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Maladaptive Coping and Control

by Niklas Haas on January 1, 2020

Tagged as: personal, mental health.

One of the themes that seems to recurrently come up in my thought process is the idea of “control”. So many maladaptive coping mechanisms seem to arise out of this need to exert “control” over ones (often chaotic or unpredictable) environment. The ‘maladaptive’ part comes into play when those mechanisms of expressing or gaining control turn self-destructive.

People develop eating disorders or cover their body in scars as a way to exert control over their image/body, end up becoming reclusive or hostile towards others as a way to exert control over social exclusion, or simply turn to drugs and other substances as a way to exert control over anxieties and unhappiness. If our environment is affecting us in a way we can’t control, we desperately seek out whatever we can do attempt feeling “in charge” again. This is a pattern I’ve known in my own life: much of my outwards hostility and tendency to reject others was a way to exude control over the social rejection I had experienced myself while growing up. I learned to hate others as a way to cover up my inferiority complexes, learned to self-exclude to avoid my fear of exclusion, and learned to intentionally go against the mainstream as much as possible as a reaction to not neatly fitting into society. I escaped into virtual worlds as a way to feel in control of my surroundings, started using Gentoo and hyper-customizing everything as a way to feel in control of my software, and so on. Control is a central theme in my life, and I managed to find both healthy and unhealthy outlets for it.

It’s not just me, either. I don’t think I’m a control freak - just (sadly) human. I find that control is at the heart of almost every addictive behavior or coping mechanism. We do something that makes us feel empowered. To use another example, a lot of teenage delinquent behavior is just rebelling against smothering parents - a desire to want to control ones own fate. Such oppositional/defiant tendencies are exactly the same: rebelling against being told what to do simply because it makes us feel “not in charge”. But this attitude and style of living tends to catch up with us. We can’t run from external demands forever, and a part of the maturing process is to realize that it’s okay to relinquish control, sometimes. We don’t always have to be “in charge” of our fates. Sometimes we just need to let go and live in the moment, go where life decides to take us. That’s why I suspect a lot of modern therapy is based on Taoist/Buddhist roots: the entire concept of Zen is learning to embrace an attitude of relinquishing control, of becoming leaves in a stream, of letting our instincts guide us more than our thoughts and desires.

I personally have the special (mis)fortune of growing up with not one, but two perfectionist parents, which bred my obsessive perfectionist tendencies into the extreme - myself being the biggest receiver of my own criticism. It’s an extremely difficult attitude to let go of, and only something I’ve been slowly learning to do with great encouragement, positive feedback and effort. I find myself relapsing into negative thought spirals on a daily basis, themselves a manifestation of wanting a sense of certainty in my future - control over my fate, so to say. The idea of letting go and just going where life takes me is extremely scary, because it involves not knowing how much longer I have to wait. The matter of fact is that I’m a dependent human with attachment issues - I need love, affection and physical contact like others need air and food, and no amount of therapy is going to change that. I can only learn to cope in a healthy way until I manage to find the one who’s right for me. But that paints a very scary picture of my future, one of uncertainty and doubt. How long will it take me to find her? Will I ever find her? etc.

That said, at the end of the day, the thing to realize is that nobody will ever truly be able to fill the gaping holes left in our bodies by our upbringing. We have to beat them into submission and fill them ourselves. And that requires making a sacrifice - it requires relinquishing control and realizing we can’t become perfect. We have to learn to allow ourselves to be human and not feel guilty for it - and that’s something I’m still struggling with. Can I be content living the life of a mere human? Somebody with flaws? And more importantly, is there anybody out there that is willing to accept my set of flaws? And to find that out, is it possible for me to let myself show my flaws? I can’t say I’m not trying - this blog is proof - but it’s only a start. I still have to learn to let go - in a healthy way, rather than as a coping mechanism against existential dread.