Everyone has coping strategies. It’s less known that unconscious stories are frequently driving coping behaviors that trigger or mediate the presenting and quite real medical concerns. This holds true not just for psychological presentations like anxiety, depression, and ADD, but also nearly always plays some role in other medical conditions like fatigue, heart disease, migraine headaches, weight gain, arthritis, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and even cancers.
My path in health care started with graduate studies in counseling psychology. Though do appreciate the profound art of counseling, I switched paths to pursue naturopathic and functional medicine. I did this because I wanted training in a broader tool box. I was especially excited by the idea of really getting under the hood with patients using prescribed lifestyle interventions.
It did not take long to learn that simply telling people to take better care of themselves with better diet and lifestyle often falls short of profound results. Small wonder really. I now understand that people do what they do for reasons that are important to investigate. Many detrimental lifestyle choices are “coping mechanisms” that can not be stopped easily or to good effect without first looking at what purpose they are serving and why they developed in the first place.
It only took a little longer for me to see that both drugs and natural agents can be used to suppress symptoms–and that both approaches are often fundamentally misguided. Patients often come to alternative medicine because they want an alternative to drug therapy. Using vitamins and herbs to “treat” a patient’s symptoms is not significantly better than the dreadfully conventional practice of using drugs to suppress symptoms.
The core principles of Naturopathic and Functional medicine dictate that doctors should see their patients as whole people and as individuals. This sounds basic, but it stands in direct conflict with the suppressive match a drug to a symptom “disease-care” system that is so sadly conventional today. Naturopathic and Functional providers are also trained to partner with patients as teachers and to support our innate healing potential by identifying and addressing the “obstacles to health” and other underlying causes of disease.
Fundamental obstacles to health fall into three categories: (1) congenital & genetic, (2) developmental & environmental, or (3) diet & lifestyle based. It’s important to recognize all three health obstacle categories, but only diet and lifestyle can be changed today. For this reason, it’s well worth looking into where our diet and lifestyle habits came from. Some dysfunctional habits are cultural or familial. Others are even more deeply entrenched as coping mechanisms.
It matters not who we are, none of us escape life unscathed. In fact, we are all incubated in degrees of family or societal habits and dysfunction. Cultures aside, far too many of us experience moments or patterns of shattering pain and fear as children. The long term fallout from cultural habits and traumatic events develop into our long-term coping mechanisms.
Some coping mechanisms are helpful. Things like moderate exercise, drinking a glass of water, stepping outside, practicing a positive intention, and breath meditation are healthy coping mechanisms. Problematic coping mechanisms include dietary moves like coffee, alcohol, tobacco, prescriptions and recreational drugs, sugar and other high-carb indulgences.
Psychological coping mechanisms are harder to detect. A psychological indulgences include things like habitually stepping onto the “drama triangle”: blaming others, rescuing others and playing the victim ourselves. Other psychological coping mechanisms that look like acting out include hurrying, creating chaos, risk taking. Internal phychological coping mechanisms include things like worrying, self-doubt, obsessions, withdrawal, and even degrees of dissociation.
I am often happily surprised that many patients seem to know know exactly what they are doing wrong in terms of over-using their particular set of coping strategies: stress based eating choices, overworking, over-drinking, -smoking, -worrying, compulsive exercise, television or other indulgences. What most patients don’t know is how to stop. It’s a truly rare patient that appreciates the profound influence that their particular back-stories has had on their life choices and present state of health or disease. The journey toward optimal health opens far wider when we can see that it is often the overuse of favored coping strategies that has bent the path of our lives toward injury, illness and disease.
In response to trauma (something that we all experience), our creative young minds often develop strategies of reacting that are *designed* to help us predict threatening events and thereby feel safer in an inherently unpredictable world. This underlies how children who experience especially frightening events often develop belief patterns around anxiety, low self worth, shame, depression and even levels of dissociation.
Strange as it seems, to a traumatized child, thinking something like “I deserved this”, “people always disappoint me”, or even “I’m never really safe”, can become a comfort. Some also learn to dissociate from their thoughts, needs, feelings and even their bodies as a way to hide and protect themselves. Even more interesting is that we can become so accustomed to the pale comfort of our survival strategies, that we unconsciously recreate traumatic experiences in order to refresh the comforting, albeit negative, messages. For better or worse, our human minds can cement these mental habits in place with elaborate stories about the world and ourselves with dire certainty.
It is both fascinating and tragic that as adults, we appear to be designed to recreate the scenes of our deepest childhood wounds. If we look carefully, we can see that almost everyone does this by choosing or orchestrating scenarios where the most awful things are “inexplicably” happening to us, again and again. Even if reality won’t play ball, our minds can expertly carve the way to re-experience the old nightmares by exaggerating our perception or flat-out imagining that the terrible scenes are being replayed. At these times, through our crooked lenses, we might tell ourselves that through some cruel fate, life is delivering a series of withering reinjuries to our most tender spots.
Far from tragic, I am seeing that the drive to to seemingly inexplicably find, recreate, or even warp reality to fit the old tragic scenes comes from the indomitable human spirit and a drive to grow past and through adversity.
Thankfully, we can take control of our destiny by developing awareness and perspective on our back stories. And as adults we can direct our attention and creative power and realize the great possibility in every moment. It might seem like a dead end, but I am convinced that we can divine our own salvation though gently investigating what’s going on beneath the the most tragic victim stories. [Hint: The Perfection and overwhelming Power of the reinjury gives us a clue as to the source of the situations we find ourselves in as adults… ourselves]
Before we are ready to investigate the back-stories behind our greatest tragedies, most of us seem to need decades of howling and hiding from seeing the source of our (re-)creations! And oh how we thrash and fight and, yes, “play the victim” in these dramas. Painful as it can be to finally see, when we look for common themes, we often find that much of the drama of our lives comes from the unconscious recreations of childhood traumas.
Sad but true is that most people will do just about anything to avoid awareness of the originating traumas, and our adult re-castings alike. We do this in part to protect the core survival strategies—perhaps like castaways cling to life preservers in heavy seas.
How do we ward off awareness? This is where the drive to use addiction and other distractions can come from. Alcohol, drugs, food, sex, TV, shopping, exercise, overworking are all pretty obvious vehicles for distraction. Less well-known are the habits of excessively blaming, persecuting and rescuing others (AKA “the drama triangle”). Taking risks, and unconsciously keeping our lives in disarray and crisis are also quite popular. It’s a good exercise to cultivate a gentle curiosity about what we’d have to face if we didn’t have “X” to keep us so occupied.
Much of the real tragedy of the human world comes from people who are stuck in their childhood survival strategies, adult recreation of the childhood traumas, and addictive behaviors that prevent awareness of the whole show. Greed, jealousy, theft, violence, depression, anxiety, deceit, pride, avarice, you name it all spring out from this stunted shelf on the path of human development.
Thankfully, there are many routes to waking up.
My favorite wake-up is when we get tired of listening to ourselves (and others) repeatedly try to sell the same victim stories. What a beautiful conundrum this is! In this way, the thoroughly vilified players in our present day recreations of childhood traumas are really angels in disguise. We can see that as adults, we choose them and conditioned them for the purpose of piling up enough new trauma/drama to see over the wall of denial and wake-up! We can see that the players in our adult scenes helped us recognize our story *and* to get uncomfortable enough to be willing to see through it. What a priceless gift!
When we hang out in this space, we can thank the demonized characters as we would cheer a talented actor for beautifully playing the villain in a show. We might as well develop a taste for it because, for better or worse, we usually require a goodly number of different actors and renditions before we really see that we wrote, directed and produced the whole shebang—EVERY TIME.
And oh what sweet relief it is when we stop drinking the poison of blame! Blaming others is like making a deadly potion for your enemy and then mistakenly drinking it yourself. How sweet it is when we see that we can get off the blame bus, and step into gratitude!
I am all for friends and counselors and other professionals creating a safe space for people that are stuck in a past or recycled story to explore and explain what’s playing in our minds. Often the sacred space with a trusted friend or professional listener is where profound healing journeys takes shape. There is a limit to the benefit of telling our whoas though.
It’s important to appreciate the difference between when we are holding space for a discovery versus feeding a victim mentality. I find that it’s best to, sooner rather than later, move through the process of discovering and retelling one’s problematic stories. A compassionate friend or even a professional can inadvertently enable and reward various expressions of “poor me” too much.
Some people will naturally get tired of hearing themselves retell their sad stories, and will want to move on. Others wont. People who experienced deep trauma or the absence of love and acceptance are perhaps especially prone to overindulge in the cool comfort of having the roughest bits of their pasts or presents see the light of day. It’s an important and blessed phase, but it is best to not linger here.
Too often, I think friends and counselors reward the process of letting people mostly talk about what’s wrong. For people new to unconditional love, they may habituate to the ritual. The exchange can go something like: I nurture and harvest versions of my sad story so that I can regularly exchange it for this unconditional love. So you can see that a safe incubator to tell stories can become a different kind of sticky and costly avoidance strategy.
The big payoff of gently exploring our stories is when we wake up to what’s guiding and reinvigorating them, not an endless process of rehashing them. From a healers perspective, we can see that entertaining a truly chronic victim story could be likened to letting someone shit in your ear while inviting them to use us as a platform to dive headfirst into a growing pile of their own shit. As we develop familiarity with recognizing hidden disempowering survival strategies, we get better at effectively elevating perspective.
As a friend and a professional, I can hold space for just about any revelation. Still, there are times when I get an uneasy feeling when listening to someone (or even myself) tell their story. I have learned to trust myself learned that this is often when the teller is stuck in recycling the story for attention and is ripe or overripe for moving on to accepting more responsibility for the events in their lives. At these times, I try my hand at the practice of shakubuku: correcting another’s false views in an attempt to awaken them to higher truths. I test the ground of finding a way to essentially ask “and how does that seem to be working out for you?”
Eventually, it is critical to our ultimate progression that we see that recreating and selling our own victim stories (to ourselves and others) amounts to a direct and a costly reinjury of ourselves. It feels good, but it;s not unlike getting into a hot-spring that is a little below body temperature. It can help us if we ask our traditional “bummer-buddies” what basic story we keep telling. This is a lot more productive than oneupsmanships and fighting over who gets to shit from in the highest “victim seat.”
Of course, I’m all for doing the hard work to recognize the childhood traumas and for naming the false beliefs, stories and patterns we put in place as children to make sense of the world. This seeing is like putting our boots on for an important journey on the trail to our full potential. Its extremely important to discover and create meaningful ways repeat to ourselves that not only did we not deserve whatever flavor of trauma we may have experienced, but more fundamentally, that it was *utterly impossible* for us to have deserved it. This type of affirmation is like eating breakfast before we hit the trail. It’s best to eat this affirmative meal every day.
Another well loved and costly survival story to be aware of is that we need/deserve to have people in crisis around us so that we can engage the strategy of tossing out our needs and feelings so that we can instead focus on helping others–no matter what the cost to ourselves. As young children this dissociative strategy is often the best we could do to feel safe–a noble and worthy goal. As adults on the path to change, it can feel foreign and even unsafe to *not* have our costly survival dynamics running. Likewise, we might see that we are unsure about how to face the world without a running crisis—either real or imagined.
It helps when we notice and name the victim stories and the alarm bells. I call this wiring in a warning light. Then we can gently investigate the motivations beneath the story and back-trace how we are responsible for the life events leading to the present scene. If the victim seat is a chair, taking responsibility is a springboard. Taking full and compassionate responsibility for our lives is the way that we can transform whatever nastiness may have happened to us as children into a vehicle to explore our potential.
As adults, we are charting our own course and can seize the opportunity to identify our childhood traumas and the negative beliefs about self and the survival strategies that developed. Also innate in humanity is that we can learn to recognize that not only do we often subconsciously orchestrate the reinjury, but that in so doing we are illuminating a path to our own salvation. We can take that path!
As adults, what brings many of us to the path of recovery are what feel like broken lives. We’ve worn out our friends and family and we may have overused more than a few flavors of addiction as last-ditch efforts to block awareness and ward off the frightening change involved with giving up our cherished survival strategies. When we find ourselves here it is good to remember that a good crisis is golden and not something to waste.
We can teach ourselves to see and let go of victim stories, and take full and compassionate responsibility for every aspect of our lives. We can identify the core traumas, negative beliefs and the survival strategies (some of which inadvertently perpetuate them). We can see how we have been trying to awaken ourselves by recreating the scenes. We can also learn to see and respond to the world in new ways. In so doing we can recast our identities, and compose own stories of redemption, compassion, forgiveness, for ourselves and everyone involved.
We can see that despite appearances, we are surrounded by allies. We can become naked again to this wide world’s wonder and awaken to the possibilities of this fantastic ride of life.
It’s so good to be on this ride with all of you. Big Love!