Common Coping Styles and How to Identify Them

The collective consciousness of society is a funny thing. What’s mainstream and “buzzing” now was once a fringe, grassroots movement – that’s how mainline thinking becomes developed.

And it’s always changing. It changes based on developments in science, on societal trends being juiced by the dominant media, on younger generations taking the place of the generations that came before.

While 20 years ago, it may have been considered a sign of weakness to discuss your coping styles (or even admit that you have them), our hyper-analytical and content-weary world has respirated, allowing therapy to be less stigmatized and encouraging us to know ourselves to avoid hurting ourselves and others.

This is a good thing.

It also means that sometimes, it can feel like you’ve got to catch up on a lifetime’s worth of introspection right now

Let’s start off with something simple. If trauma can be defined as a shock to the system, an emotional burden we are unprepared to deal with, then a coping style would be the system we decide to use to filter that pain. Or, more succinctly: 

Coping Style: Internal algorithms your brain automatically applies to help you get through familiar painful experiences.

When you find yourself experiencing the same problems over and over again, it may be because you’re so expert at coping with this type of situation that you don’t realize you are coping

Trauma – and remember our earlier definition, forgetting any internalized ideas about trauma having to be an EXPLOSION to be life-changing – affects the way you store memories. That’s what the coping style is for – to protect your brain from remembering a time when you weren’t given what you needed, or were instead given an ordeal. 

A few of the more common copying styles can include…

Controlling and Solution-Oriented

If in your life, especially at a young age, it became clear that you could not trust external forces to keep you safe and well, this coping style often develops.

You’ve got all the answers. Rather than teaching others how to treat you (with patience and space for growth), you take over and handle what needs handling.

You don’t like to be in situations where you don’t have any control – maybe you always have to be the driver when you’re going somewhere so that you can leave whenever you’d like, maybe you always host gatherings so that you won’t feel untethered and unsafe somewhere else, maybe you are uncomfortable with silence and must speak in order to fill it so that the conversation is neatly manipulated by your careful guidance.

This is no judgment. But it’s an important step to determine that this behavior is a fear-based trauma response.

What could we interpret as the opposite of controlling and solution-oriented?

Centered, perhaps. Or able to sit in discomfort. Trust in our own ability to surround ourselves with people who won’t hurt us on purpose. 

Presentation-focused and Socially Tortured

This is more and more common as whole generations of people are growing up using social media. 

Idolizing, venerating, or hero-worshipping those you admire, versus denigrating, tearing down, or stepping on those you don’t. It can also show up as an obsession with self-validation through external memes – cultural markers of success, beauty, your online presence, etc. 

Oftentimes, this sort of behavior is the result of not feeling validated during critical developmental periods.

Whether that means you were outright neglected, often corrected but rarely praised, or passed over for attention, your judgment of others is usually rooted in a deep disbelief in yourself and your fixed and unwavering worth.

What might be the other side of this coin?

Meeting others as they are, and showing up as you are – flaws, needs, and all. Experiencing others without ranking them as above or below you. Experiencing yourself without comparison to the way others present their lives. 

Unworthy and Unproven

If you’ve ever been accused of being an “attention-seeker” (what is that, anyway?), this might be you.

Stemming from an ingrained emptiness and a regularly self-reinforced belief that you are not worthy of love and acceptance and must prove yourself to others in order to trust that love and acceptance should it come, a person employing this coping style may use their behavior to act on this perceived lack.

Maybe a parent was only warm to you when you were “good”, rewarded you for being clever and entertaining but ignored you when you couldn’t be, or didn’t acknowledge your hurt when you felt it.

Unworthy and unproven people may feel the need to keep everyone around them indebted to their services, be the life of the party at any gathering, or cast a wide net for friendships, relationships, and accolades to draw on should they succumb to a moment of despair.

Think of this coping style as the result of growing up with less, and never quite getting used to the idea that you have and are enough.

To combat it, try naming the things for which you are grateful. Try giving someone else the spotlight and supporting them. Try speaking to the child that still lives inside you with congratulations and encouragement, even when you didn’t “win”.

Trauma is insidious and pervasive. It manifests in more ways than one can count, and the ways we’ve learned to cope with it end up forming our adult personalities. 

What would a world full of healed people look like?

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.