On Survival Mode

In the past several months since my parents have stopped speaking to me, I’ve gained quite an education.


One thing I’ve learned is about survival mode.  Survival mode is a way of behaving in an abusive situation.  Basically, your emotions are shut off & you do whatever you need to in order to get through the awful situation.  Barely speaking so as not to say something that upsets your abuser, for example.


I’ve learned that survival mode doesn’t necessarily end when the relationship ends.  In my case, my parents didn’t say outright that they never wanted to speak to me again- they just stopped calling me.  I think that is why I stayed in survival mode for months after our last conversations, I didn’t know for sure if they’d call or not.  When I realized months had passed since I’ve heard from them (11 for my mother, 4 for my father to date- not her longest silent treatment, but it is his) only then did survival mode end.  This happened with my in-laws too.  I stopped speaking to them in 2002, but survival mode didn’t end for months after.


I think this means that the brain wants to be completely, 110% sure that the abusers are gone before it can relax.  Survival mode is all about protecting you, so it makes sense the brain would want to be absolutely certain all danger is gone before it exits survival mode.


I’ve also learned that once survival mode is gone, emotions come out.  Naturally when you’re in survival mode, your emotions get put on the back burner because you’re focused only on surviving.  Once the danger is gone, emotions come to the surface, including ones that have been suppressed for a long time.  It can feel overwhelming especially when you haven’t dealt with them for a very long time.  However, I firmly believe it’s necessary to deal with them.


Without the burden of focusing on survival, I feel like I’m noticing every little thing.  Unfortunately, part of that includes triggers.  They seem to happen constantly.  The other day, I saw a TV show where this lady’s son in-law cheated on her daughter.  Although the daughter forgave him & he promised to mend his ways, the mother still was very upset.  When she told her son in-law that there is no pain worse than watching your child suffer & you not being able to fix it, I flashed back to the fight I had with my parents last May.  My father changed the subject to really odd topics to deflect my yelling at him.  My mother sighed an obviously bored sigh as I cried & yelled at her until I gave up & told her if she had anything to say before I hang up, do it now.  Her chance to apologize turned into her whining about having vertigo (for the record, I have it too- yes, it sucks, but you’d think when your normally calm, rational daughter is that upset, that might just take priority..).  I realized that caring parent isn’t something I’ll ever have, & it hurt me enough to make me burst into tears, something I rarely do.


In order to handle these experiences, I rely on God a LOT.  I tell Him how I feel & He reassures me, comforts me & explains what’s happening.  He also shows me things that help.  For example, I can be scrolling through Facebook when a meme or article that pertains to my situation pops up, & the information in it is very helpful to me.


I also write in my journal- seeing things written out is a good way to gain clarity.  Not sure why that is, but it’s true.  Seeing events written out as well as my feelings has helped me to see the situation clearer, instead of through the eyes of someone whose views are skewed hurt by narcissistic abuse.


Talking about things with a safe person is helpful too.  I’ve told my husband some of what’s been going on.  Sometimes, he gets angry or looks completely shocked by things I’ve shared about my parents.  That lets me know it’s not normal!  When you grow up with narcissists, abuse & bizarre is your normal.  Even as an adult, it can be hard to let go of that & embrace the healthy & good things.  Having someone you love & trust say that certain things were wrong or bizarre is helpful in letting go of those bad beliefs.


Dear Reader, if you too have been in survival mode for a long time, these things may happen with you too.  Or maybe they’re happening already.  If so, please rest assured that you are fine!  It may not feel that way but you are.  Ending survival mode is truly a good thing.  Your mind & body finally can relax, & you can deal with those long buried emotions.



Filed under Abuse and the Healing Journey, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Mental Health, Narcissism

12 responses to “On Survival Mode

  1. Cindy Patterson

    Good morning Cynthia. How are you doing? Thank you for another excellent article. Your articles always give me that Opraha coined Ah Ha moment when the light goes on and the dots connect. Also you mention you rarely burst into tears. I don’t cry at all and my wonderful mother did either even though her very selfish husband (my father) would have given her reason to. Even in my severe clinical suicidal depression in 3 psych wards I never shed a tear despite my deep internal pain. I realized my doctor and counselor needed to know I felt like crying but could not so I told them but it was brushed off. I’ve tried to research that at times as I do think there is something to it to be a person who either can not cry or does not cry easily. Could you consider letting me know your thoughts on that? Off to start my day!! Have a good day!! Cindy

    Sent from my iPhone



    • Good morning Cindy! How are you today?

      Thank you so much! I’m so glad my posts help you!

      About you not crying easily.. did your father discourage tears or displays of emotion? If he did, that could explain why you don’t cry easily & neither did your mother. My mother discouraged me showing emotions so around her, I never showed emotions. So much, she thinks I’m a very cold person.

      Some people, too, I think don’t learn early to show emotions in a healthy way. Maybe their parents didn’t show emotions so their children didn’t learn by example about showing emotions.


  2. Angela

    I remember as a small child running inside to my mother crying because I’d fallen over and she said “Shut up or I’ll give you something to cry for.” On inquiring what that might be, she threatened to hit me.
    Even when she was elderly, she remarked with a lack of comprehension that her children never got excited about anything. It doesn’t take much to work out that if you constantly get “Shut up!” and “Go away!”, it’s better not to show that person any emotion at all. I think we become extremely careful who we show our emotions to and careful about who we trust with them. We save our feelings for the people who deserve them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I learn so much about my own reactions when I read your posts. Like this sentence on “survival mode” : “Barely speaking so as not to say something that upsets your abuser, for example.”
    I also recognize the having to deal with high emotions afterwards like easily getting angry having become too thin skinned. That’s not something I like to see in my own behavior and I always regret it


    • I’m glad you learn from my posts! Thank you for sharing that! 🙂

      It seems to me people often get either very thin skinned or very thick skinned from narcissistic abuse. Ever notice that? And, when they try to change it, they go too far the other way before coming into a balanced place. I was rather easily offended in my younger days but now I’m not. It’s helped me to keep in mind that people often are mean out of some issue of their own. Maybe they’re irritated after a bad day, maybe they’re narcissists, maybe they’re insecure & envious of something about you, or maybe they’re just jerks. lol Often though when someone says or does something hurtful, it’s more about them than you. I hope that helps. ❤


      • Yes it does. For my whole life I have held back my opinions and now when I am getting older I can’t always do that anymore and things comes out with too many emotions involved. I will have to practice and tell myself what you mention and what I know from a long life in “Health Visiting” that many people have a lot of problems that make them behave in different ways. Those who trigger me most are people who never care to listen but only want to hear them selves speak and abrupt you constantly if you want to explain something


        • That must be such a difficult line of work to be in. Very stressful!

          That is true, what you said. Some people have problems that make them act differently. I read quite some time ago that Alzheimer’s can create narcissistic behavior or exacerbate it in someone who is already narcissistic. If Alzheimer’s can do that, I’m sure many other problems can create difficult or bad behavior in people.

          That is hard, trying to explain something to someone who only wants to hear themselves talk. My parents are that way & it drives me crazy! It’s so rude! With them, I either give up totally or if it’s important, wait til they take a breath (eventually…) & get back to what I was saying. It’s frustrating to say the least. Could you do those things with those you visit? Then later go home & pray or journal or whatever helps you to feel better.


          • I will have to prepare myself better. I am retired so this occurs to me when I am visiting some relatives. They live quite far away and that makes the visits too long for me as I have so little in common. I would like to remain calm and still be able to say something. That would be an enormous victory for me


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