Replace Negative Coping Mechanisms with Positive Growth and Self-Compassion

Replace Negative Coping Mechanisms with Positive Growth and Self-Compassion

Alexandra Stockwell, MD discusses how coping mechanisms that were once effective in managing difficult situations can become limiting and harmful in relationships, as well as some healthier coping strategies.

Many people struggle with coping mechanisms that are no longer effective in their relationships. These coping mechanisms may have once served a purpose, but now they are causing problems and preventing individuals from connecting with their partners.

In general, coping mechanisms develop as a response to a specific situation or circumstance. For example, if someone grew up with an alcoholic parent, they may have developed coping mechanisms to help them deal with the stress and uncertainty of that situation. These coping mechanisms may have included becoming a caretaker, taking on too much responsibility, or shutting down emotionally.

However, as people grow and change, their coping mechanisms may no longer be helpful or effective. In fact, they may become harmful for experiencing connection in their relationships and overall well-being. For example, if someone is used to shutting down emotionally, it can be difficult to open up to their partner or express needs in a healthy way. If they’re used to taking on too much responsibility, it can lead to feelings of resentment and burnout.

When they realize it, or I point it out because it’s really nuanced and they haven’t seen it on their own, the first response of the clients I coach is often frustration, annoyance, and lots of self-judgment – sometimes self-loathing.



My response is to inspire self-compassion. 

In those very moments, it’s important to practice self-compassion and understand that your coping mechanisms were once a helpful response to a challenging situation. They served you well at the time you developed them. You can be grateful for how your behaviors once served you, while also recognizing that they no longer work and are holding you back in your current circumstance.

I am reminded of my client Arlene. She loved her husband, Ken, and really wanted to enjoy more closeness and affection with him. But every time he opened his arms wide and invited her to lean in, she froze a bit. She loved him. She was attracted to him. She wanted the contact. But when it was available, she shut down and felt uncertain, unsure of herself. It was confusing. Sometimes she pushed through and made herself stay in the embrace, but more often she accepted the hug and slid out of it right away. Ken felt confused, and also quite rejected.

When we started coaching, what came out was that her uncle had hugged Arlene as a little girl and it made her very uncomfortable. He held her too long. And she felt like her body was being used for his feeling good, rather than to connect in a friendly way. Once she realized the connection, she felt such relief. She had always wondered why she sabotaged the affection and caressing she yearned for. And she also was able to be kind to herself, seeing that as a young girl, learning to slither out of a hug was a very important, protective, empowering move.

Having that understanding was wonderful. Although there were other steps involved before she could truly relax and enjoy Ken’s loving, respectful embrace. Once she did, she was so happy!



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This example is quite straightforward and easy to describe. The phenomenon can also be far more subtle, especially when the coping mechanism makes it hard to feel supported by your spouse, or have a sense of belonging in the relationship, or able to stay in your body during sex, or feel safe during a disagreement.

If you want more connection in your relationship, to feel more affection, openheartedness, or emotional closeness, consider that you may be used to protecting yourself in ways that were once helpful and now prevent you from having what you want in your relationship. The goal is not to let go of the coping mechanism and feel unsafe; the goal is to find a new way to both feel safe and also available for the intimacy you want.


The goal is not to let go of the coping mechanism and feel unsafe; the goal is to find a new way to both feel safe and also available for the intimacy you want. Click To Tweet


It can be quite tricky to untangle such patterns so if this resonates, be sure to seek help. The support of someone you trust, who is unquestionably on your team, is invaluable in learning to feel safe when triggered and looking for new ways of responding. That’s true whether it’s a coach, therapist, or a trusted friend. The rewards of evolving into new ways of responding are worth any effort involved, because doing so allows you to experience relationships that are healthier, happier, and more fulfilling.

In conclusion, coping mechanisms are a helpful part of everyday life, but they can also hold you back if your circumstances no longer require the self-protection you are used to. By practicing self-compassion and seeking support, individuals can learn new ways of coping that are healthy, effective and empowering.

Is there something you do that isn’t helpful in your relationship, but you realize it once served you well?

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Earn CME

This learning experience is powered by CMEfy - a platform that brings relevant CMEs to busy clinicians, at the right place and right time. Using short learning nudges, clinicians can reflect and unlock AMA PRA Category 1 Credit.

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