Mel Schwartz, LCSW

#97 How Coping Mechanisms Can Imprison You

In this solo 97th episode of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz, I explore how coping mechanisms can keep us from embracing possibility and existing in flow.

Listen as I explore two case studies from my practice that exemplify how maladapted coping mechanisms affect our relationships and even our mental health.

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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #097

Hello everybody and welcome to The Possibility Podcast. I’m your host, Mel Schwartz. I practice psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and I am the author of the book, The Possibility Principle, the companion to this podcast. I hope to be your thought provocateur and I’ll be introducing you to new ways of thinking
and a new game plan for life.

Hello everybody. Let’s talk a bit about coping mechanisms. We all have them. We all developed them early in life, typically in childhood. These are the adjustments we make to our identity, our personalities. We’re typically not even aware that we’re developing these coping mechanisms. We kind of just integrate them into our being with perhaps not even knowing it. Often in subtle ways, we develop them. We craft these coping mechanisms to help us deal with challenges, rejections, fears, and stressors. They are our way of defending ourselves against these core insecurities.

At that time early in life, these coping mechanisms are very often adaptive. But over time, let’s say decades, they become maladaptive because they freeze us in time. They harden us. They become a mold that we operate within. They don’t allow us to break free of the old mold, to become in flow, to move into the process of becoming, to always be learning, growing, adapting. In other words, what was once adaptive becomes maladaptive.

And the new spin I’m going to share on all of this today is how they lead to diagnoses, anxiety, depression, mood disorders. So at first, the coping mechanism is a compensation. Maybe we don’t feel good enough, popular enough, loved enough, funny enough, or smart enough.

Let’s take the concept of I’m not smart enough. The coping mechanism is to get a seat somewhere in the class where the teacher is not likely to call on you. Or in conversation, if somebody brings up something that you’re not familiar with, you just smile and you make believe you know it or that you know the answer. Well, that becomes maladaptive because it means you’re no longer curious. You’re not comfortable asking questions. Your new learning comes to an abrupt halt. And guess what? You won’t become smart enough.

So initially, the coping mechanism gets us through a difficult moment or a difficult transition. But over time, it becomes fixed and a habitual feature of your personality. It actually becomes like a suit of armor that you go clanking through life with. In other words, the initial coping mechanism burdens us. It blocks our emergence.

Now, these coping mechanisms are rough and subtle. We may not be aware that we actually adorned them or created them. We lose sight of the fact that we constructed them in the first place and they become masks blocking us from our higher, more authentic self. And when they become habituated and inveterate over time, we get stuck. Our developmental progress comes to a rapid halt.

When these coping mechanisms become fixed, not only do they limit us, they may actually become diagnoses. You’ve heard me speak at great length about diagnoses. We forget that the diagnosis isn’t a real thing. It’s just a description of what one practitioner thinks they’re looking at. So anxiety, depression, mood disorders, which I just mentioned, are often just words that are describing an extreme coping mechanism operating. We will shift into that very shortly.

So think of the coping mechanism in terms of a pendulum swing. If you grew up with an alcoholic, abusive parent, you felt unsafe, your coping mechanism may have been to become a people pleaser. But over the decades of your ensuing life, becoming a people pleaser doesn’t allow you to find your voice, develop your self-esteem or your confidence. The pendulum swung from one extreme to the other. Not only does it limit us, we ward off uncertainty and by now you’re all familiar with the downfall, the pitfalls and the limitations of avoiding uncertainty. So at times we may become aware of that coping mechanism and how it’s impacted us, but what keeps us stuck is our fear of shedding it, moving into our process of becoming and then opening up to an emerging sense of self.

There is a term in psychology which is probably no longer used much. It’s called positive disintegration. What this refers to is shedding of the old part of your personality that has outlived its functionality. It inhibits you and this flaying off of the old coping mechanisms is indeed positive. So it’s positive disintegration.

What blocks it? The uncertainty of stepping into new terrain invokes discomfort and fear. So again, we have to learn to embrace that disquiet, which is part of the process of positive disintegration.

Ask yourself right now, what are the coping mechanisms that you’re aware of that block you? Or putting it differently, what part of you is overcompensating in some way? Reflect on what part of you feels vulnerable that you’re protecting. Now to illuminate these fragile aspects of yourself, ask what part of me feels insecure or deficient in some way?

For example, you may feel overly sensitive about what other people think of you. That might lead you to say, I’m a private person. That’s a coping mechanism. Or you may feel safe confronting issues with other people. Or once again, that you’re not smart enough. By the way, people who are very arrogant, that’s an extreme coping mechanism. It suggests that underneath the arrogance is an insecurity or fear.

Now once you’ve identified the vulnerable part of yourself, ask yourself what your overcompensation looks like. If you’re sensitive to what others think of you, you again may say you’re a private person. If you feel unsafe in confronting other people, you probably keep your feelings and thoughts to yourself and you’re a people pleaser. And once again, if you don’t feel smart enough, you don’t ask questions. Now the answers to all of these questions will clarify where you feel imbalanced. And they’ll signify those confining wave collapses that you had that you’re compensating for.

Let me provide an example for you. Many many years ago, I had been working with a man I’m going to call Alex. He revealed that during his childhood, he experienced his father as very volatile. So he learned to be hyper vigilant so he would never trigger his father’s anger. If anything troubled him about his dad, he suppressed it. This coping mechanism actually remained in the conscious part of Alex’s being. And he had no idea how it was affecting him decades later in his marriage. Over the years in his marriage, he came to feel that his wife was emotionally distant and critical of him. But he didn’t share his upset with her. Remember, he was confrontation avoidant. So he sublimated his hurt feelings.

But that feeling, that exasperation had to come out somewhere. So what did he do? He started nitpicking with her over marginal issues, which felt safer. And this constant nitpicking is what was causing her to distance herself from him. His compensation, instigated by his childhood coping mechanism, his defining or confining wave collapse, was sabotaging his marriage. And even worse, he continued to suppress his real issues with his wife, which had no opportunity to resolve themselves.

His coping mechanism was causing a serious imbalance in his relationship. I’ve come to see this often.

I’d love to show you my appreciation for your subscribing to and rating this podcast by offering you a gift to one of the following the power of mind, a live talk that I gave or one of my digital ebooks, creating authentic self-esteem, overcoming anxiety or raising resilient children, and lastly, cultivating resilient relationships. Once you have subscribed, please send an email to Mel at and just let me know which gift you’d prefer. Thanks.

Now I’m going to share an example with you of a client I was working with, whereby the diagnosis of the dysfunction, in this case depression, was really simply masking an underlying coping mechanism which had never been discovered.

I had been working with a young woman named Jessica who had just graduated college. When I first started working with Jessica, she shared that she had marginal friendships, very little self-worth, and not much identity or self-interest. She felt empty. She felt vacuous. She had no meaning or purpose in her life, no joy. Her motivation for life wasn’t there. Certainly Jessica had no zest.

We began our work and she was an avid learner. She was listening to podcasts. She was reading my book and other people’s books. For the first couple of months, things really looked optimistic, but then she began to decline. As much as I tried to understand what was blocking her, to think that we had uncovered it, days later or a week later, I would discover there was no progress. I began to wonder what it is that I was not seeing.

I began to ask Jessica more and more questions about her childhood, wondering if there was a primary coping mechanism at play which had become dysfunctional. Her depression was becoming serious. I was really concerned. I would check in with her in between our sessions just to make sure she was okay. A constant theme throughout our sessions was that Jessica had no self-worth, no meaning, no purpose. Whenever I would ask her why she didn’t feel a value to herself, she was blank, curious, almost as if she didn’t quite understand what I was asking, as though I was speaking a different language.

We reviewed her childhood. Jessica shared that her mother was very imbalanced, very volatile, causing a lot of disruption. Over time, Jessica came to dislike her mother. She felt so upset that her mother was stealing all the attention of herself, her siblings, and her father. Everybody had to do a dance around Jessica’s mother’s emotional chaos and disturbance. Not only did she dislike her mother, she began to hate her mother. She wanted to be the opposite of her mother. So hold on to that concept.

Whenever I would ask Jessica why she didn’t feel a value, she shrugged her shoulders. She had no idea why she had no meaning. One day, I asked the question again, don’t you have any value, any purpose? She said, you know, I do think I am a value. I do think I have meaning. I was hopeful and I lightened up and asked her to tell me how. And she said to me that she had plans to meet a friend for dinner and she decided not to. She bagged down and she didn’t have the courage to even let her friend know. So I asked her curiously, how did that mean that you had value? Well, she said to me, no doubt her friend was hurt. She had purpose and meaning because her friend was hurt. So I looked at her and I said, how does that give you meaning and purpose? Well, I have value. I do matter. Yes, I matter because my not showing up and calling my friend hurt her.

Wow. I said, so Jessica, your sense of mattering is due to the fact that you can cause pain to another. How did you come to that belief? For most people, I matter is a positive sense. For you, it’s a negative. Please let’s unravel this mystery.

Jessica thought for a moment or two and she shared the extremity of her mother’s dysfunctions and her mother made everybody feel that she was the center of attention, meaning her mother, not Jessica. So she mattered. Jessica’s mother mattered in that she was inflicting pain. Jessica’s coping mechanism was to make sure that she could never affect anyone negatively. So what did she do?

She melded into the background. She didn’t develop an identity. She didn’t share beliefs or opinions with anyone. She didn’t progress socially. She didn’t progress in her own development of her own self. She stalled out. She didn’t develop an identity or real thriving relationships. She wanted to matter in that she could cause no harm to anyone. So she would laugh at a joke that wasn’t funny. If there was a group conversation and she had a different opinion, she would subordinate her voice. Over time, Jessica isolated, did not develop a sense of herself.

I saw her as depressed and as you all know, I am not into labels, but this young woman was depressed. Her psychiatrist was putting her on antidepressant medication, which I couldn’t object to because she was severely depressed. But now there was a breakthrough. It was a profound insight. Jessica’s coping mechanism to be unimportant, to be unseen, to be unheard, had resulted in Jessica’s becoming depressed and certainly not thriving in life. Her coping mechanism became old and dysfunctional. What was adaptive briefly in childhood became an extreme maladaption over time. That coping mechanism manifested in depression. The depression was merely the symptom. Jessica’s identity was stuck, stuck in a fixed state of being. Once it became revealed that her sense of I matter was simply in that she could cause negative feelings and her life had to be about avoiding at all costs. Anyone being troubled by her resulted in her being in a fixed state of unimportance. Her old coping mechanism had turned into a maladaptive, dysfunctional state of depression and just as badly lost opportunities to engage life, to thrive, to have meaningful friendships and relationships, to have a sense of self.

Once we had this discussion, in that session, her whole expression changed. She began to lighten up as she realized that she did not have a gross dysfunction. No, she was not a depressed person. Her depression was situational because she was mired in an old coping mechanism which had become grossly dysfunctional over time.

This is an extreme example of how old coping mechanisms keep us stuck. Most aren’t as extreme as this, but anxiety, depression, mood disorders, a whole host of diagnoses are really, if you think about it, the state of being stuck in old coping mechanisms which worked briefly in childhood but they became cemented to our personality for the rest of our lives.

To move into flow, to move into your process of becoming, the unfolding of our self-actualizing requires letting go, well first recognizing and then letting go of many of the old primary coping mechanisms and old wave collapses. As we release them, this gives way to our self-actualizing, a higher forms of ourself. Again, shifting this identity, breaking free of those old worn out encumbrances will often induce fear and anxiety. We have to employ the paradox. If it makes us uncomfortable, we have to invite it in and see it as our ally, welcome the discomfort. We need to change our relationship with this quiet and anxiety and welcome it in. As we see the old coping mechanism not only melting away but begin to envision something new emerging, something new being born and created.

In the case of Jessica, what she began to see is that she could matter in a positive way, that she could start to develop opinions and beliefs and share them with others without really doing them harm, that she could even open up and complain a bit to people close to her instead of hiding it. This allows the positive disintegration of the past to be released and for a new sense of self to actualize.

This my friends will bring you into a state of becoming as you move out of the old fixed state of being. Remember it’s not who am I, it’s who do I choose to become. So everyone try to think of it this way. Initially those  coping mechanisms that we set up early in life because we were feeling insufficient, lacking in something, fearful about something, not good enough, not attractive enough, not smart enough. We developed those coping mechanisms initially in a healthy adaptive way but ultimately what they did is they masked and covered up a vulnerability. The coping mechanism became like a straitjacket that constrains us throughout life. Now as you know our vulnerabilities when we embrace them lose their grip on us. They stop inhibiting us and that’s where our growth comes from. Think of breaking free of the straitjacket from the coping mechanisms developed early in life so you can really set yourself free to live your very best life.

Good luck, looking forward to speaking with you again soon. Bye for now.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Possibility Podcast. I welcome your feedback on this and any episode. Please send me an email at mel at or leave a comment in the show notes for this episode at If you like what you’re hearing, please take a moment to rate and review the show at Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Your reviews really help boost the visibility for the show. And it’s a great way for you to show your support. Finally, please make sure to subscribe to The Possibility Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. And that way you’ll never miss an episode. Thanks again, and please remember to always welcome uncertainty into your life and embrace new possibilities.

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