Knowing the different survival mechanisms and understanding in which survival mechanism I am operating really helps me to guide me through life. In the past, it has helped me to choose which path I wanted to follow in all the different therapies that were there, and nowadays it helps me to see which spiritual practices fit me the most. And in a more immediate way, it helps me to be aware that I am not in the present moment, not feeling the things that want to be felt.
I’ve read a lot about survival mechanisms, and there have been different people categorizing it differently, but this one resonates the most with me! So, I like to explain this a bit more and give you my key insights about why it helped me so much to have this knowledge. The following five survival mechanisms are used to cover our pain; to move away from the pain and were needed as a child to survive (Source: Ingeborg Bosch, psychologist).
Anxiety The first survival mechanism that we develop is anxiety, and it may seem weird that an emotion is a survival mechanism. However, anxiety still gives us the opportunity to do something, to move away from the pain by freezing, fighting or flighting. And as a baby, the only thing that we could do to go away from the pain is to feel anxious, there were not any other survival mechanisms accessible yet. So anxiety helped us to not feel the pain that was too heavy to feel. The survival mechanism anxiety expresses itself logically due to feeling anxious.
Primary Defence The second one that we develop is primary defence and this means that we blame ourselves. So the way that we try to cope with painful situations is that we think that it is our fault, that we are not good enough. As a child we are dependent on our care takers, so it felt safer to blame ourselves than others. The primary defence expresses itself by having a lot of thoughts that are negative about yourself and about your capabilities to be in this world.
When we are a bit older we can develop more healthy survival mechanisms that are less destructive for yourself than primary defence and anxiety. They are called false hope, false power and denial of needs. These survival mechanisms can also cause destructive patterns, but are more well-functioning in this society than the first two.
False Hope is a survival mechanism that gives you the hope that if you this or that, you needs will be fulfilled and you won’t have the pain anymore. So it moves away from the pain, by doing, thinking or having things. An example is, if I have a loving relationship than I won’t be lonely anymore or if I have my dream job than I will be happy.
False Power is a survival mechanism that moves away from the pain by blaming others. You don’t let someone/the situation/ pain in, but you keep it at a distance by thinking that you don’t have a responsibility but it’s someone else’s responsibility. ‘It’s not my fault, but the other’s fault’ is a thought that resonates with false power. Anger is often an emotion that comes along with this survival mechanism. All the judgements about others is a form of false power.
Denial of Needs is a survival mechanism that appears as if you don’t have any problems. It covers the pain by having no problems. It may be the hardest survival mechanism to admit to yourself as you don’t feel anything. However, often this is covered by addictions and rationalizing which causes that people are not in touch with their inner world and feelings in their body. Denial of needs expresses itself by being always fine and okay with everything that happens, especially when it would be expected that it would impact somebody.
So how does it help me, knowing these survival mechanisms and recognising them in my behaviour? When I feel stressed and keep making rounds and rounds in my head with the same thoughts, or have behaviour that I am not happy with, I can zoom out. It helps me to see the situation from a helicopter view. By knowing that I am in a survival mechanism, I have compassion for my behaviour, emotions and thoughts, and I can breath and reflect on myself. I can hold myself and ask whether this is needed right now, or that I can relax. I can ask myself: what am I afraid to feel? What pain does it cover? Sometimes I can make contact with that pain and release tears. And sometimes I am just observing my thoughts, being present and clearing my head by waving to the survival mechanism and its thoughts. And sometimes, it’s also good that my survival mechanism is there, it brings me energy and it still serves me to live life <3 Since last summer, I have reconsidered my relationship with my survival mechanisms from something that is unnecessary to a friend that is there until it doesn’t resonate anymore <3
I wish you a great evening and don’t forget to check my first blog post on survival mechanisms to read more on this topic. With love, Melisse Su Wei