“When you react, you let others control you. When you respond, you are in control.”– Bohdi Sanders 

How you behave in your interpersonal relationships says a lot about your emotional evolution. The way in which you communicate and how you react speaks to where you are in your development and how far you yet have to travel.

Coping mechanisms are the coping styles we develop along the way to help us deal with what’s going on in our environment. As we grow up we realize that crying because we want food is no longer necessary, so we learn to ask for what we want, as we grow older still we will learn to deal with our hunger by making our meals ourselves. Our coping styles develop in much the same way. We outgrow the old when a newer and better way presents itself and we adapt this new behavior into our lives.

In homes where abuse is present the most important coping mechanism to develop is survival and self-preservation. When we need to call upon these to cope with our day to day life we stop growing and developing in a normal healthy way. The term arrested development means that our growth and ability is stunted and we stop learning and outgrowing behaviors that no longer work for us. As adults, this means that we are still using coping mechanisms that we should have out grown long ago.

Below are 3 examples of different coping mechanisms. Like the story of Goldie Locks and the Three Bears, one is too hot, the other is too cold and one is just right.

Severely Codependent (Doormat or No Reaction) Style: The doormat style is a coping mechanism that surfaces due to childhood trauma. It’s a style that is adapted to deal with unstable, punitive and unpredictable parenting. Children learn not to upset their caregivers, to be invisible, not draw attention to themselves, so they suppress their feelings and their expressions, because to act out, may mean pain or punishment. The child absorbs everything, believing that they are responsible for the moods and feelings of others. If this style is carried into adulthood it will be conveyed as a lack of expression, fear of conflict, not standing up for yourself, poor or no boundaries, absorbing blame and the emotions of others. In a heated discussion with their partner they would be fearful of expressing their needs. They would be anxious about angering their partner and causing them to end the relationship, so they hold everything in.

They do not feel safe to give voice to their feelings and their partners, usually emotional manipulators, will use this to lay blame at their feet for all that has gone wrong in their own lives. The Codependent, an absorber, will instinctively soak it up.  Fear dictates this coping style and a healthy relationship cannot exist without the freedom to express yourself and having the expectation that your needs be met.

Reactive (Over-reactive) Style:  A reactive response is just that – reactive. It’s how you might picture a rebellious teenager talking back to his or her parents. It’s defensive and generally over-the-top type behavior. While an individual with this type of coping mechanism is able to express themselves, it’s not in a healthy way. It’s born of being repressed for too long and having an extreme need to fight back or protect oneself. It can also be the next stage as you’ve worked past the Severe Codependent Style of expression. It’s where you get to a point where you will no longer accept poor treatment but you haven’t learned how to express yourself in a healthy way and so you lash out at anyone who hits your trigger spots. In a heated discussion a reactive person might be yelling and swearing and tossing insults like softballs.

The problem with this reaction style is, while it may be effective to some degree, in that, you’re getting your point across and standing up for yourself, it still makes you look crazy. You’re still absorbing other people’s baggage and letting it affect you. The expression itself is too aggressive, so you look unstable.

Healthy Reaction (No Response) Style: While the first and third coping styles are about not engaging, they come from two very different places. One is empowering, the other demoralizing. Not reacting to someone who is trying to push your buttons takes a certain level of maturation. You are no longer seeking validation, you are not absorbing other people’s baggage and you’ve developed the pass back technique. That is where if someone comes at you with a Reactive/over the top style of behavior you can leave their crazy with them. I often tell clients to envision themselves putting their hand up and pushing their antagonist’s crazy back to them. What you’re saying is, “I’m taking none of this and leaving it with you.” You’re not going to get them to lose their cool. They’ll remain calm. They’ll be direct and They’ll use logic and facts to communicate their point, not emotions or over the top behavior.

Healthy people do their best not to engage with reactive people. They are uninterested in the drama or the theatrical behavior of reactive people. They will quickly label you as unstable and move on. I have had many clients express their dismay at having a budding relationship end because of their reactive behavior. They realize after the fact that the situation did not call for such an emotion reaction.

Client’s always ask me, “Does he think I’m crazy now?” The answer is yes. Yes he does. If he is healthy, he will walk and he’d be right to do so. That may sound harsh but healthy people are all about self-care and they are repulsed by that type of behavior, in the same way that those healing from Narcissistic abuse are repulsed by their former partners.

This is a very important coping skill to master on your road to healing. If someone is trying to push your buttons, walk away and don’t engage with them. Any situation that makes you want to erupt you need to distance yourself from. Learn how to remain calm in all situations. Let go of the need to be right and to prove your point. State your case once – if you have to keep repeating yourself you’re in an argument that isn’t going to have a rational conclusion. So drop it and move on.

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