The Four Different Kinds of Coping

Leslie Pratch, a licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, is the founder and CEO of Pratch and Company, a business advisory firm that specializes in the assessment and development of senior executives for public and private organizations. Dr. Pratch has authored a book provisionally entitled LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER, to be published by Columbia University Press in March 2014, on the aspects of personality that contribute to effective leadership. Central to her book is the construct, “active coping.”

Webster’s definition of “cope” is “to deal with or overcome difficulties.” All human beings encounter difficulties on a daily basis, both internal (to the self) and external. We have intricate internal landscapes, filled with drives, values, dreams, and ideals. Some are compatible and some are in conflict. “Coping” is how we reconcile and express these many parts of ourselves, endeavoring to bring into balance our internal needs with the external demands of our environment.

We all have to make an effort to achieve our goals. To do so, we usually have to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Some of these are created by our surroundings, some by other people, and some by who we are. Encountering these obstacles creates stress.

When dealing with stress, a person can respond in one of four ways. The first is to identify the stress and remove it, maintaining—even improving— physical and emotional health. The second is to identify and tolerate the stress without changing it, keeping a status quo but not growing. The third is to defend against the stress by denying it, distorting the perception of it, or reacting to it in an unrealistic manner. The fourth is to suffer a complete breakdown in functioning.

The first response is active coping. The second response is passive coping. The third response is neurotic, defensive coping. The fourth response accompanies personality disintegration.

Active coping is the healthiest response to a stressful situation, and the one most likely to lead to a successful resolution.

It is like the structure of a car. We can manage to get where we need to go if we are driving a clunker, and we can make it through life with a less than optimal coping style. But driving a car with superb engineering will get us farther, faster, with less likelihood of accident or breakdown. A strong framework of coping does exactly the same thing.

Formally, active coping is the readiness, willingness, and ability to adapt resourcefully and effectively to challenging and changing conditions. It is a stable, albeit complex, psychological orientation across time and circumstance. Think of it as a constant state of being “open for business” that springs from a healthy personality structure. It comes into play in the now, at each moment of decision or challenge.