Helping you become all that you are capable of becoming!



Survival Behaviors

Chapter 14 Tempering Survival Behaviors

Tools for Handling Control Issues

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.

What are survival behaviors?

Survival behaviors are:

  • Those behaviors you needed to exhibit in order to survive in an abusive, neglecting or ignoring environment in your family of origin, marriage, work, or school setting.
  • The walls or barriers which you have built between you and others so that you will never be hurt again like you were in the past.
  • Your pulled-in feelings which you are no longer willing to share with others lest they take advantage of your vulnerability.
  • The closing off of your vulnerable side for fear of being hurt again.
  • The insecurity and lack of trust you exhibit to others who reach out to show interest or concern to you.
  • Your lack of tolerance and apparent lack of empathy for the feelings of people who have their own problems and are in pain. This is especially true if you think their problems compared to your past ones are trivial or less severe.
  • The competitive way in which you deal with people always looking out for who is the winner or loser in each human transaction you encounter.
  • The coldness and detachment you display as you describe your problems from your past.
  • The often hostile, negativistic, sarcastic, and cynical attitude you hold towards life.
  • The often bitter, acrid, and biting comments you make about aspects of your life.
  • The often uncontrollable anger, rage, and hatred that you exude as you speak of past hurts.
  • Your unwillingness to consider that there might be more viable options for you to cope with life than your tried and proven self-defensive model.
  • Your defensive and closed in attitude when others suggest to you a constructive criticism over something you have said or done.
  • Your inability to warm up to people and your shy and retiring ways whenever you are in a new social situation.
  • Your fear of speaking up in a group of people lest they not accept or approve of you.
  • Your desire to be invisible so as not to be hurt or abused in any way.
  • Your guardedness and watchfulness in your interactions with people lest they get to know too much about you for fear they take advantage of you with that information.

What are the negative effects of survival behaviors?

If you continue to display survival behaviors, you could:

  • Find it difficult to attract people to you because of your coolness, aloofness, or biting hostility.
  • Be rejected by people who have reached out to you in care, concern, and support whom you have turned off by your distancing tactics and behavioral barriers.
  • Become an embittered, lonely recluse who is cut off from everyone who once had shown you care, concern and support.
  • Be so well hidden by your guard-all shield that no one ever breaks through the real you so you become more isolated and ignored.
  • Arouse other people's anger, animosity, rage, or scorn by your sarcastic, bitter, cynical sense of humor and outlook on life.
  • Drive people away from you by your constant challenging and testing of their loyalty, sincerity, and credibility when they show the slightest interest, concern, or support for you.
  • Become so self-centered that you are incapable of being open to hear or understand others' hurts, pain, or suffering and can be perceived as a scrooge, cynic, or shrew.
  • Confuse people who are honestly interested in getting close to you by the mixed messages of approach/avoidance you send out by using words of an approach nature but displaying behaviors of an avoidance nature.
  • Get into trouble with authority figures because of your lack of trust or respect and because you challenge their knowledge, competence, and abilities by outshining them in your own productivity, talents, and achievements.
  • Be so committed to making it through material success and accumulation that you never achieve a satisfying set of healthy adult human relationships.
  • Become so focused on the belief that you must always be on guard that you gain a full-blown paranoid outlook on life.
  • Experience worse low self-esteem because you are never capable of getting the support, acceptance, and positive reinforcement from others you need.
  • Never grow up into a mature, healthy adult.
  • Be so invisible that you are chronically ignored by the people in your life.


How are survival behaviors a control issue?

Survival behaviors are control issues because:

  • They are an attempt to keep the locus of control in your hands.
  • They have been the way in which you have exercised your right to control your own destiny in life so as to avoid being hurt or subject to more pain or harm.
  • You seek to control situations in which you might be vulnerable by blocking out others from getting to know who you really are.
  • You refuse to hand over any power to anyone else so that they are never given a chance to attempt to do to you what was done to you in the past which resulted in your being abused, mistreated, hurt, or harmed.
  • You tightly control your feelings by holding them in behind your barrier so that no one can get intimate with you.
  • People are often intimidated, offended, or put off by your behaviors and tend to see you as arrogant, standoffish, hostile, or belligerent.
  • They never allow anyone who comes in contact with you the chance to get to really know you nor to have any power or control over you.
  • With the mask of these behaviors no one can see if you feel helpless, powerless, or out of control in any situation with any person, place, or thing.
  • They are used as a weapon to fight off any manipulation, fixing, or caretaking by others.
  • They are a set of behaviors of overcontrol of your thinking, feeling, or acting which results in your being closed in, pulled in, and appearing nonfeeling.
  • You have used these behaviors to save yourself in overcontrolled, intimidating, or coercive environments or situations in the past.
  • They ensure you the ability to control other persons, places, or things in your current environment so that you alone are the determinant of what you do or don't get involved with in the future.
  • With these behaviors you have a power and control armory to call upon when anyone is getting too close to you and you feel the need to put them off so that they will back away and give you enough space to feel comfortable, relaxed, and less defensive.

What is some irrational, unhealthy, and non-reality-based thinking which contributes to survival behaviors?

  • It worked well in the past for my survival so I'll use it now in the present.
  • It's my turn to get even.
  • No one will ever hurt me again.
  • I don't know what normal is so why try?
  • I have too much to lose to let my guard down.
  • If it works for me, why try anything different?
  • They must all be crazy to be bothered by that.
  • I know more than they do so why should I listen to them?
  • I don't care if he is my boss. I know what I'm doing around here.
  • I see no need to grow up since being an adult is so boring.
  • I'll reject them before they reject me.
  • I've been ignored so much that there is no way I am going to try anymore.
  • Why does it have to be me who takes care of me; why can't others do it for me?
  • Just once I'd like someone to take care of me.
  • They'll all let me down so why try?
  • Just try to be nice to me and I'll bite off your head.
  • Don't use your phoney caring, loving behaviors with me. I don't need it.
  • No matter what you do for me it will never make up for my past so why try?
  • They'll never accept me fully so why should I try to let them know me?
  • If they know too much about me, they could really hurt me later on.
  • No matter what I do, I am never appreciated around here.
  • As good as I do, I never feel it is good enough for them.
  • I'd rather not be seen and/or heard around here. You get along better that way.

What are the steps to temper survival behaviors?

In order to temper survival behaviors, you can follow these steps.

Step 1:  You first need to identify if your current behaviors fit any of the following survival descriptions.

30 Survival Behaviors

1. Refusal to Grow Up

This is a pattern in which you think, feel, or act in a way that lets others know you have no intention to grow up to think, feel, or act like an adult.


2. Authority Figure Conflict

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, or acting which places you in direct conflict with the authority figures in your life. This often results in your jumping from job to job.


3. Unapproachability

This is a pattern of behaviors which is often unintentional and is based on your shyness and aloofness with others. This is a perception which others have of you and as a result they avoid contact or involvement with you. They often perceive you to be arrogant, better than thou, or together when in fact you are just the opposite.


4. Shyness and Aloofness

This is a pattern of behaviors which reflects your fear of involvement with others. Others perceive you as being distant and non-communicative. It reflects your fear of rejection and non-approval.


5. Chip on Your Shoulder

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting which reflects your tough guy approach of challenging others to take the first move to try to get the chip off your shoulder. This is a reflection of your unresolved past hurt and pain and tends to put off new people.


6. Need for Nurturance

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting which reflects the deficit of parental male or female nurturance in your life. It often results in your intentional or unintentional compulsive or addictive searching for male or female affection, attention, or approval in your life.


7. Addictive Relationships

This is a pattern of your developing relationships with others in which you lose your ability to control or temper your thinking, feeling, or acting to the point where you are obsessed and lose yourself in the other.


8. Enmeshment of Relationships

This is a pattern in your relationships where you cling on so that there is an over-bondedness between you and the other. You hold on tightly so as to ensure that no outside influence intrudes to upset the balance you have created.


9. Loss of Emotional Boundaries

This is a pattern in your relationships in which you and the other become unable to differentiate feelings, attitudes, and beliefs from one another. If one hurts or is in pain, the other is hurt and in pain. This over-identification is a way to try to ensure bonds of loyalty, trust, and fidelity.


10. Lack of Emotional Empathy

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting based on the inability to be open to the feelings of others so as to prevent your getting involved with them at an emotional level. This is a way to protect yourself from being vulnerable to being hurt in relationships if you get too close.


11. Inability to be Intimate

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting which prevents you from getting emotionally close to others. This is a method to protect yourself from the hurt and pain if the relationship should end in a negative way.


12. Icebox Behaviors

This is a pattern of acting which freezes others out of emotional involvement with you. This is a way in which you keep others from getting too close to you lest if they know you too well they could hurt you as you have been hurt in the past. Other names for this are:  Ice Woman, Ice Man, Freezer, Refrigerator, Eskimo, Ice Cube, Icicle, or Cold.


13. Lack of Commitment

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, or acting by which you never commit to anything so as to prevent yourself from being entangled or tied into anything in which you might fail or be hurt.


14. Antagonism

This is a pattern of negativistic thinking, feeling, and acting which reflects your self-protectiveness from real or perceived threats to you. This is a hostile pattern which puts others off and maintains emotional and physical distance between you and them.


15. Defensiveness

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting by which you are always on guard from real or perceived threats to you. This on-guard attitude protects you from being wronged, hurt, unwanted, or unloved.  It reflects the I knew it wouldn't work out anyway attitude in which you enter into relationships with other people, places, and things.


16. Indecisiveness

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting which prevents you from ever being tied down to a decision lest the decision be a wrong one. This prevents you from being hurt by a mistake but it keeps you stuck from making progress in your life.


17. Irresponsibility

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting in which you try to accept as little responsibility for yourself or others as you can. This results in your never having to be accountable for anything which may go wrong or fail in your life. Never wanting to be answerable for anything keeps you functioning in an irresponsible way.


18. Out of Touch with Reality

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, or acting which allows you to deny the reality of past hurts, injustices, or pain which you have experienced. This denial of reality is based on the belief that if you admitted reality for what it was you would go insane from the shame, pain, misery, suffering, horror, rage, anger, and shock you would experience from facing it the way it was. This being out of touch, however, keeps you from progressing with life due to the amount of unfinished business you avoid by denying and being out of touch.


19. Lack of Conscience

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting by which you never allow yourself to be bothered by anything negative you have done to yourself or others. This is often a result of your inability to face the harm you've done to others. Since you feel you have been so badly treated in the past, you have a hard time admitting you have or are doing the same to others.


20. Denial of Feelings

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting by which you do not admit to having any positive or negative feelings about your past or current life. This is a way to protect yourself from pain, hurt, shame, and upset. But it also keeps you from experiencing the enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction of the positive aspects of your life. This makes it difficult for others to relate to you since they can't get a clear picture of who you are by pinning you down on how you feel towards them or anything else in your life.


21. Invisibility

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, or acting by which your goal is not to be seen, heard, or attended to by others so that they not focus any negative actions or behaviors your way. This is to protect you from future real or perceived hurt, pain, or abuse by others.


22. Self-Medicating Behaviors

This is a pattern of behaviors by which you medicate or anesthetize the pain, hurt, shame, suffering, or emptiness you have experienced in your life. This includes alcohol or drug abuse, sexual addiction, compulsive overeating, shopping, or gambling, etc. This pattern can accelerate to habitual or addictive levels if allowed to go unchecked and then creates new problems for you.


23. Inability to Trust

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting by which you do not allow yourself to trust anyone in your life. This lack of trust prevents you from making the mistake of becoming vulnerable with another lest the other hurt, abuse, or take advantage of you like others have done to you in the past.


24. Playing It Safe

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting by which you play it safe lest you take a risk and be hurt, abused, or taken advantage of by others. This also prevents you from making a mistake or failing in decisions or actions in life. Playing it safe keeps you secure in a cocoon sheltered from the hazards and risks of life.


25. Self-Containment

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, or acting by which you try to convince yourself and others that you don't need anyone else in your life but you. This keeps you from seeking or asking for help from others so as not to be let down if they don't respond. I know I can do it on my own attitude keeps you from being open to the support, advice, and assistance of helpers in your life. This pattern feeds on itself and can lead to exacerbation of your sense of isolation, abandonment, and loneliness.


26. Mask Wearing

This is a pattern of behaviors to hide from others your true feelings. This helps you to keep others in the dark as to how you are actually reacting to people, places, or things. By masking feelings you prevent real or imagined abuse, rejection, non-approval, or condemnation from those who would be offended by your honest assessment, reaction, or judgment.


27. Running Away

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting by which you run away to avoid having to face any hurt, pain, abuse, suffering, anxiety, stress, or tension. Running away either in your head or in reality helps you to avoid confronting the unpleasant realities of your life.


28. Lying

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting by which you hide the truth from others so as to avoid real or perceived abuse, hurt, or conflict. Lying or omitting the truth of details is a way to cover up anything which you believe could cause trouble for you with others.


29. Overreaction

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, or acting by which you blow things out of proportion to keep people concerned, confused, and upset. Overreaction is a way by which you gain attention for yourself when ordinary means fail. It is a way to ensure that you are not forgotten or ignored.


30. Escape into Fantasy

This is a pattern of thinking, feeling, or acting by which you avoid the unpleasantness of your present circumstances by fantasizing how it could be. Flight into fantasy gives you momentary relief from the stress, anxiety, or tension of the hurtful, abusive, neglectful, punitive, shameful, negating reality you are experiencing at the time.


Step 2: Once you identify which survival behaviors you are currently engaged in, you then need to identify what are the negative consequences of these behaviors so as to motivate yourself to change them.


Step 3: Once motivated to change them, you need to identify the unhealthy thinking and feeling which lies at the root of the behaviors.


Step 4: Then you need to identify new, healthier alternative ways of thinking and feeling to help you change.


Step 5: You now are ready to identify new, alternative healthy replacement behaviors.


Step 6: Implement the new, healthier behaviors.


Step 7: Monitor your progress with the new behaviors and seek feedback from others if you are relapsing into old survival modes.


Step 8: If you find yourself falling back into use of old survival behavior patterns, return to Step 1 and begin again.

What are the steps to tempering survival behaviors?


Step 1: Use the following inventory to identify if you are exhibiting any of these behaviors in your life. In you journal rate your level of survivorship.

Survival Behaviors Inventory

Directions:  For each survival behavior, rate your level of exhibiting it in your life. Use the following rating scale.

1 = Never

2 = Rarely

3 = Sometimes

4 = Frequently

5 = Almost always


  1. Refusal to grow up
  2. Authority figure conflict
  3. Unapproachability
  4. Shyness and aloofness
  5. Chip on your shoulder
  6. Need for nurturance
  7. Addictive relationships
  8. Enmeshment of relationships
  9. Loss of emotional boundaries
  10. Lack of emotional empathy
  11. Inability to be intimate
  12. Icebox behaviors
  13. Lack of commitment
  14. Antagonism
  15. Defensiveness
  16. Indecisiveness
  17. Irresponsibility
  18. Out of touch with reality
  19. Lack of conscience
  20. Denial of feelings
  21. Invisibility
  22. Self-medicating behaviors
  23. Inability to trust
  24. Playing it safe
  25. Self-containment
  26. Mask wearing
  27. Running away
  28. Lying
  29. Overreaction
  30. Escape into fantasy



To determine your level of survivorship, add the circled ratings to get a total score. Then use the following scale and interpretation.


30-60       Lowest level of survivorship You rarely use survival behaviors and probably do not need to work on tempering survival behaviors. To be safe, work on all behaviors you rated 3 or higher.

61-90       Mild level of survivorship You sometimes resort to the use of survival behaviors. It is important for you to work on all the behaviors you rated 3 or higher.

91-120     Moderate level of survivorship You frequently utilize survival behaviors in your relationships with others. In order to improve these relationships, you need to concentrate efforts on modifying all behaviors you rated 3 or higher.

121-150  Severe level of survivorship You are bogging down your ability to relate to others through an overuse of survival behaviors. You will need to address all behaviors listed in this inventory rated 3 or higher.


If you ranked mild, moderate or severe levels of survivorship, continue on to Step 2 to temper these survival behaviors.


Step 2:  Now that you know you have a problem with survival behaviors, answer the following questions in your journal.

  1. How do these behaviors affect your ability to make and sustain healthy relationships with others?
  2. What is the feedback you get from others concerning your attitudes and behaviors classified as survival behaviors?
  3. How could your life be more productive if you ceased overuse of survival behaviors?
  4. How has your work or school life suffered due to these behaviors?
  5. How has your family and/or married life suffered due to these behaviors?
  6. Who in your life did you lose as a result of these behaviors?
  7. How many close friends do you have? What is the reason for the small number? How do these behaviors explain the small numbers?
  8. What is the general cause of relationship failure in your life? How do these behaviors contribute to these failures?
  9. How do you generally react to others when they display survival behaviors to you? What do you think and how do you feel when these behaviors come your way?
  10. How committed are you to tempering the survival behaviors you rated 3 or higher on the inventory?


Step 3:  Once you are committed to tempering your survival behaviors, then for each behavior rated 3 or higher do the following in your journal.

  • Identify the unhealthy, irrational, and non-reality-based thinking and feeling which is behind your exhibiting this behavior.
  • Identify new, healthy, rational, and reality-based thinking and feeling which can help you to change this behavior.
  • Identify a new, healthier behavior to replace this old, non-healthy survival behavior.


Step 4:  Once you have identified new, healthier behaviors to replace the old survival behaviors, then begin to put them into place one at a time. Don't try to change all of them at one time. The job is too great to do all at once.


Step 5:  Give permission to people in your life to call you on it when you resort to the old survival behaviors.


Step 6:  If you find you are relapsing back to the survivorship model of behaviors, then return to Step 1 and begin again.