How to Befriend Our Unhealthy Survival Mechanismsby Debra Mittler
“Wounded children have a rage, a sense of failed justice that burns in their souls. What do they do with that rage? Since they would never harm another, they turn that rage inward. They become the target of their own rage.” ~Woody Haiken
Survival mechanisms are ways of being that we picked up along the way to help us cope with what was happening in our reality.
Getting mad at ourselves for doing what we do only promotes self-hate. We’re not bad or wrong; in fact, we’re pretty damn intelligent. We found ways to help us soothe our traumas, hurt, and pain and perhaps get love and attention. That’s pretty intelligent, wouldn’t you say?
I should just stop eating so much, drinking alcohol, smoking, exhausting myself through compulsive exercise, being busy, procrastinating, people pleasing, etc. Easy peasy—just stop, right? Not when we have an “internal fight.”
What do I mean? Part of us believes it needs to do these things in order to feel safe or be loved and accepted by others. That’s why they’re called “survival mechanisms.” That part of us doesn’t understand logic and reason; it understands emotions and feeling.
It has a need to be loved and feel protected and safe, and it uses these things to get these needs met. Letting go is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. Pretty damn scary, eh?
That’s what happens internally: the fear of letting go consumes us, and most often appears as an anxious feeling; then we pick up our survival mechanism again to soothe that feeling. It’s like running on a hamster wheel but not really getting anywhere.
When I was little, I used food to cope with the environment I was living in. I was constantly told I was bad and wrong, and food helped soothe my feelings of insecurity. It actually became an obsession and the only thing I cared about.
My whole focus in life became how I could get food to comfort me. I was teased for being fat from the popular girls, and I heard it at home from my father calling me “fatty, fatty two by four.”
I didn’t know what was going on at the time; all I knew was that eating was all I wanted to do. Then, when I was thirteen, my doctor told me to go on a diet, and at age fifteen I entered my first hospital for anorexia.
For the next twenty-three years of my life, anorexia, my coping mechanism, became the only thing I cared about, and I also had sub-symptoms like anxiety, cutting, and depression.
I was existing but not living. My days and nights were consumed by trying to cope with life through eating and exercise. What a life, eh?
I thought I was protecting myself, but really, I was living in a prison; I was the prison guard and the prisoner of my own creating. But I couldn’t stop; it was like this ‘thing’ had a hold on me.
I cried and cried for it to go away, but it took control of my life every day. I wanted someone to save me from this thing, but the more I tried to let go, the more it had a hold.
Even after twenty-three years of therapy and hospitals and treatment centers, it was still my savior.
So, how did it finally let go? I took my healing into my own hands. I was determined to experience happiness, love, and inner peace.
This was a process, not an overnight fix, but I started healing the unresolved issues that caused me to not feel safe, understanding my survival mechanisms’ purpose for me, and loving and accepting myself unconditionally. By doing so, the anorexia, anxiety, cutting, and depression no longer needed my attention,and I released those symptoms.
You see, that thing that a hold of me, it was really my friend; it was my protector, and it worked until it no longer did. So instead of trying to get rid of it, I integrated it. Now it didn’t need to pick up another survival mechanism; instead, we became loving friends.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms don’t free us; they’re just a way to numb our trauma, hurt, and pain, but they also keep us from truly living.
By understanding what we’re trying to cope with instead of running or numbing, we’re able to see what we really need, get those needs met, and experience inner peace. This is called loving re-parenting. Because that’s what loving parenting looks like: offering kindness, understanding, compassion, and caring instead of judgment, criticism, and abandonment.
Trying to get rid of a symptom—like overeating, cutting, or smoking—is fighting against our own biology. By making peace with it, by listening with compassion and understanding, we can help that part of ourselves get its needs met, and most often the symptom naturally goes away
This is how I’ve been able to free myself from the symptoms that had a hold on me, and here’s a way for you to get started today, if this resonates.
1. Move into acceptance of who you are and what you’re experiencing. Replace judgment with compassion, knowing that you’re doing the best you can with what you know today, and you’re learning and growing as you go.
2. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and imagine you’re talking with your unhealthy survival mechanism.
3. Ask it, “Why are you here? What’s your purpose?”
4. Ask it what it needs so it no longer has to get your attention through the symptoms you’re having.
For example, the part of you that’s binge eating may let you know it needs a safe place to process and express your feelings, somewhere that you’re seen, heard, loved, and accepted unconditionally. It may also let you know that it’s time to learn how to set healthy boundaries.
Or the part of you that’s experiencing depression may let you know that it’s tired of trying so hard to meet other people‘s expectations of how you should be, and it’s time for you to honor yourself and find ways to get your needs met, so you don’t feel so powerless.
For any “symptom,” it may also be helpful to understand secondary gain. Ask yourself, “How is being this way getting me love, attention, and someone to take care of me so I don’t have to take personal responsibility or fail as a human being?”
5. Find ways to get your needs met. Tell yourself, “I give myself permission to take loving care of myself and do good things for my body and health. I am loved. I am safe.”
6. Practice consciousness, which is becoming aware of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This allows us to see what’s really going on internally that may be asking for compassion, love, healing, and a new understanding.
When we ask ourselves, “Why am I thinking, feeling, and acting this way?” we may become aware of core beliefs like “I’m unlovable” or “I’m unworthy.” It’s because of these core beliefs that we’re feeling, thinking, acting, and perceiving the ways we are. Of course we’d treat ourselves badly if we believe we believe we’re fundamentally bad.
When we understand what the driver really is, we can start healing the childhood wounds that created those beliefs and then shifting how we see ourselves. By doing so, we naturally start to think, feel, and act differently.
This is a process and it’s different for everybody. The key is to be compassionate and loving with whatever you’re experiencing, and to remember that there’s nothing wrong with you. Even if you’re experiencing “symptoms” that seem unacceptable to society, the truth is you’re a beautiful, valuable, lovable being who deserves to heal and is worthy of a wonderful and fulfilling life journey.
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