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Beyond Survival Mode

Updated: Jan 4, 2020

Years ago, I went on a service tour to S. Korea with my adoptive mother through Dillon, International, which is an adoption agency. A service tour is specifically geared towards helping to support and care for children living outside of the home.

Because my flight was delayed, when I finally arrived, everyone else on the tour was fast asleep.

I went directly to my room and tried to do the same. But, no. It was just me, and my jetlag, for hours. As I lay there, awake, through the stillness, I heard a baby crying, sometimes one, sometimes more. I realized that I was sleeping on the same floor as the infant care unit. We were in a guest house through Dillon. Along with infants, it was also an area of the building that was for young birth mothers to reside, a few floors up.

As I listened to the continuous crying, I waited for that moment of silence, that seemingly inevitable pause, but it didn’t happen, at least not for the few hours that I heard.

Just then, I felt an inexplicable urge to go to the those crying babies and whisper,

Shhh! They’re not going to choose you if you cry!”

In that moment, getting chosen was all that mattered. Logically, I knew better, but I had gone into survival mode. It was their best chance at having a family and a better life. If not, the odds would be stacked against them. There might be some truth to that! But, in that moment, I saw crying as a liability, something that making them less desirable, and appear less easy to parent, putting them at a disadvantage.

Survival mode is doing whatever it takes to survive. You don’t take it for granted because early on, you were at risk. That very first narrative was not just about relinquishment or abandonment, it was about survival.

This has also been a salient theme in my work with adoptees. Even if they don’t know what happened, they feel it.

They’ve made comments like,

“I could have died.”

“I don’t know how I survived.”

“I would have been dead.”

“I was lucky to have survived.”

Cautioning those babies to appear happy and well-adjusted was a strategy, an attempt on my part to stack the odds. It made sense. After all, solely depending on the luck of the draw, seems precarious at best. Strategizingrefers to the actions that some adoptees take to maximize their chances of being loved, needed and taken care of.

You might be wondering where the issue lies. What’s wrong with wanting to set oneself up for success?

The issue is that when you make strategic decisions, it is often because the stakes feel incredibly high. And, it doesn’t feel satisfying even when it does work out as you had hoped. Instead, you feel like you dodged a bullet. You might breathe a sigh of relief, but then the cycle begins again.

Fear of Failure

One strategy that we may inadvertently employ, is playing it safe. My moment of recognition was in my junior year at Skidmore College. I played flute and was heavily involved in music program. We had guest faculty from the composition department at Juilliard do a “master class” with us, we played for him with an audience.

I was in a trio with cello and piano.

That evening, all of us went to dinner with the Juilliard people. We were all talking and laughing and just joking around, enjoying that post-performance feeling.

In the midst of our conversation about Juilliard, the guyjust turned to me and said, “Are you afraid to fail?”

I hesitated, then shrugged, and said, “Sure, who isn’t afraid to fail?”

Then, he said, “You play like you’re afraid to fail.”

He gestured at to the table as he said, “If you used half ofthis personality in your playing, you could do anything you wanted with flute.”

When we don’t want to make a mistake, to do anything wrong, we hold back, play it safe. When we’re in survival mode, it feels too risky to be ourselves. We want to be what others want or need.

So, what’s the cost? Joy and authenticity. Being authentic despite the risk of not pleasing everyone is such an important part of cultivating our identity. And, there’s no joy in dodging bullets.

Questions to ask yourself –

Am I really at risk if I do this? What are the odds?

Am I making this decision because I choose to or because I have to?

Does this matter in the long run?”

Is this really “me?”

It’s harder than it looks! We’re not looking for transformation, just breakthrough moments. Try not to be too hard on yourself! Respect and appreciate the part of you that still puts survival above everything else. You are a unique, amazing person!


Katie Naftzger, LICSW, Korean-adoptee has been a speaker at KAAN for many years. She’s a psychotherapist and is in private practice in Newton, MA where she sees adoptees and families through the life cycle. She is also the author of “Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.” Along with KAAN, Katie has spoken at Camp Sejong, Vietnamese Culture Camp, and others. Recently, Katie presented at the NASW School of Social Work conference and the Judge Baker Chidlren’s Center.

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