious process.
After examining a lengthy list of types of coping mechanisms (which I will include in the next post,) I discovered the main coping mechanisms that I used, the ones that worked for me as a child that do know work for me now as an adult.
The most long-lived coping mechanisms that have stayed with me throughout the years are fantasy and introjection. I’ve discussed my use of fantasy in the form of excessive daydreaming in other posts. In my mind, I created a fantasy life that was like a never-ending movie where I was its star. Early on, when I felt the need to escape, I allowed my mind to drift into a daydream state and into this life. I carried this excessive daydreaming over into my adult life, and when I was living in reality, I expected real people to behave like fantasy people. Of course, this is virtually impossible and proved detrimental to my real life, which caused me to revert even deeper into my fantasy world. When I learned acceptance, not only of other people, but of myself, I found happiness and don’t have a great need for my daydream world.
As far as introjection goes, when a stressor occurs, I used to put myself into the “role” of a person who is more suited to handle it. For example, when I was a young girl, I was terrified to dance in my ballet recital. So, I pretended that I was one of the beautiful ballerinas who danced in the Nutcracker that I had seen the previous winter. This introjection pushed my fear aside so that I could complete my task without facing my fear. Although I have conquered introjection and no longer use it as a coping mechanism, I continue to battle with excessive daydreaming to this day.
Many times, I displaced angry feelings that I had toward my mother and step-father onto my younger brother. Displacement is one of Freud’s original coping mechanisms. When I was angry with one of my tormenters, I would take it out on my brother by tormenting him. He, in turn, tormented other little kids at school, and sometimes, even his teachers. I teased my brother relentlessly and even hit him, when I could catch him, that is. He tormented me with his displaced anger, too, by teasing and hitting me. Of course, my mother wasn’t around to referee our squabbles, and we eventually learned that we have to stick together.
As an adult, I realize that the anger I have should be directed at my mother and should not be in the form of violence. As a young adult, I did direct my anger toward my mother. My rebellion was in the form of insurrection. I raged against every (fake) thing that my narcissistic mother stood for. My revolt was short-lived when one day it dawned on me that no matter what I said in retort, my mother would continue to stick with her narcissistic world of lies.
Appearance was very important to my mother. She wanted the nice little country club debutante, but I started wearing all black (before it was cool to be Goth) and listening to alternative music. Even though I was no longer displacing my anger, I became very passive aggressive, another coping mechanism that I relied on, and resorted to truculence and withdrawal of commitment. This infuriated her, but it did not stop her obsession to control me as an extension of herself.
Sometimes, when my mother was home, especially when she remarried for the third time, out of her mouth would spew a fountain full of speech. I call this verbal vomit. For hours at a time, she would lecture me about her “vision” of how I should be. Her lecture of verbal vomit always included several key notes. One is criticism of my appearance, and how, if I only wore my hair, the clothes, the shoes, the make-up that she picked out, I could be (in the sense that I had the potential to be) really beautiful.
The fact is, I was a very pretty girl in my younger years. I always had admirers and/or boyfriends, and was asked out for at least once a week, and if not for my biting sarcasm, it probably would have been more. Her lectures worked in oppressing any secure feelings I had about my appearance. Even though I feigned inattention, my psyche absorbed each word like a sponge.
After a while, I began performing rituals, another coping mechanism in which a person repeats a pre-determined sequence of events to avoid acting upon a stressor. I began counting. I counted objects all around me. I also looked for patterns and “traced” them with my eyes, studying the patterns, and focusing on their repetition. This allowed my mind to escape into a dullness that removed negative thoughts from my mind for the time being.
When my mother discovered that I wasn’t paying attention to her (because I wasn’t reacting, and narcissists live for the drama) my coping mechanism became to trivialize. I made a joke, a very sarcastic and hate filled joke, out of whatever the topic at hand was with her. This was probably her least favorite of all of my tools, so I used it on her whenever I could.
As an older adult, I know that trivializing when my mother is attempting to play mind games with me now is my way of participating in her insanity. Now, I have turned trivializing into a positive mechanism when reflecting on my own actions. It’s easier to own up to mistakes by making light of the situation, especially when it is followed by awareness and acceptance. I wouldn’t want to use it as a defense mechanism with any other person as I did with my mother.
So, why do we all use coping mechanisms? I used them for various reasons, but all those reasons point to fear and pain. I cannot and could not ignore those two basic feelings. If I ignore the fear and pain then I won’t ever face my past and the long-lasting effects of what someone else did to me. I do not ever want to be a “victim” again. The truth is that at one point in my life, I was helpless and under someone else’s control, and during that time, I was victimized. I lived in a constant state of fear with overwhelming pain. When I escaped the clutches of my tormenters, I pushed the memories aside and continued using the tools in my coping mechanism tool box in other situations and with other relationships. That didn’t work out so well for me.
Now, I am facing the fear and pain and gaining a deeper insight of how, out of fear and pain, I used coping mechanisms that hindered my growth as a human being. Because I faced the fear and pain, I learned to recognize those coping mechanism and shed them. (Well, maybe not completely because I am still learning!) The solace is found in the events when I feel myself reaching for a tool that I don’t need, but catching myself in time. Then, instead of using that tool, I turn it over to God. At that moment, I decide to let go and let God. When I do this, the anxiety subsides, and I feel a calmness in my heart.