“How often do you think people walk around in survival mode and don’t even realize it?”
The question, posed by my friend, Nurisha, echoed in my mind days after the conversation had faded. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the deeper implications of her question. It’s a question that impacts my story. And maybe it impacts yours too. Although we might not realize it, “survival mode” often finds its genesis in a scarcity mentality.
And while the implications might play out in our present, events that lead to our feelings of scarcity often happened long before we were born.
Broadening the idea of “survival mode”
At a glance, we tend to categorize the idea of survival mode as that which happens when someone doesn’t have the physical means to ensure survival -- things like food, shelter, safety, etc. But to a certain extent, survival mode can come in many shapes and sizes. It can relate to any area of life where we feel what we need is in short supply.
I would argue we can find shades of survival mode in all facets of our existence:
· relationally; and,
· perhaps even spiritually.
I say this because the brain responds to all threats the same way, including perceived threats -- particularly when we have an overactive threat-detection response. The fear of not having what we need causes the brain to go into fight, flight or freeze mode. And that fear (no matter the source) of not having “enough” is where a scarcity-mentality is born.
Challenging the Story We Tell Ourselves
In my line of work (#therapist) I spend a lot of time helping people examine the stories they believe about themselves and consequently, are living out each day. These stories often have elements of not having enough--- enough love, care, nurturing, protection. Typically, this equates to a person feeling like they aren’t worthy of getting what they need. And, after they feel it for a while, they believe it.
My goal is to help clients challenge the parts of their story that are preventing them from living the life they want to live. Together with my clients, we critically explore what built this story in the pursuit of healing. We ask questions like:
· What’s it made of?
· Who wrote it/what reinforced it?
· Can it be trusted?
· Does the story promote their pursuit of health and wellbeing?
· Does it hold them back from the life they want to live?
· Is it in line with what God says about them and their value?
We shake the foundation to see if its solid. If it’s safe to believe in.
Often in this work, we discover the influence of the generations before them and how the beliefs and behaviors of those generations had a significant impact on their own experiences growing up.
As the result of this good, hard work that my clients do, many find that the story they’re living isn’t the one they actually want to live. More so, they often find it was a story they sort of adapted to and then adopted as their role within their family of origin. It wasn’t the one they wanted. It’s the one that was forced upon them. And I get that. Because that was my experience too.
Brenda came to me for help in her relationship with her fiancé Matt. “I keep picking fights with him about the littlest things. How long he took at the store. Why his work schedule keeps changing. Why he hasn’t given me an answer about the guest list for the wedding.” It was clear in Brenda’s tone that she didn’t want to be acting this way. But she felt powerless to stop it. “I don’t know where all of this is coming from. But if I can’t get a grip on my behavior, I’m afraid he’s going to want to postpone the wedding. Or worse -- call it off altogether.”
Working to get to the root of Brenda’s behavior included asking a lot of questions about what her motivation was for pressing Matt on these issues.
“I think I fear he will stop loving me and change his mind about us. I’m constantly looking for the thing that proves he won’t leave me. I don’t know why! He’s never given me a reason to doubt his love or commitment to me.”
This was helpful because it told Brenda and I both that this wasn’t a fact-based response. It was an emotional one.
In time, we came to discover the connection between her reactions to Matt and not only her experiences growing up, but the generational impact of relational loss in her family.
Brenda’s father left her mother with no warning. Her mom would often say “he just doesn’t love us anymore”. (Notice the use of “us.”) Brenda and her mom struggled hard to make ends meet. Her father didn’t pay support and often went long stretches of time without even talking to Brenda.
Additionally, her grandfather had cheated on her grandmother and eventually left her and Brenda’s mom and siblings. They, too, struggled to make ends meet, even going days with hardly anything to eat. Scarcity was a very real part of their story.
Consequently, whenever Matt’s behavior looked “suspicious” to Brenda, she went into survival mode -- the “fight” of her “fight-flight-freeze” response kicked in. Albeit subconsciously, Brenda had developed an equation in her mind: “If Matt doesn’t love me anymore, I won’t have what I need to survive.” This was rooted in the experiences Brenda had growing up and of her grandmother, as well.
Once we unearthed this valuable information, we could begin to detangle it from her present relationship, giving her and Matt the freedom to write their own story, apart from the ties to what happened in the generations before. Brenda was free to accept that she would have what she needed in her relationship with Matt. More importantly, embracing her own ability to care for herself took the pressure off Matt and off the relationship.
The Power to Change and Break the Cycle
Like Brenda, when people discover that they’re attempting to build a solid life and future upon the foundations that are shaky and untrustworthy, they have the opportunity to deconstruct what’s standing in their way. That leaves room to rebuild their story – a story that is stronger and truer. We can’t do this without acknowledging what might have been missing in our lives that contributed to the struggles we’re having in the present. But regardless of what we didn’t get, we can heal and grow beyond it.
It is an incredibly empowering thing to realize you can give yourself what was missing.
A happy consequence of doing this powerful work is that it has long-reaching implications! Just as the generations before impacted us, our stories will, in part, contribute to the future generations in our family. We can not only change the narrative for ourselves, but for those who come after us, as well.
Come join the community at My Out Loud Voice today. Visit us at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com for free resources, ideas and tools to help you live your most authentic life. Be sure to subscribe to get the most up-to-date information on ways to heal and grow. And if breaking cycles is something that appeals to you- then keep watch for exciting news coming early 2021!