Coping Mechanisms, Habits & Addictions

Life is hard.

When I wrote these three words I thought to myself that I’d seen them before somewhere. I have, but not quite the same. In M. Scott Peck’s Book, The Road Less Travelled, the first three words of his book are “Life is difficult.” He also made reference to the fact that in the Buddha’s teachings he talks about the “Four Noble Truths” and the first of these is, “Life is suffering.” In this article I’m combining all three of these statements together.

The first thing to understand, and to accept, is that because life is hard, and involves quite a bit of suffering, and doesn’t always go the way we want it to, and we can’t always do what we want to do … it is necessary for us to have coping mechanisms to help us deal with this.

So be assured that in order to cope with the hardships that we face in life it is very necessary, and it is a good thing, to have coping mechanisms.

Here’s a simple little example of what a coping mechanism is, and how it can be used appropriately – let’s say that you love walking and you absolutely have to go for a walk every day. But today it’s raining – so in order to cope with this new and unwanted development, you take an umbrella with you. To add to this – tomorrow it’s not only raining but it’s blowing a gale as well. This makes your usual coping mechanism, taking an umbrella with you when it rains, un-useful. So this time you’ll wear a heavy raincoat with a hood.

This is an important point to remember, that your coping mechanism doesn’t have to remain fixed or rigid, and in many cases it shouldn’t. Why not? Well because then, if you continue to use the same coping mechanism time after time after time, then it becomes a habit. Even worse, this coping mechanism that has become a habit could also turn into an addiction. And it is usually exceptionally hard to change a habit, let alone an addiction.

This is why when you do want to change a bad habit for a good one, the best way to tackle this task is to follow a step by step process – the 7 Tips that I am describing here – rather than jumping straight into a quick fix. Often you will find that the quick fix is not sustainable, like a fad diet, and the necessary clarity, understanding, and action steps are not there for the change from bad habit to good habit to last.

Another crucial point to acknowledge about our need to have coping mechanisms because of the suffering that we go through in life is the following. Of all the suffering that you’re going to go through in life, only about 3% of all of this suffering will be physical pain. The rest, 97% of it, will all be in your mind. The vast majority of suffering that you will go through will not be a physical, tangible thing, it’s all in your thoughts. You will manufacture a scenario in your mind about what happened in the past, why certain things are happening right now, what other people think, what might happen in the future and all sorts of things going on in your mind – and none of it actually exists. They’re all just thoughts, figments of your imagination, you have created your own suffering all in your own mind.

Taking this into account, before jumping into the 7 step process, let’s first have a quick look at a categorisation of coping mechanisms, habits, and addictions. There are four categories to consider, the individual coping mechanisms like the previous example of the umbrella and the raincoat, both good and bad habits and addictions, and then there are also those that are not coping mechanisms but they are avoidance tactics, or cop outs.

Starting with the bad cases first because they’re easy to identify. Remembering that 97% of our suffering has been created by our own thoughts and is in our heads, when people turn to alcohol and drug abuse to deal with their suffering, these are avoidance techniques and will remove or block out from the mind the thoughts that are causing us suffering, but only temporarily. Once the alcohol or drugs wear off the thoughts will return, and they have not been addressed or dealt with. So the addict will then have to turn to their abuse again so as to avoid or block out the thoughts again. This is not a coping mechanism and does not deal with the problem, and it will not go away.

An example of a supposedly good coping mechanism that is also an avoidance technique would be one that I used to be guilty of, but I’ve changed it. When life got tough for me and I was unhappy, I would go and exercise, which usually meant going for a long trail run. To many this would seem to be quite a good coping mechanism, to be doing exercise. Yes, but no – I was literally and figuratively running away from the problem, and on top of this I was over exercising and so was breaking down my body as well. I have changed that to becoming a good coping mechanism because now when I feel the need to exercise because I’m not coping I know that being out in Nature is where I do my best and clearest thinking, and where I receive insights and intuition.

I leave it to you to identify the coping mechanisms that you use and whether they help you to cope, or whether you are simply using them to avoid having to deal with whatever the issue is that you need to deal with.

Before I finish this topic I want to share with you one more habit and addiction that I have discovered very few people are aware of, because it hides itself very craftily in the wings behind the main actors of the other addictions. An addiction that I see in almost all of the people that I’ve coached, even the most successful, the best, the most popular, and the most beautiful is this – we lack self-esteem and self-acceptance. See how many times you catch yourself apologising for no reason, saying things like: oh, I’m no good at that or, I would never be able to do that or, she’s much better than me or, I’m not very good or, I’m quite bad or, I’m always getting it wrong … one negative comment after the other, continually knocking yourself and bringing yourself down. This has become such a habit that we say these things automatically without even noticing the negativity of it or how we are criticising ourselves.

Step 1 – How and why did your habit start?
It is more than likely that your habit started as a coping mechanism, or did it? For example, if smoking is the bad habit that you are wanting to change, or stop, in many cases with teenagers they started smoking simply because it was the cool thing to do or, because their friends were doing it and they wanted to fit in. Although in the face of it these would not appear to be things that would require a coping mechanism but interestingly it could be argued that both of these could also be considered to be coping mechanisms – the need to appear to be cool, and the need to fit in. Or, did you start comfort eating because you lost a loved one, or a pet, or was it through sheer boredom. Or did you start to do a “bad” thing because you wanted to get back at someone, or make someone feel bad, or rebel against something or someone etc. It is important to be absolutely clear on this start point of your coping mechanism, which turned into a bad habit, because it leads into the next step in the process.
And, how did it turn into a habit that you now recognise as being bad that you now want to stop? This might seem to be a silly question and an obvious answer, but it’s not, if you go a bit deeper. Yes, it became a habit because you carried on doing it all the time, but did you not recognise it as being bad, or did you? And did you consciously decide to continue, or were you unable to stop yourself, and why?

Step 2 – if any of the conditions that existed when you first engaged your coping mechanism and habit still exist, then these need to be addressed and dealt with. It will be exceptionally difficult to change this habit if you still have the issue that created it in the first place. For example, let’s say that you started gambling because your finances were in a bad state and you needed money, and thought that this would be a quick way to erase your debt. If your finances are still in a similarly poor state then the motivation for the starting of this bad habit still exists. This does not mean that you will be unable to change the habit for a good one, but you will need to acknowledge that this could be a justification you might use to continue with the old habit, and it will be harder to stop. Step 4 will help with this. Another example would be if you started smoking when you were very young because you felt less important or inadequate because you are short. If you are still short and still feel inadequate because of this, it would be a very good idea to deal with this way of thinking first.

Step 3 – How bad is it really? When we are going through a difficult time and are steeped in negativity, and we are going through the fairly common routine of beating ourselves up for our bad habit, then we are usually not inclined to look for positive signs in the things that are happening or that we are doing. Very often though there are positive things to be gleaned, if we look. Here’s an example: in relationships there will of course be disagreements and arguments. Let’s say that when you have an argument with your partner you become very agitated, frustrated, and start to raise your voice and shout. Then you walk away and go outside to have a cigarette, which might potentially increase your frustration because you know that this is a bad habit. But, the act of spending time alone outside and smoking that cigarette enables you to calm down, give the matter some further less agitated thought, and to return inside and carry on the discussion in a far more peaceful, calm, and quieter manner. So whilst in itself smoking a cigarette is a negative thing, in this case it has produced a positive outcome in your relationship. So rather than always constantly beating yourself up about your bad habits, or how you feel about yourself because of the bad habits that you have, have a look at your habits and focus on any positive aspects there might be in this process and path to changing them for good ones.

You may have noticed that none of the above three steps are “action” steps, they are all about thinking. But these are by far the most important steps. If you don’t do these, this thinking, then the other steps you follow and successes you may achieve will either be short lived, or will fail altogether. Why is it so important to do these three “thinking” steps first?

I started this article with the three words, “life is hard,” and then went on to say that there will be a fair amount of suffering that we will go through. Yes, there are good times but they never last. Life is constantly changing like a wave between ups and downs, good and bad, happy and sad. There are always difficulties and obstacles in our path, even if we can’t see them right now, they’re out there and they’re coming. And often when they do arrive they catch us unawares, and we feel that we can’t cope, and we’re overwhelmed by it all, and we fear the future, and things aren’t going the way we’d like them to – and so we suffer, in our heads. As stated above, 97% of all our suffering has been created by our own thoughts.

This is why it is critically important to go through the process of concentrated clarity of thinking, which will provide the foundation for you to change your habits. Remove all the clutter, inconsistencies, fabrications, and of course the lies you tell yourself, from your thoughts. Be absolutely clear, and understand fully what it is that you are dealing with, before you start to take any action steps.

An even greater benefit to be derived from this process, the first three steps of this process, is that it doesn’t only apply to understanding and gaining clarity for your bad habits. Once you have performed these three steps correctly and fully, you can then apply them to everything in your life, always starting with the most important question of all – “Why?” What you are in effect doing is you are starting to understand and train your mind.

Step 4 – You need to start taking some action and doing things to help you move towards stopping your old habit and getting going with the new one, and the best way to do this is to set a goal. There are three things that are fundamental to achieving success here, and to ensuring that what you have achieved lasts. The first one is to remember that what you are trying to achieve is not really the setting up of a new habit in your life. You are actually starting a new life. This has to become part of your life’s daily activities otherwise it is unlikely to be sustainable. An obvious example of where goals are often not sustainable is fast, quick weight loss, fad diets. These are hard to follow and many people find that they can follow them for a short period of time, and they achieve immediate success, but they cannot continue doing it in the long term and have to return to their old ways sometimes even ending up in a worse situation than before.

The next two work hand in glove together and ensure that you set yourself on the right path from the very beginning. These are your Goal statement, and it is incredibly important to be absolutely accurate with this, and your understanding of Why you are setting this goal. You then apply these two first one way, and then the other. Consider a simple example, let’s say your bad habit is comfort eating the result of which has caused you to become overweight. You write down as your goal statement, “I am going to lose weight.” The action step that you decide to carry out is to join a gym. Now let’s work this back the other way by asking a slightly different question, “I am joining a gym so that …?” The answer to this question cannot be … so that I can lose weight. There is a vast gulf between these two and joining a gym will not cause you to lose weight. Firstly, to be pedantic, which is very necessary with goal statements, joining a gym does nothing for you yet, except to cost you money. You also need to go to the gym and to do some exercise. And, you do not have to join a gym to do exercise. Next, there are many types of different exercises that you could do at a gym the vast majority of which will actually not help you to lose weight. You have to do the correct type of exercise in sufficient quantities, with sufficient regularity, in order to lose some weight. Lastly, exercise is a relatively small component of losing weight, as much as 75 to 80% of losing weight relies upon dietary control, not exercise.

Here are two similar methods to help you set good goal statements and action steps, one used in project management parlance and the other in life coaching respectively, SMART and SMERTIE. Your goal has to be Specific (I am going to lose 10 kilograms of weight by the end of the month). Measurable – how do you know if and when you have achieved your goal? Stating that you will lose 10 kgs is key. The “M” can also mean Measured in the context of being able to split your goal achievement into smaller chunks such as, 4kgs week one, 3kgs week 2, 2kgs week 3, and 1kg week 4. The “A” stands for achievable, but this one carries a proviso with it. Yes, you do need to set a goal that is achievable but on the other hand it mustn’t be too easy. There has to be some difficulty and stretch involved. If it is too easy to achieve it is quite likely you won’t bother. The “E” stands for the word Evidence, which is similar to being Measurable, e.g. I can now fit into a size 13 and I was a 14, and in my view body size measurement is a far better measure than the scales. The “R” is the word Responsible – you, and only you, always, are responsible to achieve your goal. You cannot and may not use excuses that imply that it is someone else’s fault that you couldn’t exercise today. The “T” is your Timeline – what is the timeframe in which you are going to achieve your goal. Again, this needs to be carefully set, if you allow too long it is likely you won’t put in sufficient effort, and if it is too short then you will fail. The “I” and the “E” are sort of a check to see if you’ve got it right. When you read your goal setting statements do you feel Inspired to get cracking and go and do it, and do is evoke some sort of Emotion in you. Remember, we live our lives driven by our emotions so you thoughts of inspiration and emotion will give you a good idea how you’re feeling about what you’re about to attempt.

Step 5 – A comment that struck me from one of my young coaching clients, Charlie, when I’d asked him his views on the shape of the world out there that he was about to enter into was this, “it’s far easier to recognise failure than success.” He’s right, this is the type of world that we have created. In fact if you equate the word failure with negativity then this is predominantly what the media report on. And we in our daily lives do the same – so don’t you do it! When you are in the throes of moving and adjusting from one (bad) habit to a new (good) habit spend all of your time focussing on the new good habit. Not only does this keep you in a positive and more cheerful frame of mind, but you will also find that the more you get drawn into these new, good, and positive activities and behaviours the other, old, bad habits simply get left behind. They will get left behind and fall by the wayside without you even thinking about them, doing anything about them, or worrying about them.

Step 6 – this step is more of a supplementary and supporting step to the others. Over and above the activities that you are now going to be doing as part of achieving your goal, it is very helpful to find what I call replacement and displacement activities which will help you to stay on the right track. For example, your work is quite intense or you find it quite stressful and you need to take breaks to relax and recharge. These breaks you take outside and when you go there you light up a cigarette. Did you go outside because you needed a cigarette, or because you needed a break from the work? Most likely you lit up a cigarette automatically, without thinking, and from pure habit. In future give some dedicated thought to what you are doing. Here’s a simple example, write a number on each of your cigarettes in the packet and put them back in random order and in future you have to smoke them in number order. The next time you go outside the act of finding the next sequential cigarette to smoke gives you the time to think about it and ask the question, “Do I really need or want this?” Or, take your breaks to a place where you are not permitted to smoke. Or, when you are in the pub don’t hold your drink in your hand because then you will keep on sipping it automatically and without thinking, put it down on the bar and move a few steps away. This not only slows down your drinking progress but means that you have to make a conscious effort to walk to the bar to pick it up again. Or, if you snack or comfort eat or boredom eat junk food, make sure that the next time you go shopping you do not visit the junk food aisle and, buy the ingredients for more healthy foods. This has the double advantage of when you are home again you have to take the time to make something to eat, which also gives you the time to think about whether you are actually hungry, rather than having fast and junk foods immediately available. A last one, which is very prevalent today, and that is if your habit or addiction is your interaction with your mobile phone, and please notice how I said this because then it will be easier to deal with. Yes, you may have an addiction with needing to have many likes and follows on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and staying up to date with what’s being posted there, and posting comments and pictures yourself. But, if you remove these thoughts from your mind and consider your phone to be the problem this makes it easier. Then the solution becomes easier, don’t carry your phone with you, don’t take it to the toilet with you, take a book, don’t take it into the bedroom with you at night leave it in the lounge etc.

I’m sure you can easily come up with good replacement and displacement activities for yourselves, and I’m sure you’ve also noted that a key aspect of these is that they slow you down and give you time to think. If you are fortunate enough to be able to get out there in Nature as a displacement and replacement activity, then so much the better.

Step 7 – the last step and a very important step which must not be avoided or ignored. Congratulate and reward yourself for your successes, no matter how small. Even the act of having written down your SMART and SMERTIE goal statement is an achievement, pat yourself on the back. Every milestone along the way that you meet, be proud of yourself, smile at you, say well done, and when the milestone is quite a big one give yourself a reward. Remember too that every step along the way to reaching your goal is also a step farther away from your old, bad habit, a double success.

A final very important note, and tip. You are more than likely going to be taking some form of physical action to achieve a goal. Remember, the real benefit that you are looking to accomplish here is to change your thinking and to start a new way of life. It is also much easier to accomplish a task, especially a difficult one, if you have a “training” partner (I’ve put the word training in inverted commas because this does not necessarily refer to exercise). For your physical goal it is a huge bonus to have someone doing it alongside you. Similarly, when it comes to the even more important aspect of the change of thinking that you will be going through, finding the right guide, mentor, sounding board, or coach to accompany you on your journey is invaluable.

And from me, congratulations on your intent, best of luck, and I really hope it goes well.

Jon O’Hanlon