Inappropriate coping means one is not properly handling his painful emotions (fear, hurt, anger, sadness, etc.) as well as the stressful events (death, divorce, etc.) and problems (family, job, money, etc.) that are causing them. Invariably, people who cope inappropriately believe that they are handling their stress just fine. There are basically two inappropriate coping ways.
Denial: When upset about something, some people pretend that they are not upset at all. They often make statements such as; ‘I am not upset at all. I am just fine! I have no problem.’ To throw listeners off track even more they often make fantastic statements such as, ‘Oh! Things could not be better in my life!’ Or, ‘Oh! Everything is so wonderful in my life!’ Or, ‘I am blessed with the most wonderful things in life!’ Or some such hyperbole. When asked a specific question many reply, ‘My husband (or wife) is great!’ Or ‘My boss is marvelous,’ and similar exaggerated stuff.
The problem is that these people are hurting like hell in their mind and every one around them could see it. Inevitably the question arises in the observer’s mind: If everything is so wonderful in your life, how come you feel so miserable’
Temporary denial to protect us from the shock of a very stressful event is common and normal. When we hear about a terrible event, say, the blowing up of Twin Towers, our immediate reaction could be, ‘Oh! No! It can’t be! It must be just a movie!’ Here denial gives us breathing time to absorb the shock of the event. After the reality hits us, we admit to ourselves that it was a terrible experience. We react with appropriate emotions to the situation and go on with life. Some people, however, keep on denying in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
A young man, who hasn’t slept in two weeks and has lost 20 pounds in as many weeks says, ‘My wife left me two weeks ago but I don’t miss her. It is all for the best!’ A middle aged woman married to an alcoholic for 25 years complained of depression, anxiety and aches and pains all over the body of 24 years’ duration. She has been making rounds with doctors for over 20 years for a dozen different maladies. When asked about her husband she replied, ‘My husband is a wonderful man. He drinks and becomes violent sometimes, but that does not upset me at all! We have a wonderful marriage. When he does not drink (which is not often!), he is a wonderful man. I love him!’
Denial is not always this blatant. Subtle forms of denial are very common. ‘We haven’t made love in six years. We are still close. I don’t think my husband is having an affair. He simply does not have the time for it!’ An alcoholic’s denial of his drinking problem, ‘I don’t have a drinking problem’ is well known. Or that of a sexually abused woman’s denial, ‘My father was a great man. I loved him even though he sexually abused me for years. He had a heart of gold!’ Denial gets more and more blatant and bizarre as the person gets sicker and sicker. We can not blame him for trying to protect his already inflated balloon from becoming aware of the emotional pain. Healthy people are always in touch with, aware of and acknowledge their inner emotions and outer realities of life.
Denial interferes with the act of expressing painful emotions, an essential coping mechanism. I have seen people who, while weeping uncontrollably in the interview, claimed that their tears were due to allergy, not because they were upset! A few vain women told me, ‘What good would crying do’ It would only mess up my mascara!’
Denial breaks down when the individual talks to a person whom he trusts and perceives as compassionate, empathic, supportive, non-critical and non-judgmental. They usually respond to people who acknowledge their pain and make genuinely empathic statements such as, ‘You must be hurting like hell!’or ‘You are going through some rough times, aren’t you” Or ‘You must be feeling devastated by what happened to you. If you want to help a stressed-out friend, don’t just start giving him a lecture or advice, such as, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself!’ Or, ‘Enough of this pity party!’ Instead, just push your friend’s empathy button and let him/her boohoo a little! Unexpressed emotions gradually get buried in the hidden mind, go out of one’s awareness and cause havoc later.