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Why We Shouldn’t Label Coping Mechanisms as ‘Good’ or 'Bad’

I have heard a lot of talk about maladaptive coping mechanisms. It often feels as though people are blamed for how they react to situations and how they cope with various difficulties — as though something is “wrong” or inherently “bad” about the coping mechanisms employed.

Oftentimes for me, these coping mechanisms aren’t a choice, but are an unconscious reaction. Other times, I am very aware of how I am coping, and I just may not know how else to cope with the situation. And sometimes, it’s somewhere in between. What it boils down to is something in me is trying to protect me, to save me as though my life were in imminent danger. Coping mechanisms, in themselves, aren’t “bad” or “wrong,” they just are.

I have learned through therapy my old coping mechanisms are something to be celebrated — they are what got me through a lot of events in my past, helped me survive emotional abuse and neglect and more. They saved me at one point. They are proof of a wish to survive, of a will to survive, to endure, to make it through. At one point, they were helpful coping mechanisms; they are just outdated. That doesn’t mean they are something to blame, just something to adapt from. And something to celebrate. They helped me out of my darkest moments — moments I didn’t know if I would survive.

So, yes, I may dissociate, I may catastrophize, I may spiral, I may go into fight-or-flight mode. And I may shut down. I might do any number of things that don’t seem “helpful” in the present, but that probably saved my life in the past. This isn’t to excuse the harm these mechanisms cause, but to acknowledge it and to not perpetuate more self-blame and self-criticism. To know my brain is doing all it can to help me survive what it perceives as life or death situations, threats to my being as a whole.

So, when I find myself beating myself up over “maladaptive” coping mechanisms, I try to remind myself these are proof I am a survivor. That I am strong. That I can make it through. They are something to be celebrated. My survival is something to be celebrated. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with how I cope; it just may not be serving me anymore. I can allow myself to hold multiple realities simultaneously: these mechanisms served me in the past, they don’t serve me anymore. They are worth celebrating. Going forward, I can learn new ways to cope that are more appropriate to what I am currently facing. It is OK. I will be OK.

Unsplash image by Allef Vinicius