The people I love, will leave me.
That was the lesson I learned as a kid growing up through two divorces. I loved my dad, John. He left. I loved my adopted dad, Reid. He left. Now as an adult, I know that it wasn’t that simple. There were a lot of variables. But as an 11 year old, it was exactly that simple. Love was dangerous.
I coped with this by building walls. I learned that if I didn’t get too attached to anybody, I wouldn’t get hurt. So that’s what I did.
Now this coping mechanism really served me as a kid. It protected me. I didn’t get to attached to any of my mom’s boyfriends, so it didn’t bother me when it didn’t work out. I didn’t build close friendships at school, so when we moved, I didn’t leave any best friends behind.
My walls worked.
But like any of our childhood coping mechanisms, mine became destructive as I grew up. I became so adept at building walls, that I never stopped. Even after I didn’t need the tool anymore, I kept using it. So, during my teens, 20’s and even 30’s my walls kept growing, higher, thicker. I kept the people I loved the most at arms length. It wasn’t until I was 35 years old that I became aware of what I had done, and finally fixed it.
And once my walls came down, my heart filled up. I now have intimate relationships with my wife, my family, and a large circle of dear friends. All things that my walls wouldn’t allow.
We all do this.
Every one of us learns coping mechanisms to deal with the traumas we experience as kids. And those coping mechanisms really do help us when we’re young and largely not in control of our lives. But then, those same coping methods hurt us if we keep using them as adults.
A lot of the work I do with my leadership coaching clients has to do with identifying and reversing those old coping mechanisms that are holding them back. In the seven years that I’ve been a leadership coach, I’ve seen the same destructive behaviors repeated in client after client. Here are the five common coping mechanisms that are especially destructive. Is yours in here?
As kids, we don’t have much control. So when we experience trauma, we learn that if we can just have more control over the people and circumstances in our life, we will be safe. This leads to adults who are perfectionists, where everything has to look just so. The controller spends much of their time on controlling the perceptions, the actions and feelings of others. And because their focus is outward, they neglect to control the only things that really matter; their own attitude and actions. This leads to failed relationships, constant disappointment and heightened anxiety as an adult.
The escapist is so uncomfortable with their childhood circumstances, that they seek out the means to forget about them, even temporarily. Often, through alcohol or drug abuse, early sexual behavior, or books and video games, the escapist learns to explore other worlds which are easier for them to understand and survive than their own frightening reality. As adults they are conflict avoiders. They are disconnected from others, and often haven’t practiced the social skills needed to make and maintain strong relationships.
The rescuer often learns this behavior as a result of growing up with a parent who’s an addict or is constantly sick. That addiction or disease disrupts the normal parent/child relationship. Because the parent is an alcoholic, for example, the child takes care of them, cleans up after them, and worries for their safety. The desire for a normal loving parent relationship is so strong that the child tolerates and even enables horrible behavior on the part of the parent. As adults, rescuers find themselves constantly coming to the rescue and enabling the bad behavior of their spouse, children, friends, and co-workers. They surround themselves with dysfunctional people and codependent relationships.
The performer learns early on that they way they get attention and affection is to be the best. Getting good grades, winning in sports, or standing out in some other way is how they get parental praise and quality time.They learn that their parent’s love isn’t just given, it has to be earned. If they can only perform well and be at the head of the class or the head of the team, they will get they love they crave from their parents. As adults, performers often get degrees they don’t want and careers they aren’t interested in. They continue to push and perform and build lives that others expect of them, all the while being deeply unfulfilled and regretful.
The attacker learned that the only way to protect themselves from abuse or abandonment was to strike first. They’ve learned that it’s better to be the one to throw the first punch or the first insult because then they won’t be picked on. “If you’re not the bully, you’re the victim.” is their approach to life. As adults, attackers start nasty rumors about co-workers. They bully, intimidate and abuse the people they are close to as a way to protect themselves and project a false strength. The aggressor is deeply insecure and refuses to put themselves in situations where they are vulnerable.
Each of these coping mechanisms, like all of our bad behaviors, is driven by fear. It’s fear that makes us lash out at others. It’s fear that makes us protect ourselves by hurting others and keeping people at arms length. If you see any of these behaviors in yourself, you’ve got a choice to make. Do you keep down the same path you’re on now, or do you make a change?
One of the most powerful things I’ve learned is that we are not victims of our past. If there is something you don’t like about your life, you absolutely have the power to change it as long as you are willing to face it.
Steven Pressfield puts it best in my favorite book, The War of Art when he writes “Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance.”
This second we can face our fear.