5 Ways Survival Mode Affects Our Relationships


One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again. — Abraham Maslow

Let me start by saying this: We can’t escape survival mode. We can’t ignore it. We can’t continue denying it’s there because it will ooze into every area of our lives. We can’t rationalize it as a bad day or a bad relationship. We can’t pin it on our ex. OK, maybe we can, but it won’t help our cause. And, we can’t keep hooking ourselves into distractions to avoid the inevitable implosion.

Yet, we’ve all been there. We’ve all managed to sweep it under the carpet at one time or another. For some of us, it’s been more times now, and less times later.

We’ve all added more crap to our to-do list to keep ourselves numb. We’ve all denied. Rationalized. Used humor like it was going out of style. Jumped on the “toxic positivity” bandwagon. Projected. Made excuses. And while these band-aids work in the moment, inevitably that band-aid will need replacing.

The reason survival mode is there in the first place is because it has reinforced what’s already ingrained. It was taught as normal. Functional. Adaptive. It was taught as how the world supposedly works. And how relationships supposed work. It was taught as every man (or woman) for themselves. It was taught as opportunity.

What wasn’t taught in those lessons were the why’s and the how’s…

Why it started. Why it’s hell on earth to walk away from. How it’s affects you and those in your life. How it will continue affecting your growth and your happiness. How to stop the cycle.

And, most importantly…how it’s not your fault.

Our brains are hardwired for survival, so when it’s taught early and taught consistently, it reinforces what’s already second-nature. Just like a record that’s stuck on repeat — negative messages that are taught early, can be on a similar loop in our brain. These same messages that are ingrained in our unconscious mind, are “training” our conscious mind to respond accordingly. This is how the pattern starts.

…Yet, there’s another half to the cycle that’s often been overlooked as part of survival mode: our behavior.

The simplest way to break down the cycle of survival mode is as follows.

Let’s say a kid is told by his older brother that women aren’t to be trusted. If that kid grew up watching how volatile his brother’s relationships were, or how his mother rushed from one relationship to another, these behaviors would only seem to add validity to what his brother was teaching him. In time, the seed for that negative message has been firmly planted.

Toxic Narrative → Behavior → Survival Mode

Toxic Narrative = “Women can’t be trusted.”

Behavior = on guard; suspicious; discards relationships; chases others.

Survival Mode = the basic need of trust is damaged, or destroyed.

In another example, let’s say a girl is told by her mother that she’s ugly and won’t ever be loved. In time, if that message gets stuck in that girl’s mind, it will continue repeating a damaging narrative that not only affects her sense of self-worth, her behavior will march in line.

Toxic Narrative = “You’re ugly and will never be loved.”

Behavior = self-sabotaging; gets involved with emotionally unavailable, abusive and narcissistic partners that reinforce the toxic narrative.

Survival Mode = the basic needs of safety, belonging and esteem are damaged, or destroyed.


Understanding Survival Mode & Basic Needs

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is based on what all humans need for survival. The higher up the hierarchy we manage to go, the closer we arrive at fully healed, emotionally healthy, and thriving.

Yet, there’s a catch. In order to level up on the hierarchy, lesser needs need to be met, and mastered. No, once isn’t considered “mastered.” No, a month isn’t sufficient for mastery. And no, a year won’t cut it, either.

Mastery is based on our ongoing ability to recognize that our needs are lacking, that they’re changing, or that they need attention. We then need to take the necessary time (re)building our needs and learning to give them to ourselves.

OK, sounds easy, right?


Actually, what keeps us from recognizing that our basic needs may be lacking is survival mode. It becomes a Catch-22; you can’t move up in emotional growth or towards thriving until you’ve met and mastered all of your lesser needs with consistency.

Yet, you can’t meet your lesser needs with consistency until you’re out of survival mode.

See the conundrum?

Discarding survival mode doesn’t come with a set of instructions. It doesn’t come with a cookie-cutter therapeutic intervention, either. What it does come with, is a lot of trial and error as self-awareness into our patterns and habits start moving to the front of the line.

It happens gradually, usually over years of continued emotional and personal growth, and often after trauma has leveled you to rock-bottom, where you begin rebuilding.

Here’s 5 ways survival mode may be affecting you and your relationships, so you can start the incline up the mountain, into thriving:

It’s Comfortable. This is a nice of saying, “complacent”! If we’re chasing what’s comfortable or familiar, it’s based on complacency. If we’re ignoring or dismissing self-awareness for another ride on the denial merry-go-round, we’re being complacent.

While comfort zones and familiarity are fine for things like our favorite vacation spot or bingeing Netflix on the weekend with our S.O., they’re toxic to our personal growth. Yet, the irony is that most of us will chase what’s comfortable because it’s not challenging to survival mode or our inner critic.

As a matter of fact, if we’re stuck in what’s toxic to our growth, survival mode will become quiet.

It’s only when we’re stepping outside of survival mode that we start questioning things, feeling confused, and getting emotionally triggered, because we’re being challenged to grow.

You’ve Emotionally Regressed. While I’m not suggesting you’re acting like a 3-year old, well…maybe. Emotional regression is a defense mechanism — when we are emotionally triggered by a painful or traumatic event, it’s easier in the moment to ignore it, overreact, sweep it under the carpet or tune it out.

For example, emotional regression typically manifests in several ways. We may turn to gaming, drugs, alcohol, porn or another unhealthy addiction to emotionally numb and shut down. We may become argumentative and have to have the last word. Or, we may find ourselves repeating the same patterns of behavior our caregivers used for survival when we were kids.

The Easy Route. The easy route is about band-aids and brooms. Sweep it under the carpet. Slap another band-aid on the wound, shake off the pain and go about our day. Does it work? Sure, in the moment. Anything can work momentarily. But, emotional wounds have a way of developing more dirt that needs to be swept away again, or where old wounds reopen and a new band-aid is needed to stop the emotional bleeding. This in itself becomes a cycle of band-aiding our emotional wounds to momentarily prevent dealing with them. However, in time, if the emotional wounds aren’t healed, they tend to fester…

You Give Up Too Soon. Change takes time. Growth requires ongoing effort. Emotional awareness requires knowing that there will be triggers and questions. There will be roadblocks. Detours needed. And new plans devised. Those new to emotional growth, or if we try to cut corners, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors. There are no shortcuts when it comes to our personal development.

If survival mode is all we’ve known, it’s hopeful, but often naive to think we can heal ourselves in a month, a year, or even a few years by tossing on a few band-aids in the moment. If survival mode is all we’ve known, it’s naive to think we can change our relationships or change our jobs without first changing ourselves…or nothing changes.

Old Narrative. Old narratives are the toxic messages we were taught growing up as part of survival mode. Exchanging one message for a healthier one is half of growth. The other half, is our behavior. No, I’m not talking about changing up your hair, your clothes or your car. Sure, these are superficial means, but if that’s our end-game, we may want to re-evaluate things.

Growth, when dealing with behavior, means to change how we see ourselves, from the inside, out. It means to flip the script on those old narratives and to adapt healthier behaviors that are aligned with a new narrative. If we were taught not to trust anyone, then changing our hairstyle or buying a new car won’t make us trust anyone more, or make them more trustworthy.

However, changing our mindset and behavior on how we view and interpret a trustworthy and worthwhile person, is a start.


The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

To spot the light at the end of the tunnel, the quote from Maslow eloquently explains what needs to be done:

…”One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

I believe what Maslow means by this powerful quote is that what is “safe” is what was taught. It’s based on survival mode. If all we’ve known is survival mode, then survival mode will be what’s familiar, comfortable, and will lull us into a false sense of “safe”.

Yet, if growth is the goal, overcoming the fear of change and stepping outside of survival mode must be chosen again…and again.



Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

This post was previously published on Medium.


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