November 21, 2012

The Survival Mechanisms We Use to Deal with Uncertainty.

Photo: Sara Biljana

A colleague asked me to write about how people can handle the intensity and uncertainty they are feeling in regards to 2012.

I groaned a little, because although I’ve heard a lot about it, and I see the world dealing with increasing intensity on many levels and fronts, I can’t say that I really know anything concrete about the “2012 shift.”

What I do know about is how we respond to uncertainty and big changes. When confronted with these big stressors, we fall back to our basic survival mechanisms, formed early in life in relation to our parents and surroundings.

My hope for all of us is that we can instead begin to respond from our natural, internal well-being in ways that allow us to become a stabilizing or calming force in the face of intense changes.

But first, back to these survival mechanisms that I see people falling back on:


Relies on working hard to create and maintain a certain ideal, such as being the ideal businessman or woman, the ideal mother or father, or to have the ideal lifestyle. In times of uncertainty, they work extra hard to keep their ideal in place and make sure nothing interferes with it.


Relies on creating and maintaining boundaries to make sure that whatever surrounds them is the “right” way (whatever that means for them) and whatever is the “wrong” way stays far away. When their world feels threatened, perfectionists will defend their “right way” strongly and/or retreat deeply within their safe boundaries.


Relies on other people for what they need to survive. When confronted with uncertainty, caregivers will look around for whomever they think can help get them through it and they will do whatever they need to in order to get the help they need from that other person, often trying to gain approval in some way.


Relies on proving nothing works for them. In the face of big changes, defeatists usually just collapse and say, “See? Nothing works for me, and I’m going to get steamrolled first.”


 Relies on having a crisis today to prove that tomorrow will be better, but since “tomorrow” is always in the future, the optimist lives in constant, recurring crisis. The optimist’s brain capitalizes on uncertainty to make more crisis happen, so times of uncertainty give them a lot of fodder for their chaotic survival mechanism, and they find themselves in more crisis than ever.


Relies on having everything go “their way” and on telling others how to live their lives. When confronted with uncertainty, dictators take over and start giving orders. They are the people who will tell you they know everything about the changes happening and how to handle them.

Do you recognize yourself in one of these patterns?

For most of us, our survival mechanisms work pretty well for a number of decades (except for the defeatist pattern, for obvious reasons). They help us survive. And, your survival mechanism might very well help you through whatever intensity or uncertainty you might be feeling as the end of 2012 approaches or as you’re dealing with everyday life.

But, you might be one of the people for whom the next big change is the breaking point.

The negative feeling that makes us form a survival mechanism in the first place, the feeling that “there is something wrong with me being just as I am,” which I call learned distress, rises in intensity over time. At some point, the learned distress intensity gets so high that our survival mechanisms break down and no matter how hard we work at maintaining the ideal, defending our boundaries, trying to get help from others, or whatever our mechanism is, it stops working, and we start to feel like the big changes of life are just running us over.

That’s the point at which I have found it’s necessary to unlearn learned distress, so we can drop the survival mechanism and start to tap into our natural well-being. Well-being is the energy at our core that can allow us to really thrive in the world and express our true purpose, rather than just survive in response to change thrown at us.

The more learned distress people unlearn, the more they find themselves feeling less triggered by events or uncertainty. They have a sense of knowing deep in their core that things will really be OK—often for the first time in their lives.

And, because how humans feel about being themselves is actually the generating force behind every moment in their lives, they actually find that their own situations are calmer and less intense. Even when an intense event does happen in their world, they find themselves able to draw more from well-being to become a stabilizing and helpful resource, rather than just reacting to it from their survival mechanism.

Are you feeling more intensity in the world right now? How are you finding yourself responding to it? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and if you have found this helpful, please feel free to share with others using the buttons below.


Ed: Brianna B.


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