When childhood coping mechanisms become obsolete

Jun 5, 2020

The purpose of this post is to describe how our childhood "coping mechanisms", while effective at maintaining childhood safety and security, can really get in the way of adulthood.

*Jasons story

Jason remembers a noisy, chaotic home, buried in clutter and where visitors were not welcome. Jasons mother, overwhelmed and embarrassed, ashamed by her hoard of collectables did not want visitors ever see the inside of the house. No visitors meant no parties, dinners, sleepovers, BBQ's and no opportunity to see an adult generation socialising.  Jason did bring friends home from school on one occasion and recalls his drunk father yelling, the threats and the strapping. "Never, ever bring any of your spoiled brat friends into my house EVER again"

Jason recalls deciding, on that day, to avoid triggering his parents unpredictable rage by never inviting friends home ever again.

As an adult Jason lives in a tidy, minimalist apartment. His home feels like a retreat but it feels empty and sad and he avoids inviting any visitors. As a child his defence mechanism (isolation) kept him safe from family violence, shame and humiliation but as an adult it was increasing his loneliness. His external world has changed beyond recognition yet inside deep inside he still heard his fathers voice, the warning     "never, ever bring any of your spoiled brat friends into my house EVER again"  

As a child, vulnerable, small and dependent we can make rational choices, to behave in certain ways, to avoid painful situations.  Our error, as adults is to continue to those behaviours when we are no longer, small, vulnerable and dependent.

During counselling Jason became conscious that he had survived his childhood with skill by doing what he did, but now was a time for a new strategy going forward. This strategy would involve stretching his comfort zone and exploring some unfamiliar territory including the role of being a "host".

Jason reflected on his coping for his childhood situation

I was a dependent child, my parents were unpredictable, isolative, angry and chaotic. I felt fear, shame, loneliness.  fear, I coped by isolation.  Childhood Belief .... "I will survive this if I keep to myself and keep a low profile".

was not useful for his adult  situation.........

I am independent but shy adult, my home is safe and peaceful, I still fear some shame and isolation but I am going to cope by opening my home and expanding my networks. Adult Belief .... "I am free to led my own life, to invite my friends into my own home"

Jason developed a S.M.A.R.T. plan to work on his shyness, his social network and to begin to invite others into his home.

*Alices story

Alice remembers being the youngest in a family of 6 and as an 8 year old she became sick with an ear infection and some pain that would not go away, for many months. Alice recalls that "everyone" looked after her and bought presents and treats which was quite "nice".  Some months the family members resumed their usual activities as Alice recovered. Around the age of 9 Alice had pneumonia and again the family rallied around and she was the centre of attention. Care, concern, attention, presents !  Alice was learning about the connection between wellness and love and concern. The more unwell she seemed to be the more care and attention she received.  

In the following years Alice became "sick" increasingly often and discovered that a lot of her needs could be met by being "sick". Being "sick" had developed into a coping mechanism for many situations and she would say "I cant do it because I am unwell".  Un-wellness had become a reason, an excuse for not stretching and growing her comfort zone in addition to being the focus of her families attention.

As Alice grew older her preoccupation with her health grew and her favourite topic of conversation became her health problems which she inevitably connected to her reasons for not being able to work or "do things". When friends talked of their own heath issues Alice was immediately triggered into talking about her own ever expanding list of conditions.

Alice, though never neglected had discovered "un-wellness" as a coping mechanism as a child whereby she could avoid growing up. Being special, being "poor Alice" had its advantages.

As the years passed the disadvantages of "un-wellness" began to mount up. Less care, concern and attention received due to "un-wellness" and more opportunities missed. Missed work opportunities, relationship opportunities , independence.

Alice decided that she was ready for a change. A change that would extend her comfort zone and connect her to other people and activities AND where her health would not be mentioned. Through counselling and working on Motivation and a S.M.A.R.T. goal Alice found that others could offer her interest and attention even if she never mentioned her health. Alice also learned that people especially warmed up to her when she showed an interest in them and gave of herself.

The first step in working with a coping mechanism to acknowledge that it exists and acknowledge how long it has been there.

The next step is to evaluate the coping mechanism and your inclination to change it. See my post How high is your motivation to change and Planning successful life change.

Alices Old Belief "If I am always un-well people will look after me and I will have comfort and happiness"

Alices New Belief "I can look after myself and look after others. I am strong and resourceful and I can face life challenges with support from my friends and family"

We all have a unique set of coping mechanisms. Some are very empowering, fit for purpose and adult while others are disempowering, ineffective and obsolete and can be a major barrier to life goals if they remain unconscious.

*examples only, not real people but real situations.

Also,  see my posts on

Martin Fraser, B.A. (Hons) Psyc. Dip Counselling.

Particular interest in enhancing resilience in my community against Depression, Anxiety, Isolation and Addictions. Member of NZ Assoc Counsellors.

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