Fake Survival Mode

Neil StraussAdvice

In order to survive, we need:






If you’re reading this, I’m guessing that this year, and in the near future, the first four survival needs are not ever going to be a concern.

As for safety, if you live in the United States, your chances of dying due to violence or injury is .07 percent. Though actually, the figure is much lower if you’re not either very old (and prone to falling-related injuries) or addicted to prescription/hard drugs.

What I’m saying is: When it comes to your basic survival needs getting met, you’re doing just fine. You’re reading this blog post. Life is good.

Yet one of the big themes that came up among attendees of the second ever H.A.V.E. last month is that most people go into…fake survival mode.

We treat things that are not actually dangerous as if they are actual threats, and then over-react like our very life is at stake.

For example: Some people fly into a rage when they feel like someone is trying to control them. Others shut down or even storm out of the room when they feel that someone is criticizing or negatively evaluating them. Or if their ego gets poked in some other way.

Most people have a specific button, unique to them, and once it is pressed, the body goes into fight or flight mode. They can even feel their heart rate increase, their muscles tense, their vision narrow, and the rest of the world disappear as if a rattlesnake just appeared in their path.

And these buttons – your buttons – exist because in childhood, almost everything is potentially a survival threat.

We are so dependent as newborns, and so in the moment, that any time a caregiver doesn’t meet our needs, it can feel like the end of our world. Imagine lying on your back in bed, unable to move and hungry. And no matter how much you scream, no one comes.

That is a legitimate survival fear.

Because abandonment as a child does mean death. Abandonment as a healthy adult, however, typically means that someone toxic is out of your life and that’s a good thing.

But some people respond to abandonment like their world is ending…a few even take their own life.

And this is partly because in childhood, our survival responses get wired into our brains, and remain there…even when we become self-sufficient and independent.

And as a result, we treat a lot of things like safety threats that are just actually discomforts. Or experiences of other people expressing their free will, and acting in ways that we can’t manage or control.

The existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom described our childhood PTSD this way:

Imagine you live in a city in medieval times, and you build a wall around it to protect it from foreign invaders. 

Now imagine that centuries have passed, and the invading tribes are all gone and it’s safe now. 

Yet you still live inside the city with the wall still up.

That is the way most of us go through life, especially in close relationships.

And the only way to get out of this fake survival mode is to correct the lie:

To realize that the things we are most afraid of, whether it’s failure…

or being unloveable…

or not being liked…

or being unmasked as unworthy…

or asking for our needs to get met…

or feeling like we don’t fit in…

or a horde of other things…

will not kill us.

In fact, they probably won’t even harm us.

Meanwhile, our fear and anxiety about them turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The irony is that the most dangerous thing we do with our lives is actually being in fake survival mode. Because when you’re in fake survival mode, you’re not in reality. And when you’re not in reality, you’re not really aware of what’s going on in your life and around you.

It’s a danger to living your authentic life.

It’s a sure way to be on your death bed, realizing that you never got to live.

And if that’s not actually dangerous, it’s at least very tragic.

So I wanted to write and just make sure you all understood this concept. Especially as, in this year of Archimedes Lever, we come up against ourselves, our fears, our buttons.

Stay out of fake survival mode, and the world will seem a lot brighter and full of opportunity, possibility, and interesting people.

And you will like your own company a whole lot more.


It is partially for this reason that I’ve decided to change the name of The H.A.V.E. going forward. Though I love the acronym, I realized from doing the first two that, psychologically, focusing not on the wall around the city but on the beautiful countryside beyond the wall, helps facilitate the process even more.

In other words: Energy flows where attention goes.

So from now on, instead of talking about a Human Anti-Virus Experience, we’ll be having a Deep Inner Growth workshop. After all, that’s what we all want ultimately. I believe it’s one of the purposes of life.


Goodbye H.A.V.E. Hello D.I.G. 

Small change, but that’s why I love doing a recurring workshop like this. I get to keep tweaking it to perfection.

Speaking of which, I want to thank those brave, open, and perfectly imperfect students who came to the workshop formerly known as The H.A.V.E. And who have given such powerful testimonials.

One attendee told me on the last day: “You say it’s like five years of therapy in the website, but after this, I feel like I never need to go to therapy again!”

Another wrote a long email, which began by saying that the experience exceeded her already high expectations.

She went on to explain the following:

This was so important for me to recognize the degree to which I undercut myself. Psychologically I knew I did what matters to other people instead, but now I recognize deeply, viscerally, that it is something I have done all my life. The forgiveness exercise where we forgive ourselves – oh my goodness, I’m still weeping. Since I’ve been home, I have experienced positive shifts in several areas of my life:

*Acute awareness of my self-talk where previously I was deaf to it
*Parenting in a more patient, present, firm and loving way
*Self-supporting, rather than sabotaging behavior

The most important one to me: I have noticed a shift in the way I deal with my son & daughter. One of the reasons I took this intensive was to be a better parent to them.

Witnessing how you spoke to me, the other students, and your staff was inspiring. You were firm yet loving. The way you held us accountable was done in a way I hadn’t seen often before. There was no guilt, no punishment, just some good ol’ reality combined with the desire for the best for us.

Since I’ve been home I have been more present for my kids and when they need correction I am using the WWND method: What Would Neil Do? In doing this I have experienced more peace and I believe they have too.

It felt so good to recognize my bad code and replace it with the good code, not just in my thoughts, but in action. I am aware of how I speak to myself and can do the ‘that’s X’ maneuver with those fallacious ideas. 

Thank you for teaching by your own example that, if one is willing to do the work and put in the emotional labor, one can overturn generations of dysfunction. Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving yourself & your wisdom and for helping me and so many others. 

Wow. So grateful as well. It’s important that the work carries on outside the workshop room…into the real world, where it has a deep impact.

I have a lot of these, which I will just put up on a separate blog post so as not to take up too much of the message here…

I just want to encourage you, when we announce the date of the next workshop, to make the time to attend if it’s something you’re interested in. (Sign up for my Inner Circle to be the first to find out.)

One attendee even said he spent the last 20+ years having suicidal thoughts, but the event finally helped him move past them, renewed his desire to live, and helped him feel his own inherent worthiness on a deep cellular level.

And that is what this is about: If we can create better parents…if we can bring people out of the fake survival mode that causes them to do drastic self-destructive things…if we can help people have a positive impact on their children, loved ones, and the world. Well, that’s a meaningful thing to do with a life.

Because the H.A.V.E. (I mean, the D.I.G.) is not just to help you. It’s to give you the tools to then help others.

Love you all. Thanks for reading.