Posted by: Marie | May 6, 2011

(539) Reader Input: Honoring coping behavior

Post #539

Solicitation for Reader Input

Today, my blog received a comment from a reader named Amy:

“Could someone tell me about the writing exercise in the taking stock chapter [of the “Courage to Heal” book]? How and why am I supposed to give honor to what I did to survive the abuse, especially if they aren’t pleasant?”

I’m going to take a chance and assume it is okay for me to call attention to this comment . . . to this question. I think it is a question so many of us have asked ourselves. Awhile back, I did the writing exercise she mentioned and posted it on this blog. Maybe it would be helpful for Amy (and others asking the same question) to read. Here are the links to it – it involves multiple posts:

Coping as a way to survive
It’s easier to forget
The opposing faces of me
Putting names to the faces
Just a floating head
Keeping it all under control
Choosing numbness over pain
Keeping to myself

Also, here is what I would write (did write) in direct response to her question:

Hi, Amy –

You are asking a question I think we all have asked at some point.

My therapist answers this question in this way: You took the very limited logic, options and resources you had available to you and you crafted and implemented a coping mechanism in order to survive. What a genius solution! Congratulations on being so resourceful!

Think about it . . . if a person was stuck on an island and had to kill animals and rare trees and maybe do permanent damage to the ecosystem in order to eat and drink and build a raft in order to get back to civilization, we would see him as a hero because he did the best he could with what he had.

Then, think about little kids – they have no life experience, and, due to their abusive environments, they have no healthy foundation built from self-esteem, self-worth, knowing the value of others, knowledge of “normal” sexuality, awareness they have rights, awareness there are boundaries that should be honored, awareness they are of value and deserve to be treated well . . . they have no money, no adult advocates, no voice, no physical strength . . . and yet, they survive.

The fact they survive is an extraordinary feat. How they survived is amazing, even when the “how” includes horrifying acts that, as adults, we look back and judge as “unimaginably bad”.

I know that children/adults who have survived abuse often turn to self-destructive and others-destructive habits as a way to make sense of what happened and as a way to deal with the suffocating pain. Those of us who have walked that path are very aware that those children/adults don’t know a better way – or, if they do know a better way, they are powerless to implement that better way. Their choices are: do the destructive behavior or shrivel up and die, literally.

So, those of us who have walked that path know judging a behavior (past or present) as “bad” doesn’t do a damn thing to better the situation. We know that what the person really needs is love and support and understanding and compassion. We know that person deserves it, and we pray he or she finds a way to receive it.

Does that help?

– Marie

I really want to hear your thoughts!! Please submit your comments!


  1. Hi Marie, I hear this point of view. And I accept all of what you and your therapist said. But there is a big but. From my point of view, yes, when the choice is between being destroyed in the face of present-day abuse or finding a coping mechanism that avoids being destroyed, it’s obvious to choose the latter (unless of course you aren’t hurting someone else, etc). I think it’s a natural choice and shown to be quite common amongst children. However, when the abuse ends and you are healing, you should certainly accept what was the cause, but if coping mechanisms are causing harm in your present day life, then we have to learn to change that behavior. Often, the more aware we become, the more we are aware of the negative consequences of certain coping mechanisms. I view that as the nuts and bolts of healing. It’s a delicate balance. And, to be honest, I think a little judgement is needed. And not only that a little judgement is normal. I often write about this as “necessary friction”. That’s my input. Thanks for getting me to think about it!

    • Hey, Paul –

      I really like your clarification . . .

      It seems we agree . . . I was thinking specifically about coping behaviors during childhood when judgment is harmful because we are powerless to change the behaviors.

      But, when we get older, as we become adults, we do gain wisdom, insight, resources, options . . . and a little judgment can help us craft better solutions.

      You said it so well! Thank you!

      – Marie

  2. Hi Marie, I think your answer is great.

    I’d like to add some theory and abstraction (how unusual I hear you cry).

    1. Because once you know that you were an active agent then you are more in touch with your power of choice and so more in touch with your strength to change your current situation.

    2. To confront the judgements that you are making and which probably mimic those of early (abusive) caregivers. It is a way to stop treating yourself as your early abusers did (if you are – and it is usual rather than uncommon. As children we learn from those around – we don’t really have any other choice).

    3. Put another way – it is about owning the disowned parts of ourselves (shadow work). These parts of us contain enormous strength and resourcefulness – and at base their desires and needs have always been healthy in my experience. The way that these are expressed can be quite awful but the basic desires and needs are healthy. So it is a way to reclaim the power and get in touch with basic desires and needs.

    To fill these out would take a while but I hope this much makes sense.

    • Hey, Evan –

      I always enjoy your theory and abstraction because it usually clarifies some things for me . . . you have a knack for getting to the simple basics.

      1) I think the exchange between Paul and me (above) supports your input.

      2) Oooo . . . given what you have written, maybe a destinction between “judgment” (good/bad, or behavior coming from a good/bad person) and assessment (behavior is healthy/unhealthy, helpful/harmful, uplifting/depressing) would be in order . . .

      3) I like what you have written about shadow work . . . and, I recognize it as the work Edward and I are doing (but he calls it integrative therapy). It is very powerful stuff! Very healing!

      Thanks for the awesome input!

      – Marie

  3. that is a great response. i carry great shame over my various coping strategies. most of them are or were unhealthy… cutting, s/m, internet porn, overeating, suicide attempts. in so many ways i am recreating the dynamics of my abuse. that’s the hardest part. i am learning to recognize the many ways that i continue the work my abuser began. i have been free of him for many years now. i just don’t feel free. i continue to work on this in therapy. we are making progress, i haven’t felt suicidal since october last year and i haven’t cut for three months. small victories but i celebrate them. thank you for such an affirming post.

    • Hi, Catherine –

      I am so grateful for your open-ness around what behaviors you have used for the purpose of coping. Your list reads very similarly to mine . . . it is good to be reminded I’m not “the only one”.

      I, too, find myself using the same language and the same logic and often similar physical “punishment” on myself that my abusers used on me. It is a very difficult habit to break . . . but, like you, I’m making slow but sure progress through therapy.

      Thank you for your positive input!

      – Marie

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