Coping mechanisms: Putting addiction within a broader framework
Much of the time, people think about addiction as something that affects only a relatively small number of people. This is especially the case when people think of addiction as addiction to substance, or to troublesome, self-destructive patterns.
Another way to think about addiction is to think of it as something that has to do with our capacity to learn from experience. This involves two characteristics shared by all human beings. One is our ability to adapt by finding ways to cope with difficult situations. The other is how fear keeps reinforcing the coping mechanisms that we have learned.
Thinking of addictive behaviors as a coping mechanism is not news. In fact, this is what the Twelve Steps are about. They focus on dealing with the underlying problems, as opposed to simply stopping self-destructive patterns.
In the Proactive Twelve Steps, we address the much broader pattern, shared by all human beings, which is to find and hang on to coping mechanisms.
First among the coping mechanisms are the early coping strategies that we adopt unconsciously as a way to deal with our environment as children. They stay with us, pretty much unconsciously, for the rest of our life. Typically, we are not aware of having any coping strategies. However, we see them, sometimes glaringly, in others. This is the stuff of which comedy is made, the various character types in the human comedy: the miser, the greedy person, the braggard, the coward… This also includes the good stuff, traits such as being generous, or courageous: All of these are coping strategies that are brought about by favorable situations.
Thinking in terms of early coping strategies helps us step away from the blaming aspect of thinking in terms of character defects vs virtues. It also helps us put the difficulties we human beings encounter in changing habits or dealing with addictions within a broader context.
We human beings have a great capacity to adapt. In that, we are not unique: All life forms are good at adapting. We just happen to be exceptionally good.
Think of adapting as a coping strategy. For instance, when you see the tree that is growing sideways instead of going straight, you can understand it as the way the tree “coped” with being in the shade by growing in the direction where light was coming from. Our coping strategies are more complex, because we are more complex organisms than a tree, but they are based on the same principle. For instance, our attachment patterns, secure attachment and the varieties of insecure attachment, reflect the way that we responded to ouroriginal family environment.
It is hard for us to be aware of our basic coping strategies because they are so deeply ingrained, and we are so accustomed to them, that we simply cannot see them. And, even when we become aware of them, it is extremely difficult to change them. Trying to do that through willpower alone is often a recipe for failure. Why? For the very reason that we call it a coping strategy, i.e. something that has to do with allowing us to survive.
Evolution has honed in us mechanisms that reinforce habits that help us survive, and inhibit habits that could endanger us. So, not only are our coping mechanisms constantly reinforced, but also trying to change them triggers very strong inhibiting mechanisms. To the amygdala area of our brain, trying to change a coping mechanism is as threatening as trying to put your finger into the fire: You’re going to get burned if you do it, so don’t do it!!! And so, this triggers a lot of inhibitory signals, the fear of being burned, anxiety in all kinds of manifestations.
Fear is a very basic, deeply ingrained driver of behavior, against which willpower is largely ineffective in the long run. This is why ignoring the way coping mechanisms function means essentially being condemned to failure in our attempts to change them. In contrast, taking a mindful and proactive approach means that we are prepared for the backlash of anxiety that inevitably follows a chance to make this kind of change, and we address it in a way that is at the same time more gentle and more all encompassing.
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