Coping strategies are something that we all have but they are not always healthy. In fact, they can range from using alcohol or drugs to excessive exercise or overconsumption of food. Gambling, hoarding or withdrawing are also up there as popular options to cope with the times in life when things get tough - or when past issues or traumas start to resurface. Coping strategies can present the biggest obstacle when it comes to change, as it can often only take place when new strategies are put in place. And yet to achieve this there needs to be a shift away from old habits, which frequently involves understanding why those original coping strategies are there in the first place. So, it’s not a simple process - but it is certainly possible.
What is the paradox of change?
It’s basically the point at which we step towards, and then withdraw from, doing things differently. It might sound a little like a client coming to their therapist looking for change, then discovering that it’s frightening, withdrawing from that change and then just asking to be accepted for what they are. It’s easy to be judgmental of this kind of behaviour. But the reality is that real change requires a client to leave behind coping strategies that have made them feel in control or safe for many years. Even if the reality was that there was nothing safe or manageable about those strategies, the client may have become dependent on them and so quick change is not realistic. Sometimes, a therapist may even be required to collude in those coping strategies before helping a client to move past them. In reality, many clients may repeatedly move through the paradox of change before getting to a point where they can really let go.
To paraphrase Arnold Beisser (1970), his article on The Paradoxical Theory of Change says that: when I accept myself as I am now, I then find it easier to change.
Judgment and shame
Often one of the major obstacles to moving beyond these difficult coping strategies is the way the client feels about their own inabilities to do so. Self-judgment and shame can be crippling when it comes to keeping people stuck. It may require a deep dive into these judgments - what they are and where they come from - as well as an examination of shame and its distinction from guilt to help people recognise where their own internal narratives are repeatedly returning them to the same place. Key here is to make an emotional understanding of how these coping strategies have become so important one of the major objectives. It is often easier to view coping strategies as having picked the client rather than the client choosing to overeat or drink. And this is much more the truth too - few of us set out to do these things, instead we try them and then when they bring relief we repeat them. Once emotional understanding is in place then there is the potential to use tools such as self-expression, connection and asserting oneself that can help to create healthier coping strategies.
The paradox of change is everywhere and is something that requires careful handling if clients are to move away from the coping strategies that keep them stuck from moving to healthier patterns.
Robert Rees and Elliot Davis are Directors of The Grove Practice in London. They are Psychotherapists and Executive Coaches and co-founded of The Grove Practice At Work: an organization committed to bringing good mental health to the workplace – thegrovepractice.com
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