“Hi, my name is Brian Falduto, and I’ve never missed an episode of Survivor in forty-two seasons.”
Ever been forced to come up with a fun fact about yourself for an icebreaker? This has always been mine.
Recently, I took my nerdy Survivor fandom to the next level. I journeyed upstate and played a mock version of the show with eighteen strangers in a woody campground setting in Montgomery, NY. We slept outside. We competed in challenges. We didn’t shower for four days. And yes, we voted one another off. However, it was not for a million dollars — it was just for fun.
I’ve often compared my life growing up to Survivor. What do I need to say or do in order to not get voted off? As a closeted gay, I quickly learned the importance of scanning a room and detecting the people I felt safest with. As a child actor in the spotlight, I had to step into adult shoes early on and perfect the art of managing people’s perception of me at a young age. Though inside I was frightened, I projected confidence through my ability to maintain and navigate relationships. I was always one step ahead, anticipating what people might think of me and craftily pulling people in or pushing them away in order to, well, survive.
As silly as this fake Survivor experience sounds, I promise you it was some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time. When, as adults, do we put our phones away for three days and surrender ourselves completely to a (arguably) childlike weekend playing a game? The adrenaline cycle alone was like an eighty-four-hour roller coaster ride that I’m still coming down from as I type this. I think that part of the thrill for me was the childlike nature of it all: and childlike I was.
All my parts deserve my love, respect, and permission.
Lately, I’ve been really into “parts work,” referred to by many as Sub-Personalities, or as Internal Family Systems by others. In short, the idea is to toss the monolithic view of the mind that inadequately influenced psychology for a long time and replace it with the understanding that each of us is made of various parts. There are those we’ve exiled out of shame and others that we are more identified with because they protect us. All of these parts together make up the personality, or “the ego.” Many of these parts are very young because they formed during childhood and they don’t yet trust our Self, which is essentially our awareness, to run the show.
In my day-to-day life, I do morning meditations where I get in touch with my parts and ask them to give me space so that I can approach my days from a more present moment-to-moment consciousness rather than operating on autopilot. When I say I was childlike while playing Survivor, I meant that I let my parts run free. I trusted my Planner to strategize. I allowed my Critic to tell me when to tone it down. I let my Perfectionist compete like hell in challenges. Though I spent nearly the entire weekend in fight-flight-freeze mode, I also felt strangely comfortable and way less at odds with these parts of myself. It was freeing.
I was reminded that my parts are skillful. They’re intelligent, and honestly, they thrived in the heightened circumstances they were in. Though I complain they don’t make my dating life any easier, a big takeaway from this weekend is that I need to value my parts for the role they each play when I need them most. Perhaps if I can work more in tandem with them, they can continue to keep me safe when threats arise, but they can also begin to trust me more when all is clear because they’ll know that I trust them as well. Though they can’t always run the show unsupervised, it’s only through compassionately permitting them to be themselves that I’ll be able to love and respect them for what they’re capable of.
I thrive when the stakes are high — and that’s OK sometimes.
When we’re raised in homes that are chaotic and unpredictable, our bodies become dependent on stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Because these high emotional states were often accompanied by attention or connection, over time we become attuned to that cycle. To heal from this, we need to teach ourselves how to be safe within stability and predictability without the drama that fuels these emotional states. While this is something I’m a constant work-in-progress on, it was fun to return to and live in the drama for a few days.
It makes sense to me that my body-mind system kicked in so effortlessly while playing Survivor. This is what I was built for: high stakes with social rejection as the potential consequence. It’s why, historically, I’ve gravitated towards the guy who treats me like shit or the guy I can’t have. It’s why I have to be very careful in my career as an artist to not get lost in the accompanying desire for validation. I’m subconsciously seeking situations where I can relive these patterns to feel “alive” or “like myself” and it’s in these moments that I’ve gained approval. As I reflect on my upbringing further, I see that the cherry on top of a sometimes chaotic home life was the unique experience of being in a major motion picture at age 10, an opportunity that came with a lot of wide-scale attention in the form of mixed messaging about what made me special, or, conversely, flawed. As I settled back into my week post-Survivor, I couldn’t help but notice that regular life felt boring to me. The comedown was tough because the thrill of it all felt like home.
The more I reflect, the more certain I feel that the joy I experienced while participating in this social experiment was not only harmless but actually healing. There’s something reparative about games in that they let us play. What better way to gain more understanding of the little kid inside of me than to let him out onto a weekend-long playground? It reminds me of what’s possible in an acting scene or even a kink scene where we surrender to a recreated moment, just in a different context and with a different outcome. It’s in these moments that we learn safety.
Trust is a feeling you get when you’re with someone else.
My final takeaway from the weekend has to do with trust. I always thought it was a verb, something you do with someone — “I trust you.” As a Survivor contestant, I learned that it’s actually a feeling you get when you’re with someone else. It was, for me, extremely discernible both in my brain and my body, and I hope I never mistake it again because it proved to be rather reliable. In the midst of the relational anxiety I am faced with in my life, I will search for and recognize when my nervous system feels safely connected to someone in this way and I will let it guide me.
I’m so grateful for the new friends I’ve made who were wonderful enough to contribute to these internal discoveries I’ve made without even knowing the extent to which they were doing so. Unsurprisingly, I now face the challenge of allowing these bonds to survive safer, more predictable circumstances that may not reflect the intensity in which they were formed. I feel certain that I can and I look forward to no longer being the only person in the room who has seen every episode of Survivor. I’ll just need to come up with a new fun fact!
Stay tuned on YouTube to see how I do on Survivor NY, and, who knows? Maybe one day I’ll give the real thing a shot.