A Taxonomy of Coping Mechanisms for the Full-Count Fakeout

We’re born into this world kicking and screaming. Being just seconds old, we’re confused and afraid, and being just seconds old, crying is the only way we know to cope with these anxieties. Even now, we’re all still babies — just really big ones who have better learned how to productively deal with our stressors.

Adult life is a constant stream of setting goals and either reaching them, or not. Throughout the course of a day, we’ll set dozens, if not hundreds, of goals, most of which are instantly resolved. Folks tend to think of “goals” as these overarching narratives — “lose 10 pounds this month” or “read a couple dozen books this year” or “save up enough money to buy a new car” — but even thoughtless, menial tasks like make the bed or pay a bill are really just miniature, easily attainable goals, set throughout the day, that provide us small bursts of satisfaction when they’re achieved.

Things don’t always go our way, though. And when things don’t go our way, it’s human nature to produce a response. Noted psychologist Richard S. Lazarus defined stress as “nothing more (and nothing less) than the experience of encountering or anticipating adversity in one’s goal-related efforts.” While the newborn deals with its stress the only way it knows how — crying — we as adults have developed myriad ways to cope with our adversities.

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To spin this into a baseball metaphor, a batter has a goal when he steps to the plate to begin an at-bat: to reach base safely. Then, even smaller goals are created, as snap decisions are made during the act of each pitch: the moment a batter decides to swing, his newest goal becomes to make solid contact. On the contrary, the moment a batter decides not to swing, his goal becomes to earn a called ball.

For instance, a batter sees a 3-2 pitch, and he has a decision: swing, or take. Either one will produce a different goal, a goal that will be resolved instantaneously. When the batter faces adversity in that goal he’s set — say, he takes the pitch, thinking it’s ball four, but the umpire actually calls strike three — a stress is born, and our ego produces a defense mechanism in an effort to cope with this stress.

This particular scenario is among the most surefire ways for a baseball player to produce a visceral reaction on the field. So, allow me to continue playing armchair psychologist as we (a) observe pleasing .gifs of professional athletes feeling wronged by bad calls and (b) lean on George E. Vaillant’s Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers to categorize the observed defense mechanisms in an attempt to better understand human behavior.

The Freeze

We begin with perhaps the most common — and varied — reaction: The Freeze. The Freeze comes in many forms. In the top example, for instance, our subject appears to exhibit patience (enduring difficult circumstances for some time before responding negatively), suppression (the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality), and tolerance (the practice of deliberately allowing or permitting a thing of which one disapproves).

And while these mechanisms are also present in the bottom two examples, there’s also direct eye contact with the person by whom the subject feels slighted, introducing passive aggression (aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively, often through procrastination).

The “I’m Not Mad, I’m Just Disappointed”

Most often, humans communicate verbally, but we also possess the ability to communicate nonverbally. In the top clip, our subject uses verbal communication to express forgiveness (cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offense, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand retribution or restitution). In the bottom clip, which perhaps has some overlap with The Freeze, we see nonverbal communication and use of a physical tic by means of ritual (avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on an intellectual aspect) to cope with the anxiety.

The Self-Reflection

Rather than reacting by communicating outward, toward the source of the stress, our subjects here appear to be reflecting inward, and coming to terms with the adversity through means of rationalization (convincing oneself that no wrong has been done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning).

The Jig

Among the most productive ways to deal with adversity is to use our inner anxieties and channel them into something positive. Here, our subjects do just that, by means of interpretive dance, displaying sublimation (transformation of unhelpful emotions or instincts into healthy actions, behaviors, or emotions) and, more loosely, humor (overt expression of ideas and feelings [especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about directly] that gives pleasure to others).

The Realist

Though there doesn’t appear to be a reaction in these clips, at least not in the same terms as the others, sometimes there’s no use for an outward display, when the only way to deal with a situation is through acceptance (a person’s assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition [often a difficult or uncomfortable situation] without attempting to change it, protest, or exit).

The False Bravado

This is perhaps the most complex and interesting reaction we’ll observe. It’s sort of an offshoot of The Realist, but with a twist. Our subject’s initial step back toward his home dugout suggests that he’s immediately aware of the fact that he should be called out, indicating acceptance. However, upon coming to terms with this fate, he strangely begins showing signs of passive aggression, as if he’s unsure of how to deal with his accepted frustration. This self-conflicting reaction could be seen as a projection (reducing anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them) of how our subject knows his peers most commonly react to the anxiety with which he’s struggling to process.

The Sprinter

An extension of The Freeze, The Sprinter utilizes wishful thinking (making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality, or reality) and aspects of fantasy (tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts) and undoing (symbolically nullifying an unacceptable thought, idea, or feeling by acting out the reverse of the unacceptable) almost as persuasive tools while longing for their desired outcome.

The Outburst

The ugly side of the human condition is on display here, as we come full circle in this study by witnessing our subjects revert to a stage in which they are unable to cope with their anxieties in a productive manner, instead succumbing to regression (temporary reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way, for example, using whining as a method of communicating despite already having acquired the ability to speak with appropriate grammar).

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Perhaps the most interesting part of all of this is the realization, in that second-to-last clip, that James Loney is a real person, with a physical, human body and brain, which occasionally gives way to regressive, child-like defense mechanisms. I’ve known about James Loney for more than a decade now, and I think this is my first time seeing his face. I guess I never really thought about the fact that James Loney actually had his own face, with its own unique facial characteristics, and his own brain, with its own unique quirks. James Loney has his own problems to deal with, just like the rest of us.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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6 years ago

Does it even need to be said?