I don’t know if you have ever seen someone at the gym using a piece of equipment in a way you know it isn’t supposed to be used. There are a whole series of online videos of “gym fails” people trying exercises in the gym that go terribly wrong. I’m not here to encourage watching those and participating in schadenfreud, but instead to bring up the idea of how we as people try compensating to get around our own inadequacies. When we think about the goal of exercise is to increase our capacity for strength, endurance, and balance. We call this, adaptation. By exercising your body endures a little stress, causing you to adapt to the stress and become able to better handle that challenge in the future. This is a basic explanation for how we improve athletically.
What happens in certain instances because of injury, poor instruction, or too challenging of a task is we compensate, we cope with the challenge in a way that allows us to be successful in the moment, but doesn’t allow us to grow and adapt as we are supposed to. This is where some of our gym fails come from, people without having practiced and developed the proper capacity to do a certain exercise contort and twist their bodies to complete the movement, but with no growth and often with dangerous consequences.
One of the main set of skills that we therapists help people with to improve their lives is teaching and developing coping skills for the challenges of life. My hope is not to take challenges out of your life, but help you become the kind of person who can confront those challenges. But whether you’ve seen a therapist or not, we all by nature find coping skills to handle all kinds of events in life. Through examination and honest reflection, a person can evaluate whether those coping strategies are compensating in nature or are allowing the person to adapt to their circumstances and situation in life. Just like athletes though, as people we can develop compensating patterns relationally and emotionally that allow us to handle stresses in life, but don’t actually help us build capacity to adapt and grow in life. This may occur because of past traumas, inadequate modeling and teaching from others, or challenges in life that demand more of us than we as people have developed, emotionally, to handle. As a result, we develop other ways to manage without confronting the issue.
As many have seen, through the isolation of this pandemic, consumption of alcohol and drugs increased as well as overall internet use (some of which is accounted for by pivoting to online work), and use of pornography. Many of us were not prepared to be isolated from friends and family to such an extent during the last almost 2 years and as a result have taken to coping strategies that are compensating rather than than adaptive. While it is tempting to alleviate the emotional and psychological stressors in the short term with food, drink, even entertainment, or looking for connection through pornography, these activities on their own do not help us as people adapt and grow for the future. Another common compensating strategy includes closing oneself down, becoming less open in relationships as a protective measure to not be hurt again. We put on a protective exterior and emotionally distance ourselves from people who may care about because we may not have the capacity to handle emotional disappointments or pains caused from the relationship. In the short-term this does keep us safe and protected, but we don’t grow from this strategy, we do not increase our emotional capacity we stay the same.
We all could use some help identifying our habits and patterns in life, whether it is our physical movements with a coach or our emotional patterns with a therapist, or our spiritual habits with a pastor or priest. Therapy is here to help you be honest with your past choices, your motivations and desires, and evaluate whether your current coping strategies and habits are helping you grow to become the person you want to be, or are merely helping you get through the next day, compensating for the overwhelming demands placed on your life.