The final frontier of defensive survival strategies
One of my favourite comedy characters is the schoolgirl Lauren Cooper who was portrayed by comedian Catherine Tait.
Lauren’s catchphrase was ‘Look at my face, am I bothered?’ (pronounced bovvered).
Lauren bears an uncanny resemblance to myself as a schoolgirl. And I recognise this attitude as something I’ve been coming up against in recent times, which has been bringing out the stroppy teenager in me!
What I now know is that this attitude of not caring is an extremely cunning defensive survival strategy.
What are defensive survival strategies?
Defensive survival strategies are a function of trauma.
When most people hear the word ‘trauma’, they freak out a little bit. As I used to, they consider trauma to be a fragile and helpless state that should only be handled by seasoned professionals (and definitely not life coaches).
The topic of trauma and, specifically, how to meet trauma in coaching is something I have been engrossed in for around 18 months.
What trauma actually is, is a highly intelligent nervous system response that is part of the human experience.
And when we meet trauma within our everyday lives, it is not the fragile, broken down, helpless state that we will experience. It is the defensive survival strategies that we have developed to protect that fragile place.
These survival strategies manifest as a wide-ranging and complex set of mechanisms that all have one function, which is to protect the fragile, helpless, traumatised parts of ourselves.
In the book that I am writing about The Purpose of Self-Doubt, I have characterised these survival strategies (otherwise known as the survival self) as a competent and organised company of soldiers, always on the lookout for any perceivable threat and with a remarkable ability to organise, strategize, and respond. Their mission is to protect and defend the hidden parts of ourselves. They are highly efficient, always on duty, and they are committed to this cause, whatever it takes.
These survival strategies can manifest in subtle and powerful ways, and many times they are what enable us to get by and achieve success in the societies in which we live.
Here are some of my old favourite methods:
Being busy – this one is really effective, filling your life with important stuff that just has to be done, endless deadlines to meet, which means that there just isn’t enough time to look deeper within ourselves.
Being important – not only having important work to do but ensuring that there is a line of people who are dependent upon you.
Ultra independence – and competence, being able to do it all yourself (and knowing that you’re the best person to get things done). You can’t delegate because it takes so much time and it’s never done properly by someone else.
People-pleasing – making sure that everyone around you is comfortable and happy (which usually means their needs have to come before yours). And in doing so gaining a temporary sense of acceptance and worth (which probably has to be renewed on a daily basis).
Numbing – getting to a point of feeling so exhausted that you can’t feel anything much at all. I recognise this as my survival self’s ultimate goal.
Not caring – what does it matter anyway? Who cares, does any of this mean anything?
This is a really brief list of cunning survival strategies.
Once in place, these defences are pretty much unchallengeable by others. Who can argue with your busyness, your importance, your selflessness? When you’re ultra independent, you don’t need others.
And when all of these fail, who even cares anyway? That’s why I call this one the final frontier of survival strategies.
How do defensive survival straegies occur?
As I mentioned earlier, survival strategies are a function of the highly intelligent nervous system response; trauma.
Trauma occurs when the nervous system experiences a threat so overwhelming that it outperforms the fight or flight response. Instead, the system automatically responds with freeze and fragment.
We do not process traumatic events in the same way that we do ordinary threats. We cannot apply the usual logic and reason which enables us to weave the event into our life stories and make sense of it. So, the experience gets fragmented and compartmentalised into our unconscious and this is when the survival self springs into action to protect us.
The important thing to know is that all of this happens automatically and unconsciously. We usually get back to normal life and functioning and often we don’t need to revisit these events…
Until our survival strategies begin to exhaust us.
If you’re on a path of personal development, there will likely come a time when your survival strategies begin to cause friction.
The problem with survival strategies is that they’re not interested in growth and development. They don’t want things to change. They want you to remain ‘safe’, which usually means in denial about the trauma you are carrying.
What are traumatic events?
This is often what confuses people around trauma. We think we haven’t been subject to the conflicts or disasters that cause trauma.
But here’s the thing; trauma is what happens when the nervous system is overwhelmed. And, I would argue, that this has happened to us all at times in our life.
Our primitive nervous systems don’t communicate in sophisticated language, there is no logic or reason. We are dealing with strong emotions and this can easily be overwhelmed by day-to-day events.
And a human baby is the most vulnerable creature on earth. When an animal is born, it is on its feet in minutes. In comparison, a human baby can do nothing for itself for months. It is during this period of our lives that we are most vulnerable to trauma.
Studies have even shown how trauma occurs prenatally and how we inherit trauma from our ancestors through our DNA.
It’s more likely that a human being will carry trauma than not.
One of the most traumatising experiences we will meet is that of exclusion. Not being welcome, not being wanted.
To our nervous system, this experience of exclusion is an overwhelming threat. Human beings are social creatures. No matter how introverted we are, we cannot survive alone, and so being excluded is, to our nervous system, literally, a threat to life.
And if you or your ancestors have habitually experienced exclusion, you will recognise it and feel it so much more.
How to meet trauma
It’s really very simple (although that doesn’t make it easy).
We meet trauma with respect and compassion.
Respect, in that we recognise it as something valid and important.
Compassion, which means we don’t judge any part of our experience as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Even the tiring, often irritating, survival strategies that manifest in our and other people’s trauma. We remove the judgement and we replace that with compasssion.
That’s how we integrate trauma into our experience and grow.
In the fragmented self model, there is a third part in addition to the trauma part and the survival part.
This is the healthy part.
No matter how damaged we feel we are, we always have a healthy self available.
Our healthy self is our most up-to-date version of ourselves with all the resources available from our growth and learning. The healthy self is characterised by curiosity and compassion.
The goal here is to recognise and acknowledge all parts of ourselves from our healthy self.
We recognise the survival self, we acknowledge the wonderful job it’s done to keep us safe, and we then allow it put its feet up and have a day off.
We recognise trauma part and we acknowledge how painful it’s been to be excluded.
The unfinished story
An understanding of trauma that I love and that makes perfect sense to me is recognising it as an unfinished part of our story.
The part that became overwhelmed and fragmented is calling upon us to be finished and included in our life story.
And the beauty of this approach is that we can choose to do this in incredibly creative ways; through fiction, poetry, screenwriting, art, dance, anything…
We already know that the most powerful and engaging art comes from the place of traumatic stories.
Even the creation of comedy characters like Lauren who we can laugh with and maybe even grow to love.
Am I bothered?
So, what’s brought me to the point of talking about all of this with you now?
Over the last year, I have been in a frustratingly stuck place with this work on the purpose of self-doubt. Many of you will have heard me speak about this in the live sessions.
I have been unable to finish the book I’ve been writing since 2019 and I’ve been unable to confidently create a commercial offering from this work.
I can look back now and recognise that all the stuckness was for a purpose and it has certainly been a valuable experience in the wider context of this work.
But being in that place of desperately wanting to move forward but unable to is incredibly frustrating and unpleasant…
This is what has been bringing out the stroppy teenager in me, ‘why am I even bothering with all of this, and who would care, anyway, if I didn’t continue with this work?’
Self-doubt tells me what's important
One of the principles in this work around the purpose of self-doubt is that it is a reflection of something that is important.
And here’s the thing, if this work hadn’t been deeply important to me, I would have walked away a long, long time ago.
If this work were not important to me, I would not have been willing to go through that amount of angst, frustration, feelings of disappointment, and ALL the rest.
One of the exercises I had to do, which I shared about recently, was grounding in my values, or what’s important to me.
And what’s deeply important to me about this work is the fact that it is meaningful.
I am continually amazed that when we pick up the lens of self-doubt in coaching, it never fails to take us straight to the heart of what’s important. There is no beating around the bush when working with self-doubt, it takes us right THERE, right away…
And now I trust that if I focus upon that, everything else will build from that point.
So, next time I ask my face if it’s bovvered? I can gently remind myself that, yes, I am.
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For a treat...
Meet my stroppy inner teenager…
Here’s Lauren in a science class and it really is A LOT like our school classrooms. I was regularly sent out of lessons for being horribly disruptive (but I was nowhere near as clever as Lauren).