OC Approach coping out of control!

I would like to think that I am not “into” my phone.  And I don’t mean the rotary phone in my house that we wow the neighbourhood kids with 🙂  I am referring to my cell phone.  Perhaps I have some secret pride about this, BTW, but I guess it is not so secret if I am claiming it here.  Anyway, what I did discover of late, is how dependent I am on my cell phone, and this experience led to an excellent example of approach coping.

What is approach coping?  In RO DBT we teach our clients (and OC therapists, tee-hee) to understand how overcontrolled coping is triggered, how it is reinforced, and what the consequences are (see Lesson 7 in the Skills Manual).  While there are many OC coping strategies clients can identify, there are two overarching coping styles. The first is approach coping.  This is the kind of style where we fix problems immediately, or before they even become the problems we think they could be! The example we teach our clients in skills class is that of someone who discovers that their washing machine is broken.  Instead of getting curious about the state of the washer that won’t wash, they immediately order a new one.  From an OC perspective, this makes a lot of sense (“We’re OC and we’re ok!  We fix problems everyday!”).  Yet, the shop shows up with the new washing machine and when they are taking the old one out, discovers there is simply a hair ball blocking a hose.  So now our OC individual has “fixed” the original problem and multiplied it by two; there are now 2 working washing machines to contend with.  More daily approach coping might include having to finish your to do list (for tomorrow even!), make up for calories or anticipate all contingencies for any decision.  Phew!  Exhausting!  And it reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “we are always getting ready to live but never living.”

The second style of coping is avoidance coping.  This would include all sorts of measures to not deal with the problem. It can include pretending not to know about the problem or shirking one’s responsibility for the program.  It should be noted that this often shows up with interpersonal conflict (e.g. walking away, etc.).  For our example above, the problem of the “broken” washing machine might be avoided by blaming another family member, the manufacturer or as in my own recent history, pressing the button over and over again in disbelief that it won’t start 🙂   Most of my clients can really relate to these concepts and can identify if they lean more to approach or avoidance.  Both styles can be adaptive (remember, our species survived because of the capacity to plan ahead) but when excessive and pervasive, create more problems than the one we are trying to fix or avoid.

Now back to the phone adventure.  What I love about being a RO DBT therapist who leans to OC is that just when I think I have mastered an OC habit, well there you go, it pops up again.  I had finished a retreat in France and was dropped off at my airport hotel. Once inside, I began to dismantle my bag (to re-pack it of course) and the phone – the one I claim to not be attached to- was not in the front pocket of my bag where it lives when I travel.  I would like to assure the gentle reader that I was cool as a cucumber and methodical after this point, but I was not.  What happens when an OC gets stressed?  The stressed get busy!  Immediately, I was emailing my friend who dropped me off and my other friend who rode with us.  But instead of waiting on their response (e.g. that they might have my phone), I thought I best run to the rental car kiosk.  I had no rental company name, no license plate number or anything else that might be helpful, but approach coping compels me to do something right now to lower the anxiety.  They did not have the phone, so I ran back to my hotel (for those who know me, picturing me running should give you a clue to my level of stress).  Once back in the hotel, I then began emailing friends again, instructing them to call home on my behalf, to call the rental car company, etc.  I was the CEO of approach coping, all for a phone.  Sweaty, upset, and having skipped having a snack in the name of “solving” the problem, I reached into my bag to get some crackers.  And at the bottom of the bag, my phone.

So what is the moral of the story?  Had I dabbled in a bit of avoidance (e.g. “I can’t believe I lost my phone!  Woe is me!”) I might have slowed down enough to discover it in my bag and not had the consequences of running in flip flops, bossing my friends around, and being exhausted.  As is often the case for me, approach coping cost me 1.5 hours that could have been spent chilling out.  But at least I got a run in before my flight 🙂

About the author: J. Nicole Little, PhD, RCC

Nicole is a therapist specializing in eating disorders and other conditions of overcontrol in Victoria, B.C., Canada. She is passionate about RO DBT, animal assisted therapy and creating through writing and collage. She remains in remedial Flexible Mind VARIEs but her family loves her anyway.