A coping strategy is a short-term solution to emotional suffering:
- You feel anxious, so you do a deep breathing exercise.
- You feel angry, so you count to 10 before acting.
- You feel insecure, so you repeat a positive affirmation.
While there’s a time and place for coping strategies, most people don’t think enough about their downsides:
Coping strategies treat the symptom but often ignore the cause.
In other words, the habit of coping with emotional pain can become a way to procrastinate on dealing with the true cause, which often only makes the problem worse in the long-term.
If you’re tired of struggling with the same old painful emotions and want to feel better for good, learn to identify these 5 common coping strategies and rethink your reliance on them.
1. Staying busy all the time
Chronic busyness is a coping strategy people resort to when they’re afraid of their own minds.
At the root of most forms of mental suffering is a subtle but powerful fear—the fear of your own mind.
- You may be afraid that if you have enough anxious thoughts, you’ll end up having a panic attack.
- You might be afraid that if you have a disturbing thought—about hurting someone, for instance—that it means you’re really a psychopath.
- You might be afraid that if you feel too sad for too long, you’ll end up getting depressed again.
Whatever the case may be, without knowing it you may have developed a phobia of your own mind—an excessive fear of your own thoughts, emotions, memories, and desires.
And as a way to avoid being surprised by any of these “bad” thoughts or feelings, you’ve developed a coping strategy to try and keep them at bay—constant busyness:
- You keep your schedule jam-packed so you never have too much downtime.
- You always have the radio on, TV playing in the background, or some other form of noise any time you’re alone.
- You feel anxious and uneasy unless other people are around you or in communication with you.
In addition to being incredibly stressful and exhausting in the long-run, there’s an even more costly side effect of chronic busyness:
If you constantly run away from your thoughts and feelings, you train your brain to be afraid of them.
When you habitually try to avoid things, your brain interprets them as threats, which means it stays increasingly vigilant for them and tends to react with a strong fight or flight response when they do show up.
In the end, you can’t outrun your own mind. Best to face up to things squarely and learn to live with all your thoughts and feelings—the good, the bad, and even the ugly.
“Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.” ― Lin Yutang
Criticizing others is often a subtle defense mechanism designed to make us feel better about ourselves.
Criticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The ability to think carefully about our world and other people is an essential skill:
- If you want a happy marriage, you need to be able to think critically about the person you’re dating and whether they would really be a good partner.
- If you want to lose weight for good this time, you need to think critically about a diet that’s actually sustainable for you.
The problem is the habit of being critical of others is often motivated by selfishness.
When we criticize or put someone else down, we’re implying that we’re better—which makes us feel good:
- When you criticize a friend in your head for their awful wardrobe, you’re actually telling yourself what great taste you have—which feels good.
- When you criticize your parents for their antiquated parenting advice, you’re actually telling yourself how progressive you are—which feels good.
- When you criticize your manager in front of your coworkers, you’re signaling that you’re smarter than your manager—which feels good.
Here’s the question:
Is your criticalness genuinely helpful or is it just about feeding your ego and making you feel superior?
Of course, being overly critical of other people isn’t very nice, but the other problem is that it doesn’t actually work…
Being overly-critical makes you feel better about yourself now, but in the long-run it only leads to shame and insecurity.
If you want to genuinely feel better about yourself, you need to do the hard work of identifying the root causes of your insecurities and address them. But you can’t do that if you’re constantly avoiding them by criticizing others.
“Often those that criticise others reveal what he himself lacks.” ― Shannon L. Alder
3. Inspiration porn
Feeling inspired is often the biggest obstacle to actually accomplishing things.
From pump-up Tony Robbins clips on YouTube to quotes from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius in your Twitter feed, 21st Century life has no shortage of inspiring bits of wisdom and motivation. In fact, it’s possible we have a glut.
Consider the following:
Imagine yourself sitting down at your desk early one morning to finally work on that novel/programming project/guitar lesson you keep telling yourself you want to do. You take a few stabs at your project but quickly start to feel frustrated and discouraged because you’re still struggling and seemingly so far away from your goal.
So you tell yourself that what you need is a little inspiration and you hop over to YouTube and search “motivational videos.” You watch a couple, feel much more inspired, then look down at your phone, realize you don’t have any time left, and move on to the next part of your day.
While you managed to feel more inspired and less frustrated, your goal is just as far away as it ever was.
Here’s the problem:
External sources of inspiration are frequently a distraction from simply doing the work—the difficult, frustrating, lonely work.
Few things worth doing will be frustration-free. Which means that if you can’t tolerate difficult feelings of frustration and disappointment and push on regardless, you’ll end up never achieving your goals and feeling terrible about yourself as a result.
Stop relying on other people for inspiration and learn to inspire yourself by doing the work that matters most.
Remember that frustration, anxiety, embarrassment, and disappointment are all natural feelings when working on something important. None of those successful people ever talk about it, but the secret they don’t share is how they learned to work with their frustration instead of numbing it out watching YouTube videos.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” ― Maya Angelou
4. Asking for reassurance
Reassurance-seeking is a temporary anxiety relief strategy that only worsens your insecurities in the long-run.
Nothing could be more natural than the desire to reach out to other people for comfort and advice during hard times:
- After screwing up a performance at work, you reach out to your manager to ask for feedback about how to improve going forward.
- After a painful argument with your best friend, you explain what happened to your spouse to try and understand what just happened.
Of course, we all depend on and benefit from other people in our lives. But like anything in life, when pushed to an extreme, dependence can become unhealthy:
- The instant you feel anxious about something, you text your spouse in the hopes they’ll tell you it’s nothing to worry about.
- Anytime you’re even slightly unsure of how to proceed at work, you email your supervisor with a litany of questions and clarifications.
The habit of asking for reassurance is often a sign that you’re using other people as a coping strategy for your own anxieties.
And while this feels good in the moment, it has serious long-term side effects: When you depend on other people to feel good about yourself, you never learn how to help yourself feel better.
The result is that your anxieties and insecurities only grow over time. Like any addiction, reassurance-seeking feels good now but at the expense of feeling much worse later.
Finally, too much reassurance-seeking will also destroy your relationships. Eventually, people will realize that they are being used and grow to resent you for it. And if even the important people in your life don’t leave outright, that resentment will create distance and mistrust in the relationship.
While it’s difficult at first, resisting the temptation of reassurance-seeking will lead you to greater self-confidence and more satisfying relationships in the long-run.
“The business of philosophy is to teach man to live in uncertainty… not to reassure him, but to upset him.” ― Lev Shestov
5. Cheap pleasure
Indulging superficial pleasures is one of the easiest ways to cope—and one of the most dangerous.
Most of us live in a world of abundance. Food is abundant. Entertainment is abundant. Information is abundant. And while scarcity certainly has its downsides, all this abundance has its own risks:
- An abundance of calories makes it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.
- An abundance of entertainment makes it difficult to stay focused.
- An abundance of information often makes it more difficult to make decisions.
What underlies all these traps of abundance is pleasure:
- Overeating happens because bad food often tastes very good.
- Distraction happens because video games and social media feel a lot better than real work.
- Skimming Facebook posts makes us feel like we’re staying informed and being socially active.
When we think of unhelpful coping mechanisms, we tend to think of graphic examples like “numbing out” the pain of grief with alcohol or drugs. But most people do the same thing with fast food, Candy Crush, and Twitter.
Cheap pleasures may numb our pain but they will never address it.
The main problem is that the abundance of cheap pleasure in our lives is so extensive and pervasive that we don’t even recognize it. Which means we get caught up using it as a coping strategy far more often than we realize.
But when you’re habitually and unconsciously coping with difficult feeling by indulging cheap pleasures, you’re also avoiding addressing them in real ways:
- If you can always distract yourself from uncomfortable work with your smartphone, you’ll probably end up doing less soul-searching about your career than you would otherwise.
- If you can always alleviate your marital stress with the comforting numbness of Netflix, or Twitter, or Haagen Das, you’ll never find the time to confront your difficulties and actually work through them.
Pleasure isn’t bad in itself. But we all end up using it far more often than is good for us.
“Many of us pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that we hurry past it.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
All You Need to Know
Coping strategies easily turn into crutches that make you feel better in the moment but distract you from doing the hard work required to address the real problems in your life. Use them sparingly.
Stop trying to stay busy all the time.
Stop criticizing others.
Stop trying to motivate yourself with external inspiration.
Stop asking for reassurance.
Stop relying on cheap pleasures to feel better.