Just as we may throw our hairs up into a top bun, a pineapple, or braids to give our hair a break from being ravaged by life, the wind, or our pillows, we humans also have natural ways that we adapt to stress and trauma to protect ourselves. These are called adaptive strategies or you might also know them as coping and defense mechanisms.
I like to call them protective styling – like Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting cuffs! Heck yeah!
Sometimes, our bodies and/or our psyches choose these strategies without our knowledge. Generally, that’s a good thing but it can also be an unwelcome surprise.
Sometimes, we have a preference and a say on how we will respond.
And sometimes, the strategies you created when you were in the third grade no longer serve you. But you are not sure what to do instead.
In general, though, all of these strategies are designed to help us. We are not here to banish them.
Our goal is actually to gain some nonjudgmental self-awareness about what you tend to opt for and to expand your adaptive skill set. This allows you to have more say in how you will respond to whatever life throws at you. This is one of the things we would work on together in therapy.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a mix of the most common adaptive strategies I see in my practice. So, take a peek. Which of these styles apply to you? What would you like to add to your repertoire?
We like to think this is mostly a kid thing, but we adults do it too. Like, when you try to run from your feelings by moving.
Not a defense mechanism in the purest form but leads to other defense mechanisms. It’s when the “fight” in you is in charge.
It’s when we express our feelings onto a less intimidating person or object rather than at the real target. A classic example of this is when your boss gets angry and shouts at you and you go home and shout at your partner, the cat, or your fiddle-leaf ficus tree named Miss Ava. Because shouting back at your boss might get you fired.
You know, putting someone on a pedestal. May seem like a sweet thing to do, but the downside is that that person doesn’t get to be themselves – warts n’ all – with you. It can protect you from feeling competitive or aggressive toward that person, but it doesn’t work for long. Finding a way to be real is the goal – both with yourself and in how you relate to the other person.
This is when we get all fancy with our big words and big ideas to distance ourselves from the emotions of the situation. Because, we aren’t quite ready to deal with them just yet. It’s cool, we often use this as a bridge in our work in therapy.
It’s when you adopt the opposite of what you are actually feeling. In other words, what your mom or mom of choice taught you – kill them with kindness. That’s just one example.
It’s when two seemingly contradictory feelings are not allowed to exist simultaneously. For example it would be as if love and anger are oil and water – never to intermingle. We do a lot of work on integrating these things in therapy. It’s a helpful process.
Frida Kahlo is the master of this. It’s when you make a mental representation of something and you link it to the underlying meaning. It’s a great way to tap into the unconscious and one way dreams and art are used in therapy.
When you go around helping others as a way of coping. That’s rather nice of you. So, when do you get to be on the receiving end?
You know, like when we are “compensating for something.” It’s when we are trying to make up for a perceived deficit by excelling at it or something else.
Ever feel like a “space cadet”? That’s a mild form of this. It’s our bodies’ way of checking out or going numb when something becomes too much. Time and perception get distorted. And sometimes, our sense of self can get completely lost from us. Comes up a lot in trauma because it’s one of the body’s most effective self-preservation measures.
It’s when we aim to be like somebody else. Sometimes this is helpful. Like when a tricky situation comes up at work and you think, “what would my mentor do?” We just want you to bring YOU to your life too.
It’s when we deem an emotion, thought or action as unacceptable in ourselves and put it onto another. So, instead of straight up rejecting ourselves, we reject that part we now see in another (which may have absolutely nothing to do with them!) Happens a LOT in relationships. We all do this eventually.
Going back in time, developmentally-speaking. It could be like, after a long day at work you come home and talk baby talk to your dog. Or maybe you start reminiscing about childhood memories. Or feeling more childlike.
My personal favorite. It’s when you channel your pain or difficult emotions into personally and socially acceptable endeavors. Like boxing. Or making music. Or even being a social worker. *cough, cough!* Can be a total win-win, but we just gotta make sure it’s not all you are up to. There’s more to life than just one thing.
When you do something or say something and immediately regret it. Then you do something else to counteract the original thought, feeling or act. Like, if you develop a crush on a colleague, but then feel guilty about it and buy your partner a gift.
When you can’t pinpoint your feelings because they keep flip-flopping between positive and negative. Makes it hard to make decisions.
Queen of Denial? More like, Denial is Queen. We opt to believe what we want instead of looking squarely at reality and acknowledging it. We use this allllll the time.
You all know this one. You make light of the situation at hand so it doesn’t get the best of you. Sneaky fact – it also helps you to gain distance from the stressor and helps you pull others toward you – others you can lean on. But it can’t be the only tactic – it’s gotta be balanced out with real acknowledgement or else we can stay stuck.
It’s when we take part of the “other” and make it part of ourselves. For example, sometimes we ladies internalize sexism and put down other women. It happens. It’s a way to avoid feeling different or part of an oppressed group. This is really rich work in therapy and I love helping others to shed this and love themselves wholly.
Oh, this one is fun. It’s when we try to make something, that would otherwise be unacceptable, plausible through some kind of justification. They may be good reasons, but they aren’t the real response.
Pushing intolerable thoughts and feelings down and out of awareness. Kind of the backbone of all defense mechanisms, when you think about it.
Kind of like substitute teachers. Only the classroom is your life. For example, it could be a business substituting your love life. Or when you are on the rebound. That kind of thing.