When we are stressed, frightened or hurt, various systems kick into action to keep us safe. Some of these are biological, such as the fight or flight hormone response that prompts us to stay and fight or run away. Others are related to our personalities, such as the tendency to act out when our needs aren’t being met, or to protect our self-esteem from taking any more hits than it can handle.
Eve Delunas, a psychotherapist for over 35 years, calls these personality-based tendencies Survival Strategies. These are the unhealthy coping mechanisms or ‘games’ we turn to or ‘play’ during extreme stress when our healthy coping strategies are no longer doing the job.
First published in 1992, Delunas’ book, Survival Games Personalities Play, describes four Survival Games: Blackmail, Complain, Robot (later updated to Avoidance), and Masquerade. Each represents a different way of protecting yourself from life’s adversities.
Delunas developed her model after working with David Kiersey, who identified four basic temperaments. Which Survival Game you play depends on your temperament type.
What are the temperaments?
Temperaments are the four basic patterns of motivation in human behavior. They have a long history and have had many names over the years. There is also a direct correlation between the four temperaments and two of the letters in your Myers and Briggs personality type.
The table shows the four Keirsey temperaments, how they map to Myers and Briggs, and the modernized names we use at Truity.
Myers and Briggs
What are the core needs of each temperament?
Each temperament has very different core needs. When we go into overdrive trying to get those needs met, each temperament does so very differently.
Before we can look at Survival Strategies, we need to understand the core needs that each temperament is trying to attain.
- Freedom to move, act, and follow their impulses
- To make an impression or be impressive
- To take risks; to have challenge and adventure
- To demonstrate their skillfulness
- Belonging to the group
- To be of service and do their duty
- To have security and stability
- To be responsible and accountable
- Knowledge, mastery and competence
- To understand everything
- To achieve their self-assessed level of competence
- To solve complex problems
- Developing people and self-actualisation
- To do something meaningful in the lives of others
- To live authentically and ethically
- To find their true identity and live it fully
What triggers us into using Survival Strategies?
Survival Strategies are an unhealthy form of coping with life’s challenges. They are self-limiting, self-destructive and/or self-sabotaging.
For example, someone who is a little stressed might have a glass of wine to help them relax. But if the stress increases and that approach no longer takes the edge off, they may have several glasses of wine or drink themselves to a stupor. Other common Survival Strategy behaviors include angry outbursts, panic attacks, a tendency towards anxiety or depression, overworking and overexercising. Whatever the response, there will be an observable change in our behavior.
Survival Strategies don't just affect the person using them, they often impact the people around them. For example, someone who once gambled a little, now gambles away their family’s life savings or house, leaving their family in dire straits.
These extreme examples are uncommon. When most of us shift into using Survival Strategies, it’s in a moderate form. Once we see ourselves going off the rails, we usually find a way to reduce our stress and bring some balance back into our lives. It’s usually only when the stressful situation goes on for a long time that the Survival Strategy being used escalates into something bigger.
So what triggers us into using Survival Strategies? One (or more) of four things:
#1: Unmet Needs
When our core needs go unmet (see above), initially we are proactive – we take courses, ask for help, talk about it and try different things to resolve our dissatisfaction in healthy ways. When that stops working, we feel beaten down in a way that our ego can’t handle. So, we switch into protection mode and instead of reaching out, we hunker down to protect and defend our diminishing self-esteem.
#2: Unresolved Trauma
Unresolved trauma gives us emotional wounds that we carry, no matter how long ago they occured. When we encounter life events similar to the traumatic event, we react quickly and immediately – and will continue to have these reactions until the wound is healed. Unresolved trauma can result from a great many different events, including natural disasters, accidents, abuse, bullying and neglect.
#3: Unowned Shadow
At a superficial level, this is about having shame for not being who we think we should be. It is different for each temperament. For example, an Empath (NF) might feel unable to live up to their own ideals and blame themselves for failing to live authentically. When we learn to work with our shadow, we find ways to work with the parts of ourselves that we try to hide from.
#4: Unmanageable Environmental Stressors
Stressful environments have a tendency to set off the three things listed above. That is, stressful environments don’t meet our needs, remind us of past trauma and highlight the parts of ourselves we would rather not be reminded of.
What are the Four Survival Strategies?
The four strategies identified by Delunas are:
Below, we look at each strategy, identify which temperament is most likely to use the strategy, and offer some suggestions for breaking free.
Bear in mind that, while each temperament tends to favor a specific Survival Strategy, any type can use any of the Survival Strategies. However, they will have different motivations for doing so. So if you are an Empath (NF) using the Blackmail Strategy that is more typically used by Responders (SP), for example, you should dive deeper into your motivations rather than worrying about whether you're a different temperament. And definitely don’t use the strategies to type other people.
The Blackmail Strategy
When someone feels their freedom has been taken away from them or their options are limited, they might engage in the Blackmail Strategy. Here, the person engages in activities that help them feel excitement while punishing or getting even with the person who took away their freedom – usually by threatening to take away something that person values unless they do what the Blackmailer wants.
One element of this strategy is engaging in risky, exciting or rebellious / forbidden behavior. A broad spectrum of behaviors could potentially fall into this category, such as skipping school, cheating on an exam, stealing, getting high, finding ways to embarrass someone, speeding, excessive shopping or drinking, or acting out by deliberately being late for important meetings. If caught, the person is likely to deny they did it, blame someone else and/or say they don’t care about being punished.
The second element of the Blackmail strategy focuses on “taking away something of value.” This can be big or small things, from breaking someone’s cherished vase or spraying graffiti on a neighbor’s fence, to self harm and threatening suicide (you care about me, so I’ll hurt me).
Who uses the Blackmail Strategy?
Responders, or Sensor-Perceivers, are most likely to engage in Blackmail when they feel constrained, controlled, or unable to be impressive.
How to break free:
You can break free of the Blackmail Strategy by creating freedom or being impressive, for example:
- Recognize your options or choices
- Arrange for the time and space to have more fun in your life
- Consider ways of creating more freedom and spontaneity in your work day
- Solve a problem or challenge
- Sign up for a challenge or contest you can win
- Challenge yourself to do something that “can’t be done”
- Do an activity that comes with competition or an adrenaline rush
The Complain Strategy
When someone feels they are no longer needed or aren’t sure of their responsibilities, they might engage in the Complain strategy. Here, the person complains about others neglecting their duties because they themselves fear they are neglecting their duties.
When using this strategy, Complainers might focus on another’s deficiencies, telling them repeatedly what they should be doing, thinking or feeling – for example, a boss micromanaging the team or a husband telling his wife how to behave in public. There is a sense of holding grudges, keeping score, and not letting someone forget about past transgressions.
It also includes excessive worrying, catastrophic thinking, or imagining worst-case scenarios, repeating the same thoughts over and over until they spiral into a panic attack, insomnia, or resentment. At work, that can look like a lack of empathy, a refusal to delegate, distrust of others or being stingy with rewards and praise.
Who uses the Complain Strategy?
Preservers, or Sensor-Judgers, are most likely to engage in this strategy when a major life change, for example a divorce, bereavement, relocation, empty nest, or retirement, leaves them feeling alone, insecure and useless.
How to break free:
You can break free of the Complain strategy and remove the tendency to nag and control by focusing on your own needs and finding a way to feel valued and needed, for example:
- Ask for appreciation and to be recognized for your efforts
- Ask for what you need
- Learn to say ‘no’ and set boundaries
- Join a new group
- Take time to look after yourself (self-care)
- Focus on what you can control
- Forgive others and yourself
- Stop taking on responsibilities of others
- Establish clear responsibilities and understand the role you need to play
The Avoidance Strategy
When someone feels incompetent or experiences continued failures, they might use the Avoidance strategy to distract themselves and others from their poor performance. Here, the person is overwhelmed by thoughts of what they should or shouldn't be doing, which can lead to irrationally doing things compulsively (“I just have to…” or “I can’t not…”).
When using this strategy, Avoiders shift from being overly rational to overly irrational. This can manifest in many forms, from detailed perfectionism to excessive debate, questioning someone doggedly before dismissing answers that are not logical. The Avoider can become so stressed about failure that they suffer performance anxiety, blanking out during a presentation or forgetting familiar facts during an exam.
Avoiders may be haunted by obsessive thoughts, such as imagining themselves doing awful things they would never actually do to people, and compulsive behaviors, such as checking, counting, cleaning, chanting, and compulsive hand washing. These thoughts and behaviors serve as a way to distract themselves from their perceived failings – and Avoiders can get so caught up in them that they neglect their relationships or become oblivious to their own or others’ feelings.
Who uses the Avoidance Strategy?
Theorists, or Intuitive-Thinkers, are most likely to engage in this strategy when they feel they have failed to live up to their self-assessed level of competence such that future success is impossible.
How to break free:
You can break free of the Avoidance strategy by finding ways to feel successful, for example:
- Ensure you have maximum autonomy
- Find complicated problems to solve
- Develope models and frameworks to understand the situation
- Redefine success into smaller, more manageable chunks that are more practical and tangible, such as accepting a B minus in your least favorite class in order to free up time for the interesting subjects
- Run experiments to test different definitions of success
- Find small ways to fail
The Masquerade Strategy
When someone feels they can’t live in accordance with their own values without jeopardizing their relationships, they can engage in the Masquerade strategy. Here, the person disowns the value in question by pretending everything is okay. They deceive themselves into thinking that they and the other person are aligned.
When using this strategy, the person becomes a chameleon, sacrificing part of their identity to avoid conflict in their relationship. Along the way, they will forget who they are and avoid talking about what’s bothering them. They may also try to show everyone how ‘good’ they are by silently suffering – but publicly, for all to see. For example, a mother wearing shabby clothes while dressing her children in finery, or a vegetarian cooking meat for his family but not eating it.
When they disown a part of themselves, Masqueraders can project it onto someone else. So, they see unethical behavior clearly in other people but never in themselves. Or, they can split themselves in two, repressing or even forgetting about parts of themselves when they are in their different identity. For example, having a different identity for work and home, for day and night, etc.
Who uses the Masquerade Strategy?
Empaths, or Intuitive-Feelers, are most likely to engage in this strategy when they are stuck in an ethical dilemma and don’t know how to resolve it without endangering their relationships.
How to break free:
You can break free of the Masquerade strategy by finding a way through the ethical dilemma and accepting all parts of yourself, for example:
- Identify and resolving the ethical dilemma
- Engage in meaningful activities that help the world
- Explore your inner world of thoughts, feelings and beliefs to find the parts of yourself you have disowned or disconnected from
- Express your own needs and wants
- Find the courage to speak up and be assertive in your relationships
- Learn to set and maintain boundaries
- Do activities that give you meaning and purpose such as volunteering or creative work.
The Survival Strategies are an excellent tool if you feel continually pressured and not acting like yourself. By understanding your essential needs and recognizing the Survival Strategies you are engaging in, you can start to shift into a healthier space.
Once you start to see your actions in context, probe a little deeper to how your needs are going unmet and then use some of the recovery strategies to start to come back to yourself. We can’t escape stress, disruption or difficult environments, but we can make the most of the tools we have to keep coming back to ourselves.