Adaptive Survival Styles
Five Adaptions to Developmental Trauma
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 1, 2022
Definition and description of NARM's five adaptive survival styles to developmental trauma
In childhood, we are given the environments. We have no choice. We come to this world a victim of circumstances. Some are born as princes and princesses, other into poverty. Whether from royalty or part of the a hard working proletariat class, parents skills, resources, and stability varies. Sadly, most children experience conditions that are less than ideal for growth.
Our human experience is marred by these early encounters. We learn to adapt, drawing from the significant figures in our lives. When abuse, physical or emotional, is severe, we implement protective strategies to survive. Ongoing, pervasive childhood trauma is referred to as complex trauma in psychology.
In Nero Affective Relational Model (NARM), Dr. Lawrence Heller identifies five survival adaptive styles that assist a child in early life to manage and survive a toxic home environment. While these styles are adaptive for survival in toxic environments, the strategies become embedded in the child's personality, interfering with future adult relationships
The toxic environment and our survival style are internalized. We create "mental representations... through repeated exposure." T. Franklin Murphy explains that "these representations become the models we use when interpreting new experiences" (2022).
Heller explains, "as we become adults, these same survival strategies become the cause of ongoing nervous system dysregulation, dissociation, and self-esteem difficulties" (2012, Kindle location 363).
Survival Style is an adaptive, life-saving strategy that we adopt to manage and survive traumatic and toxic childhood environments.
History Behind the Adaptive Survival Styles
Dr. Lawrence Heller presented his five adaptive survival styles in his book Healing Developmental Trauma, published in 2012. The five adaptive survival styles are a fundamental part of Heller's Nero Affective Relational Model (NARM).
According to Dr. Heller, there are five fundamental life themes and associated core resources that are essential for our capacity to self-regulate. He refers to these as basic needs.
When these basic needs are satisfied, we experiences a homeostatic balance where we can regulate emotions and easily connect with others. However, when any of these needs are unmet, we are knocked out of balance, emotions dysregulate, and connections are strained.
Heller postulates that when "a biologically core need is not met, predictable psychological and physiological symptoms result." Basic healthy functions of self are compromised:
Often the core needs are not met because caregivers also have traumatic pasts that impede their personal skills and resources for self regulation. As a result, their children also suffer from this intergenerational affliction, resulting in destabilization of emotions and strained connections.
When our capacity to self-regulate is diminished, we struggle. The waves of life, which are inevitable, will overwhelm, quickly depleting limited resources, knocking us out of our window of tolerance, leaving us to scramble for maladaptive survival mechanisms that come at a heightened future cost.
Heller explains that, "any core need that remains consistently unsatisfied threatens children's physiological and psychological integrity and prevents them from moving to the next developmental stage" (location 579).
These dysregulated states create neurotic adaptations where we direct precious energy away from growth promoting behaviors to survive.
Karen Horney explains that we waste constructive energies normally used for realizing potentialities to alleviate inner stress. She calls this redirection of energy a neurosis (1991).
Within the framework of the neuroaffective relational model, constructive energies would be directed through healthy implementation of giving and receiving of the five fundamental tasks. When healthy interactions are thwarted, and core relational resources withheld, we redirect energy for survival.
According to Dr. Heller, we adopt a survival style based on one of the five organizing developmental themes. Heller wrote that "five adaptive survival styles are set in motion depending on how well the five biologically based core needs are met—or not met—in early life." He continues "these adaptive strategies, or survival styles, are ways of coping with the disconnection, dysregulation, disorganization, and isolation that a child experiences when core needs are not met" (2012, location 116).
The Five Survival Styles
Dr. Heller explains that "each of the five adaptive survival styles is named for the core need and missing or compromised core capacity" (location 116). Each adaptive survival style has shame-based identifications along with counter pride based identifications. Heller explains that survival styles are "the result of children's adaptation to the chronic lack of fulfillment of one or more of their biologically based needs: connection, attunement, trust, autonomy, and love-sexuality" (location 581).
NARM based therapies spend minimal time focusing attention on the past causes that led to the integrating of a survival style, but, instead focus energies on helping the client to develop mindful awareness of the use of a survival style in the present.
Dr. Heller warns, "the more the five adaptive survival styles dominate our lives, the more disconnected we are from our bodies, the more distorted our sense of identity becomes, and the less we are able to regulate ourselves." Heller explains although we may catch glimpses of the harmful impact of these styles on our life, we can't seem to let go of them (2012).
The survival response is so embedded in our personality, and a primary source of addressing the nasty felt experiences, it serves as a crutch. After years, and in many cases, decades, letting go of the crutch, and letting our weakened and shriveled foot down on the ground and trusting the handicapped limb to support our weight is frightening, and rightfully so.
People adopt these styles because healthy expression have failed them. Anger, aggression, and other forms of protest against having core needs withheld have proven ineffective. In many toxic environments, healthy expression is not only ineffective, but also might be dangerous, inviting physical or emotional punishment.
The victim of abuse is forced to choose between protecting the relationship and fulfilling core needs. Often, especially in children, the relationship is essential for survival. To minimize the crushing impact of this enormous conflict, the child adapts through developing a survival mechanism that protects the attachment relationship by foreclosing core authentic expressions of anger, aggressions, and protest.
Fundamentally, this rejection of physical and psychological needs is a sacrifice of self, a necessary requirement in unhealthy relationships that is given to secure love.
Connection Survival Style
A disconnection survival style is characterized as a disconnecting from the felt experience of the body. This can be experienced as a symptom of alexithymia (inability to identify, describe, and label feelings), or emotional detachment (not consciously recognizing feeling states).
Dr. Heller identifies two subsets of this survival style: intellectualizing and spiritualizing. The individual survives the inner turmoil of unfulfilled needs through dissociation from the distress of the body.
To manage the pain, some escape the feeling affects surging through the body by retreating to the logic of words. The high trauma of a traumatic childhood, or an abusive relationship remains unresolved, lurking in the shadows of sophisticated words, and destroying opportunities for connection and healing.
The intellectual type are immune to friendly advice. Their intelligent use of words and theories block their sense of need. They can be "brilliant thinkers but tend to use their intelligence to maintain significant emotional distance" (location 682).
The intellectualizer fails to recognize the emotional needs of partners and children. A wife that is lonely, or a child that is sad are overlooked, their emotions dismissed, and their inner experiences invalidated.
The intellectualizer recreates the cold and barren environment that led to their own scrambling for a survival style that could weather unmet needs.
Spiritualizing is the second subtype of a connection survival style. Spiritualizers escape unmet needs from important figures in their lives through "higher" realms.
Dr. Heller explains, "as a result of either early shock or relational trauma, they (spiritualizers) did not feel welcomed into the world and grew up believing that the world is a cold, loveless place." Heller continues, "because other humans are often experienced as threats, many individuals with this subtype search for spiritual connection, are more comfortable in nature and with animals, and feel more connected to God than to other human beings" (location 684).
There is nothing wrong with logical thinking or spiritual practices. Both subtypes are based on healthy behaviors taken to an extreme to escape somatic impulses pushing for the human need to belong. Instead of responding to our human impulse to connect, those with this survival style have adopted means to remain aloof, emotionally distant and disconnected from others.
Attunement Survival Style
People with the attunement survival style struggle attuning to their own needs. These people often become the caretakers of others, painfully sensitive to the needs of others, while emotionally blind to their own cravings for connection.
Those with this survival style cope by serving others while neglecting personal needs. A constant life of giving while neglecting personal need is associated with the devastating condition of burnout. Eventually, the well is empty and their is nothing left to give.
Heller suggests this survival style occurs from environments where "knowing, allowing, and expressing...needs is associated with humiliation, loss, and fear of rejection" (location 806).
Heller explains that the early development of this survival style occurs when the child repeatedly experiences calling out for the mother (or primary caregiver) and she doesn't come to provide adequate, attuned, nurturing. This lack of response leaves the child's needs unfulfilled and the child's protests escalate. When these events become chronic, the child gives up "their demand for caring and love, and this giving up becomes structural in the body and identity" (location 829).
In the attunement survival style, the child seeks no more than an environment can provide and learns to live with unmet needs. The child begins to give to others what they want for themselves. The person who has adopted this survival style is ashamed for their own needs, pushing them down, and ignoring their existence.
However, the constant practice of giving without receiving often causes build-up resentments, occasionally puncturing the surface in anger and frustration from the accumulated disappointments.
This survival style suffers from a built in conflict between the unconscious longing for other to fulfill needs, but the constant sabotaging of others efforts to give.
Trust Survival Style
Individuals who adopt the trust survival style seek power and control. They competitively seek the highest position, perhaps, with the unconscious belief that at the top, their belonging need will be fulfilled.
Karen Horney refers to the survival defense of seeking power as the drive for glory. This survival style is also a central concept in Alfred Adler's individual psychology as a primary neurotic drive to overcome feelings of inferiority.
Dr. Heller explains that the trust types "can be empire builders in both a positive and negative sense" (location 974). They can visionary and dynamic leaders or ruthless and manipulative dictators.
On the more neurotic end of the spectrum they compensate for feelings of inferiority by attempting to control others. They may do this through legitimate efforts to rise to the top or through cruel demonstrations of destructive control over those incapable of defending themselves.
Heller posits that this survival type develops in "family situations in which children's dependency and attachment needs are attacked, manipulated, or used against them." Children living in these toxic home environments associate dependency with powerlessness.
These environments typically appear supportive, but the caregivers pretense of caring is encased in their own ambitions. Their children are pawns used to lift the parents selfish egos by fulfilling the parents own ambitions.
"Children protect the attachment relationship with their parents by adopting the false self that their parents require" (location 1,001).
Those that adopt the trust survival style often are attracted to needy partners. Unlike attunement type that seek to recue the need, the trust type seeks to dominate them.
Autonomy Survival Style
The autonomy style of survival is characterized by inability to set healthy boundaries. They are openhearted and kind but driven to avoid conflict. Their inner motivation to please others leads to hiding disappointments and irritations. The secret life leads to accumulating resentments.
Partners of autonomy types never know exactly where they stand. The autonomist may smile and say "everything is fine," but in reality they are burying deep seated anger or sadness over sacrificed personal needs that the other does not know exists.
The underlying desire is to have the other satisfy their personal needs without the autonomist having to ask, or even state their need. Often this morphs into even a more neurotic desire of wanting the other to fulfill their need, without the slightest sacrifice on the others part.
When a partner choses a genre of movie that they know that the autonomist enjoys, the autonomist is upset because the partner may prefer a suspense movie over the romantic comedy. "You should want to watch the romantic comedy because you know that is what I want to see."
The idea that the partner is sacrificing to please the autonomist is distasteful to the autonomist, making them uncomfortable. They wish for the magical state that their needs will be met without explicitly stating them or any sacrifice being made in efforts to satisfy these personal desires.
This survival style develops from environments that discouraged autonomy. Typically, this is caused by highly anxious parents undermining a child's developing need for independence "because of their own unresolved fears" (location 1,174).
Dr. Heller describes the parenting style leading to this survival style as "over-controlling parents believe that their rigid rules...are necessary for their children's own good. When children resist, these parents withdraw their 'love' and use shame and guilt" (location 1,182).
It is easy to see how these environments lead to a suppressing autonomy in efforts to connect. They still desire to have needs met but hope for this to occur without the vulnerability of expressing one's autonomy (that may be rejected).
Love-Sexuality Survival Style
Individuals with this survival style are energetic, attractive and successful. However, they rarely live up to their unrealistically high expectations. Those relying on this survival style present themselves as polished and confident, masking their feelings of being highly flawed.
Heller states that "they relate either from the heart or from their sexuality but find integrating both difficult and anxiety producing" (location 1,383).
He suggests that this survival style develops between the age of four and six years of age when parents reject, shame, or punish a child's emerging sexual expression and curiosity.
The key trauma sustained is rejection. The child grows into a protective adult, afraid of the vulnerability associated with intimacy. Love-sexuality types feel in jeopardy of getting their heart broken if they deeply love. They seek love but when it comes they sabotage it, either by rejecting or by behaving in ways that invite rejection.
The love-sexuality survivalist seeks to perfect a persona that cannot be rejected to avoid the fear. This may be sought through compassionate kindness, or through bodily perfection. However, since intimate relations include openhearted connection and sexual closeness new relationships quickly shift from elation of connection to fear of rejection, survival behaviors set in motion, and the relationship is destroyed.
This survival style has two subtypes (romantic and sexual):
The romantic subtype is emotionally intimate but sexually muted. They emotionally connect but once the relationship advances sexually, they resist and reject.
The sexual subtype expresses sexuality but remains emotionally distant. Heller explains that "they experience an initial period of intense sexuality, but as the possibility of a heart connection develops, they often lose sexual interest and break off the relationship" (location 1,392).
Survival Style and Emotional Regulation
The five survival styles all represent a disconnection from our bodies. We distort or ignore certain aspects of our feeling experience to protect against reliving past trauma. Heller explains that "the more the five adaptive survival styles dominate our lives, the more disconnected we are from our bodies, the more distorted our sense of identity becomes, and the less we are able to regulate ourselves" (location 165).
The survival styles meet the definition of a neuroses in that they disrupt relationships and challenge continued development. As we reconnect with our feeling experience, we can learn skilled methods for regulating the emotion. NARM teaches several skills for achieving this goal.
A Few Words by Flourishing Life Society
Dr. Heller's work is intriguing. I enjoyed his presentation of the five survival styles. I found them highly descriptive of personal experiences as well as helpful with understanding the protective actions of others. While his research is heavily weighted with parenting styles and childhood trauma, I can't help but ponder how personality traits of both the child and parent are involved in this developmental process, impacting the nature of or personal survival styles.
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Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition
Horney, Karen (1950/1991) Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization. W. W. Norton & Company; 2nd edition.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Internal Working Models. Flourishing Life Society. Published 8-16-2022. Accessed 10-27-2022.