When coping methods stop working

Ariel Meadow Stallings
4 min readJan 18, 2023
This print shown is by Seattle artist Stasia Burrington.

My day job on that one particular day might have been quietly doing my web maintenance work on my old websites, but my emotional labor that day was all about observing how I relate to shame, and learning about how my old methods for coping with it aren’t effective any more… and probably weren’t ever that effective.

(Let’s get this out of the way: of course you want to ask what triggered this wave of shame, and that’s very sweet of you. We all want to hear the story about where the discomfort came from so that we can pick it apart, reassure each other, mitigate the impact, fortify ourselves against it, and make a plan for how to avoid it in the future. I’m not going to tell you, though. Ultimately, knowing where it came from doesn’t make it go away.)

I’ve learned that analyzing my triggers doesn’t actually help.

Analysis & avoidance: the OG coping methods

Analyzing and avoiding my shame triggers used to be my favorite method! Something felt uncomfortable, and so I would pick it apart, process it endlessly, and then put strategies in place to avoid it ever happening again.

But here’s the deal: If you make a strategy to try to avoid one specific trigger, you paint yourself into a controlled, stagnant, quiet little corner. You trade living your life with enthusiasm for a safe little corner where nothing happens.

Worse, inevitably then some other trigger appears! Then you start the process all over again, and it becomes a game of emotionally avoidant whac-a-mole. You’re trapped in a corner, terrified, AND it doesn’t even keep the uncomfortable feelings away because they just need to be felt!

I’ve learned that with waves of unpleasant emotional reactions, the content of the trigger is less relevant than how one deals with the dang thing. Shit’s just gonna keep on happening, and all your analysis and avoidance doesn’t change that.

Growing from a setback isn’t about analyzing the precipitating incident; it’s about staying present with the meaning you make from it.

Flooding: my other fave coping method

If I know that I can’t analyze and avoid a thing (shoving it away doesn’t work), then I’ve sometimes tried the opposite: running into it.

If shame came up, well then, I WILL FUCKING RUN INTO IT. I WILL EMBRACE IT AND LET IT DESTROY ME AND YET BE NOT DESTROYED.

That unpleasant thing happened? Do it again, twice as hard, and see if you can blast through the uncomfortable sensation. In psychology, this kind of behavior therapy is known as flooding, and while it can be effective, it’s not especially kind.

Since I knew avoiding the wave of shame wouldn’t work, my second method was to turn around and fight it. “Oh, you thought THAT felt shameful?! That was nothing. Let’s try THIS.”

If nothing else, flooding gives the satisfaction of effort (ug, I love effort!), and the release of catharsis (and crying does feel very, very good).

But, like, yikes. It’s also kind of cruel. It’s the equivalent of taking a frightened child, whispering, “So, I hear you don’t like snakes?” and then marching them into the zoo’s snake exhibit, and grimly holding their hand while they scream. Then, after you escort your wailing child out of the exhibit, kneeling down and shouting at them, “See, was that so bad?!”

Flooding relates to the unpleasant emotion as if it’s an enemy to be defeated. Like the sensitivity is a little pink patch of skin that needs a callous. Like the reaction needs to be beaten out of you.

Flooding eliminates emotion through effort, and it used to work for me, if by “work” you mean, “I was tough, and I felt less.”

It works until it doesn’t, though. Years of pushing yourself to toughly barrel through uncomfortable emotions eventually lead you to fall apart. You can only ride yourself that hard for so long.

Being tough on yourself takes a toll, and it’s usually your body that pays the price.

For me? It was an ovary.

Surrender: admitting you’re stuck

Instead of defeating or barrelling through, dragging a small screaming part of myself through the snake house, what if I just stopped and let it be what it was?

A surrender is a form of progress, although it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Analyzing the trigger and creating a strategy to avoid it takes time and effort, and it feels like you’re really doing something. Busting through the emotion, relating to it oppositionally, fighting with it, forcing it, and destroying it, takes even more effort. Even if you feel bad, you feel strong. At least you feel like you tried. You did something.

Surrendering to the emotion just feels… weak.

But let’s try it.

Yep, here I am.

Stuck in this awful feeling again.

Oh, SHAME. It feels spiky and fast and hot and hard. It demands action and is incredibly motivating, but the demand pretzels in on itself and won’t let me actually do anything.

…And who am I if I’m not DOING something?

Who am I if I’m just fucking stuck.

This video is me at the gym, totally stuck. I was efforting, and then I was trapped. I laughed because seriously? Then I awkwardly flailed around for a while. Eventually, I found a way to dismount gracelessly. This is me moving with my monsters: the shame, the self-loathing, the desperation, the neediness, the scarcity.

Clearly, I have no answers.

Friends, I wish I had answers.

For myself and for all of us, I wish I had answers.

MY QUESTIONS FOR YOU

  • How do you sit with shame?
  • What does it feel in your body?
  • How do you tolerate it?
  • How do you make peace with it?
  • How do you release it?

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Ariel Meadow Stallings

I'm a product manager at Medium, but I'm also a whole-ass person living life: author, publisher, devotional dancer, Seattleite, mom, and just a human humanning.