I am an emotional survivalist. I am not making preparations for the end-times, don’t live in a bunker, and don’t hoard canned food and batteries. What makes me a survivalist is my historic ability to live on the barest minimum of emotional nourishment. I have a history of taking whatever small amounts of love, support, affection, comfort, and acceptance is on offer and making them into something that was “enough” to sustain me. The problem is, enough isn’t really very much; surviving on not very much supports living, but it isn’t thriving.
The thing that prepared me for my life of scarcity was – as it is for many of us – my childhood. My parents’ religion, with its emphasis on perfection, stoicism, and shame, was the poisonous backdrop to their various mental illness and difficulty dealing with their emotions, and their inability to foster true intimacy. My father, of course, spent a lot of time in his black moods, and I learned to make use of those times when he wasn’t depressed to try to get him to know me. My mother, so caught up in her own feelings of anger and scarcity, didn’t have much left for me. After she died, I just got better at surviving with what love I could get from my father and friends.
I became very good at making do with what I had, and making up on my own whatever else I needed. It was a very lonely existence, and I knew not to ask for much; learning to be grateful for the tiniest bit of love and support, pulling and tugging until it barely covered my shoulders – and calling it a blanket. We do what we know, and in relationships, my tendency was to live like I had lived in my family; accept just enough, make do with what you’re given, and don’t expect the best.
The RA made my tendencies worse, isolating me and activating my stoic superpowers: I was forced to manage everything myself, which only emphasized that the only person I could depend on was me, and I didn’t really need the community that I secretly longed for. At one point, my life had narrowed to such an extent that I was contemplating how nice living in a nunnery would be. Jill calls it my, “one plate, one spoon,” phase, as in, I only needed the barest minimum. I was willing to accept a life of endurance, not a life of abundance – of thriving. To be fair, it was all I had known.
We’ve all had difficult things in our lives that knocked us back, or even entire years when it seemed nothing went our way and we were barely getting by; enough to eat, work, and live on but not enough to actually grow. Most of us are also dealing with the effects of our family of origin and whatever trauma, negative experiences and lacks in nurturing that have caused us to be frozen in certain patterns with certain expectations and ways we deal with people and with life. Quite often, these things are not conducive to an abundant, successful life, only to living.
Sometimes surviving is all that’s possible in your environment, or with the resources you have. It is very easy to get used to living with scarcity, to the point that we don’t even realize how little we are getting. It’s true that sometimes we have no choice – that we just have enough to keep us going, but the problem is, nothing can grow when it has just barely enough. At times, we may have the option to do more than survive – the resources are there – but we just can’t take them yet. We realize things could be different, yet we may be afraid to move out of our small comfort zone, afraid to lose what little we do have.
In the movie, Matrix Reloaded, the character of Neo encounters the Architect, the sentient program essentially in charge of the Matrix, who explains what Neo must do to complete the Matrix cycle, which will save humanity but ultimately result in its continued enslavement. During their conversation, Neo threatens not to complete the cycle, which will end everyone, unless he gets what he wants; claiming that the machines would never allow humanity to be destroyed as they are using them to survive.
In response to Neo’s declaration, the Architect, face unchanged, states gravely that, “There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept.” This line always sticks with me because I understand it. The machines are prepared to reduce themselves to the bare minimum of function – sacrifice all possible growth and change – because it is what they know now. They are accustomed to their existence as it is, afraid to try something new – to sacrifice everything on a risk. Like the machines, we are also able to get by on just enough to keep ourselves alive, but then the question becomes, what if we want more for ourselves than just getting by?
Being in therapy helped me to gradually see that I actually did want more for myself, that other things were possible, and that I didn’t have to be in emotional survival mode all of the time – that I could have more than one fork. I am still really good at my survivalism – making enough out of not very much – but fortunately I am better at noticing when I’m doing it. It helps that I have good people reminding me, because patterns and “skills” like this can be very sneaky: before you know it, you are doing what you never wanted to do again!
It is also important to recognize those in your life who can’t offer you much – like a few ex’s I’ve had – and those who can – like the community of people who are helping me transform my life. However, when you are in this place of endurance, other people may help you but they can’t save you – you have to save yourself – which can be hard to contemplate. Starting is actually really easy: you just have to want more for yourself. Hard work may follow, but you’ve taken the first step; growth and thriving will follow, even if you’re still in the desert. The real courage is in recognizing when more is coming your way and then accepting it, even when the thought of losing what little you do have is terrifying.