As children, we’re learning about ourselves, relationships, the world, and everything in between. Everything is new to us and we highly depend on our parents to teach us what we need to know. We have basic needs like shelter, clothing, food, water, and physical safety. We have needs to emotionally connect with our parents and family, deeper than a superficial level. We need to feel emotionally safe, supported, seen, heard, and loved. How do we escape pain when our needs aren’t met?
We need consistent caregivers in our lives that we know will always come back for us. When any one of these needs goes unmet, or they’re met in unhealthy ways, it is overwhelming for our developing nervous system and brain to handle. This is when we learn to develop ways of coping that may ultimately be harmful.
1. When it’s too much we escape pain by numbing.
We learn to escape pain and adversity by resorting to numbing out, selecting a new family through our friends or activities, self-harming behaviors, substance abuse, or even becoming high achievers. Whatever works in the moment is what our mind goes for so that we can survive and make it out of the other side alive.
But since this is not always the case, we subconsciously develop coping mechanisms to escape from situations that bring us pain. These mechanisms can take many forms such as avoidance, withdrawal, aggression, and attention-seeking behavior. We are often unaware of these patterns until later in life when we have more awareness of our emotions and how they shape our behavior.
If you think about it, a child learning to cope with their own emotions because their parents are unable to do so is actually quite impressive. We know very little about the world and our inner experiences, yet we somehow learn there are things we can do to make ourselves feel better. Read more about how our childhood shapes us here.
2. We avoid to keep the peace.
Unfortunately, many of the unhealthy ways of coping we learn during childhood transfer to adulthood. For example, as a child with emotionally explosive parents, I might have learned to shove down my own emotions to: not be a burden, prevent conflict, keep the peace, and/or avoid feeling uncomfortable. As an adult, I now invalidate my own feelings and experiences, then consistently feel anxious and/or irritable.
These coping mechanisms are often developed in childhood and continue into adulthood. They can become so ingrained that it can be hard to break them, even when we consciously want to change our behaviors. This is why it’s important to recognize and understand how these patterns have been conditioned into us in order for us to move forward with intention and create a new, healthier way of being.
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3. We turn to substances for comfort.
During childhood I may have learned to escape my inner world with alcohol, sex, food, and/or drugs. I might have witnessed my parents do this, other family members, or friends. I might have witnessed my parents have unhealthy boundaries and/or I learned that I’m not allowed to have boundaries. Therefore, I allow others to take advantage of me, disrespect me, or even abuse me.
4. We try to be “perfect” to keep us under the radar.
If my parents punished me every time I made a mistake, no matter how small, I might learn to strive for perfection. Perfectionism helps me cope with uncomfortable emotions (even though it actually makes them worse) and receive the love, attention, praise, or validation that I so desperately need.
These are just a few examples of how our coping styles in childhood develop. As an adult, I then continue the cycle of distraction, avoidance, numbing, and/or abuse because this is what feels normal. I continue to feel afraid of my own inner world that I use other things (social media, shopping, addictions) or other people (relationships, friendships, sex) to further distract myself.
At one point in life we reach our breaking point; this could be a major loss, hitting rock bottom, health scare, dead-end relationships, or debilitating anxiety or depression. If we haven’t already taken a look at our life, we most likely will once we reach this breaking point.
It’s important to acknowledge that you, as a child and adult, did what you needed to do in order to survive. That is not something to feel ashamed of; it’s a normal human experience. Now you have the opportunity to unlearn those ways of coping and learn to relate to your inner experiences in a helpful way.
How Do I Break My Old Patterns?
Ultimately, it’s essential that we learn how to be kind to ourselves as we move through life. Self-compassion and acceptance is key for us to break away from our old habits of escapism or avoidance. We can learn ways to cope with emotions without resorting to unhealthy behaviors, allowing us to confront our issues head-on and grow in the process. With this newfound understanding of ourselves, we can move forward with an awareness that will help us create healthier relationships and a better life for ourselves.
The journey of self-discovery is a never-ending one, but it’s a rewarding one once we learn to recognize and accept the ways in which we learned to avoid pain. With this, we can move forward with intention and create a better life for ourselves.
The goal is to ultimately be able to find peace within ourselves so that we can share our love and light with others. We can’t control the external world, but we can control our internal one and it’s worth striving for.
Can Use My Past For Good?
Yes! Let’s use what we knew in childhood to help us create a healthier, happier life today. Let us be mindful of how we learned to escape pain and use that knowledge to be kinder with ourselves and move forward with courage and strength. This is how we can overcome any obstacle that stands in our way and find the beauty in life’s journey.
After all, it’s not about being perfect—it’s about learning from our mistakes, growing into our best selves, and creating a more positive future for all of us. That is the power of self-awareness and understanding. That is the power of ways we learned to escape pain.
This is why it’s so important that we take time to reflect on our past, understand our present, and make conscious decisions for a better future. Each step forward brings us closer to finding our true selves and creating a life of purpose and meaning.
Let’s continue this journey together to discover the power you have within to create a brighter tomorrow. You can learn from our past, accept yourself for who we are, and take steps towards a more positive future. Our experienced therapists are here to help support you on your journey. Wondering how we can help? CLICK HERE for a free phone call.