Photo of Shannon, addiction peer coach in Sioux Falls, SD

Moving past survival mode

Meet Shannon
Shannon (she/her) grew up around addiction and struggled with her own meth and morphine addiction. She still drinks alcohol in moderation. She loves making people feel welcome and heard, no matter what they're going through.

Q: How do I move on from survival mode?

A: A lot of us who’ve been through early trauma and dysfunction had to learn to survive. Qualities like honesty, self-love and healthy communication and boundaries may not have been modeled for us. Instead, we learned to lie or manipulate to get what we need. When my siblings and I were growing up, my mom taught us horrible habits. She wanted better for us; she wanted us to have clothes and food – so she taught us how to steal. What she did wasn’t right, but it was what she knew at the time.

When you’re alone and don’t know which way is right or wrong, you usually look for connection in the wrong places. For me, that was drugs. For others, it may be relationships or promiscuity, which is very common after sexual trauma.

It can take a long time to move on from those learned behaviors and patterns. It’s not easy. As Terri, another peer coach, would say: it’s about moving from survival skills to life skills. It’s about more than just sobriety. Stopping your alcohol or other drug use is great, but if you don’t change the way you think, there’s a lot about your life that won’t change. Being accountable and responsible, doing hard things, avoiding instant gratification – they’re all important to moving past survival mode. Things will slowly start to change, from seeing a little more money in your bank account to not feeling so on-edge every day.

These are just a few of many ways we’ve moved from surviving to thriving. Having an outside perspective to help you identify patterns and encourage you after setbacks may help. Remember, this work isn’t easy. It’s going to be a long-term struggle; that’s OK.

  • Forgive yourself, and repeat. In my own journey, I had to continually remind myself the past was the past. I had to accept myself and my mistakes and move forward to continue being a better person. I told myself, and still tell myself, every single day is a blessing. There’s a reason I’m here. I’m a good person and I deserve to be treated well. There are endless mantras, prayers and reminders that can help you think kindlier of yourself, little by little.
  • Set small goals. Setting and achieving small, realistic goals can be surprisingly empowering. It’s proof and validation that you can do the things you set your mind to. It’s also a great time to practice or discover life skills that are new to you. 
  • Don’t run from difficult emotions. A lot of us seek distraction from the emotions we don’t want to feel – fear, loneliness, confusion, grief – you name it. Look for those indicators that you’re trying to check out. They’re different for everyone (going to the casino, isolating, using substances, etc.). A lot of times, the consequences of your avoidance behavior are worse than what would happen if you would sit with the emotion.
  • Rediscover yourself. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What brings you joy? It’s difficult to know who you are when you’ve had to do what you can to survive for so long. Rediscovering what makes you unique and what’s important to you will help as you develop your self-esteem and relationships with others.

Even though it’s important to move on from our survival skills, I don’t want to give the impression that they’re all bad. They served an important purpose in our past. And even though those learned behaviors can get in the way of our growth, they can eventually become some of our greatest assets. Many of our own skills as peer coaches started as trauma responses. Being observant, listening, empathy, reading body language, staying calm in stressful situations — all are wonderful abilities when they’re being used to help instead of manipulate.

Remember, it’s OK to be yourself. There’s a reason you’re here. You can learn to be comfortable in your own skin. You don’t have to wait for the other shoe to drop. You can have authentic relationships and let others know who you truly are. Most of all, you can thrive!

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