- Like old software, the coping styles we developed in childhood often no longer fit the larger world.
- When these strategies no longer work, we often struggle with our work and intimate relationships.
- The key is learning to upgrade our coping software by learing to do now what we couldn't as a child.
As children, we each develop our own ways of coping with others and navigating the larger world. Our parents model some of these styles, some we create on our own to deal with childhood fears, chaotic environments, and abuse, and we carry these forward into our adult lives.
But like old software in a computer, our learned coping methods at some point stop working for too many of us. The world has become too big and complicated. We realize that our styles keep us feeling small and afraid, causing us to be angry at our parents for our past hurts, fed up with our partners for treating us the way they do. We stop talking to our parents, get divorced, quit jobs—all signs that we need to run our lives in a different and better way.
Here are six common coping styles, their limitations, and ways to upgrade:
Being good, walking on eggshells, accommodating
As a good child, you live by the motto, I’m happy if you’re happy and avoid conflict by doing what your parents expect. As adults, you continue to do the same: You accommodate, you're afraid of any strong emotions in others or of saying no, and you're driven by shoulds instead of wants.
Limitations: You may eventually get burned out, or if not, periodically blow up from always doing the heavy lifting or resenting that you're living in other people’s lives rather than your own. But the blow-ups only trigger fear, which pulls you back into being good.
Upgrade: The challenge is to take the risk of saying no: Say what you need, rather than always giving in, accommodating, or being overly responsible. You need to learn to tolerate strong emotions, your own and others. You need to figure out what you want, rather than always being driven by shoulds.
Anger and defiance
This is the classic fight mode—when threatened or hurt, you lash out. But over time, this can solidify into a me-against-the-world stance, where you don’t trust, are constantly pushing back, and being defiant. Anger is your emotional default.
Limitations: You are isolated, or only hang out with people who are angry like you, or are with a partner who is an accommodator who is afraid of you. Sometimes, your anger gets you into trouble; others just see you as the “always angry one” and dismiss what you’re saying. Paradoxically, by living a life driven by defying others, they are actually the ones shaping your life, not you.
Upgrade: Rather than exploding, learn to use anger as information to let others know what you need. Develop a larger emotional range, such as hurt or worry, so others can better understand you and see your vulnerability. This, in turn, will help you connect to others and have intimacy.
Being passive, shutting down
This is the freeze mode of coping. When problems arise, you feel overwhelmed, withdraw, and shut down. But this, too, can solidify in relationships. While the good child gets anxious and accommodates, or the angry one pushes back, you simply “go along” and let others dictate your life.
Limitations: Your shutting down keeps others from knowing you, so there is no intimacy. Like the other styles, you’re letting others run your life. Eventually, you may get resentful and leave a relationship, only to do it again in another.
Upgrade: Like the accommodator, you need to learn to take the risk of being assertive, figure out what you want and need, and stop going along.
Cut and run
This is flight mode. Rather than tackling problems when they arise, you simply leave—quitting relationships and jobs.
Limitations: You never get stability in your relationships or traction in your career. You never find the intimacy that comes from working through problems with others.
Upgrade: Stop running. Take the risk of approaching rather than avoiding problems. If they seem overwhelming, learn to break problems into smaller pieces. Know it is okay to take baby steps and ask for help.
There’s a bully in your head constantly scolding you for making mistakes, not doing things right; these are usually parents’ voices that have come inside. You’ve learned to believe that the only way to shut the bully up is to try harder and be more perfect.
Limitations: You’re constantly putting yourself down, live in fear of making mistakes, stay anxious, and feel depressed. Or, you cope by keeping your world small because you are afraid to break out of your comfort zone; you only do what you know you can do well enough.
Upgrade: Time to push back against a bully. Learn to lower expectations and set priorities. Risk making mistakes and see them not as failures but as steps in learning and growing.
You likely grew up in a volatile environment, and one of your few ways of coping was always being on guard and looking around corners. As an adult, this continues and often turns into generalized anxiety, where you worry and imagine worst-case scenarios all the time.
Limitations: You’re always living in the unknown future, so you can’t ever appreciate the present. You may take drugs or use alcohol to calm your anxiety. You may be controlling of those around you because you believe that if you can get them to do what you need them to do, you will be less anxious. This, in turn, creates relationship conflicts because others resent your control and don’t see your anxiety.
Upgrade: You need to tackle your anxiety directly through medication and/or therapy. You want to learn to be mindful in the present and stop your mind from going down rabbit holes of worst-case scenarios.
What these coping styles have in common is that the upgrade generally involves stepping up, going against your grain, and doing what you never learned to do as a child.
This is how you begin to feel like the adult you are.