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Traumatic Response: Flight

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.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

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!

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

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:

  • Pacing.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Teeth grinding.
  • Chronic physical tension and pain.
  • Working without pausing for rest or food.
  • Eating disorder.
  • Refusing to accept physical limitations of pain or illness, thereby ensuring more pain and illness.
  • Chronic worry, anxiety, racing thoughts.
  • Insomnia.
  • Migraines.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Chronic exhaustion (chronic fatigue syndrome, anyone?)
  • Rushing/speeding.
  • Schedule shaming.
  • Self-loathing if having fun or relaxing.
  • Resistant to taking breaks.
  • Shame and guilt if not “productive” or “useful.”
  • Shame and guilt over mistakes.
  • Inability to sit quietly and meditate, read, dream, or gaze at my navel.
  • Refusal to engage creatively. It’s not “productive.”
  • Constipation.
  • Perfectionism.

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.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

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.

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Enough

When we teach Parent and Child swim classes, most of what we teach is for the parents. Holds, encouragement, how to demonstrate skills, the importance of trust, safety, and initiating lots of play are among the highlights. One of the things we talk about is the “Terrible Toos.” Too far. Too many repetitions. Too tired. Too scared. Too hot or cold. Too hungry. Too thirsty. Too much sun. All of these impact a child’s ability to learn.
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I begin lessons with a lesson plan, but I’ve worked with children all my life, and I know one never knows how a session will go. Every time is different. One day they’ve napped, and another day they haven’t. One day they have a tooth coming in, or they’ve just had a doctor’s appointment, or they’ve been to school. Sometimes they’re getting sick. Sometimes they’ve just gotten a new puppy. Sometimes they’re up for learning, and sometimes they’re not. When they’re not, I need to set aside my agenda and work with where the child is. It’s surprising, how many skills we can practice during 30 minutes of “play!” Recently I read this article about figuring out what is enough from Becoming Minimalist, and it made me think about the “Terrible Toos.” We know so much about more, and so little about too much and enough. Enough. As much or as many as required for satisfaction. There’s a problematic definition! Satisfaction is entirely subjective. We are taught from babyhood to consume, to want, to desire more. Our culture is structured around appeals to our longing for belonging, connection, and more than we have. More clothes. More food. More friends. More tech. More money. I wonder how many people know what enduring satisfaction feels like. Enough is a boundary. It’s a destination. It’s power. Unlimited More is a black hole. Enough is reality.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Unlimited More is addiction, or perfectionism, or pleasing. It never ends. It never stops. It’s never satisfied. It’s based on the fantasy that if only we had more _______, our lives would be better. If we were only more ________, we would be loved. Enough is a choice to say yes or no. No, I don’t need that. No, I don’t want that. No, I have enough. Unlimited More is not a choice. It’s yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, I need more. When are we good enough? When have we tried hard enough? When do we have enough? When have we suffered enough? When have we given enough? When have we loved enough? When have we forgiven enough? When have we tolerated enough? When have we accommodated enough? When are we fast enough? When are we busy enough? When are we enough? Enough. My daily crime.

Pleasing Fear

My first post on this blog was about pleasing people. It surprised me, how easy it was to break that habit, once I made up my mind. I still slip into the old pattern of pleasing when I’m not paying attention, but I can even smile now (sometimes) when people express outrage because I Failed To Please. It’s not my job to live up to any expectations but my own.

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

Ah, there’s the rub. My own expectations, internalized from years of external expectations, can be crippling.

Along with the rest of the country, we are sweltering here in Maine, with heat indices over 100 degrees and the big three H’s: haze, heat, and humidity. Relief is on the way, but right now the only sensible thing to do is hole up with my window AC unit rattling and clunking, shut the blinds, and stay quiet.

Impossible to sleep without AC in my attic, with the temperature and humidity running neck-in-neck. I’m grateful for the cooling unit, and it’s noisy. I learned when I moved to Maine from Colorado the combination of cooled air and high humidity confuse the body. I need a sheet to protect myself from the blowing cool air. But the instant I pull up the sheet, I start gently steaming in my damp bed. Sheet on. Sheet off. Sheet on. Sheet off. Whirr … clunk … whirr … roar … clunk … whirr … goes the cycling air conditioner.

I lay awake during the night, tossing and turning and thinking about all the things I needed to do today, all the things I didn’t do yesterday, and how, and why, and how quickly, and in what order. I thought about carrying dishwater to the garden and prepping for this week’s swim lessons. I thought about the books I’m writing, my new website, this week’s blog post, and housework. I thought about the gardening I’m not finding time to do, switching from 5-lb to 3-lb hand weights and doing more reps, and the challenges my friends face in their private lives.

I felt fear, and I thought fearful thoughts.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

I know much of what drives me is fear. It occurred to me my response to fear feels exactly like my cringing, cowering, I’ll-show-you-my-belly-and-be-a-good-dog-if-you’ll-only-love-me people pleasing.

I’ve never noticed that before.

Much of my behavior is unconsciously driven by a desire to propitiate fear. Speeding, perfectionism, toxic positivity, trying well past the point I should have turned away, finishing tasks quickly rather than well, judging my worth in terms of doing rather than being, the list goes on. Some part of me believes if I do it right, find a way to work harder or be a better person, fear will go away and I’ll be secure, happy, beloved.

I recognize the taste and smell of that belief. It’s the same one I thought I’d discarded when I wrote that first blog post.

I’m still pleasing, but now I’m pleasing fear rather than people.

Maybe the desperate people pleasing I’ve engaged in has really been about fear all along. If I don’t please you, you won’t love me. If I don’t please you, you won’t take care of me. If I don’t please you, you won’t be proud of me. If I don’t please you, you’ll leave me.

What I absolutely know about trying to please is it doesn’t work. People pleasing increased my fear and insecurity rather than diminishing it. It kept me squarely where the blows landed … and landed … and landed.

Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash

Pleasing fear. Not gonna happen. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I “succeed,” it will want more, or different. Fear will never be satisfied. Ever.

Fear. Danger. Pain. Threat. The specifics of our fear are unimportant. What keeps me awake Monday night might be a different list than what keeps me awake Friday night. It all boils down to danger, pain, threat. What I fear now, in my 50s, is different than the nameless fears of my childhood.

But the fear itself is the same, the same feeling, the same texture, the same merciless driver.

I need to find a different way to manage it than trying to please.

Psychology has identified four responses to trauma: freeze, flee, fawn (show excessive compliance), or fight.

I can’t hide under the bed and freeze or flee from internalized fear. Fawning is people pleasing. What’s left? Fight.

Here’s something I can do!

The first step in fighting is to know one’s adversary, and emotional intelligence has taught me fear can be an advantage, a friend. I don’t want to eradicate my ability to feel fear. My fear, though, has grown into a monster, distorted, invasive, choking.

All that gardening I can’t get to? Maybe I need to do some internal weeding, pruning, and clearing this summer.

Is fear going to continue to use me, or am I going to master it?

If not now, when?

My daily crime.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

Who Am I Becoming?

As I implemented the holistic planning process earlier in the year, the first step was defining the whole I was trying to manage. I continue to feel challenged as I remember to include my needs in the whole. My default has always been to work harder in pursuit of goals, but now I recognize the wisdom of working smarter instead.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

Last week I read a post titled ‘Do You Like the Person You are Becoming?’ by one of my favorite minimalists, Joshua Becker. His piece doesn’t focus on needs, but on how we feel about who we are in the context of our lives and projects.

Something about his language cut right to the heart of my struggle to hold onto my own hand as I go forward into the future.

I feel a lot of movement right now. The season is part of it, with its new growth and hope. Pandemic limitations are relaxing and human affairs flow more “normally.” Personally, I’ve had some new opportunities, some of which I engaged with and some of which I didn’t. I’m involved with an exciting new creative project (more about that later).

At the same time, balance is hard. I squeeze the last minute out of every hour and berate myself when I feel unproductive. The gardens and yard cry out to me, but I haven’t spent more than an hour playing with them. If I work hard creatively all day, I feel too drained to exercise. If I exercise and choose to be more active, I’m unhappy with my creative progress.

Now, more than ever before, I simply can’t do it all.

I don’t want to do it all.

Doing it all is overrated.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

So, I have to make choices, practice saying no, maintain boundaries, and stay balanced and centered.

It sounds so neat and easy. So mature and together!

Ha.

Becker’s piece made me smile, and then laugh out loud. (I miss laughing out loud. LOL is not laughing out loud.)

He asks such a simple, and at the same time, deep, question: Do I like who I’m becoming?

Like all really good questions, an honest answer is complicated, because our experience of ourselves is often different in different arenas of our lives.

It reminds me of another question I frequently see as I practice minimalism: Does this choice make my life easier or harder?

Of course, needs, structure and choice underlie both questions, but I like the way they leave the mechanics aside and focus on feelings.

Do I like me? Are my choices making my life easier or harder?

I almost made a choice last week that would have made my life harder, but it also would have increased my income.

Naturally, I thought first about the income. Security, stability, savings. Sure, it would mean less time and energy for other things, but – you know, more money!

Except not that much more. And there was no denying it would take away from my writing.

And the writing, unpaid as it is at this point, is what makes me happy, the reason I’m in the world, the center of my life and experience.

Money can’t compete.

Chasing money has made me a fearful people pleaser, perfectionistic, compulsive, depressed, and anxious.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Writing has made me confident, authentic, joyful and playful.

Which woman do I like better? Whom do I want to live with and see in the mirror?

The fact is I could meet all my needs and still not like myself. I could have chosen to make more money, but I would have liked myself less.

Learning to love myself has been an incredible journey, one that saved my life.

I have no intention of going backwards.

Another tenet of minimalism is understanding the feeling we don’t have enough space and time doesn’t mean we need more space and time. It means we need less stuff and fewer things to do. We need to find a way to make our lives easier, not harder.

We need to love ourselves enough to create a meaningful, joyful life with plenty of space and time.

Maybe, as I begin my day, the question is not what I want and need to accomplish, but what choices will make me like myself better than I did the day before.

Can it be done? Is it possible to lead a balanced, vibrant life, full of texture and joy, keep an adequate roof over my head, and create a more secure future while doing the work I love, all while loving the person I am?

We’ll see.

(I finally know what I want to be when I grow up! Not only what I want to do, but who I want to be!)

My daily crime.

Holistic Management 2: Unpacking the Whole

See the first post in this series here.

As I begin to implement my holistic management writing business plan this week, I notice that taking the very first step – defining the whole I want to manage – naturally leads me to action. It turns out I don’t have to make lists of priorities. Using the model itself dictates the natural, logical, next effort.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Unfortunately, the natural, logical, next efforts are precisely the ones I was hoping to avoid ever having to deal with!

I wrote recently about solutions sometimes becoming a bigger problem than the problem itself, mostly because we don’t take the time to fully understand what caused the problem and focus on solving that. It’s easier and quicker to slap a Band-Aid on symptoms of the problem and move on as fast as we can.

Defining the whole has led me directly to some of the ways I’m self-sabotaging and obstructing my own progress. It doesn’t seem like wrestling with such uncomfortable issues is forwarding my plan, but I recognize there’s no point in creating a plan if I’m not going to fully commit to it.

As I consider resources, I mentioned last week that I listed numerous human resources in my life and called it good. It wasn’t until some time later that I realized I hadn’t listed myself. I am right in the center of the whole I want to manage.

I still don’t naturally think of myself or my work (of any kind) as having value. It takes an effort of will to think outside my old frame. I can do it, but it’s not my default.

I’ve struggled with my sense of self-worth all my life, so my discomfort around recognizing myself as my most important resource it is not news. Doing so provides another (unwelcome) opportunity to realize how powerfully my lack of self-worth undermines my dreams and desires.

I don’t want the opportunity. I want to make a plan, implement it, and move forward, and I want to do it quickly and cleanly.

But I can’t. My thoughts and feelings around making a living creatively, successfully contributing my writing, and shaping the kind of future I want are at the heart of my management plan. Pretending they’re not there won’t work, and neither will speeding past them.

The other thing I notice about working with my resource list is that I’m not making the most of my technological resource in the shape of this blog. This is also not a news flash. I have for some time felt an increasing tension to begin monetizing the blog in small ways.

One option for monetizing blogs, of course, is advertising.

Here’s more discomfort I’d really like to avoid by just not going there.

Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash

I absolutely hate advertising. I hate it so much I won’t watch commercial TV.

On the other hand, I spend a lot of hours online, and nearly everything I read is monetized and has ads. Some are more obnoxious than others, but generally I ignore them as best I can and work around them.

The fact is that I might be earning a few dollars with this blog if I chose to research and implement some options. I’ve known that since I started, but I’ve resisted facing my discomfort around taking definitive action. That resistance is all about me, not learning curves, financial investment, time, or the difficulties of life in general (like I’m just too busy).

In defining the whole, I’ve deliberately looked at every single resource I can come up with and asked myself if I’m making the most of it. Certainly, I’m not making the most of myself if I’m holding myself back or keeping myself small. Likewise, I could be adding to the value of the blog. I don’t have to, but I could. So if I choose not to, what is that about? I can’t want to manage the whole in order to go forward while refusing to manage the largest part of the whole – myself.

Working with Savory’s holistic management template gives me exactly what I need to slow down and take a logical step at a time, no matter how small, while continuing to create content. I don’t feel overwhelmed when I look at only the next step, and I don’t have to search for it. It falls naturally into place as I begin to shape my plan.

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

I’m uncomfortable, but I’m also amused. It’s so easy to get validated in this culture for all our intractable problems. Who doesn’t understand feeling limited by money, the feeling that we don’t have the time or energy to do what we really want to do, or how disempowered one can feel by simply getting by for another day?

Yet each of us are central to our own problems, and refusing to address the ways we hold ourselves back guarantees inadequate and ineffective problem solving when we seek to manage, plan, or achieve a goal. We are an inescapable part of the whole. In fact, we are the only ones with the power to address the very core of our individual problems.

I began this project of planning for the future I want economically and otherwise with resentful feelings about all the ways in which others and the world refuse to meet my needs. I started reading Holistic Management by Allan Savory and did a lot of journaling. Within a couple of days I remembered again what I’ve discovered over and over before.

It’s not about them. It’s about me. Again. Still.

Shit!

Unpacking the whole. My daily crime.

Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash