Last week I wrote about the traumatic response of fawn, as described by Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. This week I’m tackling another of my strongest trauma responses, that of flight.
Flight, or fleeing, is a natural response to threat or danger. It’s an instinctive life-saving behavior. However, we’re not physiologically made to live in a constant state of flight. It exhausts our adrenal glands, our immune systems, and our psyches. I believe it’s at the root of much disease and chronic pain. Sadly, we reward people for operating out of this particular trauma response by calling them “productive,” by which we mean “making money” or “benefitting me in some way with their work.”
Flight, like fawning, encompasses several behaviors I’ve struggled with all my life and already written about in this blog.
Flight becomes a trauma response when we are unable to flee from chronic threat. If we cannot physically escape, we default to mental and emotional escape by dissociating or distracting ourselves with activity. We push ourselves without mercy into workaholism, extreme stimulation, and chronic anxiety. We micromanage everyone around us, trying to maintain some sense of safety and control. We cannot sit still or relax without feeling panicked. We produce, and produce, and produce. If we’re not producing we feel empty, worthless, and scared.
We lose our ability to be. All we know is how to do.
There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but we need more than that to be healthy and happy. Of course, capitalism depends on achievement, and as consumers we are romanced with uncountable ways to be more productive, better at multitasking, and faster workers, not so we have more time to relax, rest, and play, but so we have more time to produce, multitask, and work!
Hard workers and super achievers are rewarded in the workplace with paychecks, promotions, bonuses, good references, and recognition. We are not culturally rewarded for taking sabbaticals, sick days, disability leave, family leave, or vacation days.
Here are some of the ways flight behavior shows up in me:
Chronic physical tension and pain.
Working without pausing for rest or food.
Refusing to accept physical limitations of pain or illness, thereby ensuring more pain and illness.
Remember that trauma response behaviors are on a continuum. Every day I look at a graphic from Pete Walker’s website depicting the four trauma responses at their most polarized and destructive as well as healthier, less extreme options.
For example, fleeing in blind panic has become a deeply ingrained behavior pattern for me. I feel panicked, but there is no threat, not here, not now. I’m safe. I don’t need to run away from anything. Yet the smallest trigger produces a flood of adrenaline that demands I flee. If I don’t obey the compulsion, I have a panic attack, which is extremely mortifying when I’m in public.
I counteract this old trauma response by practicing disengagement and healthy retreat. Disengagement means, instead of running like a panicked rabbit, I excuse myself with dignity from situations in which I feel uncomfortable and walk (not run!) away. I don’t pick up poisoned bait. I don’t accept an invitation to have conflict. I create some distance between myself and the trigger. I lay down a boundary. I say no.
I’ve written about healthy retreat in my post on quitting. Sometimes a healthy retreat is the best choice we can make for ourselves, no matter how uncomfortable, frightening, or even devastating it can be. Unfortunately, we are often unsupported in this choice. When we understand we’re in the wrong job, the wrong relationship, or the wrong place, we have a right to choose a healthy retreat. We don’t need to drop an atomic bomb as we leave, but it’s okay to change our mind, make a mistake, outgrow a situation, or simply realize things aren’t working out for us where we are.
I’ve been challenging what I now identify as my flight response for some time. I developed a meditation practice. I developed an exercise practice and then began working with a personal trainer to ensure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard (I was). I get regular dental care and wear a mouth guard at night. I eat regularly, no matter how busy or stressed I feel. I’ve slowed down. I no longer strive for perfection. I make it a point to relax, laugh, play, and take breaks. I do creative work every day. Because I’ve learned to relax during the day, I sleep much better at night, and I’m careful about my sleep hygiene. I stopped making to-do lists and no longer engage in schedule shaming myself or anyone else. If I feel tired, ill, or just plain uninspired, I rest.
The funny thing is, I’m more productive now than I’ve ever been in my life before. I’m also far less exhausted, much healthier, and happier. These trauma responses have had enormous power over me, but recognizing them, naming them, and understanding where they come from have reduced them to habits I can break. And I’m breaking them.
Sometimes I think I’ve been collecting puzzle pieces my whole life, never knowing they would all fit together someday to make a complete picture. Now, as I approach my 60s, I have enough pieces that I begin to see larger patterns I never knew were there.
In a recent post I mentioned Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I’ve read it cover to cover twice, and I can’t possibly convey to you how it’s changed my life.
Walker explores, in depth, four human responses to trauma: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
Fawning is defined as exhibiting affection, attempting to please, or seeking favor or attention. It’s a behavior we often see in dogs, especially when they’ve just done something naughty. (No self-respecting cat would ever fawn!)
We develop trauma responses when we’ve experienced some kind of emotional or physical trauma, and many times we develop them so young we don’t even remember the trauma, thus spending our lives unaware of (or deliberately denying or avoiding if we do remember) the wounds that have locked us into ineffective and destructive behavior patterns.
The four trauma responses are not cut and dried. Most of us exhibit some facet of more than one or all of them when we’re faced with situations that trigger our fear. However, we usually favor one or two responses and unconsciously fall back on them when we feel threatened.
Each of the four trauma responses involves a cluster of easily recognizable behaviors. Much of my writing, both in this blog and creatively, has been, at its root, about trauma response. I just never knew it until now.
My very first post was about pleasing people. Pleasing and appeasing people has long been a compulsive behavior I can’t control well and am not entirely conscious of. Pleasing and appeasing others is the trauma response called fawning.
With the help of Walker’s book and graphics on his website, I have been able to put several pieces of my problematic behavior together into fawning. I’m chagrined to find it in every aspect of my life.
This is life-changing work.
I will probably manage my trauma responses, including fawning, for the rest of my life, and that’s okay with me. Most internal work, I find, is a practice rather than a quick destination to complete health and blissful forever-after happiness.
Here are the ways fawning shows up in my life. Do any of these sound familiar?
Apologizing all the time about everything. Apologizing to chairs for bumping into them. Apologizing to other drivers for using the road. Apologizing for making anybody wait for any reason. Apologizing to the cats when they get under my feet and trip me. Apologizing for needing any kind of service or assistance. Apologizing for being less than perfect. Apologizing for being alive, taking up space, having a thought or feeling, breathing the air or using a chair. Apologizing for not reading everyone else’s minds and anticipating their every move, feeling, desire, and need.
Obsequiousness (being obedient or attentive to an excessive degree). This is a tough one. I can’t really find the line between excessive and adequate, and I’m not sure I want to because adequate feels so inadequate. But then, I’ve always felt inadequate, even when (especially when?) being excessive.
I notice this mostly at work, where I’ve unconsciously made a mission out of greeting and bidding farewell to every patron, patient and staff member who enters or exits the pool facility.
On the one hand, we as a team work hard to make the pools a friendly, safe, and respectful environment, and that’s good. On the other hand, I know many of our patrons don’t need me to be so obsequious. Some people are engaging, friendly, and even demanding of our attention. Others, not so much.
As an experiment, I’ve been refraining from saying good-bye to every departing person. If we happen to make eye contact, or I’m helping them manage their mobility and the door or having another direct interaction, I wish them well and say good-bye. If I’m guarding the pool and they walk by without engaging me, I don’t speak. Our population includes many elderly people, some of whom are, not to put too fine a point on it, grouchy! I suspect they find obsequiousness a pain in the ass. (I find it so, even though I can’t help myself sometimes.) I’ve been letting them come and go in peace, too.
The sky hasn’t fallen. I doubt very much if any of my coworkers have noticed this small change in my behavior. I doubt if the people we serve have noticed it, either.
I notice two things. One is how anxious it makes me to stop being so obsequious. The other is how much less exhausting I find my hours at work.
Servitude. This is a big one at work, too, but also at home. This also played out in my parenting in negative ways, I regret to say. Once again, I have a hard time finding the line between being of useful service in the world and edging into slavery or excessive servitude. I reason that with the world in such a mess, how can we hold anything back when it comes to being of service? Yet at a certain point we can lose ourselves entirely in service to others. My challenge is balancing service to myself and service to others, and I don’t know a woman who doesn’t or hasn’t at some point faced this challenge.
This issue is further complicated by the fact that people with Cluster B behavior demand and expect complete servitude and retaliate in various devastating ways if they don’t receive it. Also, women are burdened with a heavy cultural expectation to be of unending service to their families. Emotional labor is part of this service.
Trying too hard. Trying to be the best person I can be. Trying to protect people. Trying to communicate my love to people. Trying to make a positive contribution. Trying to never be a burden or an inconvenience. Trying to make sure nobody feels “stuck” with me. Trying to please. Trying to be perfect.
As I recently asked in a post, when have we tried hard enough?
As I identified in that very first post: fawning doesn’t work. We learn it when we are powerless and depend on the adults around us to care for us, but it’s not a life strategy. As adults, it doesn’t keep us safe or loved. It’s entirely disempowering. It strips away our dignity and sends a message to others that we don’t value ourselves. If we don’t value ourselves, why should anyone else value us?
Recognizing these various fawning behaviors and the underlying anxiety and fear triggering them has been a revelation to me. Challenging them by refraining or making different choices is an even greater revelation. Dredging automatic patterns from unconsciousness into consciousness is weary work and reveals how deeply-rooted my fawning behavior is. No wonder I find socialization so exhausting.
Now that I notice my own fawning, I’m sad to recognize it frequently in others. Fawning is a common human trauma response, especially for women.
Peter Walker is helping me disengage from fawning in such a way that my natural inclinations toward love and service, empathy, fairness, and listening are more effective and genuine and less exhausting and personally destructive. This is a win for everyone around me as well as myself.
I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.
All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.
I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.
I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.
I would have been wrong.
I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.
Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.
The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.
This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.
If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.
When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?
I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.
For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.
It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.
I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.
It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.
The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.
We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.
No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.
True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.
Violence, self-destruction, despair and human rights violations are rampant in our world. We can choose our favorite flavor: Climate change, racial and ethnic problems, gender ideology, immigration issues, terrorism, food production and diet, religion, capitalism and the economy, and a multitude of other issues clamor for our attention.
Who is to blame?
Everyone? No one?
Our global social problems overwhelm me. They’re too big for one person to deal with.
As I explore blame, I’ll zoom in to an example from my own life.
A long time ago I married an abusive man, and he abused me. (Big surprise, right?) My experience of abuse was quite real. I realized his behavior was not okay. I realized domestic violence is a huge problem, and I realized it can happen to anyone.
I found a way out, and I could have stopped there and just carried the identity of a victim of domestic violence and an abusive man. It’s a big club. I could find validation, support groups, therapy and other assistance. I could compare stories with other victims, seek revenge, stalk his Facebook page, bad mouth him, have bad dreams and feel ashamed every time I flinch away from a sudden movement a man makes in my vicinity.
I could have turned my experience as an abused woman into a demon, a chronically bleeding wound, a source of darkness, fear and impaired trust. I could run from it, avoid it, try to forget it and stay stuck in power loss. I was victimized. It was unfair. That’s how the world works.
But what’s underneath that reality of being an abused woman? Why was I an abused woman?
Because men prey on women, men are entitled, it’s a man’s world and women are not granted equal power, recognition or rights.
It wasn’t my fault. I was a victim. End of story.
A victim is a person harmed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action. Notice that powerlessness is not part of that definition, which is paraphrased from Oxford Online Dictionary.
I was an abused woman because I thought that’s what I was worth. That’s my truth. I don’t shame myself over it, but I own it. All men do not prey on women. All men do not feel entitled. Men do not define the world unless women allow them to, and the only person who can give away my power and ignore my rights is me.
And, at various times in my life, I have.
Blaming is easy, and we all do it. Managing personal power is a lot of work, a daily practice if we want our lives to work well. Blaming is quick and socially acceptable, especially in this age of hyperreaction to any hint of victim shaming.
The problem is that blame is a dead end. It keeps us firmly fastened in what has befallen us rather than what we’re going to do now. We can blame all we like, but it doesn’t bring us justice, resolution or healing. It doesn’t help us understand the complexities of our situation. We can’t learn from blame. It’s not useful or productive in any way. Blaming is an abdication of responsibility, power and resilience.
This is even more true when we blame ourselves. Blaming myself is what put me in an abusive relationship in the first place. I am not responsible for the behavior and choices of the man I was with, but I chose to be with him – for a time. I believed it was what I deserved because of my guilt and shame over previous choices.
If we are victimized by a crime, accident, or other event or action, and all we can do is blame, we’re effectively embracing a victim mentality, and that kind of thinking goes nowhere.
Sooner or later, we’re all victims of something. Sometimes our own choices lead to our victimization, sometimes we get hurt through no fault of our own, and often the situation is a complex mixture of choices, actions, and events impossible to disentangle.
It’s what we do with our experience that counts. Are we going to blame someone or something and stay stuck, or take appropriate responsibility for ourselves and problem-solve?
We’re not responsible for what other people do or random events we’re caught up in, but we’re always responsible for what we do in response. Healthy boundaries help us discern the difference between the places we have power and the places we have none.
Taking responsibility is not the same as blaming. Responsibility is a powerful tool for problem solving. It’s forward-focused. Blame is backwards-focused and solves nothing.
Being or feeling victimized is no fun, and it’s not a place I want to pitch a tent and call home. I refuse to identify as a victim, and I don’t victimize myself or others. When I catch myself blaming, I know I’ve stepped out of my own power.
Being victimized is a teacher for me. It’s not about blame and shame. It’s about using the feelings and discomfort of the experience to learn, to grow, to find new resources and to reach out to other victims in a supportive, constructive way. Making a healthy contribution out of our experience of victimization heals our wounds and helps other victims find their way to healing. It helps us reclaim our dignity and power.
It’s a lot more work than blaming, which any toddler can do.
Blaming signals disempowerment, and I refuse to go back down that road. In a perfect world, we’d all be held accountable for our victimization of others, but it’s far from a perfect world, and the only choices I’m in charge of are my own.
I may be, at times, a victim, but I’m always in charge of my own power.
I’ve just read a book titled Dignity by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.
Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect; self-respect” (Oxford Online Dictionary); “the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake” (Wikipedia).
Dignity isn’t a word I hear much these days. Respect is a hot topic, but dignity sounds old-fashioned.
The book was an eye-opener in several ways. Hicks sees dignity as a key component in peaceful negotiations, a refreshing topic in this time of divisiveness, hatred, and violence. Because of her work, the author has participated in and supported peace talks all over the world as leaders of opposing sides work to heal the trauma of conflict. Her observations, experience, and stories of people working together to connect as human beings, even in the context of terrible violence, are poignant and a testament to our shared humanity.
Hicks defines ten essential components of dignity, and ten violations. I wrote both lists down and I’ve been rereading and thinking about them ever since.
Here are Hicks’s ten essential elements of dignity:
As I work with these lists, I come at them from three different directions. One is recognizing the ways in which my own dignity has been violated by others. The second is the way in which I’ve violated my own dignity. The third is the way in which I’ve violated the dignity of others.
This book was published in 2011, before acceptance of identity and inclusion were such politically loaded topics. As I think about these lists through the filter of current social ideology, it’s quite clear to me that working with the concept of dignity necessitates connecting with others through our shared humanity rather than our habits and beliefs. If we insist on hiding behind our labels and pseudo selves, as well as refusing to see the complexity of those we interact with behind their labels and ideology, we will not successfully connect and nobody can experience dignity. Conflict will escalate and divisions deepen.
We each have a right to our own beliefs, feelings, and sense of self. However, we do not have the right to insist others agree with our beliefs, feelings and sense of self. Respect, as I have pointed out before, is not agreement. Tolerance is not agreement. Likewise, dignity is not dependent on agreement, but rather the willingness to understand and accept the experience of another.
The tricky part is if we wish to build and maintain dignity, we must help others build and maintain it as well. Demanding our own dignity be recognized while ignoring that of others demonstrates a desire for power-over and control.
Dignity is an equal opportunity concept. It’s based in our humanity, the ultimate in-group. No one is excluded, and no one is without the power to build their own dignity.
We can’t force others to treat us with dignity, but we have absolute control in how we handle our own, and Donna Hicks has experienced, over and over again, the power of our individual dignity and the way it influences those around us. The forward to this book was written by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose wisdom, compassion and dignity have inspired millions. He and Hicks have worked together for peace in Northern Ireland.
One way to destroy our dignity is to violate that of another, which is exactly what I want to do in a reactive moment when I’ve been hurt or witnessed someone else being hurt. However, that kind of reaction only escalates conflict. Hicks’s list allows me to identify other options that do not result in further violation, but begin to heal the original harm. Even if whoever I’m interacting with is determined to undermine both their dignity and mine, I have the power to stop the damage and conflict and protect my own self-respect.
Now more than ever in this country, we are divided. Some of us support dignity for all and some of us don’t. It’s not always obvious which team we’re on, either. Some people wave the banner of equality and justice and identify themselves as victims, but a closer look makes it obvious their agenda victimizes someone else. What they truly want is their conception of equality and justice for themselves and their in-group, exclusively.
Others of us are working for humanity as a whole, supporting such concepts as dignity for everyone, not just those wearing a certain label or set of labels.