Are Your Coping Skills Sabotaging You?

A strange wave of heat rolled through New York this weekend. Bringing summer before spring had even finished packing her bags. The dogs didn’t like it. Instead of nudging and begging for their afternoon walk, they splayed themselves out on the cold slate floor for hours, like puzzle pieces, laying perfectly still. The littlest one hid under the couch where dark and cool are guaranteed.
Have you ever felt this way? When things are overwhelming? Has your body ever told you to lay low? Conserve your energy? Hide away from the harsh light of day?
Our Souls understand what we need.
I used to say I was a daydream kid. But now, as I heal and learn as an adult, I think I was disassociating more than daydreaming throughout my childhood. I was chronically elsewhere. Because the present tense felt like too much to bear most of the time. I had a rich inner life. I received nature like a friend. It spoke to me. I ran my hands against the rough, barky skin of trees like braille. I wanted to live in the woods behind my house with the feral cats. I didn't want to be “in”. Maybe because I felt perpetually, intrinsically “out”.
I heard Byron Katie speak about feeling so depressed at one point in her life that she couldn’t bring herself to sleep in her bed. She slept on the floor instead. It hurt my heart to listen to her describe this. But I thought, also, of serpents. How, in the tradition of the medicine wheel, a snake’s wisdom comes through felt experience. They travel through life with their whole being against the ground. They know things on a level that human beings, with our limbs and words and complicated ways, may never comprehend.
Was the depression pushing Byron onto the floor to punish her? Or was that her Soul, trying to get closer to the ground, trying to know something her mind couldn’t fathom?
I reverently appreciate the brilliance of the human psyche and all the clever ways it attempts to keep us safe. These mental handrails are called: coping skills. Disassociation - the art of checking out - is a common one. Some coping skills are genuinely helpful but many are not. They give us relief in the short term but cause harm in the long term. These are called maladaptive coping mechanisms/skills.
The trouble is, what serves us well in a state of emergency will typically stunt our spiritual/emotional/personal growth once we’ve outlived the emergency and our Souls strive to evolve.
The coping skills we devised in order to survive our often tumultuous childhoods - especially the obviously maladaptive ones - are meant to be reconsidered and swapped out for healthier options as we grow and advance along our path, the same way a plaster cast is meant to come off a broken arm once the bone has been able to reset and heal. If left on, the cast actually interferes with the deeper process of a broken thing becoming whole and strong again.
Some coping skills might surprise you. They fall under the category of: things we do that are obviously making us unhappy and stunting our progress and yet we are receiving some kind of benefit from the behaviors, in a not-so-obvious way.
Did you know cynicism is a coping skill? It’s a way we habitually look for the negative in order to subconsciously protect ourselves from considering the positive, getting our hopes up and then being disappointed.
Addiction to drama in our relationships can be a coping skill too, as strange as that sounds. It’s the old trick of creating a distraction while the getaway car peels out of the bank parking lot with the loot. When we’re constantly tangled up in the latest outrage over the latest round of someone else’s bad behavior, we’re too saturated and spent to deal with ourselves.
We don’t have to face our own stuff as long as we’re busy being distracted by someone else's.
Denial is probably the most common coping skill of all. Denying how we feel, what we need, the truth of who we are - these are ways we change the channel in our minds, away from what's trying to come through and be consciously known, in order to avoid reconciling the choices we’re making vs the life we actually long to be living.
Ideally we don’t want to “cope” with our lives. We want to rejoice and thrive and genuinely appreciate the miracle of how much we've survived, with our spirits firmly intact. We want to reach a point of stability where it’s possible for us to trade in the old habits for new, intentional ways of being.
Instead of attracting and enduring relationships which cause us pain and are out of alignment with our Souls, we could be addressing our core fears and challenging ourselves to create a new narrative about what’s possible.
Instead of denying our needs and our feelings, we could begin the radical practice of telling the truth. On the page. On the meditation cushion. To a coach, a therapist or a trusted friend.
Instead of accepting feelings like despair and cynicism about the world around us or our very selves, we could allow ourselves to get curious about what it would be like to live with faith and inspiration. We could give ourselves permission to test out our innate capacity for hope and healing.
Suffering can be the impetus for a new life.
It doesn’t have to be the stone in our shoe we learn to bear and walk with. We are allowed to pull over. Slide the shoe off. Turn it upside down. Let the origin of our pain fall out and fall away.
We are allowed to heal what hurts.
This is different than “coping.” This is what it means to cooperate with our destiny - the life we were born to live. This is what it means to venture past the confines we've created for ourselves and finally find out what's possible beyond our perceived limitations.
Happy self-exploring this week ; ))