I am always struck by the varied ways we learn to cope with stress in this complicated world in which we live. Is it imposed by the circumstances of our daily lives? Is it based in early childhood experiences that shape the way we react to stress? Or perhaps, it is that delicate balance between the two that keep us always seeking out remedies for coping. Haagen-Dazs anyone?
Our lives consist of circles of relationships, many concentric some standing by themselves. At our very first breath we meet our parenting figures that guide us through the early stages of development. They establish boundaries for safety as well as create an environment for exploration of the world around us. Along the way we are taught about caring, reasoning, self respect and love. We work our way through the proverbial sandbox as children learning to share with others and forming relationships that escort us through our entire educational and emotional life cycle. We develop attachments to friends in school, then on to the workplace and if we’re lucky enough, to a significant other with whom we can share a life and begin the cycle anew with children of our own. Or at least we are told that this is the way our lives are supposed to play out, a predetermined roadmap to happiness.
But what if these circles of relationships don’t always proceed according to plan? What if a parent is ill equipped to provide unconditional love or their own emotional deficits preclude the ability to provide the guidance we so crave as children? And what if friends and family let us down at times when they are most needed? Our job may vanish in this precarious time leading to financial insecurity, or a loved one leaves us and we experience the devastation of personal loss. What if we perceive all of this as a betrayal and resort to the “art” of acting out through injurious behaviors: the use of substances like drugs or alcohol, inappropriate sexualizing, an overdependence on food, gambling and other potentially risky behaviors that help us feel better in the moment, numbing the pain, be it ever so briefly. And trust me on this, the perfecting of these behaviors, these addictions, are indeed an art form that take years of practice to get just right, and ever so wrong!
All of us, men and women, be we straight or gay, learn behaviors that we feel are necessary to compensate for a perceived loss of self-esteem. So the young boy who feels he is a disappointment to his parents by not excelling in the classroom or on the playing field, the young girl who doesn’t feel that she looks as pretty, or as thin as the fashion norms tell her that she must, or the young gay child who develops feelings of attachment to others of their same sex and draw inwards for fear of disclosure…all of them learn to cope with these perceived deficits through a lifetime of devaluing behaviors.
A healthy course of Psychotherapy can offer a meaningful corrective through insight and understanding of our misguided perceptions of self. We can learn to live our lives with self-respect and personal regard even as everyday battles rage on around us.
Perhaps, with a little work, we really won’t need that extra helping of Haagen-Dazs after all.