Learning To Dance In Survival Mode – Part Two – Recognition and Roots

So, when you know that you are in survival mode – what the hell do you do now?

If you are just joining in on the journey, check out the backstory post here.

In the backstory, I shared how I ended up in survival mode, not once, but twice. I hope that some of the patterns and stories in there will help others understand what it means to be in survival mode and to help us recognize when we are in it.  The costs to our mental health are common, but often go unrecognized for long periods of time.

It’s all well-and-good to recognize that we are in survival mode, and as significant as that step is – there is a lot of work to be done to get back to a feeling of wellness. First though, take a moment to applaud yourself or your loved one for having taken the time required to realize that they are here.

Knowing is half the battle they say. Many people never make it to this point. So pour a glass of water, brew your favourite tea – and appreciate that you’ve taken the first, and most, necessary step.

Lets set some expectations.


From my experience, you’ll spend as much time getting back up out of survival mode, as you have spent being knocked down into it. There is a time scale at play here. For example, if you’ve been struggling for the last year, plan for six months to a year to feel like you are back on your feet and thriving. It’s not by any means that it isn’t possible that you’ll get back up quicker, but more often than not, it takes a good deal of time.

If you are some unicorn-like figure that has caught this modality one month in – then yay! – You’re a unicorn, and you’ll have a shorter trip back out. It’s a rarity, so you should unquestionably take a moment to celebrate.

Regaining a sense of well being takes time.

You’ve developed habits along the way that are no longer going to serve you. You are going to have to reset your frame of mind. No matter what anyone tells you – this is not going to happen overnight. It takes patience, practice, and gentleness.

If you can accept that it will take time at the beginning of the journey, your likelihood of success, in the end, is going to go up dramatically. The longer you’ve been working on cementing a habit, the longer it is going to take to overwrite what is there.

Now, this isn’t to say, if there is something that you’ve been doing for 25+ years that it will take you another quarter century to overcome it. I’d wager you are still looking at around a year to have your new habits and modes built with strong foundations.

Ok – enough with the downer realism, yeah?

You’ll need to acknowledge how imperfect the journey is. Your mental health will thank you.

Ok, I fibbed a little. We are not entirely done setting expectations here. Look, life isn’t all sunshine and roses…but you know that already.

It’s been a long-held frustration for me that articles, people, and resources will hit on a few things that you can do to improve your mental health, to get out of survival mode – but they completely gloss over the fact that it is going to take ongoing work. You won’t read one listicle and cease to suffer. Shame on them for suggesting that it works that way. 

You are not going to read this and then magically feel better. I’m tired of people and articles and self-helpery perpetuating this bullshit notion that there are magic cures.

I’m sorry folks, there isn’t. Things can definitely get better – and if you work on it, they will. They key though….you have to work on it. 

Things can get better.

You will have good days and bad days. Good hours and bad hours. This is completely OK. One should expect it isn’t going to be a straight line out – it wasn’t a straight line into it. If you look at the bad days with the right perspective, they’ll even make the good days that much better! The contrast is a large part of what makes the journey meaningful.

My intention is just to help you feel equipped to start– for now. To understand, realistically, what the journey ahead is going to look like.  How does the saying go…”If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Recognize, reset, reframe.


If you spent a month combing the internet for the path out of survival mode, you’d see a million variations of the same few concepts. (I’ve looked). Since my first journey over a decade ago, I’ve been amassing information, tools, books, and first-hand hand experience using every one of them.

It’s the details around the tools you would use that change from one approach to the other – but the core concepts stay the same. They also have a logical order, one building off the other.

1. Recognize.

Recognizing that both my positive & negative emotions may be dangerous if they are not controlled and guided to desirable ends, I will submit all my desires, aims and purposes to my faculties of reason, and I will be guided by it in giving expression to these.

Bruce Lee – via Brain Pickings

It’s a hard step at first. Recognize means to practice and cultivate an awareness of how you are feeling. If you genuinely want to be able to change the state you are in, first, you need to become fully aware of how your state is impacting you. How the inputs in your life affect that state as well. Honing your observational skills can take some time and concentrated effort.

Take a minute – stop reading – and think about ways you could cultivate an awareness. I’ll be here when you get back.

Chances are, whatever came to your mind, those are things that are most likely to work for you. Right now, at least.

Journaling and meditation are two of my favourite tools for sharpening this skill. Yup, they are referenced a lot in material like “How to have the best day ever.” Those absurdly lofty goals I have a hard time with. Improvement doesn’t have to sound like perfection folks.  – But these claims are created with good reason, even if the positioning is taking away from their effectiveness.

Julia Cameron popularized the concept of morning pages, where you set a timer or a length target and begin writing. You let your mind flow, the only goal is to keep the pen moving. It’s a stream of consciousness writing exercise that can be quite revealing.  In my love dialogue exercise – I used a variation of it and ended up learning quite a bit about my thought processes around love and how my mind approaches it.

Meditation is a gentle means of practicing and strengthening your observational skills. For many, it’s uncomfortable at first. For most, we expect sitting there with an empty, silent mind. A quiet mind is neither the goal nor the reality. It’s about learning to step into a position that allows you to examine your thoughts openly. We become the observer. As we learn to step back from our thoughts, we begin seeing and understanding our patterns. If you want to read more about my thoughts on mindfulness, you can read about it here.

There are other options too if you are finding yourself recoiling from the idea of journaling an meditation, I’ll provide a list in the next post. But after much trial and error, these are the two that have by far worked the best for me.

2. Reset.

Reset is tricky. There is a mental hurdle we must overcome first – and I’ve observed many people fall off here. Resetting first requires an understanding that we’ve chosen our perspectives. Many folks find this offensive at first.

“I feel how I feel, I’m not choosing to be miserable.” “I don’t choose my emotions.”

Except…yeah. You are choosing. Yes, you do pick them.

I say this, with a firm understanding that each time I’ve entered survival mode, or significant depression, or extended periods of being generally miserable – that yes, when we peel back the layers – I was, in fact, choosing to be that way. I hinted at this in the first post in the series.

It sucks to hear because it also implies that there is no one to blame but ourselves. From our prerogatives, it can’t be our fault. It was all that shit that happened to us. Further, if we are responsible for being here, that also means it’s on us to get out.

But it’s not the things that happen to us, friends – it’s the meaning we assign to them. The perspective through which we choose to look at it. No, it isn’t easy (especially at first) to accept this, let alone do anything about it. But this is precisely why this work is so damned important.

When we allow ourselves to take the responsibility and power that comes with being the authors of our meanings, there is nothing more completely liberating. It’s an ongoing responsibility.

When you own your perspective, you can change it. Nothing is good or bad; it is your perspective of it that is good or bad.

You are in control of your perspective.

Here’s a thought about perspective:

Picture this familiar scenario:

You are driving down the highway, and the driver next to you swerves into your lane nearly causing an accident. You honk, yell, and become angry.

Now, often when we react this way, there is some combination of assumptions happening. “That asshole isn’t paying attention.” “Look at what they did to me.” “Is this person drunk? I can’t believe they are putting other people at risk like this.” “That prick is going to hurt someone, just cutting me off on the highway like they own the goddam road.”

You remain angry for a while, perhaps tailgating them, and likely fuming about this moment for the rest of your journey. Red-faced and blood pressure has risen, white-knuckled fists of rage gripping the steering wheel until you arrive at your destination.

Not a fun trip.

Now picture this:

A couple of months later, you are driving down the highway after a long night of sitting at the hospital with a loved one in critical care. You haven’t slept, and you are nauseous with worry. Your phone rings and with a glance you see it’s the hospital calling, but in your sleepy state you drop the phone under your feet. As you reach for it, your car swerves. You don’t notice this, as you are consumed with the concern about the call might. Is your loved one ok? Off in the distance, you hear something like a honking horn, but barely take note while your mind races with all the horrid possible meanings of the phone call, and frantically trying to get your phone off the floor.

It’s understandable. Sure, maybe someone else should have drove, but that just isn’t always an option, is it?

The story looks different from the perspective of the second driver, yes?

So my point is twofold here.

In situation 1 we made snap judgements and assigned meanings in the blink of an eye. The swerving car was the input, that part cannot be changed. The assumptions and meanings we chose after the input though, have a very obvious effect on the moments that follow. We assumed the driver was doing this with some degree of intentionality or neglect, we placed a tone of arrogance. We felt slighted by their disregard for us. We assumed the worst of them. We became angry.

What if instead of these assumptions, we assumed the driver that cut us off was living situation 2?

What if we took a moment to think about what that situation must be like?

Would we feel angry?  Would it ruin our day? Or would we feel concern, perhaps gentle forgiveness? Would we instead hope the best for them in their situation? Would we let it go faster if we thought – maybe this person needs support, rather than anger?

The meanings we assign to the things that happen are powerful.

The impact of these meanings ripple out into our day in ways we don’t wholly realize at that moment. The meanings that we assign to the input from the driver do in fact have a significant impact on how we proceed. The thing is, we can always choose what the meaning is. We don’t have to know the actual details; we are filling them in any way. You can though, practice selecting the meaning.

You can also, at any time find yourself on either side of this story. Drive long enough, and you will make a foolish mistake. People will cut you off. Leading with acceptance is the right action.

structure of experience - choosing reactions to inputs meaning emotion response
The lightbulb is where we get to have an impact.

It’s not about choosing the emotion – it’s about selecting the meaning that produces the emotion that is most beneficial to you. Changing emotions is borderline impossible, a brute force attack on the mind that most of us are not equipped to fight.

This is where so much advice in this vein goes wrong. It’s those moments before the emotion arises that you have incredible power.

To capture and impact that split second before the emotion comes up – you have to have cultivated the awareness of your thoughts. See how mindfulness is a powerful tool now? By practicing being the observer of the thought, rather than being the thought, we have handed ourselves a fantastic capability.

It’s a shortcut through the loop of experience. A way to put more control in our hands. To stand up and take action.

And it’s not about changing from “negative to positive” – let’s just start with useful and not useful. 

3. Reframe.

This is where the real heavy lifting comes in. The ongoing work. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Just because it’s tricky though, doesn’t mean you can’t do it, or it isn’t worth it.

You my stubborn brat, are more than capable!

After you have cultivated the ability to recognize thought patterns and found your reset opportunities, the reframe work comes in to play. This is a muscle that is widely and massively under-developed in most people.

But, it is beautiful in its simplicity. 
You get to choose your perspective right now – so which one best serves you? Is it perhaps the more favourable story of the driver cutting you off, instead of the one that leads to anger?

Is it perhaps, that somehow, the pain you are experiencing is a gift, and you have the opportunity to extract some beautiful experiences and understanding from what you are going through?

You have permission to try things on. Experiment. There are no wrong answers. You get to decide the meaning you are placing on things, and through this, how events in your life will impact you. Often, it is helpful to work on this muscle outside of the heated moment. This is where things like affirmations can be helpful – and no, they don’t have to be absurd or fluffy. It’s just setting your intentions.

You get to practice. You get to play.

You get to learn to dance with the pain and frustrations that we all experience – 
And you get to learn to create art out of it.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem easy right now. It probably won’t be. Just take some time to enjoy the possibility. 

Stay tuned for part 3, where we’ll explore some of this in more depth, and start creating an action plan!

Let me know if this was helpful and how you are going to apply in the comments below 💙

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On Pickles And Kindness

Kindness isn’t always natural.

In my little corner of reality, it has been a get knocked down, get back up rollercoaster this year. Such is life though, ebbs and flows of successes & failures, joys & pains, happiness & sorrows. In truth, it wouldn’t be as much fun if it weren’t.  T’is the season. ( A little heads up, I started writing this in the fall, and somehow life just happened. Now it’s March.  Screw it – the thought remains. )

a little kindness grows the best fruit

Ideas are brewing

Fall can be an excellent time of year. The foliage does its final dance of fire before blanketing the ground. Harvest is in full swing, and vegetables are the best prices of the year. The high tempo of summer slows down. It’s also when I tend to be the most introspective and reflective. The awareness that hibernation season is upon us always leads to reflection on how the year has gone – what went well, what I could improve upon, and my general sense of the world. Perhaps it is because I have a fall birthday this is amplified, my real new year if you will.

It’s the season that makes me think of my grandmother the most.

But then she was on my mind a lot this year. There were qualities of hers that I thought of often over the months and during my rollercoaster sessions.

She was the embodiment of many contradictions, on the surface. Once a victim of polio, she had a relatively frail body. To lift one of her arms, she would have to push it up with the other. She slept with a respirator – the humming sound and beeps as she would move are still something I hear when I think of her. But good lord, she was tough. Resilience, I believe, is something I learned from her first. She was always working on something – usually keeping the lot of us fed. Harvest season was preserve season, which meant very long days in the kitchen and the garden. The only real break time was if someone stopped by for tea (she always had a pot on).

She also very rarely expressed anger. Quite possibly, she had a capacity for forgiveness that far outweighs the sum of all others I’ve ever known. She was a soldier of loving kindness.

Freefall into pickles.

This fall, nearly without realizing it, as my roller-coaster-called-life was going into a freefall of rapid-fire struggles – I found myself searching for a coping mechanism. I spent a day in near silence with my journal, reflecting, assessing, and searching for a meaning I could assign to the events. The events themselves don’t matter as much as the recognized need to create the space required to foster understanding and significance.

Somewhere in the back of my mind sat the image of my grandmother, though I don’t think I realized it at the time. The resolution to persevere kicked in, and then seemingly without conscious thought, I found myself at a local vegetable stand purchasing a trunk load of top quality candidates for pickling.

sterilized jars on counter

My kitchen is a time warp.

A quick search to find a couple of recipes that sounded close to grandmother’s, and I set off chopping.

Working in the kitchen is a form of active meditation for me. Just occupied enough to let my mind wander and observe the thoughts that come up. Like a steam engine getting up to speed, I start slowly, then overlap the tasks enough that I’m entirely maxed out. I love it here in this state of flow.

It feels like mere minutes have passed, but 7 hours later, liters of pickled beets, tomato sauce and cucumbers brining for mustard pickles are filling the counters, and my mind is now resolute. The path forward is clear.

cucumbers in brine in front of espresso machine

Brining cucumbers for mustard pickles

The temptation to hate.

When we feel attacked, slighted, hurt, betrayed – the temptations and instincts are to lash out, to be angry, to get even. Something important to us is challenged, and our animal minds rise to this aggressively. Someone does something that we perceive to be wrong, and we shun or shame them. These days, it seems incredibly rare to take a deep breath and step back. Look at the situation and triggers with our “selves” removed. Step into the third-person view.

Hurt people, hurt people. Have you ever seen a happy, glowing, healthy person lash out and cause someone else pain? If you think you have, I suggest you look a little deeper. Beneath the surface, I’m willing to guarantee; something is happening. This person is lashing out to cause the pain that they are feeling. They inflict the pain and further deepen their situations, often leaving themselves outcast and secluded, even if temporarily. It is a shit, broken coping mechanism.

So, the original hurt person starts a chain reaction. They cause you pain. You reciprocate. You lash out again because you too are now hurting.

Stop the fucking cycle.

Precisely because it is not the easy thing to do – choose to stop perpetuating these actions. The easy way hasn’t been working has it? The easy way is how we end up with world leaders in pissing contests and child-like insult hurling. I feel like mentioning a particular president’s Twitter feed, but I don’t want to distract from the point. Isn’t it vaguely ironic that we don’t accept, “but he was mean to me,” dialogue from children, yet we do it on an automatic level as adults? How arrogantly hypocritical of us.

So here we are in the face of anger and hurt, what to do?

Respond to hurt with kindness. Take as many deep breaths as you need, and open your heart.

Start with baby steps, cause it’s a big leap from old habits. First, try remembering that whatever you are facing – it has way less to do with you than you think. Whether it’s the guy yelling at you in traffic cause you aren’t moving fast enough, your partner angrily throwing insults about how you’ve failed to clean up again, all the way down into the darkest depths of assault and tragedy…that shit isn’t about YOU. It’s about them and how they perceive their world at that moment. It’s a choice that they are making not you, and probably the best one they can make at that exact moment. As impossible as it may seem, it is imperative that we choose the believe that those around us are doing the best they can at any given moment. It is the pinnacle of arrogance to assume that you would react any differently if you were living that person’s experience, and dealing with their interpretation of the inputs.

Sure, you can see other ways to behave — you are not in the map of reality they are drowning in.

It is an act of profound love and kindness to be forgiving with the transgressions of others. To lay down the torch and choose empathy.

So what the hell do pickles and kindness have to do with each other?

Pickles – sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, sometimes mild, sometimes intense. Paired well, they add a depth and brightness to any dish – enhancing the qualities of everything around it. They are the punctuation mark that makes everything so sweet.

Kindness – that something extra that doesn’t always come naturally. Without it, things turn sour – moods, relationships, thoughts, stories. But it is so powerful, over time it can turn even the most acidic things sweet. It adds incredible depth to both our internal and external lives. It enhances everything that it touches. And when it is the most challenging choice and is still chosen – it makes everything around it brighter.

Perhaps it is best summed up by a thought relayed to me by one of the most inspirational people I know:

It’s frustrating to me, that people think that things are meaningless. We look at the scope of the universe and then decide things don’t matter.  But there’s this man, walking down the street, he’s sad, he’s dirty, he’s scowling. Person after person walks by him, sometimes crossing the street to avoid him, none of them make eye contact. But you see him, and lock eyes, maybe you offer him a cigarette – a little gesture of kindness. And then as he continues to walk, there’s a little light in his eyes, a little more of a smile. Then people aren’t crossing the street to avoid him. That little gesture ripples out, has a butterfly effecti – until he’s met with more kindness.

That’s far from insignificant. All the little things matter.


kindness pickles and choice choosing kindness even when it isn't easy.

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