Survival mechanisms Pt 3: Turning survival mechanism into a super power

Inner Work, Leadership | June 27, 2023

“First, a colleague complained to me about our VP of Engineering, and I nodded along. It’s true. That VP can be tough to work with,” said Jeff, crossing his legs. “But then, later the same week, that VP came to me and complained about someone else! And it was like I could see myself from above, laughing along with this same VP that someone had just complained to me about. What’s going on with me, Rachel?”

Jeff, who you met in blog 7 as he learned to recognize the survival mechanism sitting like a weight on his shoulders, was now taking note every time it showed up. Recognizing how survival mechanisms work takes time, and only when you know how they work can you truly appreciate them, and guide them into an updated role.

“What I’m seeing here is a real yearning for belonging,” I said. “How does that land?”

Jeff looked pensive. “You’re right, I feel like a kid with his hand out, begging to be accepted.” He laughed.

As we sat with Jeff’s vision of himself with a hand out, he realized that this was the form his survival mechanism was taking in his interactions at work. Jeff was contributing to his toxic work environment because something inside him, this kid with his hand out, begging for belonging, was doing whatever it could to make Jeff likable, and earn him a sense of belonging. He was people pleasing.

Survival mechanisms are parts of yourself that were developed a long time ago. As a result, it’s driving you to respond to your current environment in ways that are no longer useful. You’ve got to help the survival mechanism see that your circumstances have changed. Again, like we saw with Aliyah, it’s important to work with your mechanism, rather than against it. That’s why recognizing all the hard work it’s done for you is so important. You’ve got to acknowledge it, and thank it or appreciate it, before trying to change your survival mechanism – the more you try to change something about yourself that deep down you still hate, the more of a fight it’s going to put up.

And every survival mechanism holds within it important wisdom. This hidden wisdom is your superpower. In order to access it, you need to take the time to point your mechanism toward a new constructive purpose, versus your previous (unconscious) harmful behaviors.

What was the wisdom within Jeff’s people pleasing? He was beloved by many. He made others feel like they belonged. He was empathetic. People came to him with their complaints.

“Jeff, you are gifted at making people feel like they belong. You know how to make people feel included. Lets talk about ways that can look without feeling the need to agree when others are complaining about their colleagues.”
Jeff’s eyes lit up.

When you nurture a new pattern of behavior, like turning a survival mechanism into a superpower, it opens up a whole world of possibilities. When you educate the survival mechanism and gradually take charge of it, you are able to shift its purpose. That’s when it becomes your greatest superpower.

Ready to transform an unhelpful survival mechanism to a super power? I thought so. You can learn more about doing the inner work it takes to rewire these mechanisms by reading my book, Who You Are Is How You Lead. And then celebrate – you’ve set foot on the path to harnessing your true, authentic power.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant