One morning a little girl playing in a park threw a gum wrapper into a garbage can. She squealed with delight, then went in search of more garbage to throw away. Other passersby did the same. Soon hundreds of people were looking for trash to throw into the can.

Were these especially conscientious citizens? Or was something else going on?

A group called “Fun Theory” had inserted a speaker into the trash can that made it sound as if the garbage was falling a long way. As a result, pedestrians looked for random bits of garbage to drop into the receptacle just to hear the sound. Making throwing away garbage fun led to a crowd volunteering to pick up others’ litter.

Behavior on the surface often seems to have one cause when an entirely different factor is at play. Similarly, when it comes to deep unhappiness we often think external events are to blame even when internal factors have a stronger impact. One factor that’s often overlooked as a cause for unhappiness is survival strategy beliefs.

What is a survival strategy?

Survival strategies are beliefs we form to help us cope with the pain of negative beliefs about ourselves, people or life. For example, if we have a belief such as “I’m not good enough” we’ll often create a belief to make us feel OK such as “What makes me good enough is pleasing others.”

How do survival strategy beliefs contribute to deep unhappiness?

Survival strategy beliefs make us happy when we are able to live up to them. When we have a survival strategy belief such as “What makes me good enough is achieving” then we feel wonderful when we are achieving. But, when we don’t achieve in some important domain, we can feel down. And if that “failure” lasts for weeks or months as in the case of long-term unemployment it can even lead to depression. The one thing you need to prove you are OK is the one thing you cannot do. So you are unable to feel good about yourself.

Years ago we had a client who was a well-dressed woman in her mid-forties. She was always praised for her beauty but she received less and less of this praise through the years and eventually, it petered out. She had gradually become more and more unhappy but couldn’t understand why. We discovered one of her beliefs was “What makes me worthy is looking good.” Once this belief, and other beliefs about herself such as I’m not worthy, were eliminated, she no longer based her self-esteem on her looks. She still wanted to look her best but the unhappiness about not getting the praise she used to was lifted.

Roger was a man in his fifties whose entire life revolved around work but he wanted to finally enjoy his free time, to not always have his mind on work. He said, “Other people look forward to weekends. But on weekends, I look forward to Monday.” His belief: “What makes me worthwhile is achieving.” After this belief was eliminated, he started to do things he hadn’t done in years such as attend theater and read novels. Roger wasn’t deeply unhappy but his life had much greater joy after eliminating this belief and several others.

As you can see, survival strategies make us dependent on specific activities or specific types of praise to be happy. Once they are eliminated, we can find many more sources of happiness. The constraint is lifted. Life opens up. And if we’ve been deeply unhappy, the sun rises again.

But don’t people feel bad because something “bad” happened to them?

It seems that way, doesn’t it? We lose a job, we become unhappy. We are rejected by a lover, we become sad. We fail at reaching a goal and we become disappointed. These negative feelings can spur us to take action to solve these problems. But when they lead to a spiral of negative thinking and feeling, often it’s because they triggered a negative belief about ourselves and our survival strategy for coping with it is no longer working. If we aren’t able to get that strategy working again, we’ll feel worse and worse until we are deeply unhappy.


  • Survival strategies are beliefs that helps us cope with the pain of negative beliefs about ourselves, people, or life
  • When a survival strategy belief fails to help us feel better over a long enough period, we can become deeply unhappy
  • It may seem like a “bad event” caused the negative feelings but the real culprit is the failure of an old strategy to make us feel OK

Our survival strategy beliefs are a bit like marionette strings. They direct our behavior and

feelings without us even knowing about them. They threaten us with danger if we fail and give the promise of lasting happiness if we succeed. Of course, both messages are illusions. By trashing these beliefs these illusions are shattered. And fewer things will have the power to plunge us into deep unhappiness and despair.

Training: How to Eliminate A Limiting Belief In 30 Minutes

In January 2022, registration for the Lefkoe Method Training 1 (LMT 1) will open up again. By the end of the course, you’ll eliminate a belief in 20-30 minutes. If you’re a coach, therapist or in a profession that allows you to coach or counsel others (or even want to join such a profession), this training is ideal as you’ll be able to help your clients make big changes in their lives. Some people even join the course for self-help.

To be eligible for this training, you must be on the waiting list first. Here’s the link to join the waiting list:

While you are on the list, you will also get a few goodies about how to eliminate beliefs.