The Second Noble Truth

My path of acceptance.

Are You Overusing Your Psychological Tools?

Has knowledge of coping mechanisms begun to work against you?

Photo by Alexi Berry

There are several reasons people enter psychotherapy. The key reasons: to gain insight, problems in daily living, poor mood, and psychological disorders that affect daily functioning. Individuals entering therapy seek coping skills to eliminate, combat, and / or manage these issues. These coping skills are often referred to as tools.

These tools, when practiced, are very effective in helping the individual change their perception, feelings, and behavior. Many come to rely on their new coping skills, which are generally far more effective than their old methods. Unfortunately, there is a down side to these newfound liberators: a tendency to overuse them and avoid legitimate and appropriate emotion. The coping skills actually act like defense mechanisms.

Freud was the first to identify defense mechanisms, which are types of unconscious psychological tools. Many defense mechanisms have become part of common vernacular: denial, repression, rationalization, and regression are used in popular conversation. These tools of the unconscious mind work to protect the ego from being overwhelmed by uncomfortable information. When these defense mechanisms are functioning properly, the individual maintains ego strength; yet the defense mechanisms relinquish their hold as the psyche becomes ready to make use of the threatening information. Then they can become conscious, albiet in a disguised form.

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An example of this is in the grieving process. An initial reaction to news of a loss is shock and denial of the reality, believing there must be some mistake. As the ego regains its equilibrium the information is assimilated. Eventually, there is no denial.

The coping skills a therapist helps an individual develop are conscious, as opposed to the aforementioned defense mechanisms which occur unconsciously. Individuals practice these new techniques, and challenge dysfunctional behavior, feeling, cognitions, or perceptions. As such he becomes more adept at coping. He may become less prone to volatile emotion and unhealthy thinking. As a result he is able to reduce behavior that was causing the problems.

An issue arises when an individual overuses these new coping skills. In this case the new skills may become defense mechanisms, protecting the ego when it would be more beneficial to allow the emotions. This is more common, and more of a risk to healthy psychological living, than most are aware.

As a culture, and perhaps as a species, we seek pleasure and avoid pain. In many ways we have become uncomfortable with displeasure; we seek to remove it at all cost. Displeasure, sadness, and other seemingly negative mood states are a part of life. It becomes unhealthy to avoid them, or, in the case of the overuse of psychological tools, to beat them into submission.

Examples of overusing coping skills abound in the therapeutic setting. The act of reframing provides a common example: Reframing is a cognitive therapy term that is defined as looking at a situation from a different perspective. Individuals step outside of their subjective viewpoint long enough to brainstorm other possible explanations, or meanings, for the situation that occurred. When this is effective, the client can challenge a situation she had taken personally and felt injured by. She now removes the negative feeling and find a more suitable, and often more pleasurable, philosophy about the situation.

Clients who have learned to reframe situations sometimes do this even when there is legitimate injury. For example, someone loses a partner as a result of a break-up in the relationship. There may be legitimate positives to this: perhaps there were many arguments and emotional turmoil. These will no longer be a part of the individual's life. The individual can now use the time he was devoting to the relationship to enjoy friends and hobbies more. The individual might feel a sense of freedom at not having to curtail behaviors that the partner found annoying.

The individual focuses on these positives, which are legitimate. Friends remind her she is better off without him, or how it was evident the relationship wasn't working. Despite the positives, there is still a legitimate sense of loss. This sense of loss is unpleasant, and, as stated, there is a preference to avoid negative states. Someone who has become proficient at challenging thoughts might overuse these coping skills. This challenging of thoughts may produce a seemingly more positive state. However, she is rationalizing and denying true and legitimate feelings.

The healthiest way to cope with this example, and others like it, is a balance of appropriate emotion and the use of coping skills to facilitate daily functioning. There is a natural grieving process that is healthy to embrace, despite the negative emotional states. This isn't to say one should wallow in the negative states, but he would certainly benefit from honoring his emotions.

Photo by Alexi Berry

A healthy response is a balanced response; accepting of negative states is part of grieving. One could step back and objectively view the negative state, then challenge any tendency to over generalize the situation (I always fail at relationships) or to catastrophize the situation (I will always be alone and never find love again). At the same time she could honor the loss and the emotions attached to it. Acceptance is the key, and an objective perspective allows for the healthiest resolution of the issue.

The overuse of coping skills is becoming more common in our pleasure seeking culture. Individuals would benefit from a more eastern philosophical approach, which would seek balance through objectivity and the honoring of emotions.

William Berry teaches at Florida International University and Nova Southeastern University. His area of interest is substance abuse and individual happiness.

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