This post may not about what you think. There are several obvious reasons not to rush off the deep end with a critical FaceBook comment, first among them that you may really hurt someone or make yourself look like an asshole. But I don’t think that point really needs a whole blog post, do you?
But here’s an idea that I do think is worth examining in detail, since I think it is much less familiar to many of us, psych majors excluded.
I’m talking about responding to that inner drive that tells you that you MUST get out there and write something to STOP THE NONSENSE that people are writing. And that you need to do it RIGHT NOW. Dealing with the feeling is a very interesting topic to me.
A friend told me that when you take your first abnormal psych class in college, you are blindsided by the perfect descriptions of your mother, your boss, your next-door neighbor, and your ex–right there in the textbook.
I kind of had that feeling when I started learning about maladaptive coping strategies, but it was, umm, not just other people. Oh oh. This really hits home.
I’ve been reading and studying psychology in a piecemeal way most of my life but I hadn’t read much until recently about coping.
So when I recently read this blog post on maladaptive coping strategies, it started me burrowing into the topic. While some of my buddies are reading original sources and writing about the ramifications in dog training (as I probably will too), I’m sticking with the basics and thinking about people!
Maladaptive coping mechanisms: how could something that feels so right be so wrong?
In psychology, coping is expending conscious effort to solve personal and interpersonal problems, and seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress or conflict.–Wikipedia
Adaptive coping is coping that works to achieve these aims. Maladaptive coping is unsuccessful in the long run and actually raises stress levels. But since maladaptive coping can feel so good in the short run, it’s very very seductive.
Here’s a list of adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies I have compiled from some different sources, both scholarly and pop culture. This one in particular was a particularly nice succinct little list: Adaptive and Maladaptive Coping Strategies, and all its entries made it into my list below.
In my list, I tried to pair them when possible, but it’s not in any way exact.
|Adaptive Coping||Maladaptive Coping|
|Concentrating on efforts to do something about the problem||Practicing anxious avoidance–avoiding anxiety provoking situations at all times|
|Seeking instrumental social support (getting advice, talking to someone who can do something to help)||Looking for sympathy/social support|
|Deriving meaning from stressful experience||Performing safety behaviors|
|Keeping physically fit and preventing adverse physical effects||Relying on someone or something else to cope|
|Lowering arousal through relaxation techniques||Aggressing|
|Using humor||Escaping–fleeing at the first sign of anxiety. Panic or phobias|
|Taking action about the problem||Distracting oneself|
|Accepting and learning to live with it||Being in denial|
|Showing restraint: holding off on doing something too quickly and making it worse||Rushing in to “put out the fire.” Seeking relief from the discomfort no matter what the cost|
|Confronting problems directly||Wallowing in self blame|
|Suppressing competing activities, i.e., concentrating on the problem||Performing mental avoidance–turning to other activities to distract oneself|
|Planning: making a strategy||Disengaging–giving up|
|Changing unhealthy emotional reactions||Focusing on venting emotions|
|Performing altruistic acts||Performing self-indulgent behaviors|
|Preparing ahead of time for stressor||Getting sensitized (rehearsing and anticipating future fearful events)|
|Changing perspective and making realistic appraisals||Dissociating (compartmentalizing)|
|Utilizing internal locus of control||Utilizing external locus of control|
|Counting one’s blessings||Ruminating|
|Planning how to use one’s time productively||Sleeping too much|
If you are like me, some of those in the maladaptive column were a surprise!
Adaptive or Maladaptive: A Quiz
Let’s say your job at a big company sucks. There’s a bar on the way home where you and your coworkers hang out. Several times a week, on your way home, you stop at the bar. A couple of drinks help you unwind from the stress of your jerk boss, your impossible quotas, and the toxic guy in the next cube. But also, your coworkers are there. There is lots of camaraderie as you support each other in your complaints, and share the difficulties in the workplace. It feels great to get that social support. When you get home, you are still a bit frustrated, so you get on FaceBook using your fake account and gripe a little more, or post anonymously on a “my terrible boss” website.
Question: Which part of what I have described is maladaptive and which is adaptive?
<<insert Final Jeopardy tune>>
Answer: As described, all of it is generally maladaptive. Most of us recognize the down side of regularly using alcohol to handle a situation. But the type of social support described is also maladaptive a lot of the time. This comes as a surprise since we usually look on social support as a great thing. And the support described above undoubtedly feels great. Such a relief it is to hang out with people who understand and can commiserate! But doing so is unlikely to lower stress in the long haul. In fact, it is likely part of a dysfunctional coping strategy that may keep you in your miserable job, and/or keep you miserable in your job. So is griping on FaceBook, but that doesn’t come as a surprise to most of us.
Expansion: How could we tweak this to make it more adaptive?
- How about, instead of drinking and bitching at the bar, you had a meeting with your co-workers about ways to improve the workplace? You could even bring in people who worked at other corporations who have managed to implement grassroots improvements.
- Or if that turns out to be too “pie in the sky,” you can form a support group where you help each other job hunt to get out of the toxic company. (Just don’t let it devolve every time into a gripe session.)
- OK, so in today’s job market, neither of those will probably work for everyone who is discontent. We have to be realistic. So in the meantime, keeping physically fit, meditating or doing other mental relaxation techniques, counting one’s blessings about having a job at all, and creating internal challenges and learning experiences relating to the job are all positive coping strategies.
So What Does This Have to Do With FaceBook?
Facebook is a pleasant place where you visit with your friends and family, chat with like minded people, exchange ideas, and share photos. What a happy place it is! It must be since so many people spend so much time there, right?
Not! For some of us, FaceBook is also a place where we find disagreement, insults, and mayhem. And it’s things we care very deeply about that are being argued about. FaceBook can instantly cause one’s blood pressure to shoot sky high!
There is a lot to cope with there. And what is the main stressor? For most it’s dissent. Both the fact of disagreement and the emotional reaction to the ways that people disagree.
It turns out that few of the ways I’ve been using to cope for a long time came up on the maladaptive list!
I have shared before that I am pretty thin skinned. I’m an unlikely candidate to be writing about anything controversial since argument makes me really nervous. Throughout my life I’ve been proud that I have been able to just turn away and ignore stuff that has been written about me or even to me if I knew it would be upsetting. It does take some self discipline.
So how could ignoring somebody who bothers you, or protecting yourself from having to read the opinion of every Tom, Dick, and Harry be maladaptive? First of all, remember that we are dealing with stressors. It’s not maladaptive for me to avoid eating egg yolks if I just plain don’t like them. It’s not maladaptive for me to avoid arguments about the Greco-Persian wars if those are not interesting to me. But it’s maladaptive to turn away from criticism of my posts as a default, fearful reaction. It is an escape response if it stems from an inability to cope with the criticism.
If I’m completely honest, when I try to ignore critical stuff about me or my writing, that doesn’t relieve the stress. I know it’s out there. After a while it may fade from my mind, since I’m forgetful. But the most important thing is that ignoring it doesn’t build any resilience. Since I do get some relief from the escape, I will be more likely to do it more in the future, not less. The behavior may generalize and become an automatic coping mechanism.
I think we can perceive that that’s not good. I would much rather be in a place where criticism didn’t hurt so much. Let’s look at the Adaptive column for some alternatives.
What if, instead of turning my back, I could take a look at this criticism? What if I derived meaning from the act of reading these other opinions? Gave them some thought. Either firmed up my own views, saw some merit in the others’, or just had a good laugh? What if then I was just able to accept that this person is out there thinking that particular thing, and not have it bother me personally? Wouldn’t that be better than having to continue to escape and avoid whenever I see that they have written something about me?
I think it would. Acceptance is underrated. In my opinion, the list item about “acceptance” doesn’t mean that you agree with or excuse the person. It means that it doesn’t stress you out that they are out there disagreeing with you. Huge difference.
And if I got to that point where it just didn’t bother me, then whether or not I looked at it wouldn’t matter. My emotional reaction to a diatribe about one of my posts would be a bored yawn or a quick scan for new information rather than a quick click away.
I want to be clear that I’m not pointing a finger at anybody else. This adaptive/maladaptive stuff is tricky. If you are somewhat in the public eye and tend to ignore some types of non-constructive criticism, you may just be a lot farther along than I am in the growing up process. But for me, that ignoring thing has been a fear reaction.
That’s the missing piece for me. I have been thinking all along that in some cases, not paying attention to someone or something could be just fine. Even severing ties with a relative or former friend may not necessarily be maladaptive, in my opinion. We don’t have to associate with everyone in the world to be mentally healthy.
I talked to a very wise friend about this. She said immediately that she thought that if one could make a choice about it, that was an indicator of more adaptive behavior. It wasn’t running away. That person didn’t have a huge emotional impact on you. You just thought it logically through and decided they just weren’t worth your time in the grand scheme of life.
Fools Rush In
And that brings me to the title. Did anybody notice the item in the maladaptive side about rushing in to “put out the fire”? We all know that feeling. Here’s the famous cartoon.
You can even see that this is maladaptive. The person is losing sleep so as to get their comments in right away.
Learning about maladaptive coping has been a revelation to me. Here, all that time I have been seduced by that feeling of absolute urgency. It is powerful! But I have learned now how to classify that feeling. For me it is MISPLACED. It is maladaptive. It’s a classic response to pressure (negative reinforcement, anyone?) And that can lead us to take the quickest avenue to relieve the pressure. Writing an elaborate response to straighten everybody out and pressing Post!
But the internet will be there tomorrow. I can sleep on it. See all that stuff in the “adaptive” column about showing restraint and planning? FaceBook comment threads are probably the last place in the world where you are likely to change someone’s mind anyway. After a second thought, you may decide it’s not even worth your time. And if you are just wanting to help someone–they’ll probably be there tomorrow. It is just not an emergency after all. How interesting it is that some words on a screen can tap so effectively into those physiological responses to stress!
How about you all? What do you think of the lists above? Agree? Disagree?
- Boing! Capturing a Trick
- The Catharsis Myth and Dog Training
- What is an Antecedent?
- Elements of a Cue
- Making Lemonade: Negative Reinforcement in Writing
- How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)