Susanne was recently hired on a senior managerial post. She had wanted this break for months but now that she had bagged it she has been really struggling. She found herself sabotaging her own career by procrastinating work that was crucial, coming late to work, late submissions of reports etc. She herself is troubled by her self destructive behaviour. She cannot fathom why she is continuing to behave against her self interest although it consistently leads herself to misery. We have all seen this in our friends and are quick to point it out, but regrettably shove our own misfortunes under the carpet.
A friend who is bright and outstanding in her own career always ends up in relationships with partners who are unable to contribute anything to the household. So while she ends up working very hard paying for the household, her unemployed partner relaxes at home. Eventually, she questions herself and breaks away from the relationship. After repeated such relationships, she questions herself on her own wisdom but is unable to arrive at any conclusions. What seems glaringly obvious to those closest to her, she is oblivious to it. Why despite her high intelligence at work and in other spheres of life is she having a blind spot to this aspect, which is in fact the most crucial factor, determining her happiness for her?
Your colleague is extremely talented and is in great need to upgrade her salary, but she lands herself with jobs which require more work and pay less. You see no apparent reason why she can not get better pay and a cushiony job for herself, but have witnessed her struggling. You ask her what keeps her in the current job although her boss is exploiting her. She confides that she feels that if she left him now, he would be stranded and she would in a way feel responsible for his misery. She viewed it as being unethical, disloyal and selfish. So although she wants to shift to another job, she subordinates her own goals and ambitions for her ideals. It makes no sense to you as she often complains about being stuck and although you can hear her anger, she is unaware of her deep resentment.
You have wanted to loose 10 kgs that you have put on post the child birth, 5 years ago but to no vail. You have the available resources, will power and confidence, but for some reason or the other your priorities take a back seat. Now with the back problem increasing it has become a pressing issue and you are beat as to why does you are unable to stick to the diet regimen. You don’t like the way you look and feel and now it seems to even hinder in your work life. But something stops you from successfully adhering to your fitness program.
You are chronically late with your taxes and invariably end up with bitter arguments with a dear friend. You are aware that your friend is doing you a favour by taking your file although he handles only corporate work. You also know that the last week of march he has his hands full with last minute changes from the bigger clients but end up only 2 weeks before the last date. Now your relationship with him is turning sour because of your consistent insensitivity to his needs.
Why do you end up postponing your work, your personal agendas and indulge in self limiting and self destructive behaviour. There seems no apparent reason. But most importantly how do we overcome them? In all the above given situation the issues seem maladaptive or harmful but if we give it a closer look it is an adaptive response or beneficial to the individual. However absurd or inappropriate the adaptation is, the individual stands to be protected with this response. The harmful consequences to these solutions are easily identifiable but the beneficial aspects are concealed and obscure. This is so because the beneficial reasons are outside the individuals conscious awareness and therefore the individual is unable to bring about any changes to them with conscious resolutions. In fact if they were aware of it or was brought into their awareness, they would be able to change them. This kind of an inexplicable behaviour represents an unconscious conflict which can be changed only by bringing it to the fore front. The maladaptive response is the only symptom which gives us a clue about this conflict and it continues to repeat till it is made conscious and resolved.
For example an overweight person may temporarily feel motivated to join a weight loss program but her actions on a day to day life are unsupporting of the resolution, representing an inner conflict. Her actions are in accordance with the unconscious motives rather than conscious motives. Although she wants to loose weight to take care of herself physically, she may have a conflicting motive that if she looses weight then people will not take care of her, weightloss will bring her into limelight and she may be frightened that she will emotionally slip into another intimate relationship, she may be afraid to repeat the unhappy marriage of her parents, or may be anxious about some aspects of sexuality. Whatever the reasons are, they are so terrifying for her that she hides out in the huge body to avoid facing the consequences.
People who often repeat abusive relationships have as children repeatedly experienced people around them not paying any heed to their emotions and feelings. In fact when they have expressed their emotions they may have been rebuked or criticized or maybe nothing changed despite their communications and they may have learnt this not to tune into the feelings to avoid feeling the pain. This then became their maladaptive coping mechanism which they repeat in their adulthood. They have learnt to protect themselves by getting into relationships of power where they experience helplessness experienced in childhood over and over again so that they do not have to feel the emotional pain of not being heard again, infact often they operate blindly without being aware of their feelings (their learnt maladaptive protective behaviour of childhood). It is their way to bring to surface the conflict and attempt to resolve their childhood pain in the current situation. This is precisely why although intelligent enough they are unable to choose wisely in their relationships or set appropriate limits as they are operating without their feelings. Your emotions act as a vital compass to guide important decisions about love and work, without which you are likely to get hurt.
How can we recognize these maladaptive coping mechanisms which need to change if we want to progress in our life? Follow the following steps and work out your inner conflict:
Think about a problem with which you have struggled for a long time.
Describe the ways in which it is maladaptive. How does this
problem hurt you or hold you back or make you unhappy? What
is its impact on your relationships at work, at home, and socially?
1. Have you attempted to change this problem? If not, why not? If
so, describe the nature of your efforts?
2. In what ways have your efforts been successful? If they have
been unsuccessful, why?
3. In what ways have your efforts been self limiting? How were they
4. Now focus on the adaptive aspects of the problem. However absurd it may seem, try to answer them.
How is this problem adaptive? What are the benefits? Who are
the beneficiaries? That is, how might lovers, friends, family, and
coworkers benefit from it? How might you benefit from it?
5. What aspects of yourself does it allow you to avoid?
Who would experience a loss if the “problem” were eliminated?
Describe the loss. What would its impact be?
6. How would you be forced to grow and mature if the “problem”
were eliminated? That is, in what ways would you be forced out
of your comfort zone?
7. How would others be forced to grow and mature if the “problem”
were eliminated? How would they be helped or hurt by the
elimination of your problem?
8. If you achieve your goal or eliminate your problem, how would
your life be different? Would it be more populated with people?
More isolated? Busier? More lonely? More leisurely?
9. How would your lifestyle change?
10. How would your friendships be affected?
How would key people in your life react? Would they be pleased?
Would they be envious? A bit of both?
11. What would your parents think about it (answer this even if they
are no longer alive).
If you are partnered, what would your partner think about it?
How would your partner feel about it?
12. What would your children think about it? How would they feel
about it? How would they be affected?
13. As a function of this change, who would be more likely to enter
your life? Who might leave it?
14. What difficult or frightening situations would you have to
15. How can these “symptoms” be overcome and mastered?
The questions above provide you with a structure for thinking about the meaning of a puzzling conflict. At first, these questions seem absurd to many people. However, over time, they begin to make sense. Answering these steps can be a wonderful beginning to changing an unwanted behavior or situation. Talk your fears over with a trusted friend. Develop a plan for overcoming your “problem”. Give yourself a timeframe for overcoming your “problem” or achieving your goal. If after your efforts, you are unable to take any of these steps, consider seeking psychotherapy from an experienced clinician. We know enough about psychodynamics and unconscious motivations that most symptoms can be understood and effectively addressed.


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