The Compassionate Truth About Coping

When we’re working to release old habits that are not conducive to our greater well-being, an acknowledgement of the short-term functionality of our seemingly stuck and entrenched patterns of behaviours can be a good place for us to begin. Often, our unflattering or self-destructive tendencies have played a functional- though, unsustainable- role in our capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of life, perhaps in the only way we could muster or knew how at the time those habit patterns were conceived.
This could show up, for example, as a strong tendency toward self-condemnation, self-blame, or self-criticism as a habitual way of thinking. While such a way of relating to oneself may seem counterintuitive as being at all functional, there can be a much needed short-term relief through the semblance of control we feel if we are the problem. If we are the problem, then we can fix it. Berating oneself, despite how unsustainable for our well-being in the long-term, can spare us the confrontation with existential torments such as powerlessness, loss, and grief in the short-term. This can be functional until we’re safely embodied enough to face and tolerate the uncontrollability that life delivers, and especially so in the face of trauma. The obvious challenge here arrives when the cost of a habit pattern, such as the lie of our unworthiness, outweighs its short-term gain, such as the comforting illusion of control when life has thrown us beyond the limits of our tolerance for instability.

Beginning with an acknowledgement of the functional benefit or fulfillment of an earlier unmet need that’s granted through unfavourable behaviours lays pillars for change toward new and more sustainable ones. First, identifying the short-term function of unfavourable habits- which is sometimes in plain sight and sometimes more of a discovery process- anchors us into compassion for ourselves. A non-pathologizing understanding of ourselves that admits our universal human needs for basic sustenance and safety, as well as the sustenance of love, joy, freedom, and peace is one and the same with compassion for ourselves. We can cultivate forgiveness through this lens of compassion when we better understand that choices, habits, or patterns of behaviours that we regret or want to change about ourselves have been a means for meeting the very needs that make us human. We can bring this understanding to our well-intentioned nervous system and unconscious mind for coping with pain and hardship in whichever ways our conscious minds could not better set out to do for some time. When we look honestly at ourselves this way, we can remain accountable while becoming less entangled in an inner blaming and shaming dialogue that only further fuels our engagement with outdated ways of coping with the pain of unmet needs. With time, by recognizing our old ways as a means of getting through in the only way we knew how, we reconnect with a child-like innocence and vulnerability beneath what we’d like to change about ourselves, and we come to better recognize the vulnerability in others, too.

Recognition of the benefit of an unfavourable behaviour is also a practical pillar for change because without knowing the need or void that we have been implicitly answering through unsustainable means, we cannot learn how to meet that for ourselves in newer, more adaptive ways for long-term well-being. How can we meet a need for ourselves in a wiser, more integrated way if we don’t start by acknowledging the unmet need that is asking for our attention in the first place? It’s a simple concept that is often overlooked- we want to change by nixing a certain behaviour that no longer serves us without understanding that we need to replace it with a new behaviour in order to consciously attend to what the old behaviour has attempted to address.

These concepts are easier to understand intellectually than they are to apply in day-to-day life. And so, whether it’s an outdated and unsustainable behaviour that’s now destructive in nature, or a less consequential habit pattern that you want to let go of for the sake of wellness and vitality, some questions are offered here as a path to a more compassionate understanding for the ways you’ve coped until now, and as a place to begin laying your own pillars for change: 

• What unfavourable habit pattern or behaviour is coming to mind for you?

• Can you identify a specific time when the unfavourable habit(s) or behaviour(s) first showed up? If so, can you describe what was happening and how you were feeling at that time? 

• Do you sense something is missing for you that the habit pattern or behaviour helps you to fulfill? Basic sustenance and safety? Physical or mental rest? Physical or mental stimulation? Sense of purpose or contribution? Connection? Love? Joy? Freedom? Peace?

• What specific needs does the habit pattern meet for you now? How so?

• Does it bring some kind of short-term relief through avoidance of something painful or uncomfortable? How so?

• What does the current cost and benefit trade-off of the behaviour feel like for you?

• Do you need more time with whatever short-term benefit the habit currently provides you with before engaging in new ways of attending to whichever need(s) you’ve identified? If so, that’s okay too. Change is hard.

• If the cost now feels greater than what the habit pattern can provide short-term, what are new and more sustainable ways of answering to what the old habits are trying to address? Do you need to reach out for additional support with this process of change?