Adaptive Survival Styles

Adaptive Survival Styles Psychology Fantiac feature image

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. In consequence, they develop an adaptive survival style.

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). 

Key Definition:

A Survival Style is a concept developed by Dr. Lawrence Heller. He proposes that children adopt a particular survival style to adapt to harsh early 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:

  • self-regulation
  • sense of self
  • self esteem (2012).

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).

​Dysregulated States 

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).

Survival Styles Operate Unconsciously

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

Heller characterizes the disconnection survival style as a disconnecting from the felt experience of the body. Disconnection survivalist may experience this 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. When a partner or parent overlook a wife that is lonely, or a child that is sad, they dismiss their emotions, and invalidate their inner experience. 

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. We associate a constant life of giving while neglecting personal need 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. Generally, they competitively seek the highest position. Perhaps, Their drive is motivated by the unconscious belief that only if they are at the top, others will fill their belonging needs.

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 own ambitions drive the appearance of caring. They use their children as pawns to lift their own selfish egos by fulfilling their own ambitions.

“Children protect the attachment relationship with their parents by adopting the false self that their parents require” (location 1,001).

Often, needy partners often attract people with the trust survival style. Unlike attunement type that seek to recue the need, the trust type seeks to dominate them.

Autonomy Survival Style

We characterize the autonomy style of survival by the 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.” However, in reality, they are repressing anger or sadness over the sacrificing of personal needs. Often, the significant other doesn’t even know these needs 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 just because they know that the autonomist will enjoy that particular movie, the autonomist is still upset because their partner may actually 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 where their needs will be met without them explicitly stating them or for a partner that will make any sacrifice to satisfy these personal desires.

Discouraged Autonomy

This survival style develops from environments that discouraged autonomy. Typically, highly anxious parents discourage the child’s autonomy by undermining their developing need for independence. They do this “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 suppressing autonomy for connection. Under these circumstances, parents reward agreeableness and punish autonomy. The child still desire to have needs met. However, they hope for acceptance without the risk of rejection from expressing 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. This age range is extremely vulnerable to increased demands by parents. Subsequently, a child may encounter reject, shame, or punishment for an emerging curiosity about sexual expression.

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 that if they deeply love the object of their love will break their heart. They seek love. However, when love comes, they sabotage it, either by rejecting or by behaving in ways that invite rejection.

The love-sexuality survivalist seeks to perfect a persona. They cannot live with their imperfections. Basically, the unconscious belief driving behavior is that if they were perfect no one would reject them. The survivalist may seek this 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. In these circumstance, the harsh emotions set in motion survival behaviors, destroying the relationship.

​This survival style has two subtypes (romantic and sexual):

​Romantic Subtype:

​The romantic subtype is emotionally intimate but sexually muted. They emotionally connect but once the relationship advances sexually, they resist and reject.

Sexual Subtype:

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).

​A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

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 the developmental process. Biology always influence 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. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-16-2022. Accessed 10-27-2022.

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