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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilson

Shame vs Survival

We are hard-wired to survive, even the most horrendous circumstances. We adjust and adapt and do whatever it is we need to do to get out of the situation as unharmed as possible, it is part of human resilience. Sometimes, survival means doing things that are actually harmful to us or others, or it means being complacent or submissive to events that are violent, degrading, humiliating or dehumanizing. The will to survive is so basic, it is constantly depicted in popular media, like in movies ranging from “Wild” with Reese Witherspoon  to “The Revenant” with Leonardo DiCaprio. Surviving often leaves us with emotional baggage, like guilt, shame and wondering if maybe part of us wanted to take part in what happened.  Let’s look at an example.One of the guys I knew in medical school, Jackson, ended up volunteering with

Drs Without Borders. He really did want to save the world! He wanted to learn how to help save people’s lives and share it with the most under-privelaged. This was ingrained in him, it was part of why he chose to go to medical school in the first place. He was sent to a rural part of Africa and he was living in a remote village where there was both famine and drought. One day the people in the village were gathering around a young boy who looked so dehydrated he would die if he didn’t get some water. The young boy, who looked to be between the ages of 8-10 yo, stumbled towards the village asking for water, barely able to walk and mostly delirious. He was not from their village. The village had some IV saline as the medical supplies had just come in recently and the doctor went to grab it to bring to the now collapsed boy.

That is when the tribe he was in surrounded him and angrily informed him this boy had markings from a rival tribe, and they will not be sharing their supplies with him. Jackson argued that the boy will die if he doesn’t help him, that he is morally required to as physician and tried to proceed anyway. This is when things changed. Although he had been there for a couple of weeks already, and had a good relationship with the tribe so far, at least he thought so, the men surrounded him and it became clear that if he tried to give the boy some water, Jackson himself may be killed. Spears were made more visible, a blockade was made in front of him and in a very serious tone, he was advised to stop he preparations to help the boy immediately because anyone who is with the rival tribe, is against them.

To make the situation worse, as Jackson realized this boy is going to die there while he does nothing, the women and children who were still surrounding the collapsed, dying boy, started to kick him and hit him while he was on the ground. When Jackson realized that they were beating the little boy to death he moved forward again in spite of the blockade and was hit multiple times and thrown to the ground. Jackson was given one last chance to decide if he was “with” them or not. Jackson stayed down and started to rock, he doesn’t remember much after that. He didn’t stay long in that village. He came home early and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What happened made him question everything he thought he knew about himself, how could he let that happen? What kind of person was he to chose his own life over that of the boys? What kind of values did this mean he actually had? How could he allow himself to live and be happy when he allowed that little boy to die?

Jackson was trying to process what happened to him from the lens of his present, he was trying to process it as if he felt he had a choice in that moment. He didn’t. His lived experience was that of absolute terror, he was afraid what would happen to him if intervened or didn’t cooperate. His biological drive to survive kicked in and paralyzed him so he couldn’t fight for the boy or his own beliefs. He needed to allow this terrible thing to happen in order to survive. The result of not owning that he really believed he would be killed if he intervened, is that he owned what the perpetrators did instead. He took on and carried and questioned that perhaps he really was a bad person, he really wanted to let that happen somehow and that he didn’t deserve to live as a result! So instead he would sabotage his life, his relationships, would get stuck worrying about the past and future as a way to avoid dealing with his feelings in the present. He was filled with shame and blamed himself for the boy’s death.

As humans, we struggle to stop a behaviour without being able to replace it with

an incompatible one. When Jackson eventually got help (which was a while, because he didn’t believe he deserved to), he learned to own what was actually his own, his drive to survive, and in that process to release what was not his. He did not choose that situation. He did not choose to let that boy die.

We will do horrendous, unspeakable and depraved things in order to survive, because we are hardwired to survive and adapt.

It is important to remember when we are dealing with the emotional after-math of difficult events:

  1. There is NO SHAME IN SURVIVING– it is a biological drive


  1. We have to honestly acknowledge when we didn’t feel we had a choice because of threat of emotional or physical danger, and this is not based on what was explicitly said, it is based on how we FELT in the situation and will be informed by our survival maps

  2. For example, if we learned to people please, when someone asks us to do something we don’t want to, we may not feel we can say no, especially if they are some sort of perceived authority figure or bully, so even if we didn’t say no, it can feel like we were raped, that doesn’t mean we wanted it.

3. RELEASE what you did not choose.If you did not chose that situation, and would not, don’t own it! Instead own that we did what we needed to in order to survive and pass the feelings.

TIP: The best way to do this is to hold yourself in a place of compassion and love, recognizing that you did the best you knew how to given your lived experiences to date and your circumstances at that time. 

4. We need to acknowledge and process the feelings about not feeling we had a choice and about the ways we feel we betrayed ourselves and our values, again from a place of “I Matter” and self compassion.

5. It can be helpful to physically DO something to help allow the energy surrounding difficult events to pass, like journaling, screaming in a car, running, dancing, painting etc. Think of it as actually getting physically stuck in your body, it needs an outlet!

The content of our stories are all different, but all of us can relate to times we felt we had no choice but to go along with something we didn’t want to, where we felt we had no choice because the risk to us felt too great in that moment, rational or not, and we were left with regret, guilt and shame. Whether it is having gone along with bullying someone out of fear we would be victimized ourselves if we didn’t, or we were raped and didn’t fight it, whatever the content, the process of healing is the same.

It is important to remember that just as we adapted and survived then, it is that same powerful force and drive that once we feel more safe, drives us to adapt once again, process it and LIVE!


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