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Surviving Survival Mode

Back in 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed “A Theory of Human Motivation” and developed what we now refer to as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” The premise is that we start at the bottom of a pyramid of needs and those needs have to be fulfilled in order to work our way up to the top.

Surviving Survival Mode

‍The Basic Needs, at the bottom of the pyramid, include food, water, warmth, rest, security, and safety. Without these, we cannot progress to relationships, esteem, and self-actualization. We are living in Survival Mode.

How this plays out is that as therapists, friends, or family members who are trying to help clients or loved ones in pain, we will fall short if we are not addressing the suffering person’s level of need.

This was brought home to me recently when I went to visit some friends of my sister’s. They have been struggling with addiction and family relationships for some time, but in the past few weeks, they both had some health issues and leaky plumbing in their house. These latter issues put them squarely in the Basic Needs at the bottom of the triangle. Any discussion about other issues became moot, although it provided some escape.

The addiction was long-term and ongoing, as was the family strife. Efforts to help resolve any of that, even with simple suggestions, were going to go astray. What they needed in the here and now was stability in their living space, rest from their medical problems, and an overall feeling of safety.

As a therapist, it is incredibly important to evaluate my clients’ place in this hierarchy. They may come to me because of relationship issues, or feelings of inadequacy, but if I don’t check to make sure their Basic Needs are met, therapy won’t go anywhere.

Clients may not even realize that they are struggling with Basic Needs. They have been surviving Survival Mode for so long, it’s a way of life. They can’t see the wood for the trees, as we say.

So, begin your evaluations with assessing that Basic Needs are being met, and really pay attention to “Safety.” Many aspects of safety include not just physical, but emotional safety. Help your clients establish their oases and safe places before diving into their psychological and self- fulfillment needs.

Be In Light,


I’m sitting here in San Antonio waiting for the solar eclipse. I can’t quite put words to my feelings. I’ve been excited for months, since I first planned traveling here to witness this event that is common around the world yet unique in each area. I had thought that San Antonio would be one sure place where the sky would be clear, but it’s not. It’s been cloudy for the past three days now, so I’m not sure how much of the actual eclipse I’ll be able to see.

Which got me thinking about things that exist that we can’t see. The eclipse will be happening even if it’s behind clouds. The sun will still be there even though it is eclipsed by the moon. It’s all about faith and the “knowing” of the existence of something without the confirmation of our senses.

But do we have extra senses that we can rely on to trust in what we cannot see or hear or smell? Is belief in God or a Higher Power really just “faith” or do we have an extrasensory perception in which we can trust? Maybe it’s about instinct. We are born with instincts designed to keep us alive, but unfortunately, those are often conditioned out of us. Well-meaning adults will tell us our perceptions are misguided, as when a child tells mother that she doesn’t like sitting on uncle’s lap, and mother says, “Oh, but uncle loves you! Don’t hurt his feelings!” The child’s instincts are probably right on and uncle was putting out deviant sexual energy, but now this child will grow up not trusting her own instincts about danger and also putting other people’s feelings before her own.

Instincts may be about foods that the child innately knows are not the best for him but parents force him to eat them. There are myriad ways that parents destroy their children’s good instincts without any awareness of the harm they are doing.

When I worked as a custody evaluator, I had to go into people’s homes to get first-hand knowledge of their parenting abilities. I would often enter a house and think, “This is creepy,” or “There is something wrong here.” I couldn’t say that in my report to the court, though. I had to take time to ask myself, “What am I observing?” I had to quantify my feelings and pay attention to each of my senses. What was I seeing, hearing, smelling, and sensing and what did it mean? I would “know” that something was off, but I had to explain it in a way the judge would not question.

Instincts can also make us cognizant of that which is outside of our consciousness. We are surrounded by electrical signals, energetic vibrations, and spiritual influences that, when we allow ourselves to tune into them, can guide us and enrich our life experiences.

So, is it really faith, or do we have a real ability to be aware of and “know” that someone loves us, that someone is dangerous, that something is “not right,” or something is wonderful, and that a Higher Power is with us? Do we know that the sun is still there and that it will shine again soon?

Be In Light

Dare To Be Stupid

How often do you hold back expressing yourself because you don’t want to look stupid? How often does negative self-talk keep you from saying or doing something you want? Did you know this can be part of an addictive process?

Addiction is about stimulation, and fighting is stimulating. That includes fighting with ourselves. How many times a day do you get into an argument with yourself about something you sort of want to do but don’t really? Or argue with yourself about something you think you “should do” but would rather not?

“Should” is a bad word, by the way. It puts the responsibility for our decisions and behavior on an external entity, such as society, a parent, a religion, or just “them.” I “should” exercise, I “should” pray on Sunday, I “should” be nice to my Aunt Sally. We use “should” to control other people, which then alleviates our own insecurities, as in “You should bring me flowers,” “You should call me every day,” or “You should want to have sex with me five times a week.” “Should” leads to guilt or resentment and who says? Change it to “want” or “would like” and you can change your mood and attitude.

When we argue with ourselves, there is a “should” involved, which leads to increased stimulation for the addict brain. When we really dig deeper to find the meaning underneath the surface “shoulds,” we find that special button that gets pushed so easily and leads to anger, resentment, and overall disconnection. That button is whatever message you have taken in about yourself that is not rational but was ingrained at a young age when you weren’t even aware of it. That button is the one that says “I’m a failure,” “I’m not important,” “I’m worthless,” or “I’m stupid.” You argue with yourself because you know, cognitively, that it’s not true, but deep inside your limbic system, you fear that it is.

There are various ways to heal from the traumas that caused you to create that button and there are many interventions to change your responses to events that push the button, but meanwhile, how do you not engage in the mental conflict that is so stimulating to your addict brain? How do you get past the negative beliefs about yourself to just speak up and express yourself?

You say, “So what?” So what if I’m worthless, so what if I’m not important, so what if I’m a failure, so what if I’m stupid?

So what? Float above it like you float above the rip tide.

Dare to be stupid!
(Weird Al Yankovic,)

Be In Light

Are You OK?

Are You OK?

This sounds very caring and concerned, doesn’t it? I bet when you read it, you got a warm feeling. This is what people ask when they notice that someone is not looking good, or has just suffered a loss or illness, or they just have a feeling that something is off.

If you have read any of my articles, however, you know I’m going to turn this around lol!

I propose that this is a terrible question to ask. Let’s use “Alice” and “Debbie” as examples. Debbie asks Alice “Are you OK?” with the intention of showing concern and letting Alice know she cares, but it leaves Alice in an uncomfortable quandary. How does she respond?

Alice may be just fine, in which case she is now wondering, “Do I look like something is wrong?” “Do I look tired or sick?”

Alice may actually be feeling poorly or unwell, but doesn’t want to share that with Debbie. So how does she respond?

Alice may be feeling awful, looks awful, and gets angry, yelling, “Of course I’m not ok!” or is too ill to respond and gets even more pissed off but can’t express it.

Alice may have a whole litany of problems that she would love to share, but doesn’t know if Debbie is really interested, or how much she wants to hear.

Alice may take a leap of faith and share something devastating with Debbie, who now has to figure out how to respond and may be overwhelmed, or was never that interested to begin with but is now stuck.

“Are you OK?” is a “yes or no” question, which is the worst when it comes to getting information. Social convention suggests that when Debbie notices something amiss with Alice, she can ask, “Are you OK?” to fulfill her social obligation. Alice will then respond, “Yes, I’m fine” and the social niceties are completed.

The real question is, how much do you want to Connect? This social convention leaves the parties in a state of disconnection. If Connection is the intention, then dispense with “Are you OK?” and instead, say, “I notice you are looking sad. Tell me what’s happening.” You could also say, “I’m concerned because I know you recently lost your dog and that can be really traumatic.” You might say, “I see you’re not well, what do you need?
Any of these statements demonstrate caring and compassion and also open up space for sharing while also providing the opportunity for a response such as, “I’m too tired to talk right now,” or “I’m not ready to talk yet but I’d like a hug,” or “Please make me some soup.”

Finally, it’s extremely important to not invalidate or minimize a child’s intuition when they ask this question. When a child asks, “Mommy, are you ok?” when they are observing Mommy being sad, angry, sick, or crying, the worst thing Mommy can reply is, “I’m ok.” Mommy is clearly NOT OK, but telling the child she is fine will lead to the child subverting their intuition and doubting themselves when an authority figure denies their reality. This can lead to that child becoming an adult who can easily be manipulated, exploited, and victimized.

So, are you OK? Don’t answer that. How about telling me how you’re feeling and what you need?

Be In Light

Adaptability – Healthy? Not?

Adaptability for us humans can be our greatest strength and it can be our greatest weakness.

We adapted to life after ice ages and cataclysmic events. We adapted to every environment on earth. We adapted to every category of foods - from meat to vegetables to grains, to fungi, to fish. We adapt to adversity and survive, even thrive. We adapt where other species go extinct. This is wonderful and will keep us around till the end of time.

We also adapt to pain, abuse, stress, and unhealthy conditions of our own making. This is not good. It allows us to continue in states of dis-ease. Our limbic systems, or survival brains, adapt by making the abnormal into normal

For instance, this is what happens during the addictive process. When the brain reward system is stimulated to extraordinary degrees, either by drugs or behaviors, the limbic system creates a new baseline of what is a normal amount of stimulation. Unfortunately, it also remembers how good the excessive stimulation felt, and that sets up the craving that is a key factor in addiction.

We also see maladaptive patterns develop in abusive situations. It’s like the story of the frog in the hot water. Throw a frog into boiling water and it jumps right out. Put it in cool water and slowly heat it and the frog will adapt until it boils to death. Interpersonal violence and abuse usually start this way – a victim is lured into the relationship and, when the abuse begins, they make excuses and adapt. Finally, they are living with a level of cruelty and mistreatment that they could never have imagined themselves tolerating.

In any situation where adaptation has become intrinsically harmful, the prefrontal cortex – thinking and reasoning brain – is co-opted into making excuses, rationalizing the irrational, feeling pride in the ability to tolerate pain, and even creating the thoughts that lead to the stimulation.

As a therapist, I see my job as removing barriers to optimal mental health. That means looking at each person’s entire life, not just a section of it, and identifying what is getting in the way of the individual’s goals. How have they adapted to stressors in the past that now prevents peace and joy in the present and future? This involves not just talk therapy, which takes place in the prefrontal cortex, but non-talk therapeutic interventions, such as EMDR or brain-spotting, to get into the limbic system and file the past away on the brain’s hard drive so the individual can make clear decisions now.

I challenge you to explore your own life and, as we approach a new year, consider how you have adapted to the various aspects of your life – family, partners, work, leisure, and health – and make a Vision Board. What do you want your life to be? What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of world do you want to create for yourself?

Then live that life, be that person, and live in that world.

Be In Light



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