Understanding your stress responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

two boxers sparring Understanding fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses

“Why didn’t you honk at him?!” my wife Betsy demands, exasperated and angry with the driver who just cut us off. She would have laid on the horn but I swerved instead.

Betsy’s question immediately triggers shame. Real men fight for their space. We are supposed to punch back. Embarrassed that I feel less-than-manly, shame floods my body.

What she means: “That idiot needs to know what he did!” She is angry. She wants him to feel shame and remorse.

What I hear and feel: “You are weak! You clearly can’t defend me. You are such a disappointment.”

After the stress chemicals’ emotional hijacking of my body dissipates, when the intense feelings of shame and embarrassment and helplessness fade, I am left with the same questions as always:

Why won’t I act? Why do I give up my space? Why do I freeze up?

You’ve heard of fight or flight. These are automatic responses that hijack your mind and body. To keep you safe, your central nervous system (CNS) uses one of these vehicles to escape a perceived threat:

  • when you fight, you can act like a wild animal trapped in a dark alley.
  • when you flee, you bust out of any situation and don’t care how.
  • there is a third option when you freeze and feel stuck and can’t decide what to do.

Freezing is what happens when your CNS hits the fight and flight buttons at the same time. The result: you freeze up.

Your CNS (not you) chooses the response. It doesn’t care how you feel about the choice. Your CNS is acting to keep you alive. Triggering a fight/flight/freeze response happens without your participation, like flipping a breaker in a fuse box.

What happens inside you when none of this works? When your CNS tries to flee, fight, and/or freeze but none of them make you safe?

You fawn.

Fawning may show up as people-pleasing, even to your detriment. When you grow up in dangerous settings or with emotionally-immature caregivers, fawning can diffuse conflict and create a feeling of safety.

The fawn response is all about complying. No matter how poorly someone treats you, fawning disregards your happiness and well-being. You jump right to compliance and helpfulness to avoid further abuse.

Brené Brown helped me understand fawning when she described her defensive reactions to feeling shame: she would find herself getting bigger (fight), shrink down to make herself smaller (freeze), or move away from the source of shame (flee). These made sense. The next one took me by surprise: sometimes she would move toward the source of shame (fawn).

When I read this description in Brené’s book, I thought, “that feels dangerous and frankly dumb.” It certainly didn’t feel manly. I decided I wouldn’t do that moving-toward thing. Nope, not for me. Definitely not!

The irony is that I have been fawning my entire life. Two inner secrets about me: I have always hated my startle response. But mostly, I hate myself for being too nice.

If I feel emasculated by freezing up with an aggressive driver, imagine how I felt when I realized that fawning is my go-to response! Has my CNS lost that much confidence in me?!

I need to repeat: we don’t get to choose our fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. Our CNS chooses the best option for short-term survival, like a bodyguard ruthlessly taking the shortest path to get his client out of a burning building.

The idea that fighting feels more masculine than freezing or fawning seems ridiculous. My CNS doesn’t care about my gender expression.

Does your gender programming try to tell you how to avoid danger?

This gendered thinking about my trauma response comes from the same place that keeps me from allowing myself to cry or sit with hard feelings, to ask for help, or even to ask for what I want.

We can’t be healthy when we suppress these emotions and behaviors. We all need to ask for help and to cry. Just as importantly, we need our kids to see us all doing these things.

My gender programming tells me that showing this kind of vulnerability is too risky. Author Mark Greene calls this “The Man Box” culture: suppressing empathy, not showing emotions, and creating “a culture of ruthless competition, bullying and codified inequality.”

Greene points out that messages we tell boys like, “Man up” and “Don’t be a sissy” really communicate “Don’t be female, because female is less.”

Three- and four-year-old boys already show the effect of this programming, suppressing their own naturally occurring capacities for emotional acuity and relational connection, leading Greene to conclude that the “damage is done before we are even old enough to understand what is happening.”

I’m over five decades past my original programming date. I have digested millions of reinforcing messages in real life PLUS nearly every piece of media that I consume drives home the same ideas, including those darn superhero movies that I still love to watch!

So what am I supposed to do now?

photo credit: Johann Walter Bantz/Unsplash