When our coping becomes part of the problem Sarah Woodhouse

When our coping becomes part of the problem

All humans use crutches. I don’t mean the metal stick-y things we use when we break our legs. I mean the things we lean on to help us cope with life and our emotional pain. This article explains when our crutches become a problem, how they link to our past traumas and why we need to break the cycles we’re stuck in.

To a greater or lesser extent, we all rely on certain things to cope. For some people these things are loving and empowering. Like meditation, journaling, seeking support, having a good old cry. For many other people, the things we rely on to cope can at times be unloving and disempowering. Things like overeating or undereating, over exercising, alcohol, over working, people-pleasing and co-dependence.

There isn’t a list of healthy vs unhealthy ways of coping, because really how we use things often matters more than what we use.

Chocolate as a pick-me-up is, of course, totally fine if used sporadically, spontaneously and in moderation. Regularly binging on chocolate in response to the same kinds of uncomfortable feelings is not ‘fine’. Not that I’m judging, because I was all about those chocolate binges for a great many years.

So what I’m saying is that this isn’t a clear-cut thing. Unless something is obviously extremely damaging for our mind and body (e.g., heroine, necking a bottle of vodka, self-harm etc), this whole topic is shades of grey, not black and white. For this reason, most people live their whole lives without confronting their own dysfunctional coping.

People hide at the edges of what they perceive to be socially acceptable.

A couple of glasses of wine a night to help ‘unwind’, maybe. Jumping on the scales daily to get the pleasure of that serotonin kick. Working a 60-hour week to feel in control. A tub of ice cream and Netflix every night to let us zone-out and ‘relax’. But deep down we know when we’re doing these things to avoid our feelings and plug the unnerving sense that we are not ok.

In all honesty, I’m grateful for my anorexia. Just as some of my closest friends are grateful for their alcoholism. The level of our dysfunction required us to get honest and grow. We learned about addictive cycles. We learned that our coping wasn’t helping us, it was trapping us. We learned that we were trying to avoid our uncomfortable feelings, but by doing so were preventing ourselves from healing and growing. We learned that what we needed, so keenly and desperately, was love and affection, but that we were looking for it in the wrong places. We learned that we had crippling low self-esteem that was sometimes masked by perfectionism or egoism. We learned that we carried huge shame, and that this shame fuelled our dysfunctional coping – we reached for something out there to help us feel worthy in here. We learned that we are fallible humans, and that that is ok.

At the root of our crutches, dysfunctional coping and addictive cycles, is trauma.

As Russell Brand famously said – trauma is the gateway. We all carry trauma of one sort or another and we all get triggered (thrown back to the past when we’re reminded of our old hurts and pain). When we’re triggered we’re flooded with difficult old beliefs, feelings, sensations or thoughts. We cope by using things and these things can become deeply engrained habits.

The problem is that most people don’t realise they’ve been triggered, so they think their decision to eat half a cheesecake, drink a bottle of wine or go on a shopping spree is spontaneous or because of weakness, when in actual fact they’re trapped in a cycle. They’ve hard-wired themselves into these patterns of coping, and in doing so are preventing themselves from feeling and healing. Some carry on, unaware. Some blame themselves, adding to their gnawing sense of failure.

Breaking these cycles is important if you want to:

A) heal your trauma,

B) live an authentic, spontaneous life,

C) truly feel your feelings,

D) thrive and grow,

E) all of the above.

You’ve got this far in the blog because you want these things. Maybe you read on because you know what I’m saying applies to you and you’re ready to get honest and make some hard changes.

Depending on how engrained your cycles are, you might need help. That’s ok! I needed an army of people to help me… some days I still do. So get honest and reach out to people you can trust. Find a local support group, go to a twelve-step meeting (there’s one for literally everything, so no excuses there), join an online support group, find a therapist, talk to trustworthy friends who are as equally honest about their dysfunctions (and, word of warning, avoid talking to those who are in denial about their own trauma and dysfunctions).

Breaking old trauma-led cycles is hard, but the payback (A, B, C, D, E) is totally worth it 



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Sarah Woodhouse is a trauma expert, research psychologist and writer who delivers people the knowledge and tools to recognise and overcome self-defeating cycles, to achieve personal freedom and success.

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