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3 Myths that Perpetuate Negative Coping Mechanisms (Part 1)

grief grief support non-linear journey Nov 22, 2022
How negative coping mechanisms delay healing

3 Myths that Perpetuate Negative Coping Mechanisms (Part 1)

By: Ilana Shapiro Yahdav | Special thanks to the Grief Recovery Institute for teaching me so much about the myths around grief. To learn even more about the myths, read The Grief Recovery Handbook.

We live in a consumer-based fast-paced society where quick band-aid fixes are more than prevalent. We are encouraged to acquire more, “replace” what is lost, push through any hardships, and stay positive for others. In other other words, we are taught many negative coping mechanisms that ultimately delay healing in the long run. Oftentimes, we can feel that we are coping, but it’s more that we are feeling different, not necessarily better.

This time of year it is especially prevalent as we are inundated with so many sales and marketing tactics vying for our attention, promising us new ways to live and feel better. It’s also even easier to buy stuff - all with the click of a button from the comfort of our couch. Marketing tactics get even savvier each year as messaging convinces us that we must buy products that we somehow never knew we needed for our very survival. Think coffee maker controlled from your smartphone (Okay, that one does sound pretty amazing).

We are taught to buy, to spend, to acquire. But, how do we cope when we lose something? How do we cope with losing someone? We are taught first aid so most people know what to do if someone is choking. However, we are not taught emotional first aid or healthy coping tools to work through discomfort and loss. In fact, a lot of what we are taught perpetuates negative coping mechanisms that can do more harm in the long run.

(Please note: we believe each of us is doing our best, and what our elders taught us was passed down with good intentions and based on what was passed down to them..)

It is important to cultivate awareness about beliefs that may not serve you, and intellectual facts that are emotionally barren and ultimately unhelpful. When we can take time to examine the societal beliefs that have been passed down and educate ourselves with facts and helpful information, we can then start to create new beliefs and new, healthy coping mechanisms.

In order to begin this process of discovery, let’s examine three of the six most common myths around grief, how and why they lead to negative coping mechanisms, and what to do instead.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will dive into the other three).

1) Myth: Don’t feel bad.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right here. Please do not tell anyone not to feel bad, ever. 

Someone that is hurting is entitled to feel how and what they need to feel. All genuine emotions are valid and experienced at 100%. When you tell them to not feel bad, it’s not only invalidating but is also in essence telling them their emotions don’t count and that they shouldn’t feel the way that they are feeling.

The person may feel as if they need to ‘’put on a happy face” and not share their real feelings. The end result is creating the negative coping mechanism of keeping all their feelings to themselves. Pushing all feelings deep down and not sharing with others.

Additionally, they could start to feel as if their feelings are not valid and that they should not feel the way they do. “Shoulding” can truly make ourselves feel even worse because not only are we feeling sad to begin with, but also feel like we can’t even feel sad/grieve properly.

Stop saying, “At least…”

Saying, ‘at least’ is also very invalidating.

For example, “Don’t feel bad that your dad died. At least he’s no longer in pain. At least you had a beautiful relationship for the time that you did have him. Many people don’t even have that.”

This was actually said to me after my dad died. I began to question if I was allowed to feel all my feelings and started to “should” myself that I should be able to get myself together and go back to work. It reinforced the message that no one really did want to know about my pain and just wanted me to feel better.

One of the most powerful gifts that we can give to ourselves and to others is to be a “heart with ears”. To listen to ourselves with compassion, curiosity, and love.

When we are hurting, we can journal openly and honestly. Or, we can find someone who can listen to us, and hold space for us, without judgment, critique, fixing, or comparing. To be there, as a loving heart with ears. When our pain and vulnerability can be witnessed by another in a loving space, it can be so incredibly healing. 

Furthermore, when our feelings are validated, we are better able to appreciate those intellectual statements made, such as “At least you had a good relationship with your dad.”

2) Grieve Alone.

Have you ever had the experience that when you’re in a really good mood, people can be drawn to you? But, when you’re feeling hurt and alone, people keep their distance?

When you were a kid if you were upset or crying, were you ever told that if you were going to cry, to go to your room or go somewhere to be alone?

We are not meant to grieve completely alone. We are not meant to be in isolation. Of course, some alone time is imperative (even for extroverts like me!). But as social beings, we thrive in community. We heal when we are supported and can support others.

When we are hurt, many of us can tend to turn inward for a myriad of reasons: not wanting to feel like we are burdening others with our pain or problems, not wanting to share our pain for fear of judgment, to name a few.

As children, we may have also witnessed our loved ones isolating themselves when they were grieving or sad. It can be an unspoken ‘rule’ that when we grieve, it must be behind closed doors, alone, and not shared publicly. We often, sometimes without even realizing it, fully internalize what is modeled for us.

It’s important to build awareness - with love, compassion, and NO JUDGEMENT- around what was modeled for you and what you have internalized. This is the first step to replacing a negative coping mechanism with a healthy one. We can only change what we are aware of.

I am in no way recommending that you go and share your pain with everyone. Not everyone deserves the sacred honor of holding your deepest pain. Not everyone wants to or cares to. But, it’s important to find your safe support people to share what’s on your mind and heart.

This is also an incredible opportunity to model healthy behaviors to those around you (especially if you’re a parent or caregiver). Children imitate what is modeled for them. This would be giving them a huge gift that would last their lifetime.

3) Time heals all wounds.

If you had a flat tire, what would you do? Would you sit there and give the tire time for the air to go back in? No, you’d take some action. You’d either call someone - AAA, your partner, a friend - or change the tire yourself. You know that if you want to drive your car again, you know the actions that you have to take.

An incredibly common myth is that “time heals all wounds”. Just as time does not put air back in the tire, time does not heal a broken heart. It is not the amount of time that passes, it’s what you do within that amount of time.

Of course, sometimes we do need some time and distance before we are ready to dive into taking action to heal. However, eventually, some actions will need to be taken to put the air back in our tires/mend our broken hearts.

We can be treading on dangerous waters when we hold onto the belief that with time we will feel better. This can lead to a variety of unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, overdrinking, retail therapy, and TV/video game binging, to name a few. We can wonder why we are not feeling better as time goes by which can then lead to more unhealthy coping mechanisms and we can get caught in a vicious cycle.

Understanding that time alone does not heal all wounds, it can help us start to take the actions that will help us heal. Again, this is about building up awareness and noticing - with love and compassion - the behaviors and coping mechanisms that we have adopted up to that point. Only then can we start to change them.

Healing does not happen in a linear fashion. The grief waves ebb and flows based on our moods, what is happening in our lives, the time of year, and other factors individual to us. This is totally normal and does not mean that you’re moving backward. There can be days that the grief can feel insurmountable and days that you may be surprised that you even went a few hours without thinking about it.

Both are normal and part of the non-linear grief journey.

Bringing it all together

We are not taught or given the right tools to grieve. We are given a hammer and told to paint our room. We are told to not feel bad, grieve alone, and to just give it time to get better. Reading about these myths and how they perpetuate negative coping mechanisms, will help you start to build awareness around what your coping mechanism are and how to replace them with healthier ones that serve you. 

Even the not-so-handy types, such as myself, know that you would never use a hammer to paint a room. It’s the same with grief. We can’t use negative tools to help us. We need to replace the hammer with a paintbrush so we can start to move forward. What steps can you take today to start replacing your hammer? 

Read Part 2 where we discuss 3 more myths about grief.