Many years ago I worked in a group home. Part of my duties there required that I wake up the residents and get them ready for work or school.

One of the residents was a high school football player. He was a big guy with arms the size of tree trunks. Generally, he remained pretty quiet and compliant with whatever was asked.

One morning I was coordinating everyone getting up for the morning. I asked the football player several times to brush his teeth. He ignored me. I finally snapped at him that I needed him to brush his teeth. He spun around and started screaming at me, “you wanna fight?” while taking a combative stance.

I immediately switched into a different tone of voice, saying I had no desire to fight him. Then I left the room. When I did so, it was like I was on auto-pilot.

For years afterward, my reaction really bothered me. It wasn’t necessarily that my actions were right or wrong in that situation so much as that I felt like I wasn’t in control of my choice. I just reacted out of fear.

Eventually, it occurred to me that the way I responded was much the same as how I responded in many situations. And this incident gave me insight into my automatic fear responses.

The Primary Ways We Deal With Fear

Most humans learn to deal with fear in one of 4 primary ways. While these are intuitive to a certain extent, they’re often learned and reinforced sometime early in our lives. We learn a way or a couple of ways to deal with scary things. Then suddenly, that’s how we find ourselves dealing with every kind of challenge.

The fear responses are often referred to as the “4 Fs.” They are:

(1) Fight – This involves trying to dominate, crush, harm, or destroy the thing that scares us.

(2) Flight – This involves running away from the thing that scares us.

(3) Freeze – This involves inaction when we see something that scares us. It’s kind of like when an opossum plays dead to convince predators it’s not worth eating. The freeze response usually relies on the hope we won’t get noticed or the scary thing will just go away.

(4) Fawn – This involves an effort to appease the thing that scares us. It’s most common in domestic violence situations when an abuse victim attempts to make the abuser feel better by giving him whatever he wants in the hope that he won’t attack or will stop an attack.

The Strengths and Weaknesses in Our Fear Responses

Each of the 4 fear responses is useful. Sometimes standing up and fighting is important. On occasion running and living to see another fight is important. There are times when being calm enough to stop in a moment of crisis and not take immediate action can be useful to avoid reacting emotionally.

The problem is that most of us learn one dominant way of dealing with things and don’t think about how to embrace other behavior patterns. If my impulse is to fight when I don’t like what’s going on, sometimes I’ll fight unnecessarily and make everything worse. For those who want to run away from conflict, sometimes injustice will prevail over you and you’ll find it impossible to truly stand up when you need to.

Every fear response is a way of solving problems. And that’s sort of the problem. We intuitively learn one methodology to fix things but ignore all the others.

Embracing Other Fear Responses

Because of all this, one huge way of leveling up is to identify what your go-to fear responses are. Then find out what fear responses are difficult for you. Those difficult ones are the path you need to explore.

For example, if you regularly go out of your way to avoid conflict by either fawning or fleeing you’re unlikely to default to fighting. If you don’t know how to fight, then you won’t be able to stand up for your rights or those of someone else when you need to. Because of that learning how to fight more is where you need to focus your attention.

Go into a periodic assessment and review how you’re dealing with conflict. Identify a fear response you’re constantly using then try to plan out ways in which you might use a different one. This doesn’t mean you have to do nothing but that, but you need to be capable of engaging in the fear responses you don’t like.

Visualize different scenarios wherein you see yourself using the fear response that’s difficult for you. Journal about it. Have a mantra around it. Meditate on it. Keep going until you’re able to engage in the more difficult fear response.