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.
I recently came across a Dutch word, ‘voorpret‘, in one of the minimalist blogs I follow. It means “joy or pleasure ahead or in anticipation of” an event.
I was charmed with it. I love language and the feeling described by this word has long been an important part of my life, a part I’ve been ashamed of, largely hidden, and never had a term for.
Anticipating pleasure is fraught with the danger of disappointment. We learn that as children, and we keep on learning it. Our fantasies are often much cleaner, simpler, and more beautiful than real life, when it rains, people fight, someone gets sick or hurt, or events and dates get cancelled.
Many people eventually make an unconscious decision not to look forward to anything out of the bitterness of disappointed expectations and anticipation.
I’ve worked a great deal on releasing outcomes. The practice of ‘however it needs to be, it’s okay with me’, has served me well. I enjoy life more, I stay in my power and build resilience, and I’m able to navigate disappointment more comfortably and effectively.
Still, releasing outcomes doesn’t mean giving up on the pleasure I get out of looking forward to something. In fact, most of my pleasure is in the anticipation rather than in the event itself, or the memory of it. According to this article about voorpret, I’m not alone.
Some people, and I’ve lived with a couple of these, don’t plan. They don’t make dates. They talk about being spontaneous. They say they’ll “forget.” They don’t want to be pinned down or commit to something they might not feel like doing when the time comes. They don’t follow through with plans and they break dates. This hurts, as it conveys to me I’m much more eager to spend time with them than they are with me.
I’ve frequently felt I want too much when I’ve asked others to make dates with me. The idea of making dates and commitments is a boundary problem for people who want no limitations on their access to me. Other folks resent being “pinned down.” During my dating years I felt ashamed of the pleasure I took in looking forward having a meal and seeing a movie, as though I was being ridiculous and childish.
My response to my shame (long before I knew about minimalism), has been to conceal and simplify my pleasure in anticipation.
When I began dancing, I learned to dance small. It’s easy to get carried away in the music, in the wordless, entirely physical expression of feelings, especially if our feelings are strong and pent up. Before we know it, we’re clumsy, out of breath, and have a stitch in our side. At that point, in order to stay with the dance and take care of ourselves, we must dance small , come back to our center, return to our breath, re-inhabit our body and reclaim our balance and movement.
The practice of voorpret, for me, is dancing small. It’s not about big, complicated, infrequent occasions in which the outcome is extremely important to me. It’s about life’s small, daily pleasures, the ones we can give to ourselves without anyone else’s permission or participation. We don’t need a lot of money. We don’t need time off work. We don’t need a suitcase, a new wardrobe, or a plane ticket.
Voorpret, for me, is looking forward to a cup of tea and a good book on the front porch in the morning sun.
It’s a ten-hour, noisy, stimulating, busy day at work and looking forward to my feather bed, cotton sheets, and cool, quiet attic where the night air and moonlight mingle on the slanting floor under the open windows.
It’s making a date with myself on my calendar for an early morning walk when the world is still half asleep, watching the night sky pale into dawn.
It’s a plan to take myself out to lunch after a haircut or dentist appointment.
Small pleasures are everywhere in our lives, if we only look and give ourselves permission to experience them. We can offer ourselves these moments or hours every day like gifts. We can write them on our calendars or put them in our phones and look forward to them, fully enjoying and relishing our anticipation and lingering over them when they arrive. Spontaneous joyful moments arise, too, of course, unexpected moments of delight in which we can relax and rest for a moment.
Now more than ever we need to give ourselves stepping stones through and periods of respite inside the chaos and tension of the world. Many of us are suffering from ongoing stress and uncertainty about every aspect of our lives. Many of us feel overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. Voorpret can balance that out. We don’t need to wait. We can schedule a small, simple pleasure for ourselves today, write it down, and start looking forward to it.
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 that’s 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.
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!)
I’m usually good at focusing. I can multitask, but I don’t like to, and as I get older I’m less and less convinced that multitasking is effective for more than simply staying afloat.
These days, though … wow.
Last week I worked more hours than usual, my work schedule was all over the place, my laptop broke down, and I had a migraine and didn’t sleep well.
Those are all normal life challenges, but working more hours meant more exposure to news and the feelings and thoughts of people in our community. Maintaining boundaries between my own anxiety, incredulity, fear, and stress and the opinions, beliefs, and strong feelings of others while remaining respectful and professional is taking everything I have and makes normal small irritations seem overwhelming.
When the weekend came, I felt like I never wanted to talk to another human being again. Ever. About anything. I knew the feeling was temporary, but I also knew I needed to pay attention to it. I went on a news fast (helped by the absence of my laptop), slept, meditated, did some ritual, and took a day to do nothing and indulge my introversion.
Now, on Monday, I’m feeling better, but the coming week looms and I’m anxious about what it will bring. I’m also finding it difficult to concentrate on any of my usual small and pleasurable at-home tasks.
As I don’t often struggle in this way, I haven’t thought much about tools for getting motivated when we feel unable to move smoothly forward, but I’ve read quite a bit about how to do so, especially since I started practicing minimalism. This morning I had an article in my Inbox about using 15 minutes at a time to approach whatever the task(s) at hand is.
I sat down in front of my old clunky computer screen, put the keyboard in my lap and started writing this post. It’s been exactly 15 minutes since I started.
Clearly, I haven’t finished, but I made a good start, which is more than half the battle. Getting the flow going makes everything easier. The cats are tearing around playing. The laundry rack is folded on the floor (because the cats think it’s a climbing frame when I erect it), waiting for wet laundry, which is sitting in the washing machine. I haven’t worked on my book today, or cleaned the bathroom, or vacuumed, or swept. I haven’t exercised yet.
What I really want to do is take a nap. Or read, which ends up in taking a nap. I don’t want to think about working tomorrow, or getting gas, or the fact that I need to register the Subaru this month, or when I’ll get the laptop back and how much the repair will cost. I don’t want to think about this week’s bills or even this week’s blog post. I don’t want to think about the inauguration, politics, violence, or crazy conspiracy theories.
I don’t want to think at all. That would be good. No thinking.
I’ll never pull that one off.
In my old dance group we used to tell newcomers to dance small if they lost control of breath and balance. Dance small.
How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
How does one write a book? One word at a time.
I’m writing this post 15 minutes at a time. Hanging laundry will take less time than that, but first I have to evict the cats. That might take longer.
It’s still early afternoon. I have lots of 15-minute increments I can use.
I recently read (sorry, don’t remember where, no link!) about taking on an exercise program this way. One stretch. One set of ten repetitions. One Yoga pose. Heck, anyone can do that. The trick is to start, even if it’s the tiniest baby step imaginable, and build from that.
If I take the trouble to down tools and stretch, I’m going to want to do more than one. If I write one sentence, I’m going to want to write another.
Focusing on one step at a time. One dollar at a time. One breath at a time. One work shift at a time. One sentence at a time. One 15-minute interval at a time.