When Your Survival Strategies Start Killing You

Man pulling scarf up over one eye

All human behavior serves a function. Your most addictive, compulsive, self-destructive, self-abandoning, and self-sabotaging behavior? Yup. You do that shit for a reason.

Human beings, if nothing else, are highly adaptable creatures. It’s one of our greatest evolutionary advantages. However, what often happens is:

  1. We experience childhood abuse, neglect, enmeshment, abandonment, or unmet needs.
  2. Trauma, shame, fear, powerlessness, or terrible feelings shock our nervous systems.
  3. We develop maladaptive coping mechanisms to survive (perfectionism, codependency, addiction, etc.).
  4. As adults, we regress into the feeling state of the helpless child (emotional flashback) and instinctively react by doing what worked before (trauma response).
  5. These survival strategies, although good enough as a child, are inadequate for healthy adult life and either keep us stuck in survival mode or actively destroy us.

That’s the long and short of it. Certainly it’s more complex and nuanced. For instance, we may not necessarily regress into childhood feelings if we never got the nurturing required to mature out of them in the first place. But that’s neither here nor there.

The following are recommendations for liberating yourself from the bondage of your own outdated survival strategies.

Reject Toxic Shame

As long as you think there’s “something wrong with you,” you’re twenty-four karat fucked. The belief that you are inherently defective is a bar to all progress and healing. You absolutely cannot allow such an idea to persist.

You are not broken, crazy, incompetent, unlovable, unworthy, or whatever bullshit your inner-critic wants to convince you of. Shame and merciless self-criticism are actually survival strategies themselves! So you have to outright reject and refuse all forms of self-condemnation. Cease and desist. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

This task may include but is certainly not limited to:

  • Therapy, coaching, mentoring, 12-step work
  • Removing toxic people, places, and things from your life
  • Setting healthy boundaries with yourself and others
  • Surrounding yourself with kind, mature, supportive people
  • Identifying your shame triggers and deconstructing the lies of the inner critic
  • Cultivating radical self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-care practices
  • Connecting in deep, vulnerable ways with others on the healing journey
  • Thought-stopping, thought-substitution, and thought-correction
  • Grounding and nervous system regulation techniques
  • Positive self-talk, affirmations, and gratitude
  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Learning about shame

And remember, shame thrives in isolation, so you literally cannot heal from toxic shame all by yourself. Get help.

Grieve the Losses of Your Childhood

Until we finally face, feel, and grieve the shitty hand we were dealt, we may inadvertently remain stuck in the past, mired in resentment, indignation, judgment, or helpless desperation. The salty, lingering feeling that somebody should have loved us, protected us, or cared for us is exactly the thing that keeps us scouring the earth for someone to finish the job.

Maybe you want your dad to finally show up and be a father after forty years of abject negligence and emotional bankruptcy. Perhaps you expect your romantic partners to give you the unconditional love you never got from your family. You could be counting on your career to backfill that parental gape in your childhood.

Whatever the case, as long as you’re holding out for a better past, you’ll continue to perpetuate feelings of abandonment and completely disregard your abundant opportunities for self-care and healing.

In order to seal the coffin on a gnarly childhood so you can get on with the business of creating an awesome life for yourself, try some of the following:

  • Therapy, coaching, mentoring, 12-step work (EMDR and hypnotherapy may be particularly helpful)
  • Make a written inventory of all the horrific shit that happened to you as a child
  • Get real fucking angry about it (vital part of the grieving process that you can’t skip)
  • Hit a pillow and/or scream as hard as you can to purge that anger from your body
  • Cry until your face hurts, get an emotional hangover, then cry some more (crying is really good)
  • Sit with your feelings and literally feel them in your body (different from emoting)
  • Journal about your experiences and/or discuss with a trusted friend or therapist
  • Spend time around a healthy and loving family with children to compare your shitty experience to
  • Liberate yourself from all “obligations” to your toxic family members by setting boundaries with them
  • Replace your family of origin with a family of choice — kind, mature, nurturing friends and mentors
  • Learn about healthy vs dysfunctional and abusive family dynamics
  • Stop wishing your family wasn’t so wounded and intolerable

Many people may judge this process as “wallowing in the past” or think it’s about casting blame. Some may consider it disloyal, slanderous, or spiteful. There is no shortage of excuses and contempt prior to investigation around this stage of the healing process because it can be quite painful and emotionally taxing. But this is the unfinished business that keeps people from moving on. There’s just no way around it. Ya gotta grieve.

Reparent Yourself

After you’ve fully accepted that everything isn’t your fault — that you’re not an unlovable piece of shit, and you’ve taken a good look at the bullet holes in your childhood, your next move is to act like you’re in charge of nurturing yourself back to health. Because you are.

I must reemphasize here that you simply cannot do all this healing work by yourself. You should most definitely enlist help. But you alone are in charge of procuring said help.

Here is your reparenting starter kit:

  • Therapy, coaching, mentoring, 12-step work
  • Learn to feel your feelings instead of fear your feelings
  • Embrace radical authenticity to eradicate self-abandonment
  • Discover what your needs are and how to get them satisfied in healthy ways
  • Replace your resentments and unmet needs with self-nurturing and self-protecting boundaries
  • Plaster pictures of your child self everywhere and literally act like you’re responsible for taking care of this child
  • Explore all of your likes and dislikes — do more things that bring you joy and eliminate or delegate what doesn’t
  • Develop good, intentional habits around work, food, money, mental health, exercise, hygiene, and leisure
  • Make a list of soothing people, places, things, and activities and use it when you’re upset
  • Learn to manage your triggers, self-regulate, and replace criticism with compassion
  • Cultivate vulnerable connection with safe, mature, trustworthy people
  • Commit to wholesome morning and bedtime routines

When you become the nurturing parent for yourself that you never got but always needed, your survival strategies will become obsolete and you’ll stop waiting around for some knight in shining armor to unfuck your life. You can throw away the endless “I’ll be happy when…” list and begin to cherish your life now.

Mental and emotional health are the things you may have never suspected would turn out to be the keys to ultimate fulfillment, joy, and empowerment in your life.

But they are.

Recovery Ain’t Easy

I could quadruple the length of this article by explaining each healing practice, but I’m not gonna. You can follow links, ask the Google, or talk to a trauma-informed coach or therapist about them.

Recovering from childhood trauma is super challenging. If you don’t absolutely have to do all this healing stuff I just wrote about, I recommend avoiding that shit forever. But if it becomes painfully clear that what you’re doing isn’t working, well, it may be time for you to try something new.

For most people, recovery isn’t a choice. It’s what you do when you run out of other choices.

To help you gain clarity on your situation, take a gander at Pete Walker’s definition of Complex PTSD: “CPTSD is a more severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is delineated from this better-known trauma syndrome by five of its most common and troublesome features — emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, self-abandonment, a vicious inner critic, and social anxiety.” If that rings any bells for you, you’ve probably got a stack of survival strategies that are no longer serving you very well.

And if you don’t change direction now, you’re gonna end up where you’re headed.


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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have survived, recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

4 thoughts on “When Your Survival Strategies Start Killing You

  1. ooft, that definition.

    Thank you for all you do, sir. It is invaluable. And reading it makes me feel empowered and strong instead of weak and incapable of change.

    I like the concept, also, of radical authenticity to stave off self-abandonment. Imma try it.

  2. “Recovery isn’t a choice, it’s what you do when you run out of choices.” There is so much here, but that summed it up for me. This shit is hard, but there is no other way.

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