Let's talk about coping strategies with complex PTSD
How can we shift from seeing them as bad, big problems, or dysfunctional strategies to something more empowering?
Can't get "rid of dysfunctional" coping strategies?
The aim is to find a way to see cPTSD coping strategies from a different perspective.
Strategies like: dissociation, self-harm, addiction, food issues - too much, not enough or binge/purge, avoidance, workaholic, people pleasing...
Generally our friends/family, mental health professionals and often we ourselves label them as e.g.:
- big & bad problem behaviours
- dysfunctional copying strategies
Which reinforces our feelings of being faulty, broken, inferior, defective... adds to the heavy shame
Firstly, I will explain a often used approach by mental health professionals that is not effective and why.
Then we dive into changing things up so we can see it from an empowering perspective. Are you ready?
Often within the first few therapy sessions (we don't even really know our therapist yet!!) he/she points out one of our "problem behaviours". For me dissociation is usually the first one, as I do this a lot in therapy :)
1. First the therapists names it, gives it a label, defines it, explains how this is interfering with therapy or my healing.
2. Then moves into creating awareness of what this "problem behaviour" is costing me!!
I don't know about you, but by the time I reach out to see professional help I am crystal clear that this is affecting just about every aspect of my life, relationships, friendships, ability to concentrate and focus, my career and being successful.
That's why I reached out for help, right?
3. End with how we need to replaced them with healthy strategies. How you need to get rid off or stop those dysfunctional copying strategies.
This has the underlying message, that the way I am in this moment is not ok. I'm not enough or acceptable the way I am now.
It's the same message we got throughout childhood. So my protective mode come in full force: Guard up,defenses come on, emotional shut down and it becomes impossible to feel safe.
Anyone trying to take dissociation away from me, will be met with resistance or absence. As I will be escaping to planet Pluto and observing the rest of the session from up there.
This approach comes from a well meaning and caring place. People want to help us and stop our suffering, and equip us with a tool box full of healthy strategies. But going about it in this fashion is not effective, at least not for me. So let's talk about how else we could do this.
When was the first time you remember using that coping strategy (just pick any one for this exercise: e.g. dissociation, self-harm etc)?
I'm guessing you were quite young. If I think of dissociation, it feels like I always did this. What is it for you? 4, 8, 13, 16... years of age?
This young child was clever enough to come up with a solution to cope with all those intense emotions, all that hurtful abusive confusing stuff, that pain and suffering. Often in the absence of nurturing adults, who protected and helped you feel safe again, mad you feel loved and appreciated.
So, this child was clever enough to find a way to get through this horrible stuff by herself/himself. Can you connect with how resourceful and creative this child was?
Exactly 10 years ago I started doing inner child therapy. It was very emotional and challenging for me. As part of it, I started writing letters to this younger version of me. Celebrating her. Telling her that I'm proud of her and that I think she is clever.
This was the best we could at that age. Even what we did yesterday, is the best we could do with what we knew yesterday.
All those "problem behaviours" are our tools. Those tools helped us to get through the horrible times. Thanks to those tools we arrived here today.
Those tools a have a function. Each one of them. They are effective even though it's quite short-lived.
So before we can even talk about replacing them we need to be clear on the function. Please discuss this with your therapist or coach. Have a deep think about this :)
For example, self-harm can have many different functions. Any tool you test to replace self-harm needs to address the same function otherwise it's useless.
Now I'd like to invite you to take all those "problem behaviours" and "dysfunctional coping mechanisms" and put them in your tool box!! Yes, they are yours, yours to keep. You mastered them, perfected them.
A handyman doesn't get rid of tools that still work just because he bought a newer fancier better thingy
There is no need to get rid of any of them. Let's have a look now to find out what's in your tool box? So far I shared with you examples strategies that I have in my own tool box. I didn't need to use examples from my clients or members of my support groups. I got a loooot of old toooools (that some call dysfunctional) :)
But what is in your tool box? Are you happy with what's in there? Is there some more room? Would you like to add something?
Now I would like you to check in with yourself. Are you now more open to hear about other options compared to the first scenario where a mental health professional pointed out your problem, focused on what it costs you and urged you to replace those dysfunctional strategies?
Going from feeling ashamed and defective to focusing on how young you were when you had to come up with a solution to cope and survive all by yourself.
This helps me to feel less threatened or on guard, and instead I can be a little more open, have some sparks of curiosity and wake up that inner explorer. I know all those old tools will always be there for me whether I use them or not. They are an option to choose from.
This helps me finding the courage to try something new.
One more question for you. important one. When you go and test a new tool and it turns out to be a disaster, triggering, or you just don't like it - What do you make that mean about yourself?
That inner critic can be fierce and quick at telling us things like: "you're a failure, useless, too damaged, etc" Or "see, I told you, nothing will ever work for you. you are just a failure"
Completely dismissing the fact that it took a ton of courage to step outside your comfort zone and try something new.
Just because we didn't' have people cheering us on, celebrating us, make us feel appreciated and encourage us, care about our success etc doesn't mean we can't do this for ourselves now today.
Allow yourself to feel proud for stepping outside your comfort zone regardless of the outcome. It's about taking the action that needs to be celebrated or at least acknowledged. Are you willing to do this?
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Shift from labeling things as dysfunctional faulty problems and focusing on the cost and how we need to get rid of those problem behaviours to
Celebrating our younger version for being so creative and resourceful and coming up with a clever solution to get through all those horrible times.
Those old tools are there for you to keep. They are just an option to choose from.
Hopefully this lifted some of the heavy shame and feelings of defectiveness, and sparked some curiosity and awakened your inner explorer to check out some new options...