If you experience emotional numbness, the knowing you must “walk on eggshells” and a constant state of awareness to the point of hyper-vigilance (an exaggerated awareness of your surroundings and possible threats of danger to your physical or emotional well-being) around someone, then you are experiencing “survival mode.”
Survival mode commonly happens to people in abusive relationships. For example, if you are married to someone who often experiences fits of rage or crying, you understand survival mode. You spend your time trying to keep this person happy and not angry or crying. You ignore your own needs, feelings, etc. in favor of trying to keep this person happy. Or, if you have a parent who uses guilt as a tool to manipulate you, or is excessively critical and opinionated of you, you also understand survival mode, because you are also ignoring your own needs, feelings, etc. in favor of trying to keep your parent happy enough not to criticize or manipulate you.
Survival mode is just as the name implies – a way of thinking that helps you survive when around an abusive person. You stifle your own needs, feelings, etc. to focus completely on what will help you to survive the way a toxic person treats you.
After about six years of no contact with my narcissistic mother, we resumed contact in early 2007. I allowed it to happen. Our relationship continued for about four years when she suddenly stopped speaking to me. Not entirely though – we spoke maybe four or five times in about eighteen months.
After a few months of this greatly reduced contact, I finally was no longer functioning in the survivor mode that I was so accustomed to. Suddenly, I started to experience flashbacks for the first time. It was bizarre and terrifying. At first, I wondered if she was right and I was crazy like she so often said.
Finally, I realized what was happening. I was not crazy at all. Instead, I had been functioning in survival mode. Without my mother constantly being abusive, I was able to drop that coping skill, and felt safe enough to face things that I had repressed for a long time. I also learned that I had Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
When you are no longer subject to abuse constantly, and are able to let your guard down, it just makes sense that survival mode would end. That skill is no longer necessary without an abusive person in your life.
When survival mode does end, though, functioning without it can be pretty scary at first! You get so accustomed to functioning a certain way, it feels strange to function without it. And, if you have been abused, yet unable to deal with it due to survival mode, you may experience what I did. Issues that you were unable to deal with as they happened may start coming to the surface, demanding to be faced. If that happens, do not panic! You can get through it! Pray, talk things out with someone safe, write in a journal.. do whatever helps you to cope with painful issues.