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Understanding the Survival Self

Updated: Jul 2

As complex trauma survivors, we may struggle with the question, "Who am I?" Our sense of self or our identity may feel elusive, unclear, unknown, or fragile. Coming to know ourselves is an important part of our development, which requires relational safety, trust, autonomy, validation, exploration, curiosity, and more. If our early relationships lacked these important qualities, and instead were emotionally and relationally neglectful and/or abusive, then our sense of self gets centered around survival.


When I reflect on who I was many years ago, I can see how most of my "personality"

was shaped and molded around survival. Let's call the "personality" I built to survive trauma my Survival Self, not my True Self.


Here are some of the qualities of the Survival Self:

A graphic of a stick figure with a shield over their chest. A list of qualities are next to the figure: people pleasing, approval seeking, denial, repression of emotions and needs, isolated, exaggerated self reliance, hypervigilance, overly responsible, harsh inner critic, sacrificing of self, chronic feelings of shame and guilt, playing certain roles in relationships, and harmful coping strategies. These are qualities of a survival self.

What else would you add?


The Survival Self is that part or parts of us that formed to help us manage complex trauma with the tools that were available to us at the time: people pleasing, dissociation, isolation, etc. The main motivation of the Survival Self is protection AT ALL COSTS, even if it costs us other parts of ourselves. Our Survival Self is what forms and steps in to help us get through what is happening to us.


Here's how the Survival Self operates:

  • All behaviors are driven by the need to protect.

  • Recognizes the lack of relational support, care, and co-regulation available.

  • Triages pain: sending overwhelming trauma and pain into "storage".

  • Hides and represses wounded parts of ourselves.

  • Incredibly resilient and creative in forming "representatives" to deal with day-to-day tasks.

  • Works hard at minimizing potentially painful experiences by assessing risk and vulnerability.

  • Utilizes numbness/dissociation to keep trauma stored in the body at bay.


All of this happens unconsciously throughout our development and often culminates in the adult experience of not knowing ourselves: our needs, our emotions, our desires, our wants, our likes and dislikes, our opinions, our values, etc.


We often feel ashamed of our Survival Self, especially when we come into healing spaces. While it is incredibly painful to be a stranger to our own self and frustrating dealing with coping skills that don't work for us anymore, it is important to understand the purpose and function of our Survival Self. This part or parts of us got us here, to a place where healing is possible, where resources and support are available. In my experience, these parts of me want to be acknowledged, recognized, and appreciated for the ways they've protected me. Showing them appreciation and understanding their protective roles has helped them dial down as I introduce new ways of coping and healing from trauma.


As you reflect on your Survival Self, consider the ways you could get curious and understand this part better:

  • Identify your Survival Self's skills - the ways you have coped due to trauma and abuse. Begin to bring awareness to this part of yourself.

  • Consider why you had to develop these coping skills. Why did you need a Survival Self?

  • What are the motivations of your Survival Self? How is it trying to help you?

  • How would your Survival Self feel if they were acknowledged and understood versus shamed and criticized?

  • How can you help your Survival Self feel seen and understood?


Resources That Could Be Helpful:

  1. Curious about Parts Work? I'd suggest Reconciling The Ruptured Self - a guide that teaches you the basics of parts work. It brings compassion to our various parts and helps you learn how to recognize them and redirect them. ($11)

  2. Putting the Pieces Together - this guide teaches you how to navigate inner conflicts, when parts of you don't agree or are pulling you in different directions. ($4)

  3. Befriending Your Body Somatic Self Care Video Guide - In this guide, we utilize the inherent resources in the body to navigate our conflicting parts. We bring curiosity and compassion to protective parts so they can dial down. We learn how to SHOW our parts safety. (Payment Plans Available)




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Post breakup from a relationship wailing like a little baby so lonely. Reading this post brought waves of it up. So lonely and hurting and ashamed. Sometimes it feels like all I am only my survival self. And a breakup and comparing to others who all seem so healthy and thriving from my perspective of shame. Deep shame of my survival self. So many behaviors and beliefs as shown in your graphic. Wanting deeply to speak up, know my needs, have words, speak up with worthiness of my wants and limits and yes and no and to not feel unworthy thus hiding my truth. Can there ever be true healing from an immature mother who lacked empathy? Left me to…

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Sara Aird
Sara Aird
Jun 29
Replying to

Thanks for sharing. Often our Survival Self is working incredibly hard to protect us from our underlying grief. Shame is one way we stay disconnected from the deep and wide layered grief of complex trauma. I hear your insight around this grief as related to implicit memories intertwined with longings for wholeness and safety. I do believe grief is one of the ways we unburden and heal our Survival Self.

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