Most of us have developed certain habits that act as coping mechanisms to redirect stress. Even adults who may be considered emotionally healthy and balanced use behaviors to minimize stress or conflict on the surface.
These adaptive measures are learned from a young age, as we are each shaped by the ups and downs of our individual circumstances.
Some coping mechanisms are considered positive, such as seeking social support, using humor to diffuse a situation, or reducing stress through preferred relaxing activities.
People who have learned to use these methods of coping with stress can typically address issues directly, rather than allowing them to fester.
But many of us have also picked up some not-so-great coping mechanisms along the way. These behaviors started to help us cope with the stress, trauma or fear of a difficult situation when we were too young to remove ourselves.
Denying, Avoiding, Minimizing, and Rationalizing
If you’ve survived sexual abuse, you might recognize at least one of these four coping mechanisms in your own behavior. They can show up in the way you approach work or the unhealthy need to take care of others more than caring for yourself.
Therapists consider them “maladaptive” or “defensive” because, while these coping mechanisms were probably really effective when you first needed them, they’re not as helpful to an adult.
Buffering your discomfort, even subconsciously, during times of stress can limit your ability to respond to new challenges in a way that is emotionally healthy or in alignment with your goals
Defensive coping mechanisms have no long-term benefits and can make healing from your original abuse or harm even more difficult.
Even though defensive coping is something to be addressed when healing, you should never to feel shame about having learned them because they were of great benefit to you when they developed.
What do my coping mechanisms look like?
“I wasn’t penetrated, so it doesn’t count as sexual abuse.”
“I went to therapy as a kid, so I’m over it now”
“Yes, I was abused, but it didn’t affect me.”
Denial is pretty straightforward – it’s refusing to acknowledge something that hurt you, or that it happened at all.
It’s also the biggest lie we tell ourselves.
We use denial to protect ourselves from a distressing truth. Some survivors who engage in denial might acknowledge their abuse, but deny the impact the trauma had on their lives. Others will deny what happened even qualifies as abuse at all.
Why Denial Is Harmful
Do you repeatedly find yourself knee-deep in bad situations and not know why?
Those that have learned to cope with denial may struggle to recognize harmful situations or situations destined to have a bad outcome until it’s too late.
Using this coping mechanism decreases your awareness of warning signs that could help you avoid being taken advantage of, even in a non-sexual manner. That includes harmful relationships, the negative side effects of addictive behaviors or acquaintances that exploit your kindness.
For survivors of sexual abuse, it is particularly dangerous to dismiss the trauma of your experience. By invalidating the effects abuse may have had on your life, you refuse yourself the permission to heal.
How To Check Your Denial Habits
Pay Attention to Recurring Negative Themes
Recurring negative themes (e.g. a series of harmful relationships, negative side effects related to an addictive behavior, etc.) are a red flags for using denial as a way to cope. Chances are that we are either creating an environment that is conducive to the negative outcome we don’t want or fooling ourselves into thinking that we have control over a situation that we really are helpless to affect.
If you are frequently blindsided by bad situations, you’re probably denying a truth.
Consult Different Thinkers
Friends and loved ones who are strong enough to stand up for us even when we refuse to acknowledge a bad situation are our biggest assets in learning to acknowledge oncoming harm.
Keeping someone you trust to challenge your assumptions and opinions about what’s “ok” available can help you start to rethink and remove the blinders of denial that have stopped serving their purpose.