The Problem of the Successful Coping Strategy

A long time ago, people would tell me I was hard to read. I didn’t understand their problem, and was a little suspicious of what they wanted to “read” and why. For me, my feelings felt profoundly visible and all-encompassing, a shyness and sensitivity that was easily disturbed. A part of me believed the story of shame, that deep down there was something wrong with me that needed concealment—though, after years of deep reflection, I’ve come to believe there is no secret hidden thing. It was shame itself that didn’t want to be seen.

Yet I came to learn that, no matter how vulnerable I felt inside, most folks around me were unable to sense this. I’d learned how to mask my feelings behind a cool, neutral, unreadable expression. There are many possible reasons for this, but I think the most relevant is likely that as a kid I learned that showing weakness or vulnerability was like throwing blood in the water and attracting sharks. Better to not show how hurt I felt so they wouldn’t know how to hurt me.

As an adult, this became an automatic, unconscious, and crippling protection. While I hid my vulnerabilities well, so too were my warm feelings and my desires concealed. When I wanted to connect with someone, as a friend or a potential partner, I felt terrified of letting down the façade and sometimes couldn’t even figure “how to do it.”

Image of a number of people in silhouette at an aquarium, looking at a wide array of sea creatures.

Georgia Aquarium, by Matt Helbig

This was my coping strategy, this mask, and it worked well. Exquisitely well. People came to appreciate things about my neutrality. They could confide in me things that bothered them. And as I entered the adult working world, I could take on lots and lots of responsibility and I never let on when it was too much or I was struggling. I was rewarded for it, but it made me easier to exploit.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the perils of a coping strategy that is too successful. Coping strategies are the habits, practices, and patterns of being we rely upon to manage stress and pain, often with avoiding or minimizing suffering. A colleague recently distinguished these from true self-care strategies, which I find useful—self-care in this context being about tending and caring for the fullness of myself, even things that feel unpleasant or painful.

We know the coping strategies that are obviously unworkable. These are the ones that leave scars, break apart relationships, consume hours of our time and hundreds of our dollars and leave us feeling emptier and more fragile. The ones that create as many problems as they “solve.”

This time I’m thinking of those coping strategies that work too well, but are still merely containing our suffering rather than relieving it. The tendency to smile and say thank you when inwardly you burn with resentment. The hours spent at work, earning accolades and promotions while your inner life empties out and your home remains a cold, terrifying place. That ability to make people laugh and laugh while inwardly you feel you are dying and desperate for someone to care.

These strategies are pernicious and difficult to surrender. I couldn’t say if they’re easier or harder than the less workable ones, and comparison doesn’t matter. The point is that the person experiencing these, even the people around them, might not see them as problematic. Surrendering these coping strategies might feel irrational but also terrifying. They are the hardened exoskeletons formed around a soft, vulnerable interior, but  this protection also blocks deep nutrition and meaningful connection. Indeed, this might be protected even from our conscious selves.

Unfortunately, it is that which is vulnerable that needs liberation from the outworn coping. At some point we need to learn how to take risks, and with whom. My neutrality is not inherently bad, what was problematic was that it had become so automatic it was no longer a choice. Now I can bring that neutrality to situations where it is useful, where my inner responses need containment or time and I need to attend to others. But I have to work harder than I like to share my vulnerability with the people who have earned it.

2 Replies to “The Problem of the Successful Coping Strategy”

    • The best answer I have is whether a person is more or less consistently able to listen to my thoughts and feelings with compassion and an effort at understanding. It’s a process of taking small risks, seeing how they go, and building trust with a person. Sometimes it’s about risking letting them know what they could do better and seeing how they handle that. If the person is making an honest effort to be more understanding and connecting, they are worth the risk to me. If the person repeatedly makes things about themself and doesn’t change even after I give them feedback, I am less inclined to be vulnerable with them.