Each coping mechanisms, such as anger or denial, first deciphered and named “defense mechanisms” by psychologist Sigmund Freud, begins as thought processes that we devise in our families of origin to protect ourselves from that which we deem dangerous to our well-being. What begins as a thought manifests into behavior when we’re confronted with the perceived, life-threatening circumstances from which the thought process was devised to protect us. If the combination of thought and action is successful, then we have devised a functional mechanism of survival, a “coping mechanism,” which is reinforced by a feedback loop every time it works as we expect it to. As we thus unthinkingly use it, the thought process is relegated to our subconscious, and only the behavioral pattern manifests itself.
Coping mechanisms therefore become the unconscious, behavioral devices we learn to use to help us retain, or regain, control in uncomfortable circumstances. This really means we’re trying to cope with a Universe in the process of constant change. If a person is frightened enough of seemingly new circumstances, they can use a dazzling array of coping mechanisms to say, in effect: “Whatever it is, I’m against it!”
Coping mechanisms as a strategy for survival may be functional, positive, and entirely appropriate for a given circumstance when we first develop them, but they eventually can and often do become outmoded and dysfunctional as circumstances change, such as sucking a pacifier to calm yourself when you’re 20 years old. Clinging to dysfunctional coping mechanisms when they fail to meet current or new situations in life can lead to a hardening of the attitudes, which in turn can stop inner growth toward psychological maturity.
With this in mind, I’ll discuss only nine of the more common coping mechanisms. I elected to discuss coping mechanisms, because I know, from my own experience, that if I choose to replace an outmoded one with a more appropriate one, I not only allow myself to grow as a person but also allow others around me to grow. In this way I can help to change the world for the better.
I’ll discuss coping mechanisms only briefly, because you’ll probably have a good idea of how they operate and can recollect many from your own personal experiences. I will, however, give brief examples of how I’ve seen these mechanisms used so that you can see them for what they are—carryovers from the family. I learned this from my own coping mechanisms when I entered the Bureau of Land Management and found myself locked in mortal combat with a malfunctional machine that sought to control my thoughts, actions, and identity for its own sense of survival.
All personal coping mechanisms become the collective coping mechanisms of the agency in one way or another, because we are the agency. I remember, for example, sitting in one high-level meeting in the Oregon State Office of the Bureau of Land Management while some of the top brass tried to figure out how they could lie to the public about the spotted owl on Bureau lands, but without appearing to do so.
I also remember an excellent internal report on the spotted owl made by the Bureau’s own biologists. It was professional by any standard, but the folks in Washington, D.C., didn’t like the data, so they quashed it. Someone leaked it, however, and the Bureau got caught.
But even then, some of the director’s staff in Washington, D.C., openly lied about it through a dazzling array of coping mechanisms. All the while, a feverish, sweeping hunt was being conducting for the agency “traitor,” who would be aggressively reprimanded for leaking the truth. I know; I was in Washington, D.C., when the report was quashed, and I was later interrogated about its having been leaked.
My feeling is that the industrial/political machine has so completely and so insidiously taken over public land management and regulatory agencies (to say nothing of local agencies and organizations) that many people have lost touch with themselves and no longer know the difference between the integrity and their coping mechanisms. I see more and more frightened people being chewed up and spat out by the dehumanizing machine, which seeks short-term profits at the tremendous cost of truth, trust, human dignity, and public service.
Before continuing, however, I’ll reiterate that there are “no enemies out there,” only frightened people who shirk their responsibilities as professional employees, and having done so, forfeited control of their lives to an ever-growing, dysfunctional machine, which uses homeostatic strategies to further dehumanize them in order to maintain itself. Remember, I can recognize these coping mechanisms, because they’re “old friends,” all of which I’ve used at one time or another. Since no one coping mechanism is more important than another, I will discuss them in alphabetical order: (1) anger and aggression (2) appraisal, (3) defensiveness, (4) denial, (5) displacement, (6) filters, (7) projection, (8) rationalization, (9) repression, and (10) resistance.
Series on Resistance to Change:
Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.
This article is excerpted from my 1994 book, Sustainable Forestry: Philosophy, Science, and Economics. St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, FL. 373 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.