When I was in my late 30s, I launched my own company: Align Staffing. I’d already spent enough time in corporate America, where I had struggled. I wanted to cut my own path and have my own business. At the beginning, it was really tough. Some clients paid and some didn’t. The first year we made very little money, with me and another employee to take care of. I lived in a spirit of hunting, and then eating the spoils right away. When I was hunting, I was starving. The second year we could just cover our expenses, the third year a little more, and then in the fourth year we made enough to pay myself and hire several full time staff, with profit left over.
Then Jeannie and I realized we hadn’t taken a vacation in years. With two young kids, we had been living on a tight budget, always looking for the best deals. We never went to Disneyland or Six Flags because we didn’t have the money.
We took a vacation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Amish country. Jeannie booked the cheapest room in the cheapest hotel. When we took the elevator, we had to go down, not up: our room was underground. There was no closet, just a rack in the corner where we could hang the few clothes we had brought with us. The bed was lumpy and looked like it had been bought from an army surplus store. When we looked up through the slit of a window high in the wall, all we could see was the underneath of the cars and bushes.
When Jeannie reached out to switch on the light, a projector screen came down from the ceiling. We were staying in a makeshift converted conference room. At that moment, we looked at each other and laughed. “We don’t have to live like this anymore,” she said. We went back up to the reception and booked ourselves the nicest room. Since then, we’ve been in the habit of pampering ourselves on vacation.
I’m lucky enough to be married to a wonderful woman who is self-aware enough to catch these outdated habits in real time and set them straight. She’s my best friend, and we’re able to reflect together on things like this, and to have a healthy understanding of our present circumstances and our potential future. But how many people, I wonder, just go on for decades living in outdated mindsets and never get this kind of moment of upgrade?
A Bad Dream
At some point in our lives, we have all of us had financial setbacks. An investment goes bad, or our net worth takes a hit. We may even have had trouble paying the bills, or at least felt nervous about it. It could get to the point where we had to ask a relative to lend us money, request a grace period from the lender, or even to lie and say the check was in the mail when it wasn’t. It’s at times like this when we feel that our survival is at stake.
Probably for most people reading this article on this platform (including me, the one writing), the fear of survival is rarely about not having enough to eat or a warm place to sleep at night. It’s a psychological state which involves some form of self-delusion.
Fear of survival is almost never logical, or validated by external data. It’s a state of consciousness. In fact, people living in real externally verifiable poverty may feel less fear than those who live in psychological survival fear. If you go to the slums of Calcutta, you can find people who have nowhere to live, the only clothes they have are the ones they’re wearing, and they have no idea where their next meal is coming from. This is a real threat to physical survival. But people who live close to the edge like that in underdeveloped countries are often quite relaxed and carefree. It is those who have built up an elaborate lifestyle, and start worrying about being able to pay for the fancy car, the mansion and the private school for the kids, who get worried about having to eat into the $2 million IRA, for whom a deeper anxiety can take over.
Living in fear of survival as a state of consciousness dramatically shifts our sense of reality. It originates from the fear that our actual physical existence is being threatened. Psychologists sometimes connect this to birth trauma, or other early life conditioning. Even when we know it is irrational, we feel as if we’re going to die. If we live enough of our lives in this state of mind, it becomes normalized and familiar. Then we start to cut corners and live life in a cutthroat way.
All this gets complicated, because the floor is always being recalibrated. I read a story once during the stock market crash in 1997. A broker in his late 20s jumped out of a 13th floor window and died. The journalist who picked up on the story discovered that this young man had grown up in considerable poverty. When he worked his way through college, he had absolutely nothing. Through hard work, he managed to build the value of his portfolio to several million dollars. When his net worth went down to $300,000 overnight, he committed suicide. Of course, relative to where he had been financially as a student, $300,000 was still a lot of money. But his sense of normalcy had been recalibrated such that it felt like he would not survive once the floor got adjusted in this way.
Having a certain kind of income and lifestyle is a way of proving that we’re doing well. If we drop below our recalibrated sense of normal, instead of appreciating where we’ve come from, we feel shame that we’ve come down from more.
Familiar and Comfortable
Once anyone gets used to living in fear of survival, it becomes familiar to feel comfortable in struggle. There may be very little money, but that becomes normal. There is nothing to lose.
Living month-to-month, there is no need to worry about aspiring to anything great: it takes the pressure off. Life becomes predictable, choices become minimalized. In this sense, survival can become addictive. Moving out of financial anxiety can feel like stepping into an unfamiliar land, the new freedom of choice can feel overwhelming.
Being on the line for the rent every month can have the same rush as a rollercoaster ride. Are I going to make it? Will I get evicted? I’ve grown up hearing about parties at the end of the month to celebrate when people were able to pay their rent. That rush of having made it through another month is often followed by a spending spree in the first couple of weeks of the next month, characterized by impulsive buying decisions, so soon the struggle to pay the rent comes around again.
All of this can put a massive strain on personal relationships. Even friends and family can become stepping-stones to making sure you survive. Then instead of looking at the value of the relationship, or the person themselves, we start to see everyone as a means to an end.
The fear of not enough is often ironically tied to a craving for excess. We develop unrealistic dreams and expectations about “financial independence” and the latest get-rich-quick scheme. We develop a hungry striving not just to survive, but we indulge in dreams of living way in excess of our actual needs. That kind of greed can push away real wealth.
Our attention shifts from long-term planning (which is how you build real wealth and stability) to making short-term impulsive decisions. We’re only thinking about tomorrow and the next day but not the steps needed to create income months from now. In this way that fear of survival perpetuates itself. Because we didn’t think very far ahead it means that in six months or a year we’re still thinking about making money to pay the bills tomorrow.
When we live in fear of survival, the sense of gifting and giving to others shuts down, along with the sense of wanting to make a difference to society as a whole.
I’ve discovered that one of the most important things to overcoming survival fear is to understand that the antidote to a feeling of lack is not a lifestyle of excess but the refocusing on “us” versus “me.” We need to shift the center of attention from our own wants, needs, and ego to valuing contribution, quality and making a difference to other people in a way that’s meaningful both to them and to you.
The opposite of survival is not abundance, but peace. In the same way, the opposite of feeling not good enough is not better than. They’re just flip sides of the same state of consciousness. The antidote is a sense of intrinsic worth that you have something significant to offer. You feel a visceral sense of integrity in your body. Once we lift out of survival, greed dissipates and we live in gratitude for what we already have. Gratitude becomes magnetic.
How do we end up in survival fear?
We need to have some compassion for ourselves, and to realize that none of this is exactly our fault. No-one deliberately chooses to get stuck in survival fear. We are all fed a story as children of what success looks like. I grew up watching Dallas on the TV. Despite the endless relationship dramas in the show, I was impressionable, and the higher standard of living still looked better to me. It always looked like something else than the way I was living. Then many of us make a decision early on, I want that. I want the car, I want the big house.
Our socio-economic system requires us to participate as enthusiastically as possible in this web of earning and spending. The more desire you have for things, the more efficient a cog you become in the economic system. This requires us all to live to some degree in a sense of fear, to maintain the motivation to participate. In order to keep the whole thing going, we need people to feel hungry, whether it’s real or fabricated. This is how the capitalist system functions. If everybody was completely content, our economic system would probably slow down and fall apart.
In a sense we’ve all been manipulated into a feeling of survival fear, whether we like it or not. A vast global marketing machine continuously persuades us all that we need is endless amounts of new stuff in order to be okay.
These messages about the things we need, all based in a sense of inadequacy, are so pervasive that it requires great insight and determination to break free of the trance of survival fear.
We think that the way out of survival is to make more money, and we fixate on that. But I’ve noticed that it’s much more helpful to recognize survival as a state of consciousness, and once you change the way you see the world, your external circumstances will often fall in line.
Having shifted from living in day-to-day survival in my family as a child and into my young adulthood, and now recognizing it, I’d love to offer you the six most important tips I have discovered for moving out of survival fear in a stable way.
We often think of gratitude as a passive response to good fortune. But it’s actually a very creative state, which changes not only the way you see your life, but even can change the quality of your life as well. If you can shift your mind deliberately into a state of giving thanks, you’ll be able to focus on the things that you have in your life and to build upon them. If you cultivate a disposition of gratitude for the clients and income you already have, it’s like watering a plant, and it will all grow.
Whether you do it as prayer to the Divine, or with someone else listening, speak your gratitude out loud every day for the things you have in your life. I like to give five statements of gratitude each day.
In every interaction you have, whether you work for yourself or for an organization, you can endeavor to shift from focusing on what you want to get (often a paycheck), to how you can make a contribution.
Look for ways to be proactive, to have new ideas for how things could be done better. Give more than has been asked of you. As you focus on a sense of contribution, you’ll start to experience yourself as resourceful, intelligent, with extra to give.
Seek out new ways to make a contribution every day, whether or not money is exchanged. In transactional relationships, find ways to give even more than you are being paid for.
3. Make People and Relationships Primary
A powerful antidote to survival consciousness is to find ways to value the people close to you, whether friends, family, or business associates, and to see them as people with intrinsic worth, not as a means to a financial end. Speak your appreciations of people out loud each and every day.
4. Plan for the Long-term Future.
As we discussed above, survival consciousness causes you to think about income for tomorrow, rather than income in six months. That means that in six months, you’re still going to be thinking about income for tomorrow. The antidote is to plan for the long-term future. I recommend writing down at least five items you’re going to get done each day, and to make sure that at least two of them are connected to long-term planning and income that will arrive in six to twelve months.
5. Take Pleasure in Things that Cost no Money
Whether it’s walking in nature, talking to a friend, exchanging a shoulder rub or just a leisurely chat, try to get as much pleasure as you can from things that don’t require a financial exchange. This will free you from being completely tethered to the socio-economic machine and allow a sense of well-being to build, which is not conditional upon the state of your bank balance.
6. Forgive yourself for Falling back
Life is not a race or a competition. Moving out of survival fear is not just a practical decision, but it requires us to have the patience to feel our emotions and triggers, and to forgive ourselves for past mistakes. It is a daily challenge, where you may sometimes feel you’re making progress and sometimes experience setbacks. We need to focus not on perfection but slow patient progress.
I hope you found these tips useful. Please feel free to reach out to me if you would like to dive into any of this more deeply.