Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Life Lessons: Letting Go of Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms

Eat your vegetables!Image via Wikipedia

When I was growing up, I learned to use food to deal with the the bad things that happened to me. I learned this coping mechanism from my grandmother, with whom I shared a strong, loving bond. You see, my grandma was an outstanding cook. She loved me with her every day comfort foods and her wonderful holiday meals, full of luscious homemade sweets and satisfying carbohydrates. My last memory of my grandma before her death is of her offering the 16 year old me a bowl of ice cream to console me after a huge fight I had with my mother.

My mother, on the other hand, was a horrible cook. She also had an unhealthy preoccupation with weight. My mother obsessed about how much relatives on my father's side of the family weighed, which translated into her overreacting when she perceived that me, my brother or sisters were gaining any weight. Genetically speaking, my father's side of the family tends towards individuals being heavier, and there are members of that side of my family who are overweight or obese. However, when I look at pictures of myself during childhood, I do not see a child or teenage that was overweight or obese. Yet I remember going to see a nutritionist when I was in high school and for the life of me I have no idea why.

I think as a child you use what you know to get through the tough parts of childhood. I grew up with an abusive mother who triggered abandonment issues in me--fear and stress instead of love and bonding. I used food back then to soothe and feel better about myself. In retrospect, it wasn't the most healthy or life-affirming way to deal with my feelings, which is why as an adult I acknowledge that food was a maladaptive coping mechanism. But I can't fault my childhood self for figuring out a way to deal with some pretty untenable situations created by the adults in her life.

Here is the thing about maladaptive coping mechanisms learned in childhood: in times of stress, emotional upset and adversity, they are the things your grab for first to help you cope in adulthood.

When I was diagnosed with cancer at age 22, my mother and my family once again disappointed me with their lack of love and support. It was then that a caring nurse suggested I talk with a mental health professional. Fortunately for me, in that time of crisis, I was willing and open to trying a new way of coping. I went thinking that I was going to talk about how cancer ruined my life and my relationship with my family. Instead, I found a safe place to talk about all those strong emotions I was avoiding with food.

In my case, I loved my grandma more than any other adult in my childhood. Her death when I was 16 devastated me. My lack of love and support from other adults in my life to help me process my grief and loss after her death only reinforced my reliance on food to help soothe and comfort me. It was, after all, something my grandma and I bonded over. And yet, as I discovered in adulthood, it was her love that nurtured the seed of my self-esteem. As my self-esteem grew through my work in therapy, so too did my determination to reexamine my coping styles and choose more healthy ways to deal with adversity as an adult.

And I get to practice these new coping mechanisms a lot because there certainly hasn't been a lack of adversity in my adult life...

A lot of years in psychotherapy helped me learned to substitute food with other, more healthy and helpful ways to deal with strong emotions. That is, for the most part. Then being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1999 pretty much changed my relationship with food. Overeating wreaked havoc on my blood sugar and my homeostasis resulting in strong, unpleasant consequences that counteracted any brief, temporary benefit overeating offered. Which has reinforced in a big way that eating couple of chocolate chip cookies is O.K., but eating the whole bag of cookies only insures a world full of hurt afterward.

I mention this today because I know someone who is struggling with her own maladaptive coping mechanisms and is having a rough time of it. She is in her twenties, and probably much like me at that age, she thinks that there is something wrong with her because she continues to use her maladaptive coping mechanisms. The thing is, there isn't anything wrong with her. I know this because I now understand more about human behavior. If these maladaptive coping mechanisms didn't work at all, we wouldn't repeat these behaviors over and over again. We learn to repeat what works, even if it only really helps a little or creates the illusion of a solution. Which means changing our behavior to something more healthy, something different, is inherently difficult.

We all have our issues growing up. We all develop ways of coping with the world when we are young. The wonderful thing about being an adult is that we get to reexamine these coping mechanisms, decide if they still work for us and, if we want to, we can choose to change and replace them. Sure, it is hard work. But over time, I found the reward of feeling better about myself trumps holding on to something that doesn't really work for me anymore.

In her own time, I hope my friend discovers this for herself too.

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Overflowing Brain said...

I don't even have words right now. Thank you. For saying this, for thinking of me.

For putting it in terms that finally truly make sense.

Selena said...

Thank you! Your posts really touched my heart & I wanted to try and encourage and inspire you.

Your comment made me realize just how much I miss being a clinical social worker and helping other people. Stupid chronic illnesses....

Anonymous said...

Selena, Thank you for sharing such private thoughts with us. I had a Gram like yours, and she died when I was 16 too. (Another thing in common) Keep up the good writing, I look forward to your posts.