How Survival Strategies at Work Impact Your Job Performance

Survival Strategies that Rule Your Work Life

As a career development coach and trauma-informed career counselor, I often help people make informed decisions about their future. These are choices that will enhance the meaning and satisfaction of their working lives. Unfortunately, the current times are making it difficult to achieve this. Many people have experienced disrupted work lives due to the COVID crisis as the unemployment rate skyrockets. Working from home, spending the workday online and in virtual meetings has become the norm.

The stress of these unfortunate circumstances can lead some people to spiral into a mental health crisis, while others adapt to the changes and thrive. Why do some people not weather well through uncertainty and change, while others seem to turn it into fuel that motivates them towards success?

We all have strategies for both thriving and surviving. However, a state of health is optimal over struggling in a state of fear. Although we have all experienced aspects of both of these states of being, we may not have realized the factors contributing to our work stress and success.


If you have a stressful relationship with your work, you slip into job-related survival strategies.

These can be productive strategies to a point until they dip into a more damaging dynamic, leading to harm and self-sabotage. Challenges at work are common, yet when it stimulates excessive doubt and uncertainty, the stress of the role or the environment creates unhealthy anxiety and coping mechanisms. Splitting of one’s personality and identity structure occurs after someone has had an experience or experiences that overwhelm their ability to cope in a healthy way.

Trauma occurs when a person cannot withstand the high level of stress and the psyche splits to survive. The damage happens when an individual dissociates from the experience, becomes numb, and withdraws emotionally and cognitively from the reality of what’s happening. Traumatizing experiences are not always remembered in the explicit cognitive memory but are retained emotionally, in the body and the unconscious, implicit mind. The impact is that it causes one to split off the emotions, thoughts, and memory of what is happening to us; it also splits off aspects of identity. These become buried deep within the unconscious, enabling us to survive the reality of the traumatizing experience. 

Splitting creates a survival-self that develops many strategies to avoid the fearful feelings and deny the experience. We still have a healthy-self present before the traumatic experience yet we may have limited contact with it because it gets diminished.

As a result of the splitting, there are often three parts of our self or psyche created; a healthy-self, survival-self, and traumatized or fearful-self.


Characteristics of a healthy-self are clear thinking and truth-seeking. The healthy-self is grounded, calm, and capable of self-compassion and self-care.

The healthy-self can face reality, make choices that are good for wellbeing, awareness of functional and emotional needs, and has a well-rounded memory of the past, and has healthy autonomy – the capacity for deep relationships while maintaining boundaries and self-governance.


A survival-self can block some of our connection with deep emotions and the body, often leading to relational problems with oneself, others, and work.

Distractions characterize the survival-self, along with control of self and others, chronic relational difficulties, lacking empathy, easily confused, and living in an illusion that ‘everything is fine.’


A traumatized or fearful-self becomes cut off to keep the pain well-hidden so it can’t escalate. It’s a way to survive, but at a cost, because ultimately, it diminishes our life energy and blocks connection with passion, meaning, and vitality.

Characteristics of the traumatized-self are a sense of being frozen in time, yet it still carries emotions, memories, and bodily sensations from the frightening experience. It’s important to note that these parts of the self are not static in size or presence.

The environment can influence the extent to which the survival-self and strategies are strongly present. Commonly, during times of extreme stress, our inner world becomes dominated by survival strategies.

In healing, it’s critical to diminish the survival-self and enhance the healthy-self to prevent slipping deep into a state of trauma. The survival strategies become over-active when a person is unconsciously afraid or when the deeply hidden trauma-self is triggered.

The traumatized-self gets triggered in similar situations, relationships, personality types, and environments or made a victim again through the persecution or perpetration of another.

Common examples:

  • When a domineering boss is demanding too much with a threat hanging over you if you don’t deliver.
  • Systems that are punishing, bullying, and uncaring.
  • A system that feels unsafe and frightening.
  • Constant organizational uncertainty, reorganization, mergers, layoffs, redundancies.
  • A new role with unclear responsibilities, unachievable expectations from others, and feelings of overwhelm.
  • Challenges to identity and belonging.
  • Unpredictable environments carrying a lot of risk.
  • Being bullied, harassed, and intimidated.
  • Being sacked/excluded unfairly/demoted.
  • Personal circumstances concerning loss, divorce, anything that stimulates deep fear.
  • Sudden job loss, life-threatening illness, or financial insecurity.

Keep in mind that the solution for a healthier state of living might be to change the environment rather than oneself. 

A challenge to the survival strategies often stimulates an internal fight back, leaving one feeling like a victim, stuck, overwhelmed, and obliged without choice.

Survival strategies can include a victim attitude (I can’t or they always), angry outbursts, subtle ways of victimization, and excluding others.


  • Avoidance. When you stay away from all situations that resemble the initial trauma. Avoiding rest because rest is dangerous, and feelings may surface uncontrollably. 
  • Control. When you bring as much as possible under your control (internally and externally). 
  • Compensation. Avoidance and control make life arduous and austere.  When the emotional connection is missing, a search for substitutes becomes a coping strategy – faux happiness, clownish behavior, laughter that can become hysterical, excessive eating, drinking, coffee, sexual promiscuity, gambling, etc. The survival part becomes the artist of the artificial.
  • Illusions. It’s an integral part of survival because the reality of the trauma is so unbearable that there is a flight into illusion to avoid feeling vulnerable. A typical survival strategy is to idealize perpetrators, gloss over reality, cling to the idea of great professional success (when this is not reality) or to have a unique career, or being indispensable or heroic, holding onto the idea of an idealized world. Unfortunately, these projections can’t last, so when one collapses, the survival strategies work hard to create instability, and so it goes on. Beneath this is the inner void and endless anxieties.

Gaining insight into how these splits and strategies occur in one’s professional life can help one gain awareness towards important areas for healing and personal growth.

Positive change starts with awareness of the issue or unstable behavioral pattern. Knowledge of ourselves provides an opportunity for change.

Let’s look at 4 common ways that our survival-self can show up on the job and negatively impact our work life.


You display a desperate desire to gain perfection. You’re indecisive and prone to procrastination, exaggerating the adverse effects of any error or misjudgment. Perhaps you’re not as productive as you think you are. There’s also a false belief that working hard itself should give you success. You find yourself unable to forgive, or people refer to you as controlling or disruptive at work. You’re highly critical of yourself regardless of other versions of reality presented to you.


You have an inner compulsion to overwork with an inability to rest. You land demanding jobs to feed the urge. You lack life outside of work, avoid time at home, and may feel you have no choice but to work very long hours (victim attitude). You rarely get pleasure from achievements and are prone to control yourself and others associated with high anxiety and fierce competition. If you take some time for self-reflection, you may discover deeply rooted feelings of emptiness and helplessness and shame. You’ve developed a pattern of being late and missing coaching sessions because you’re just too busy to fit it in – and as a result, change is unlikely.


You experience chronic dissatisfaction with your life work. You feel a chronic lack of fit between yourself and the work role; feel unable at times to slow down and self-reflect on what you want, you often feel very confused about ambition, passion, and goals. There is frustration that stems from an inability to express who you are in your work; you think you’re in the wrong job, wrong profession, and business.


There’s an inability to mobilize your inner resources to engage with work-life. You feel apathetic, lacking in energy, and a victim attitude, resulting in episodic or permanent withdrawal or absence from work, depression, or avoidant. Here’s the truth. Many of my clients are entangled in work drama and exerting a tremendous amount of energy trying to fix toxic situations outside of their control. It’s not sustainable and will eventually lead to burnout. If anything in this article resonates with you, please dig deep and find the courage to get the support you need to be empowered to change.

Repeating the same behaviors over and over and not getting to where you want to be is a definite sign that nothing will change except a decline in your wellbeing. I invite you to reach out to me to talk about what’s going on for you to CLAIM THE LEAD in your life and your career to finally be seen, heard, and valued for all the unique gifts you have to offer.

I want to help you make informed decisions and wise choices about your future to enhance the meaning and satisfaction of your working life and beyond!