Teaching Yourself to Thrive, When All You Know is How to Survive (2020)

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There are a few universal lessons that children learn during the early years of their lives. The first is that life is difficult for anyone, as everyone has had to overcome some trials and tribulations at some point. The other one is that life is not fair.

Everyone has different dilemmas that they face, but some of those are worse than others. Survivors of abuse, parents who were addicts, and children who lived with violence also had to learn how to survive. As adults now, it’s challenging to learn that they can thrive. 

Thrive versus survive

There is a difference between making it through life in survival mode and thriving. My husband and I both come from a background of trauma. Despite that, we could overcome the odds, and both graduate from college. We lived in a tiny town in Wyoming, where my husband had a high enough salary that I could stay home while we still lived comfortably. 

We had paid off debt during those three years, gotten better cars, and the kids were doing great. For the first time in our 15 year marriage, life was ‘easy.’ It didn’t take long for us to develop communication problems and start responding to situations differently.

We ended up in couple’s therapy but spent the first few sessions talking about our childhood trauma and our marriage’s early years. Somewhere around the third or fourth session, he looked at us and said that we both had complex PTSD and that for the first time in our marriage, we didn’t have a hurdle to overcome. 

He found it admirable that we had achieved all that we had, but now that there was no mutual battle to be had with the outside world, our PSTD influenced our behaviors. I looked at this therapist square in the eyes and said, “So, you are telling me that we did too well, and got exactly where we wanted to be and now our brains don’t know how to ‘do’ normal?”

I thought I must have misheard or misunderstood, but he nodded and said, “Exactly!” He tried to explain how we were deeply rooted in trying to survive, that we didn’t know how to properly function when there wasn’t an imminent threat.

Now, I have been mad at the universe a lot during my lifetime. My mother and father divorced, which resulted in a custodial kidnapping. I didn’t see my father for thirteen years afterward. My mom was an addict, and my grandma got custody. She formally adopted us when my mom left for the witness protection program.

I was reunited with my mom after four years, only for her to die four months later. I found my dad, but he passed away a few years later too. My baby niece had only lived five days after her birth. Pain and anger had been my first real friends, but this rage was a new emotion.

I had survived all the sh*t the world had thrown at me. I not only wasn’t an addict, but I was successful. I had great kids, a loving spouse, a house, and people who loved me. The loss hadn’t broken me, but now that my brain could process the trauma for the first time, it was derailing my entire world. Hell, to the no.

We worked out our issues and moved out of the tiny town to a city with more social opportunities. My husband’s overall health improved immensely, as the altitude had been bothering him. Life went on, but it was apparent that we had to learn how to thrive; survival was not enough. 

How does one thrive

With more therapy, I finally understood what it means to thrive in life. I can break it down into three concepts. The first one is to make sure you do more for your body each day than what is necessary for it to make it to tomorrow.

Second, keep your mind and your spirit engaged. Third, direct your outward focus on the right areas. You might wonder how you do these three things? It isn’t difficult, just a little different from what you might do right now.

Do more for your body than what is necessary for it to make it to tomorrow

How many ounces of water should a human being drink each day? According to the Mayo Clinic, men should get about 3.7 liters, while women need roughly 2.7 liters. I was not consuming anywhere near that amount of water daily. I had enough water, so I didn’t die, but I drank diet soda and caffeinated tea, too.

Every day, I felt tired and couldn’t concentrate, so I thought I needed more caffeine. My muscles would cramp occasionally, and I was continually rubbing lotion on my dry skin. 

I’m still alive, but I have been dehydrated nearly every day of my life. All of those things: tiredness, difficulty concentrating, muscle cramps, and dry skin are symptoms of dehydration. Over the last few months, I cut diet soda and caffeine from my diet, and I have never felt better.

The human body also needs food to live, but not all food is created equal. Some food will help keep you healthy and strengthen your body’s natural functions, while other foods contribute to your overall declining health. Eating a burger from McDonald’s will keep you alive another day, but if you eat there every day for a month, you will start to not feel so hot. 

The bottom line here is to make the best choices you can about what to do with your body. Daily exercise is another health benefit that affects your life long term. Working out on Monday isn’t necessary to wake up Tuesday morning, but it might just buy you a few more years on the back end. You will probably be happier, too, as exercise is a natural antidepressant.

Keep your mind and spirit engaged

One of the best ways to keep your mind sharp is to read and gain new knowledge. There are so many ways to find things to read in today’s world, as content is everywhere. Grab a book that explains why you might be in so much physical pain if you have experienced childhood trauma like The Body Keeps The Score (it is a fascinating read). 

Learning a new skill, either for fun or to improve your situation, is also a great way to engage your brain. It might also help you define your purpose or mission in life. If you aren’t sure what that is yet, a journey of self-discovery might be just the thing you need to thrive.

Living a purpose-driven life will have you feeling fulfilled. Sure, you need a job (or source of income) to survive and buy all that food and water, but make sure it is one that aligns with your spirit. 

If you are still searching for your life purpose, try writing a personal mission and vision statement. You might learn a little more about who you are, which will help define your priorities and keep you focused. That focus will help you find the things in life that make you thrive as a human, not just wake up and do the same thing on repeat every day. 

Direct your outward focus 

The most significant difference between thriving and surviving just might come down to what you direct your focus. We can focus on doing the bare minimum to keep ourselves alive or treat ourselves with care. We can wake up every day and remain in the place we are now or seek growth.

We can not control the outside things that happen, the things that make survival seem like an epic Greek novel, but we can control what we focus on. There is an old Cherokee proverb that talks about the battle between two wolves. It goes like this:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

The idea is the same for any situation in life. Whatever emotions are fed are the ones that will win out in the end. Do you want to feed your need for survival, or are you willing to believe that there is more than that, and you deserve to thrive? 

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” – Maya Angelou



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