Surviving vs Thriving

Surviving vs Thriving


Living through trauma and/or abuse can teach us to have some well-honed survival and coping skills. We can actually get very good at surviving. But, once we’re out of that particular traumatic and/or abusive situation, those survival skills may not serve us any more, and in fact can hold us back in some ways.

For example, if someone grows up in an abusive home, they “learn” certain things. The things that they learn develop neural pathways in their brain. Dr. Caroline Leaf describes these pathways as little grooves in the brain, and it makes it really easy for us to think these same thoughts and carry out the same actions. 

When someone grows up in abuse, or is in a longterm abusive marriage or other relationship, they often blame themselves for the abuse. They think, what is wrong with me? What did I do to cause this? 

So one of the skills that they “learn” is how to navigate the situation so as not to set off the abuse again. They try really hard to avoid more abuse, and sometimes are successful. But if the abuse happens again, they usually blame themselves. 

Even if someone doesn’t blame themself, they will usually develop skills to minimize the abuse, to avoid the abuse happening, and avoid setting off the person.

Some of the ways that people navigate abuse is to shut down, or to make their lives really “small”, so that they don’t inadvertently cause the abuse to happen again. They may “walk on eggshells” so to speak, to avoid setting off the abuser. They may escape by being out of the house or office as much as possible, and avoid being around the abuser. They may hide or disassociate. They may try to appease the abuser as much as possible. 

Much of their time and energy is spent thinking about how to avoid the potential abuse. They are hyper vigilant, always on the alert as to potential abuse (whether this is verbal abuse, emotional, physical, sexual or psychological). 

In abusive situations, these skills are used to survive. They are necessary. But, they take a lot of emotional and mental energy, and can feel very draining. 

And, even after we are out of the traumatic or abusive situation, the neural pathways are still there. So our survival instinct and coping skills can kick in easily and automatically.


In my own life, I have had a couple of different situations that were extremely challenging, and I had to just cope to survive. I found out that I was good at coping and surviving, in some ways. I could do the things that I needed to do, and navigate around certain potentially abusive situations. 

Eventually, I was able to get out of the situation. I went through a lot of healing through ministry and therapy. I felt like I was in a better place emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. 

But…later, when a similar situation popped up unexpectedly, I found that at first I reverted back to my coping skills. I thought to myself, I can handle this. I know what to do. I began to plan in my mind how I would navigate this tricky situation. I’ll do this and that to avoid setting things off, and I’ll take care of myself with exercise and self-care, to reduce the stress that I’m feeling in my body. 

And my “survival plan” probably could have worked for a while. But what I was losing in the process? 

While in coping mode, I’m not at my best. My creativity gets shut down. My energy gets drained from having to navigate the situation so carefully. The things that I feel called to do become dreams sitting on a shelf, not things that I have the energy to actually fulfill. 

My body definitely knew that this was not a healthy situation. My muscles stayed tight and I was getting stress headaches.

Fortunately, I was in a place where I could get out of the situation. I didn’t have to just “cope” or “survive”, I could actually change the situation. 

Dr Henry Cloud talks about “necessary endings”, and how to recognize them and navigate them well. These can be work situations, relationships, etc.

A friend wisely said to me, Yes, you can do these things and get through the situation, but is that just a default setting in your brain? You’re defaulting to your survival skills. But is that really best for you right now? Is that what God wants you to do?


I realized immediately that my friend was right, my neural pathways had defaulted to surviving the situation, instead of making the best decision. And that instead of just navigating and coping, that it would be better for me to change the situation. 

Of course, children don’t have the opportunity to change their situation. And sometimes other situations seem difficult to get out of, such as an abusive marriage, or abusive parental relationships when we are adults, or abusive bosses or coworkers.

But I made a decision to change the situation, so that instead of just coping and surviving, I could flourish and thrive. As soon as I made that decision, a sense of peace came over me. 

The transition of changing and getting out of the situation still took a while. First, there is the decision, then the execution of that decision. I knew that there would be difficult conversations to have. But I had come to a place where getting free was more important to me than pleasing those around me. 

I came to a realization that my mental health has value, and I can choose to protect it. The well-being of others is not more important than my own well being. 

I chose to change the situation so that I could be at my best and flourish. 

When I encountered the new challenging situation, and my “survival skills” jumped into action, it took me by surprise. 



One thing that I realized is that we have to be intentional about building new neural pathways. 

Romans 12:2 talks about renewing our minds, and I think this really exemplifies this. (Common English Bible).

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

So, I intentionally gave myself some new thoughts around certain situations, such as:

  • My health and well-being are important. I need to be at my best in order to fulfill what I feel God has given me to do. 
  • As I prioritize my mental health and well-being, my creativity will be better able to flow and find outlets.
  • As I prioritize my own well-being, my dreams can be something that I pursue, and that become a reality.
  • As I prioritize my own well-being, I can enjoy the journey that I’m on. 

A good question to ask yourself is, am I surviving or thriving? Take stock of where you are emotionally and mentally. Are you able to be creative? Are you able to be at peace? If not, examine your situations and see if there are changes that can be made that would help you be able to thrive. 

Getting out of certain situations or relationships may take time and be a process, and you’ll need to use wisdom as you navigate it. 

Ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom as you make tough decisions in your life. He’s the mighty Counselor, and He’s there for you.



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