Tag Archives: PTSD

Traumatic Response: Fawning

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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The Doll

Dolls, like clowns, have a long and powerful history of symbolic meaning for human beings. We think of most dolls now as playthings for children, but dolls have always been much more than toys.

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The old word for doll was “poppet,” related to the English word “puppet.” In many cultures, dolls were used for spiritual rituals and magic, and as oracles. They are perhaps most famous as tools of black magic, but were also used for healing, fertility, and romantic and protective spells. From the Far East to Africa to the Americas, dolls have been an important social instrument for centuries.

There exist in the world a small handful of haunted dolls, both in museums and collections and for sale on sites like eBay. Several horror movies have been inspired by famous haunted dolls, such as Robert and Annabelle.

As a child I didn’t have dolls, and didn’t want them. A toy doll to mother and care for was not nearly as much fun as a pet, of which we had an abundance, and nothing was as lovely a plaything for me as a book. Some things never change.

No, I didn’t have a doll until I was nearly 50 years old, when I decided I needed a very specific kind of doll for a very specific reason. Most traditional dolls were handmade out of whatever materials were available. As a child of the twentieth century, I went shopping online, trusting I would know her when I found her. I already knew her name.

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I wanted a new doll resembling myself. I looked at hundreds of dolls, mostly hideous, plastic and cheap, trying to find good old-fashioned rag dolls or soft dolls. There are some, but they’re few and far between. Alas, there are no dolls depicting (ahem!) maturity. Most of them simper, lowering plastic eyelids over improbably shiny blue or brown eyes. They have equally shiny and synthetic hair and frilly clothes. It was a little like shopping for candy in the candy aisle during Halloween. Slick, artificial, patently synthetic color, all sugar and no substance. Certainly, I found no dolls with even one grey hair or crow’s feet around the eyes. I thought about making a dried apple doll, but it was a fleeting thought. For some reason, that wasn’t quite what I wanted.

I persisted until I found a plain rag doll with brown yarn hair tied into two bunches with ribbons and blue eyes. She wore a yellow dress and white felt shoes on primitive club-shaped feet.

I grew up doing all kinds of embroidery, cross stitch and needlework, but I never learned to use a sewing machine or do practical things like make clothing, so I had to ask for help to get more appropriate clothes made. I found a young woman who sewed and asked her to make my doll a pair of denim jeans and some kind of a top. I told her the doll was for a niece of mine who was something of a tomboy and a mountain kid. I didn’t want to admit the doll was mine.

Dolls are commonly used for therapy for adults and children. In my explorations, I’d run across the idea of working with one’s inner child many times, and I knew making a doll to represent oneself is a common therapeutic activity. As I’d never had any meaningful kind of relationship with dolls, this didn’t attract me.

Until it did. I’m not sure exactly why my interest in dolls changed at that particular point in my life. All I can really say is that I was suddenly ready to figure out if I could love myself. A doll seemed an obvious way to externalize the parts of me that felt so chronically unloved and unwanted. Beyond that, I really didn’t think. I just felt the need, and obeyed it.

When the clothes were ready (jeans, a T-shirt and a zippered sweatshirt), I dressed the doll and cut her brown yarn hair short. After spending most of my life with long hair, I’d recently cut mine, more as an act of rebellion and self-mutilation than anything else.

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I cut the doll’s hair with a mixture of anger, resentment and grief, and a strange thing happened. Instead of looking at her with loathing, I had the completely unexpected and spontaneous thought that the short hair was cute. It wasn’t ugly. It didn’t make her look like an old hag, used up, dried up, sexless and powerless. That’s what I saw when I looked in the mirror at myself, but when I looked at the doll I saw something else entirely. As a child I had begged to be allowed to have long hair. I was eventually allowed to, when I was old enough to care for it. This was reasonable, as my hair is thick, curly and unruly, to put it mildly. For years, though, as a slim, short-haired, active child in the same tough jeans my brother wore, I was taken for a boy.

Somehow, looking down at that helpless rag doll and the short ends of yarn scattered around her, it seemed I was looking at a version of myself that’s long vanished, except in memory, and I didn’t hate her. She wasn’t loathsome. She merely had short hair. I’d meant to hurt her, even mutilate her, but her innocence turned a hostile act into a reluctant feeling of wanting to protect her from any who would seek to hurt her, including myself.

This was a powerful moment. It was so powerful that I doubted myself. What would people say if they knew I’d bought myself a doll and lied about it in order to get the clothes I wanted for her? What would they think of me? What did it say about me, these feelings of self-hatred mixed up with an uneasy need to protect? Protect the doll from me? Protect the doll from others? Protect myself?

I was confused, embarrassed and compelled. I kept the doll with me as I moved around my little log cabin, not to handle, but just to look at. Occasionally, I talked to her, in the same way I talked to the cat I belonged to at the time.

Then, one day, something distressed me. I was trying to calm down and think more clearly, and I saw the doll, sitting propped on a table. I picked her up and held her against my shoulder, patting her back and swaying on my feet in the age-old motions of comforting a baby. I had worked for years with chronic and terminally ill children and their families as a young woman and then raised two kids of my own. I love and understand children, and the familiarity of holding one again made me weep.

I was also instantly comforted, as though I myself was being held in spite of my age and ugliness. I’ve been aware all my life of the longing to be safe, secure and loved in someone’s arms, a longing I rarely admit, always endeavor to bury deep, and feel much shame about. Something about holding the doll assuaged that longing. In a strange sort of way, I was holding myself, or at least some part of myself.

I can’t explain the neurophysiological effect of being able to hold and comfort my doll. Perhaps a neurologist or a good psychiatrist could. What I do know is that it’s been enormously and unexpectedly healing. The gnawing need for nonsexual physical reassurance and affection has been something I’ve learned to live with, never revealing it or expecting to have this need met. If I could not find it as a young, reasonably attractive woman, I’ll surely never find it now. I can’t hold myself, but I can hold my doll. I don’t always treat myself with unconditional love, but I can give that to my doll. In fact, I’m incapable of giving her anything else. I’ve always found it much, much easier to love others than myself. Loving others is a beautiful way to live, but it’s not always reciprocated or even recognized for what it is, and much of the love I’ve given has walked away from me, never to return. With the doll, somehow my love comes back into my own starving skin and heart.

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I’ve had the doll for about six years now. I’ve turned to her in times of fear, insomnia, emotional pain, panic attacks and PTSD. I’ve wept with her (and perhaps for her), rocked her, kissed her, practiced Havening with her, snuggled her and slept with her in my arms. Until now, I’ve kept her presence in my life a secret from all but one person. She’s been more useful to me than any psychological therapy or pharmaceuticals I’ve ever tried, with the single exception of emotional intelligence coaching.

I’m writing this post now because I thought it would be fun for Halloween, haunted dolls being a thing in our culture. As I write, however, I’m slightly sobered. I’m not prepared to debate whether haunted dolls or haunted anything else are “real.” The belief in such things is what fascinates me, along with the history of such objects, investigation into this kind of phenomena, and the way it captures our imaginations. What I will say is that if an object or person can be haunted or possessed, I would assume intense energy or emotion is associated with such possession.

It’s not hard for me to understand why dolls, like clowns, have so captured our imaginations. I’m quite certain that my doll is the most intimate object in my life. I would never want to see her in another’s hands. God forbid she ever takes it into her head to talk about my demons and vulnerabilities. I don’t mind if she wants to move around in my attic space, though, or even look out the windows, as other haunted dolls are alleged to have done.

Playing with my doll. My daily crime.

Lightning storm

What We Didn’t Learn in Kindergarten: Thoughts and Feelings

One of the most important distinctions I’ve ever learned is the difference between thoughts and feelings. Sadly, I didn’t learn it in public or higher education. I didn’t learn it from my family. I didn’t learn it from my culture. I didn’t learn it, in fact, until I was 50 years old.

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What I understand now is that ignorance of the difference between thoughts and feelings effectively cripples us in every area of our lives. Our misunderstanding, fear and confusion about thoughts and feelings lie like a Gordian knot in the center of our psyches, inhibiting authenticity, clear communication, satisfying professional life, and healthy relationship. Our experience becomes a murky pond, breeding anxiety, fear and isolation.

To be human is to have feelings. It’s unavoidable. Some feelings are pleasant, and some are not. As very young children, we take our cues from others and label some feelings “good” and others “bad.” That is the starting point of our confusion, because “good” and “bad” describe thoughts about our feelings rather than the feelings themselves.

Feelings 101: Mad, sad, glad, scared and ashamed. This is a short list of basic human emotions that we all experience. Our feelings occur far faster than we can use logic, reason or language. Most of us recognize these core emotions in ourselves and others, though we often deny that recognition because of our thoughts about them. For example, many women of my generation have been taught that anger is unattractive and “bad.” Men are discouraged from feeling or expressing sadness. From our earliest childhood, we are taught how to think about our feelings, rather than how to identify and express them appropriately.

As a result of all this thinking, we suppress, distort, deny, and try to amputate our feelings rather than welcoming, exploring, experiencing, and discharging them in a way that hurts neither ourselves nor others.

The problem is that if we don’t properly manage our feelings and allow them to pass through our bodies and our consciousness the way clouds pass through the sky, they become locked in place, festering and putrefying and eventually tearing us apart, both emotionally and physically.

Now I think of emotions as data, neither positive or negative. What we choose to do with our feelings is where the trouble begins, but the feelings themselves are neutral pieces of information indicating the degree to which our needs are met or not met. Our marvelous brains are evolved to collect specifics and details such as thoughts and feelings and organize them into some kind of coherence in order to facilitate life. Glad is not better than mad. Sad and scared are not necessarily negative experiences to be avoided.

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I vividly remember receiving my second divorce decree in the mail. I sat at the kitchen table, looking down at those official papers, feeling a kind of numb despair, mixed with relief.

I reviewed what seemed to me a lifetime of failure. I believed I’d failed my parents repeatedly, my brother, my kids, and both men I’d married. I’d dropped out of college. I was always struggling with money. All I’d ever done was work as hard as I knew how, and it seemed to me the harder I worked, the more I failed. I must truly be ugly and broken. It was no wonder nobody could love me. That I could feel even a little relief just showed how hateful I was. I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. I deserved to be alone.

Now look back at those last two paragraphs. The first one is two sentences long and identifies numb despair and relief, which are feelings. The second paragraph isn’t about my feelings at all. It’s about my thoughts about my feelings. My stories. My expectations. My beliefs. The second paragraph is about depression, the way I framed my past, and my inability to either accept or forgive myself. I offered myself no compassion or kindness that afternoon. I did not congratulate myself for having successfully exited an abusive marriage. I hated myself for my furtive but honest feeling of relief.

I don’t know about you, but the inside of my head is much better reflected in the second paragraph than in the first, and I would have, at that time, told you those were my feelings. They weren’t, though. They were merely my thoughts about my feelings.

I’m convinced that feelings are not what hurt us. In fact, they help us. When I feel mad, now I immediately ask myself if I’m experiencing or witnessing a boundary violation. Nearly always, the answer is yes. The emotion we call anger is helping me, giving me valuable information, pointing at something I need to deal with. That mad feeling is righteous and rightful, and it motivates action, hopefully appropriate and effective action.

Appropriate and effective action brings me to the most important aspect of learning emotional intelligence. It turns out that our thoughts and feelings, no matter how passionately we experience them, may not reflect reality.

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In other words, we can’t believe everything we think and feel. Or, rather, we can believe in our experience, but not necessarily our interpretation of our experience, and this means we frequently do not make appropriate and effective choices.

Managing our feelings requires we take responsibility for them.

As an example, many people walk around with PTSD triggers in their brains. I am one of those people. Now and then, specific circumstances trigger my panic, but that trigger is about me, not anyone else. I don’t expect the world to accommodate my PTSD. I don’t blame others when I get triggered. I feel the panic and all the other wretched symptoms, and those feelings are physiologically real. I’m not making them up. Yet I know what I’m experiencing is not real trauma in the moment, but a memory, a ghost, an echo of an old hurt.

Our thoughts can also lead us astray. We all have convictions, opinions and beliefs, but, and I can’t emphasize this enough, we can be wrong. In fact, we frequently are wrong. We misunderstand. We assume. We deny and distort. Our logic is flawed or we are ignorant of important pieces of information. We don’t think critically or for ourselves. We make up stories in our head, tell them to ourselves until we believe them, make choices as though our stories are true, and wonder why our relationships are disrupted and our lives don’t work well.

So, what to do?

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First, we need to go back to that 101 list of feelings and start recognizing, naming and accepting them when they come up for us. Where do we feel those core emotions in our bodies? What do we notice about our experience when we’re feeling mad, sad, glad, scared or ashamed? How do we manage the feeling? How is our coping style working for us? What happens if we sit down and hold an emotion in our laps without feeling compelled to take action, simply allowing it to ebb and flow through us? Who in our lives allows us to feel what we feel, and who doesn’t?

Secondly, we need to stop blaming anyone (or everyone) around us for our emotional experience. If we find ourselves in relationship with people who consistently make us feel angry, sad, exhausted and valueless, we need to take responsibility for exiting those relationships. We are not powerless. Chronic difficult feelings are asking for help, but we need to think clearly and carefully about the choices we make in order to help ourselves. Trying to feel better at the expense of someone else’s well-being is not appropriate. Self-destructing is not effective. It’s up to us to respond to our own emotional experience with kindness, acceptance and support.

Lastly, we need to monitor our thoughts, and challenge them frequently. I am constantly overhearing myself mindlessly repeating old beliefs and conclusions and saying, “Wait, is that true?” Nine times out of ten, it’s not true, or it only might be true. Another tactic I use now is to open my mouth and check out my perception. I live with a person I trust. If an interaction between us results in difficult feelings for me, I circle back around and talk about it, frequently finding out in the process that my thoughts and feelings have once again been skewed by old scars. I have misunderstood, or imperfectly understood, and leapt to mistaken conclusions and assumptions.

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Talking it over with someone we trust, someone who won’t gaslight us. What a concept.

Thoughts and feelings flow through our lives, sometimes in a destructive torrent and sometimes in a slow, life-giving trickle. They arise within us, are of us, and are our responsibility. Thoughts and feelings are two distinct pieces of data, and they do not necessarily reflect reality. We are not entitled to have them validated by the world. Our thought-and-feeling experience is not more important or true than anyone else’s.

I will not be a slave to my thoughts and feelings, or those of anyone else. My emotions are my friends and guides rather than my enemies or masters. They are not a matter of shame. I don’t believe everything they tell me about reality, but they do help me understand the places in which I can heal and grow, and they are part of my decision-making process.

I feel satisfied. I think this post is complete. My daily crime.