I learnt a trick when I was younger without even knowing it. It was what helped me in any highly emotionally stressful situation that I found myself in and in order to cope I’d unconsciously use this trick. The trick? Dissociating myself from the situation. I would cut off how I was feeling from what I was thinking and from the situation; and it would lead me to observe what was happening without attaching any emotion to the situation. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?
At the time I didn’t know a few things:
- This trick actually had a name.
- It was a coping mechanism.
- I was cutting my heart off from my head.
- In the long term it was more harmful than good.
- I was only delaying the inevitable.
What was the impact? I would face stressful situations with no emotions and when I finally did feel them I wouldn’t be able to link them back to the real cause. I would be able to do things without any feeling and it would seem like an out of body experience. The problem though is when you do things and your heart and head are not in alignment, you’re creating regrets because you’re not doing what’s good for you. You’re doing what you can to avoid pain in the moment. But at some point, either before or after, either a day or a month or a year later, the feelings would surface and in bucket loads. The problem was it would be too overwhelming and I wouldn’t be able to make any sense of it. Where were these feelings from? What caused them? What’s going on? were questions I’d ask myself.
I thought what I was doing was detachment which is apparently a good thing in a spiritual sense. But what I was doing was different to detachment. Dissociation is not a way of being. It is not a process of feeling and then letting go of your emotions which is what detachment is. With detachment, you learn compassion and kindness because you are able to understand yourself and others better without judgement. With dissociation, you bury, supress, avoid. The feelings are too overwhelming so instead of feeling them, you disconnect from them. And this then means that when you are eventually forced to feel them (like if you find yourself crying for no apparent reason), you would not be able to link it back to the reason for feeling the feelings in the first place.
And here’s the biggest issue. This old way of coping no longer serves me. The way I coped as a child does not mean it’s the best way to cope as an adult. I’ve outgrown this way and it is no longer useful. Faced in an emotionally stressful period, I find myself dissociating without even knowing it. I catch myself not phased about anything (if no one is dying then there’s no point stressing about it AT ALL), feeling way too out of it, getting odd body pains, and having headaches randomly. I observe situations from outside my body, looking in and just shrugging my shoulders. But then, for example, I catch myself wanting to cry randomly without understanding why or snapping at someone out of the blue or being irritable or angry with no real cause. This way of coping now actually makes me feel worse.
And that’s the thing about coping mechanisms. They’re useful to help cope in the short term; short term being in the very immediate moment of danger or trauma or high stress. And what once was a coping mechanism during a certain period doesn’t mean it still is the right one now. And used over long periods they become more destructive and detrimental.
People have various ways to cope. Some dissociate; others become addicted to various substances or actions; like drinking, pills, smoking or eating or even working too much. Some use any type of distraction to avoid feeling the feelings. And some people use a combination of coping mechanisms without even knowing it.
It was only until I learnt about and understood my coping mechanism could I recognise the impact and reasoning behind what would trigger it and put it into play and the way in which I was using it was not good for me.
What to do now?
My initial action is to simply become aware by asking myself:
What is triggering my coping mechanism?
What am I trying to avoid feeling?
Why am I trying to avoid it?
Once I can answer these questions, I can take further action in the form of finding a better way of facing things and this new way will be one that serves me.