We are amazing learning machines. In the first 5 years of life our brains more than triple in size from all of the connections it is making and it continues to grow into young adulthood. During this period of intense growth is when the filters through which we see the world are formed. Our understanding of the world, these filters, is what we use to keep ourselves safe and get our needs met. In short, this is when we create our SURVIVAL MAP. Creation of this survival map is automatic whether we are aware of it or not, and the survival map guides our choices, day in and day out. It becomes ingrained that if we don’t use our survival map we will be unsafe and vulnerable.
This means that if I learned, intentionally or not, that I can use my sexuality to get my needs met, I will routinely do so. I will be prone to being flirtatious, and when I am feeling threatened or vulnerable in particular, I will be prone to use sex to try to feel safe or as “fast food intimacy” [ feeling picked, even if it is just for a moment]. This is a form of coping called EXTERNALIZING. We manage our emotions by using things outside of us [Sex in the example here], but it can also be eating, drinking alcohol, doing drugs, working too much, etc.
Similarly, if my survival map says that anger is destructive or it could lead to my caregivers being emotionally unavailable or rejecting, I will likely try to avoid conflict at all costs (in intimate relationships, this may or may not generalize to different contexts). Even if it means ignoring or sacrificing my own needs. I will be prone to becoming especially pre-occupied with other people’s needs whenever I feel vulnerable or stressed (COMPLIANCE or taking the one-down position). This may even play into our selection of mates, where we may be drawn to someone who is physically big enough that we feel they could protect us if necessary, but who is insecure enough that we can “control” them to some degree, so we feel safe day to day.
Lets say I moved around a lot or had one or more emotionally unavailable parents because they were depressed, anxious, addicted, otherwise pre-occupied, or just straight up not nurturing. What happens then? Instead of constantly feeling rejected, I may tell myself I don’t care about intimate relationships. I could DETACH or try to convince myself I am not a touchy feely person and wouldn’t want it anyway.
The thing about the survival map is that, it is easiest learn new ways to cope (a new survival map) when you are feeling safe. It is hardest when we are faced with uncertainty or feeling vulnerable.
But it is impossible to over-ride our survival map if we are unaware of them! So lets see if we can get a glimpse of some of yours?
1. What did you learn about POWER? Who has it? How do they get it? Here are some questions to help you get started…
- How do you react when you feel helpless or powerless? Do you get aggressive (you would have learned this pays off and is the best way to stay safe) or shut down and avoid (you would have learned this was safest and that you don’t deserve power), or perhaps you play the victim, look to others to fix things or tell you what to do? Or start to get physical symptoms like migraines or stomach issues? It is not uncommon to get physically ill when you are emotionally distressed if emotions were not validated as you grew up. Those emotions need to go somewhere, and if they cannot be expressed they can go into your body. Take a moment to reflect on how you respond to feeling helpless.
- Look at both what your MIND is telling you AND what your ACTIONS are telling you that you learned.
2. What did you learn about INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS? Our template for how these are supposed to work usually come from our family.
- Did your parents get along or were they often fighting? Did you learn that even in disagreements you deserve to be treated with love, and respect, or did you learn that there can only be one winner and that you are the one who has to cave or accommodate the other person’s needs? Who had power in the relationship and what kind of power was it? How were your needs met by your parents? What messages did you learn from that? How were disagreements handled with siblings? How did they treat you?
- We often repeat our early relationships. If in our early years we learned that social relationships are somehow emotionally draining (requiring sacrifice) or if we learned that relationships are emotionally unsafe (conditional love) we are drawn to other people who are emotionally unsafe. Look at how you behave in relationships. Who you are drawn to? It can tell you something about your relationship survival map.
3. Finally, lets look at what you learned about EMOTIONS? Were they discussed? Validated? Acknowledged? Or were they ridiculed, dismissed or were you told you were “sensitive” or to “knock it off”? This will tell you something about what you learned about your permission to listen to your strong and healthy self. If we learned that we have to ignore our signalling system (emotions), the bodily sensations that tells us if something is ok or not, we inevitably start making unhealthy choices. Our emotional survival map is perhaps one of the most important maps, because they can have such a big impact on how we handle every situation we come across in life (e.g., relationships).
To learn a new survival map, we have to face the past and consciously choose: “Who am I going to be TODAY?”