Are your coping mechanisms actually sabotaging you?

As children, all of us find ways of surviving in our environment. We develop learned behaviours to manage situations we find ourselves in, or avoid certain situations all together. These are coping mechanisms. They’re the means we develop to protect ourselves.

For example, some learn from an early age to over-compensate. If your stressor revolves around a fear of failure and how people will react to you when they do, you may tend towards perfectionism – trying to go out of your way to help people and please people and not disappoint them. So you might go overboard to organise and make everything okay.

Other may compensate for areas they feel a failure in by covering it up and throwing their energies into another (apparently more successful) area of their lives, like work. Others deny their feelings. Some repress fears or impulses. Everyone’s is different and can be a combination.

All of these are the natural means we have developed in response to our environment from our earliest days to manage stress. As we get older, they become our emotional and behavioural norm.

But sometimes we find ourselves in situations that our defence mechanism is powerless against. When under stress, we work harder and harder in our natural defences. We spin our wheels faster and faster because that’s all we know. Why isn’t this working? We listen to our inner voice that tells us what to do and say and how to feel because that is the only inner voice we’ve had since childhood.

When the walls come crashing in, and our defence mechanisms don’t work, we find ourselves defenceless, scared, helpless and vulnerable. We can even find ourselves exhausted and hopeless. When you have no defences, all you can do is pray for the safety of Jesus’ arms to take you to a place where you don’t have to fear any more.

At best, you might burn out. At worst, the trauma is so relentless, and the lack of defence so palpable, you might just lie listless and hollow, praying for death.

In either of these situations, and everything in between, we need our Christian sisters and a trusted professional. Because it takes time and help to find a new voice to listen to – a new voice that can help us cope without leading us into old (and unhelpful) habits.

Consider this, your coping mechanism might be hyper-vigilance which is usually a learned behaviour in response to prolonged trauma. This means that your threat response is intense and ever-present. You may have taught yourself that the way to respond to stress is to be “on” all the time – 24/7 and 360 degrees. Your inner voice tells you to be looking for threats everywhere all the time so you can be ready to defend yourself and those close to you.

This is our coping mechanisms on steroids. This is our inner voice at its most over-active.

I’m not saying we’ve all learned wrong. Most inner voices are fine and help us cope on a day to day basis without any drama. What I have learned recently though, is that the inner voice of an over-active coping mechanism is not one that is helpful. We have been stripped bare. Our defences are down. All we know is to keep trying the same defences and hoping desperately that it will protect you.

Except it doesn’t. So we need a new inner voice.

As Christians this becomes so much easier for us. Don’t worry, I’m not going to say something trite like “just read your Bible and pray and Jesus will become your new voice”. Firstly, it’s just not that easy. Secondly, the voice has to be your authentic voice – not someone else’s.

What it does give us though is a foil for our own current voice. In the face of trauma, do we really think that Jesus would tell us to be “on” 24/7 and never let up for a second? I don’t think so. That would be a terrible thing to advise someone. Which means our voice is flawed, handicapped by our own learned behaviour. Standing back and looking at our voice like this, helps us to see it for what it is.

What would Jesus tell us? I have no idea. But if I am in the Word as often as I can be, my instincts and discernment will be shaped in a God-ward direction, in his strength and his resolve and his faithfulness. If I am in prayer, asking the Spirit for wisdom, clarity and peace, I will be moulded. I will be alert to what my old instincts were telling me and more equipped to hear a fledgling new voice – a voice that is coming from my new resilience.

It’s a process of allowing God to re-configure us in a manner that has just enough capacity to absorb difficulties when they arise.

Jesus warned there would be tribulation, but that we may have peace in him because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Paul, in writing to the Philippians, tells them that in staying close to God in prayer, God’s peace, which transcends all understanding will guard their hearts (Phil. 4:7).

We know these things. But there is no silver bullet here. We can abide in Christ, and seek his help in understanding the unhelpful coping mechanisms that are actually sabotaging us. And then, in him, we can gradually move to re-calibrating our learned behaviour as we build a new resilience.

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