I’ve come across some people who have what I call the survivor instinct. People who, when things start looking bad, will throw everyone around them to the wolves to protect themselves.
I’m not saying I could never do that. I’ve never been to the last pitch of desperation and it would be arrogant to predict how I’d behave when I was there. But I’ve certainly seen people respond to a threat with what seems to me a disproportionate selfishness. And I know that, in similar circumstances, I would have had continued to stay open, to value the needs of others as much as my own. I’ve never had to develop this survivor instinct. And I like that about myself, but it’s also a vulnerability.
Of course I have learnt to protect myself from people who are always selfish. But the people I’m vulnerable to are the survivors who seem perfectly compassionate and generous on the outside. For whom it’s only when the chips are down that this harsh streak suddenly takes over. I’ve seen this in two people– my ex, and my singing teacher – both people who seemed extremely compassionate, caring and altruistic, on the surface. (I wonder to what extent this particularly active altruism is in some way a compensation for what lies below.)
By a coincidence I’ve only just recognised, they both showed me this side in the space of a fortnight. Unsurprisingly, it was probably the most painful and difficult fortnight of my life – and even now, a year later, I find myself still learning lessons from dealing with the after-effects.
I’ve never had to defend myself by attacking – so I was completely unprepared when these people I trusted and admired turned on me. I couldn’t understand why they suddenly behaved that way, and took it far too personally. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that this was part of a defence mechanism, something driven by their feeling of being threatened rather than anything I’d done.
I’m proud that I coped with that without hardening my own heart. I learnt to give myself a less damaging sort of protection – one that recognised just how little the way people relate to me can have to how I have behaved. One founded on knowing myself better. Quietly, but firmly – in a way that doesn’t need to impose that knowledge on others.
And now that I am aware of this survivor pattern, I think I’d find it far easier to recognise when people get into this mode – and protect myself straight away rather than having to come back and patch up the damage caused by taking these harsh words to heart.
From talking to my singing teacher, and from what I know of my ex, it seems to me that some people, during childhood, find themselves under such soul-destroying pressure that they have to protect themselves, at all costs. And once they’ve done this once, it becomes so much easier to do it again, even when the threat isn’t as great. Or maybe once you’ve been so deeply threatened, anything that threatens you even slightly feels just as dangerous as that childhood trauma – so you react the same way, even if the threat isn’t actually that great.
I was lucky. I never needed to defend myself that way. And I hope I never will. But my heart is full of compassion for those who have.