Our Survival Instinct to the Rescue? Maybe Not

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One of the most important insights from my studies of Positive Psychology that has had a huge impact on my life has been understanding our survival instinct.

That very first reaction, that first thought that enters our head after an encounter or situation, is a reflex. It’s super fast and takes no effort or intention on our part. It is our survival instinct, there to keep us safe. It’s diligently working when we have to swerve to avoid an inattentive driver who pulls out in front of us or abruptly stop to avoid stepping on a potentially dangerous snake.

But it’s also quick to action when our partner doesn’t fill the dishwasher or when a friend doesn’t call us back. Now, instead of preventing physical harm, our survival instinct jumps in to protect us from emotional harm. Its job is to assume the worst about other people. Our partner doesn’t care that they’re not doing their part. Our friend doesn’t really value our friendship. 

And once that first thought is planted, it can swirl into a downward spiral. Our friend doesn’t appreciate us. They don’t want to be friends with us. They don’t like spending time with us. They’re self-centered and unsupportive.

Our diligent survival instinct is also there to jump in and offer its judgment when we doubt ourselves, get discouraged, or are disappointed. It doesn’t matter if the situation is happening to us or inside us. It looks for and anticipates anything that might be a problem, a danger, or unfair because we might need to take action to protect ourselves.

Here’s the kicker! When things are good; when there is no threat, when people are nice and life is going well, our survival instinct sees it all as BORING! Good situations are not a threat so it ignores them. No action is needed.

So if we go through life letting our survival instinct run our thoughts (as it is designed to do), we will pay way more attention to anything that might be bad and totally miss all the good stuff. Life will seem more stressful and less enjoyable than it really is.

This week, see if you can notice your survival instinct jumping into your thoughts. What is it assuming?

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