Creating new ways of coping when the old ways don’t work
OK, hands up if your New Year’s resolution was to spend more time at home or change the way that you work? Even if it was, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this wasn’t what you had in mind. I’m guessing that a lot of us never expected the events that COVID-19 have brought or any of its consequences back then. It seems so long ago, doesn’t it?
And yet, here we are. Some of us in lockdown, some homeschooling, some of us staying away from our loved ones because we love them, some of us wishing for time away from loved ones and still loving them (or not), some of us not understanding what’s going on with our emotions. We may feel as though we’re really close to the emotional edge, not understanding how come we’re feeling overcome. We may be reacting or over-reacting in ways that are surprising us, and those around us.
How come our normal ways of coping aren’t working in the normal way they used to?
The short answer is that these are not normal times! So, it makes sense that the normal wouldn’t have normal responses. We need to consider new ways of coping, rather than trying harder with the old ways, especially if the old ways don’t actually achieve what we want.
Virginia Satir recognised four archetypes that can be adopted as coping mechanisms. The first one is the 'Blamer':
The Blamer blames and points the finger. When they feel that they can’t cope they look at whose fault it is, with an aim of deflecting the blame away from them. On the outside, they are angry and can have quite frightening behaviour. The anger may be present on the inside, as a defence to keep their fear at bay. They may really want others to be grateful for how much they do for them. But their harsh words, fiery temper, and criticisms ostracise and leave them feeling less appreciated.
The usual partner to the Blamer is the 'Placater'. This coping stance provides defence through deference and placating. They feel that the only way that they can survive this situation is by apologising and appeasing. Their behaviour can come across as whiny, dependent, or overly cheerful. They may be wearing the ‘cheerleader’ fixed smile on the outside, but this could be to hide their sadness or anxiety. They can often feel as though they are ‘lost’ and don’t know who they are because they have been so focused on trying to keep everyone else happy.
The third way of coping is by trying to keep a stiff upper lip and ignoring our feelings. The Super-Reasonable or 'Computer' is embodied in Star Trek’s Mr Spock. Responses must be objective, logical, and rational. Emotions are dangerous and overwhelming and therefore suppressed at all costs, for fear of losing control. On the outside, they give the impression of being aloof or insensitive, or boring. A bit like the swan that glides on the surface, there’s a lot going on underneath. Despite giving the impression of not feeling, this coping stance can be as a result of feeling too much and having to shut-down.
The Distractor can initially be exciting to be with. It can feel fun to be around their spontaneity and seemingly light-heartedness. But as a defence response, it can be both tiring and scary. The Distractor will change topic, avoiding emotional or personal contact. This could be constantly making a joke out of the situation, or it could be numbing through substances or activities. This can be exhausting for the Distractor and those in lockdown with them. They find it challenging to regulate their emotions.
I’m sure that we can recognise these behaviours. It’s usually easier to identify other people’s coping stances first before we are able to own our ways of coping, but sometimes these descriptions resonate with our behaviours straight away. And when we recognise our coping stance, we are able to accept its strength. Each stance has its own super-power or resource.
The Blamer is assertive and has some leadership qualities. By exploring their unmet expectations of others, and what they think others expect from them they will be able to be more resourceful and develop empathy.
The Placator is caring and empathic. By getting in touch with feelings they will begin to build their sense of self. As they meet their wants and needs they will be able to have greater agency.
The Super-Reasonable pays attention to detail and is good at problem-solving. By examining their perception of the situation, they can begin to identify their feelings and ways to connect with themselves and others.
The Distractor is creative and flexible. By recognising their triggers, they are able to develop resistance and explore how they are able to create inner peace and comfort.
The intention of coping stances and defence mechanisms is primarily to keep us safe and secure. Whilst the world is experiencing the global pandemic it is not unusual to feel trauma responses. We may be feeling as though usual tasks take much longer to complete. We may also feel as though we are overwhelmed by less! These are very normal responses to abnormal events.
Be kind, be generous with your patience for yourselves, and for those around you. And don't be afraid to get help or seek therapy.
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