Rewire your brain (Part 4) - Childhood survival rules

Estimated 5 minute read · Saturday, 24 June 2017

Virginia Satir says that you have learned what you have learned very well. It has helped you survive.

In Part 3, Distress Tolerance, we learned how to "Distract. Relax. Cope." We identify negative coping mechanisms and avoid self-destructive behaviors so that you break the negative reinforcing loop.

Through Radical Acceptance, Distraction Plans and Relaxation Plans we are one step closer to properly coping.

Parents aren't handed instruction manuals. They just have to try. They need to do the best they can, the way they know how, and with all the help they can get.

Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open and rules are flexible - the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family. ~ Virginia Satir

I believe there will always be some form of dysfunction in a child's upbringing no matter how hard a parent tries to save their child from emotional harm. There will be arguments, disagreements, fights. Not only parents impact a child. School peers and friends, bullying and other outside influences all play a role.

Every word, facial expression, gesture, or action on the part of a parent gives the child some message about self-worth. It is sad that so many parents don't realize what messages they are sending. ~ Virginia Satir

While growing up we form our own identity with thoughts and feelings that malleably take shape and change as we age. I believe that subconsciously they become concrete and automatically interact with us daily.

Childhood survival rules

As we grow up, we learn to do things that help us survive like double checking the road for cars before crossing. At one stage we need to hold the hand of an adult. Later we grow to realize that we can cross on our own.

As adults, we may discover behaviors, thoughts, beliefs and relationships that are detrimental to our well-being. Perhaps it was through a realization, an introspection or a significant event causing immense emotional pain.

Maybe we believe these are vital to our survival until we start questioning if these beliefs are actually still valid.

We may need to make changes which can be hard for us because change doesn't always come easy. We may resist and want to go back to a place of familiarity where we are comfortable even if there is pain involved.


Recently I noticed that when I am eating, I need to finish everything on my plate, even if I am full. I started interrogating this belief and realized that it stems from childhood where my parents told me how other people are starving in this world so I must finish my food.

This was causing me to overeat especially if I did not dish up for myself. I decided to change the rule. If I didn't dish up myself, I will not force myself to finish the plate of food.

So watch out for these, often subtle, childhood survival rules, and decide if it still applies to you in you current day. Maybe it's something small or maybe the behavior is actually self-destructive or causing self-harm.

These behaviors will be controlled by the automatic part of your brain so you may not be consciously aware of it. When you are, you can start to actively work on it by rewiring you brain into a new habit or replacement behavior to break the feedback loop.


1. Identify it

When you do something try question it and see if it is still a relevant behavior you need to continue.

Perhaps you work really long hours at work and you are not getting enough rest. You could be burning out.

2. Analyze it

Consider why you are doing it. Where does this behavior come from? Is it harming you in some way?

As software developers we do need to work extra hours. When you do it out of your own free will, what are you trying to achieve?

Perhaps you grew up believing that the harder you work the more successful you become.

3. Is it a harmful response?

Scrutinize the dangers of the behavior. Does it negatively affect you or people around you?

Downtime is essential to productivity and you are missing out on it. Is it really constructive to continue working to your own detriment?

4. Does it benefit you today?

Perhaps there was a time that this was working really well for you and you could see the benefits even if it was harmful to you.

Let's say you were studying and put in as many hours as you could to come out top of your class. This was beneficial to you but you were probably left feeling exhausted.

In your current space, working longer hours probably doesn't benefit you much now because you are tired for work, your social life takes strain and it can impact your close personal relationships not to mention your own productivity, physical and psychological well-being.

5. How can you change it, if you need to?

If you are serious about improving your well-being and see a need to change this behavior, think of ways that you could change it. They can be subtle changes over time to improve yourself. Drastic changes may cause anxiety and make you relapse to old ways.

Perhaps you could start working an hour less a day for a week or so and reduce it further until you get to the standard working hours.

With extra time on your hands you need to find something that you enjoy doing in your spare time so that you don't get frustrated. You also need to learn how to relax in your spare time and really rejuvenate yourself.

Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem. ~ Virginia Satir

My final thoughts

We learn things to survive over time which won't always apply to our current day. Back in the day we needed to learn how to flee from scary beasts and fend for ourselves by hunting for food and keeping warm.

Nowadays we need to survive in a digital age where we are all connected and need to learn how we can survive in a world of business which can be just as cutthroat as the wilderness.

Identifying childhood survival rules, analyzing them and deciding if they are beneficial today and changing them is an interesting way of rewiring your brain to change behaviors of things that simply no longer apply.

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