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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

coping mechanism

(1990’s | therapese | “what keeps one going,” “how one stays sane,” “one of one’s little ways”)

“I can’t cope” was something overwrought or strung-out people used to say. “Cope,” meaning roughly “get along” or sometimes simply “survive,” goes back to a French word for “hit” or “do battle,” and “cope with” once was used to mean “prove a worthy opponent.” Even today, “cope with” usually means “deal with a situation successfully,” more than merely preventing it from destroying you. Hand-to-hand combat is no longer indicated, and the enemy usually isn’t even another person — it could be, but nowadays the emphasis would be more on avoiding a fight. When we talk about coping, we usually mean warding off the stress caused by deprivation, misfortune, poor upbringing, or plain old everyday life, though it can also refer to effects of traumatic or extraordinary events. “Coping” is handling successfully whatever life throws at you; it doesn’t require a specific object, as “coping with” does.

The phrase “coping mechanism” owes an obvious debt to “defense mechanism,” a much older term, and they overlap to some extent. My sense is that a defense mechanism is more likely to be unconscious, but there’s nothing hard and fast about that; most psychological mechanisms could be deliberate or automatic, physical or mental. (It’s not unusual to talk about the body’s coping mechanisms, which are autonomic.) No one teaches defense mechanisms — they just happen — but therapists and others do try to teach coping mechanisms. One doesn’t invoke a defense mechanism, but you can call on coping mechanisms in time of need. Defense mechanisms are more about avoiding or pushing aside unpleasant thoughts or fears, while coping mechanisms allow you to acknowledge that they are there without necessarily confronting them once and for all.

“Coping mechanism” turned up in psychologists’ jargon beginning in the fifties and sixties. “Coping skill,” a closely related concept, came along a little later. The terms made it to the mainstream in something approaching regular use in the eighties and were commonplace by the nineties. They may have been influenced by Abraham Maslow’s phrase, “coping behavior,” which meant something like actions taken to fill basic physical and emotional needs. A coping mechanism is a method for dealing with a difficult, usually recurring, situation. It’s something therapists try to teach patients, or it may just be something we learn growing up in a dysfunctional family. In fact, it didn’t take very long for “coping mechanism” to apply to undesirable acts: rage, panic, violence, drinking, etc. could all be described as coping mechanisms by 1980, which opened up space for “coping skill” to mean “helpful coping mechanism.” A coping mechanism may be self-destructive, but a coping skill never is. (This may be changing: I have seen the phrases “maladaptive coping skill” and “dysfunctional coping skill” recently, but notice that the speakers still find the adjective necessary.)

Then there is the matter of what exactly counts as a coping mechanism, or skill, for that matter. A “coping mechanism” is usually narrowly defined, a single act or focused series of related actions aimed at a specific problem. You may have more than one way to deal with an obnoxious co-worker, and each way would be considered a coping mechanism. While “coping mechanism” sounds equally comfortable in the singular and plural, it is rare to talk about a single “coping skill”; the phrase is almost always plural. “Coping skills” has a wider field of referents and can include knowledge that helps us navigate the world, like basic literacy or knowing which neighborhoods to avoid after dark. In a meditation on the decline of quality (1980), meaning high achievement produced by concentrated effort, eminent historian Barbara Tuchman sniffed at the sixties: “The decline has been precipitate, perhaps as one result of the student movements of the 1960’s, when learning skills was renounced in favor of ‘doing your own thing’ or consciousness-raising and other exercises in self-fulfillment. It is good for the self to be fulfilled but better if coping skills are acquired first.” Tuchman may well have been using “coping skills” ironically, as an example of jargon, but she clearly is not talking about psychotherapy here. Any sort of knowledge or ability that gets you through the day might be considered a coping skill.

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