What do you do when a person becomes defensive about their coping mechanism?
It can be difficult to hear someone struggling with an eating disorder say, “I love how thin I am.” Or a person over-using sleeping pills say, “I feel so well rested!”
How do you respond in a caring way to a statement that worries you?
Let’s look to Barbara for the answer. Barbara is in her mid-forties and is a successful real estate agent. Whether it’s showing a house or meeting a potential buyer, she always makes sure to spend the time to do her hair, delicately apply makeup, and choose her outfit so she looks the part.
Barbara grew up in a home where she was told that her image was the most important aspect of her. Every day, her mother would tell her things like, “Those shorts look so tight – when did you gain all that weight?” Or her mom would tell the waiter, “Oh, she doesn’t need dessert, thank you.”
Over time, the judgmental messages insisting on Barbara needing to be thin were drilled in to her psyche. Eventually, she learned to believe that the only way to be beautiful was to be thin. Her relationship with food has now deteriorated to the point where, if she eats, all she can picture as a consequence of eating is gaining weight and being out of control.
In Barbara’s mind, anytime she eats, she no longer sees herself as beautiful. Eating anything but a small piece of celery is wrong, ugly, and even self-destructive in this way of thinking.
Not all of us have a coping mechanism built around maintaining a certain image. Some of us might have heard messages about the importance of always being cheerful even when we’re hurting. A common coping mechanism for this “make nice” way of behaving is drinking to loosen up, to release our anxiety and maintain that persona around other people.
Or there might be someone who was repeatedly chastised if they didn’t work hard or weren’t perfect. Later in life, this person may have turned to cocaine to keep up in the demanding career they’ve chosen for themselves.
Regardless of what issue we’re dealing with, many of us tend to form a pride around the very thing that makes us most insecure.
For Barbara, she’s proud of her thin frame. Someone who seems happy all the time may gloat about the face that she never cries. A “workaholic” may be most proud of his ability to juggle many balls at once.
Let’s look at an example of how this pride negatively impacts Barbara’s current life.
Barbara is having lunch with her sister, Nadine, on a sunny weekend afternoon. Nadine notices that Barbara has only taken a few bites of her salad and has set it aside for the waiter to take away.
“Are you sure you’re full?” Nadine asks in a concerned tone.
“Yeah, I don’t have much of an appetite anymore,” Barbara responds nonchalantly.
“I know, but, Barbara… you’ve gotten so skinny. I mean, I can see your collar bones jutting out right now.”
Barbara can feel her anger starting to rise up. “I’m fine. Let’s just talk about something else,”
“But I’m just worried about…”
Barbara cuts her sister off. “Would you rather I’m some fat blob? I like how I look, so just drop it.”
The rest of the lunch is tense and uncomfortable. Nadine finds herself conflicted between helping her sister and staying out of her business, while Barbara is fuming that Nadine had the audacity to suggest that there’s something wrong with Barbara’s weight.
In this glimpse, we’re seeing Barbara’s pride with being thin questioned. From this prideful place, Barbara becomes defensive and shuts down any chance of a conversation around her eating disorder.
Barbara learned to be in deep shame around eating. So now, when Barbara perceives someone as using shame again to talk about her behavior (e.g., “You’re too thin,”) Barbara sees this as another attack on her core character, and she can’t handle it.
When approaching someone with an eating disorder or an addiction to alcohol or drugs, we have to take baby steps in helping them resolve this issue.
While it may seem counterproductive, we need to first focus on the positive aspects of this false identity they have formed.
If I sat down with Barbara, I’d ask, “What was your initial intention in wanting to be thin?”
Barbara might say, “When I thought I looked thin, I felt beautiful. I wanted to feel beautiful.”
“Isn’t it great you wanted to feel beautiful as a young girl? You found a way to feel confident, and you stuck with it. There’s nothing wrong with doing that as a child.”
For someone drinking to maintain a sunny personality, I’d ask, “What was your initial intention in wanting to be cheerful?”
They would say, “I wanted people to like me.”
“You were craving relationships. You did what you needed to be, what you thought, was a good friend. That’s okay.”
For someone using cocaine to keep up at work, I’d ask, “What was your initial intention in wanting to be productive?”
They would say, “I wanted to be the best worker that I could be.
“You wanted to make a contribution to your fellow peers. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Shame is the number one thing to avoid in a conversation when addressing someone’s coping mechanism.
If I would directly confront Barbara’s self-sabotaging “thin is necessary,” mindset, she would become resistant to what I’m saying, because she’s been attached to this identity for so long.
During this initial part of the conversation, I would maintain the idea that there is nothing wrong with Barbara, or any of these people, for thinking this way. They adopted this mindset as a child for a specific reason, and they don’t know any better at this point.
When we create an environment where someone feels safe and heard, that person’s pride-fueled defense system starts to soften. This opens the door to diving into the deeper, underlying issues that have created this coping mechanism in the first place.
Now, this person is on their way to creating enduring, transformative change in their life.
*While this article outlines some tips in speaking to someone about their eating disorder or alcohol addiction or drug addiction, the best option is to have the person speak with a professional or go to a holistic residential treatment center.
At our holistic rehab, we regularly work with clients who are struggling with eating disorders and other addictions. This addictive behavior is often accompanied by depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance use, which is why we provide dual-diagnosis treatment in a private setting. For more information about our non 12-step treatment center, please call 808-775-0200.