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.
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.
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.
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?
(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!)
In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?
If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.
As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.
It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.
However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.
The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.
Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.
I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.
A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.
If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.
I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.
Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?
Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.
Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.
Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.
Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.
Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.
If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?
Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?
Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?
Is it possible to share our happiness? More specifically, is it possible for me to share the things that make me happy with others? I ask because my immediate answer to the first question is yes, of course. My immediate answer to the second question is no. Well, rarely. Let’s say rarely.
Martin Seligman makes a statement in his book, Authentic Happiness, that I’ve been thinking about for several weeks. He writes that seeking out others to share our happiness with, and telling them how much we value the moment “is the single strongest predictor of level of pleasure.”
I’ve struggled all my life with an intense desire to share my happiness with loved ones and an inability to do so.
It works well the other way. For me, one of the joys of connection is allowing myself to become enlarged by the presence of others. I’ve always loved being exposed to what those around me enjoy: new music, new movies, new books, new ideas and new ways of doing things. All my close relationships have made me bigger and contributed to who I am in this moment, and I’m deeply grateful for it.
But I rarely seem to find reciprocity. Or flexibility. Or curiosity. Or something. I’ve never been able to figure out why. Is it that the things that make me happy are stupid, or inappropriate, or boring? Is it something about me? Is it that some people don’t value sharing emotional experience and joy and I have a genius for wanting to connect with those kinds of people?
Maybe some people have no happiness to share?
My inability to share my happiness and enjoyment with others has left me with a painful feeling of guilt, as though it’s disloyal or a betrayal if I enjoy something others can’t. Or won’t. Guilt turns me inward; I pursue my happiness in secret, stifling my longing to share it, struggling with feelings of rejection and resentment. I show up in their lives to share. Why don’t they want to with me? Am I needy? Demanding?
Around and around I go as I think about this, getting nowhere useful.
When I encounter a hairball like this in my life, I look at it through the lens of power dynamics. The fact is I know what makes me happy. I value experiencing the happiness and delights of others. Both are entirely within my power. I do long to share my own happiness, but sharing requires the participation of another, and that is not in my power.
Guilt and shame are not useful burdens to carry around. My happiness takes nothing away from anyone else. Making myself unhappy doesn’t ease someone else’s unhappiness. Hiding my happiness doesn’t seem like a useful choice. As for resentment, holding on to that only hurts me.
Another problem with my strong desire to share my own happiness is that it reinforces people pleasing. I tie myself into knots thinking about exactly the right timing and approach in order to get someone else to be interested in sharing something I enjoy. Or I tie myself into another kind of knot trying to optimize what I think makes others happy, regardless of the personal cost to myself. If we can’t share happiness, and if something other than what I have to offer gives someone happiness, I disappear as much as I can so there’s maximum room for whatever I think is most wanted.
It sounds so easy. Find someone to share our happiness with. Tell them what the moment means to us. Enjoy the pleasure.
What am I doing wrong?
As I think about this, I wind up in a familiar place—with myself. Exploring happiness during these last weeks has made me newly conscious of my experience. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve gradually learned to befriend and care for myself, replacing old habits of self-destruction and self-loathing. I see now that much of what I’ve done for myself, rather than waiting for someone to read my mind and do it for me, or give me permission to do what gives me pleasure, have been the same things that make me happy. It’s just not a word I’ve felt very friendly with or applied to myself before.
I’ve thought about all this during my Thanksgiving break. I spent hours and hours cutting greens and making holiday decorations. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was extremely stressful and uncomfortable. I enjoyed it because I love working with my hands, giving gifts, and sharing (there’s that word again) the glory of our evergreen trees and the spirit of the season. It was stressful and uncomfortable because I feel so much anxiety about sharing those things that give me such pleasure. Would I be making people uncomfortable, imposing a gift return obligation? Were the decorations ugly or inappropriate in some way? Would people already have wreaths and decorations and have no use for them? Were they too much? Too little? People probably can and have made or bought something much better.
This is familiar territory, as it’s always the background to posting on this blog. I push through it when I’m writing, but I usually talk myself out of giving spontaneous creative gifts. I decide whatever I want to do is a dumb idea, a waste of time, and, frankly, it’s too scary to be that vulnerable and risk rejection, misunderstanding, or making someone uncomfortable.
It’s too scary to share the things that make me happy.
Working with Seligman’s book and thinking about happiness has changed things. I decided I was going to do something I love to do, share my enjoyment with others, and damn the consequences, or, better yet, completely let go of outcomes. Even if what I made gets thrown directly into the fireplace, what have I lost? My enjoyment of gathering, making, and giving remains intact. My happiness and expression of love are still free in the world instead of hidden and imprisoned in my own heart.
This is my third post exploring happiness. The first and second posts are here and here.
We’ve defined happiness as a feeling of contentment and peace, which inadequately expresses its complexity. Positive psychology scientifically examines the human experience of peace and contentment more deeply, with surprising results.
In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., carefully differentiates between transient and enduring happiness. Transient happiness is what I call happy. It’s the joy I feel when dancing, swimming, sitting outside in the sun, or looking forward to something pleasurable. Enduring happiness, or our general level of happiness, is our baseline feeling of peace and contentment. Can we increase our enduring level of happiness, and if so, how?
Our genetics play a part in this, as I mentioned before, but circumstances do, too, and we have some power over our circumstances. It turns out there are three decades of research and data on external circumstances and how they affect our experience of happiness.
Now we are in territory that is heavily influenced by social politics and our consumer culture. Everyone knows that more money and things make us happier. Anyone in doubt need only sit in front of a screen and absorb advertising for 30 minutes.
A cross-national survey of tens of thousands of adults does indicate that life satisfaction and overall national purchasing power are closely correlated, but only to a certain numerical point. After that point, the correlation disappears. This means people in a comparatively wealthy country may generally have a higher overall experience of happiness than people in a country who live in life-threatening poverty, but there are many exceptions, and social scientists are not sure why. In addition, as purchasing power has increased in wealthy countries, life satisfaction has not.
It appears that how important money is to us is a more powerful factor in our happiness than the amount of money we actually have. More materialistic people are less happy. In this, of course, we have power. If we rearrange our priorities and reduce the importance of money in our lives, perhaps we can intentionally increase our happiness.
Other factors that have been extensively studied as ingredients for happiness include marriage (or other long-term, committed bonds), education, social networks, health, age, sex, intelligence, and where we live.
As I think about happiness, I reflect on all the reasons I’ve heard people (including me) say they can’t achieve it. It’s interesting how we all make excuses for avoiding happiness. I wonder why that is. What are we up to? Are we afraid to be happy? Is the pain of “losing” happiness so terrible that we reject it entirely?
Data invalidates many of our excuses. External circumstances such as moving to a sunnier climate or getting more education are not correlated with greater happiness. Race and biological sex are also neutral factors in happiness, as is intelligence.
It does appear that living in a comparatively wealthy country; strong social networks, including a healthy primary relationship, as in marriage; and creating or participating in spiritual/faith practices are positive influences on happiness.
Interestingly, health is an influence much like money, in that how we feel about our health is more important than our objective health as a factor in happiness.
As I write this, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we are awaiting final results in the 2020 election and facing increasing COVID numbers. These external factors and the stress and anxiety I feel over them certainly seem barriers to anything like happy.
A couple of weeks ago I was part of a conversation in which someone asked me if I’d heard that Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas were “cancelled.” He was angry, bitter, loud, and hostile. I exited the conversation after telling him quietly I hadn’t heard, but I’ve thought about it ever since.
Is happiness cancelled because of our current external circumstances?
Of course not. As many others have pointed out, family, love, tolerance, generosity, and the holiday season are not “cancelled.” Many of us will (or have) changed the way we approach these celebrations and expressions, but change doesn’t have to be an atomic bomb that wipes out every tradition and good feeling, unless we make it so.
I, and I suspect many others, feel that the fate of the world rests on the outcome of the 2020 United States presidential election. The endless political rhetoric certainly encourages us to believe that. When I really think about it, though, no matter who is in the White House we’ll still be a deeply and hatefully divided nation. We’ll still have a pandemic. We’ll still have climate change, broken healthcare and educational systems, and a faltering economy. We’ll still have to deal with immigration, racial injustice and violence.
The president, whoever he will be, will not have the power to destroy our individual happiness. He may be a fine scapegoat, along with a million other external circumstances, but in the end I believe our happiness is in our own hands and no one else’s.
I find this a particularly unpalatable realization right now. I spend a lot of time being a professional, being an adult, and striving to be positive and supportive with others, but deep inside I struggle with an ungodly mix of rage and despair. I have moments in which it’s all I can do to just walk away from the headlines, the ignorance, the selfishness, and the toxicity of others without screaming and tearing their throats out. I’m constantly fighting down tears. I feel unsafe, hypervigilant, and bone tired.
I know I’m not alone. I have the most superb self-control of anyone I know, so I will not relieve my feelings with public tantrums or assaults, but the feelings are there and these times are bringing them close to the surface for everyone.
To write about happiness or even think about it right now seems idiotic. Upon further reflection, though, I wonder if it isn’t the perfect time, after all. There’s so much going on that we can’t change; perhaps now it’s more important than ever before to pull our gaze away from those things and look at where we do have power. We have the power to intentionally choose happiness, even if only for a second. We have the power to choose between connection and division. We have the power to love, even in the midst of rage.
If I told you I’m happy this week it would be a lie. When the final votes are counted I won’t feel happy, either, no matter who wins. I’m hoping my sleep will be less broken and I can stop trying to crawl out of my skin with anxiety, but happy? No. Relieved would be good. Let’s aim for relieved.
But what if the truth is that happy is right here, sitting on my shoulder, or waiting patiently in the corner, and all I have to do is give it my attention and open my arms to it? What if I could feel happiness today? What if the most useful thing I could do for myself, for my loved ones, for the world, is choose happiness, no matter how fleeting?