Episode 8 – Learning from Your Fear Responses

Episode Summary

In this show we discussed the four fear responses, what they are, and how we can learn from them to grow into someone with more problem-solving skills.

Show Transcript

All right, hello everybody and welcome to the Emotional Embuffination podcast. I am your host, David Enevoldsen. And here on Emotional Embuffination, we are training to become emotionally buff enough to overcome any kind of conflict in life. And just as importantly, we're trying to figure out ways of optimizing happiness and discovering just new levels of success and well-being and just figuring out ways to optimize all of those positive emotions. This podcast is just one of many resources I have available. Please check out my website, the Emotional Embuffination website, which is embuffination.com.

All right, on today's show, we are going to be talking about fear responses and what yours are and what you can learn from that and how you can kind of work with it. So, several years back I was working for these group homes and I think this was one of the first times that I became aware of this was going back and analyzing what happened in this time when I was working for this group home. So, I remember this one particular incident where I was tasked with getting up a bunch of clients who were in kind of high school-ish age. They all had some sort of developmental issues. And so, I was tasked with getting them up, making sure that they were getting ready for school, going off, making sure they had their medications, that kind of thing. And one of the clients was this really large kid.

He was a football player in high school. He was huge like he had I remember his arms were just way, way bigger than mine. And he was generally pretty chill. But he was sort of you look at him and you think, man, if he got pissed and he was charging at me or something like that, then I probably wouldn't have fared too well at that time. So, I was talking to him and he was kind of just ignoring me a little bit. And I asked him to take a shower and he kind of blew me off for a bit and didn't seem to want to do that. And then later I asked if he'd brushed his teeth and he said, "No." And I was like, "Well, can you please go brush your teeth?" And he goes, "No." I was like, "Dude, you got to brush your teeth." And he just went, "No." And then I kind of escalated a little bit and I was like, "Come on, man. Go brush your teeth." And he blew up at me out of nowhere. He's like, "What? You want to go? You want to go? Let's go right now." And he puffed up and he shoved his chest into my face. And I took a couple of steps backwards and I went, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Chill, man. I don't want to go. I just need you to brush your teeth." And then he started puffing out even more, and he's like, "I'll take you. Let's go." And I was like, "I don't want to fight you, man." And then I walked out of the room.

I don't even remember what happened after that, but I remember being really, really bothered by this incident and I couldn't articulate why. I felt bothered for many years. I went back quite a few times and I replayed this whole thing in my head and I'm not sure that I necessarily did the wrong thing in this instance. But there was something about it that just gnawed at me. And later I think I finally realized what it was, and that's that I was taking a non-confrontational approach because it was an automatic behavior. That is to say that my response was kind of to run away from this conflict that was popping up in front of me. There was this guy here. I was afraid of engaging in a fight with him. And even if this was the right call, I wasn't really making a choice about it. I just went on to autopilot and I essentially fled the room. And I didn't want to engage in any sort of conflict. I didn't like that I wasn't choosing what was going on. I didn't like that it was just the stimulus in front of me was driving how I was behaving. So, whether that was the right call or not, it bothered me that I was just reacting.

So, let's tear this down a little bit. There are a couple of really common fear responses that we all as human beings engage in. Traditionally, we think of the fight or flight, and I'll probably focus the most on that today. There are I have heard really four different versions, the four F's, and they are fight, flight, freeze and fawn. I regularly hear reference to these in terms of like what happens when somebody is scared? When do they what do they do when they're presented with something that is terrifying to them? First off, fight. So, fight, I think most people sort of intuitively know what fight and flight are. Fight, you become aggressive. You you want to beat down the obstacle. I was watching a video the other day that was these two kids-I saw this on Tik-tok-it was these two kids who were sitting on the couch watching a movie, and it's Christmas time. So, the Grinch walks in. It was some parent or somebody that walks in, in a Grinch outfit, and he's holding a bag and he walks in and he like kind of points at the kids. And then the kids start flipping out and he goes over and he starts trying to take away the presents from the tree and put them into his bag. So, the two kids had very different reactions. One of the kids started crying and he was just sitting on the couch.

The other one started screaming, lost his mind and ran over, and started wailing on this person that was dressed as the Grinch. He was fighting. This is I think this is a real clear dichotomy of these two fight versus flight. You know, we often when we see something we don't like or some challenge obstacle, whatever the fight mode is very driven to destroy the bad guys. It's often angry. It's often I need to overcome this obstacle through a direct confrontation. And sometimes that's appropriate. Sometimes it's not. The flight is kind of the opposite of that. It's, "Oh, there's an enemy over there. I need to run away. I need to hide. I need to leave the scene. I need to get away from here. I just need to flee." And so there the theory is basically there's an enemy that may defeat me or I may get heavily injured in the attack. Here again, this is something that sometimes is appropriate. You know, there's the old idea of if you flee, run away today, you live to fight another day. You know, there's that whole concept and there's truth to that. Sometimes when you stand up and fight, it is a bad thing and it can leave you destroyed or seriously injured or it can ruin things for you. It can tactically be a mistake. But here again, it's a function of the choice.

Freeze and fawn, the other two Fs, I think are more situations that most of us are not familiar with if you haven't been studying this independently. So, freeze, think of like an opossum. The opossum sees an enemy and just stops moving. Maybe if the enemy doesn't see me or thinks I'm dead, it'll just pass by. And the freeze characterization is very often wrapped around inaction. So, in sort of contemporary life, you'll see this involving, like, just almost like analysis paralysis, where you just freeze up. You don't know what to do and you do absolutely nothing. And you sort of pray that whatever the threat is, will just go away. It often also has a lack of thought characterized with it. One of the things that I remember doing that illustrates this scenario was, I had several years back, I had these rental properties and they were investment properties. I had my own house. I was just barely scraping by with these. One of them, I was essentially if the tenants paid me, I was covering the rents. The other one, I was upside down, so I was putting money in every month, even if the tenants paid me in full. And so I was just barely getting by with these. And this was right before the 2008 real estate market collapse. And right after that hit, things started going south on me quickly. And I just kind of put my head in the sand.

I pulled an ostrich, so to speak. I frankly just hoped it would go away. And I took no action whatsoever. I froze up. I didn't know what to do. And in retrospect, there's a lot of things I could have done that would have made things less bad for me in the aftermath of 2008. But I didn't do anything initially. I just froze up. So this is, in my mind, an example of this freeze behavior that can arise where you just you don't even know what to do and you just kind of hope it goes away. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. The last F is fawn, and when you are fawning, this to me is most common in like abuse dynamics. But you perceive an attacker. And you want to placate them. So, for example, I think of scenarios like you have an abused housewife, for example, and husband comes home and he's angry and drunk and he's like, "Ah, what did you do? And I'm angry about whatever." And it seems clear that he's going to unload on the wife. She if she was going to engage in a fawn behavior, might run over and try to do everything she could to make him happy. So she might run over and say, "Oh, here, I brought you dinner and here's another beer," or whatever it is that she can do to just kind of make the threat go away by appeasing the threat.

So these are the four F's, the fight, flight, freeze, form. Now. I would encourage you to kind of take a look at what you have done. Now, you may not be limited to one of these, but look at what you've done throughout your lifetime. Think of some different moments where you were facing some sort of conflict, some sort of threat that felt intimidating to you. Did you ever engage in automatic behaviors? Did you do anything just intuitively. And if so, what did you do? And then when you look at that thing that you did, does it fit one of these the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn? And I can tell you, for me, in the past, it used to be that my defaults were flight and freeze. You know, I just told you that story about the the rental properties and I just kind of froze up and did nothing. The scenario I talked about when I was working in the group home where I fled the room, that was a flight example. My defaults were never fight. I was never the combative one. I was never the one that chases down the Grinch and tries to tackle him to keep him from stealing the presents. I was I was more of the kid that would hide on the couch and just cry and hope that somebody else would deal with it or the threat would just pass and somehow it would just all work out.

Think about what your defaults are. What is, what do you drift into? And then think for just a second, what are the bad things about going into that default? Versus what are the good things about going into that default? All of these have advantages and disadvantages just intrinsically. If you're engaging in any one of these behaviors, there is a positive and a negative. Think, for example, about fighting. I have heard people say before things that are coming out of their particular default. You know, for example, people that default to fighting often we'll talk about how you need to always be able to stand up to oppression. You always need to be able to stand tall and assert your rights and make sure nobody's walking over you. Because that's the fear is that if you are not doing that, and if that's what already comes easy to you, then you can throw your weight around and get your way or protect yourself or make sure that your rights are not being trampled on. And there's lots of examples of this in history. Think of like Nelson Mandela. You know, he was directly fighting a set of injustices in Apartheid. That was a form of fighting. Gandhi, you know, even though this wasn't like physical combat, he's another example of that where he was directly confronting somebody that he perceived as engaging in injustice and generally prevailing.

These are examples of fighting and fighting can often be a really powerful tool in conflict resolution. Now, on the other hand, if the only thing you ever do is fight, there can be scenarios where that blows up in your face. I have seen many, many, many scenarios where somebody just becomes combative and unnecessarily escalates the situation, or they start allocating resources and energy and time to fighting something that just does not matter. One of the chapters in the Emotional Embuffination book is all about picking your battles. You know, there's times when something doesn't make sense to chase down a fight over. And we all have finite resources. And I know people think that, well, I have more money than this other person so I can out litigate them or I'm stronger than this other person so I can just continue to fight in perpetuity until they wear down. But really, any type of fight takes up some sort of mental bandwidth an if that's if not more like the resources you have or the money you have and no matter how large in scale. You can run into serious problems. In the book, I talk a little bit about Martin Luther King Jr talking about the difference between when he had his efforts diffused versus when he was very focused and targeted on something. So, pick your battles. It can make a huge difference. I think also when either Napoleon or Hitler tried to move into Russia, they kind of faced a similar problem where they just spread themselves all over the place and then suddenly they were in serious trouble.

So, fighting has a positive and a negative. Same thing with flight. You know, we talked a minute ago about live to fight another day. There are scenarios where it makes sense to run away. Sometimes there are tactical reasons to run away. So, for example, this is this is a scenario I've seen pop up before. We had as a criminal attorney, I've seen clients coming to me with hit and runs where they got into a car crash and then they fled the scene. And then later on the police find them and they say, "Well, you fled the scene. Here's a criminal ticket for this hit and run." But it turns out the police didn't necessarily know this, that the person that hit the car, the client had been drinking, and so they were trying to avoid a DUI. And from a purely tactical perspective, as terrible as this sounds, it probably ended up in a better situation for them because the consequences of a DUI in Arizona are way worse than the consequences of a hit and run. So that's sort of an example of my in my mind of a tactical choice to minimize negative consequences based on what's going on involving flight. There's lots of examples, I think, where flight makes just straight up sense in the combat.

Obviously, if you've got an attacker that there's a good chance they can do harm to you, that they're bigger or stronger, are going to win, are going to seriously injure you, you should flee or try to see if you can avoid the confrontation. There is a lot of reason to not engage in fights. There's a lot of reason to pick your battles and just eliminate the potential for any sort of combat, whether it's physical or otherwise. Flight can be a great thing, but sometimes that can be a problem. You know what if somebody else is getting hurt? What if you've got a child that is being beaten by someone and this person looks huge, but you're terrified of them? Do you just run away? You can't. You've got to go protect your child. And so there are definitely times to stand up and fight. There are definitely times to be able to assert your rights. And one of the big problems here becomes in the contrast, if you always run, then those scenarios where you need to fight you're not able to. If you're always fighting, in those scenarios where you shouldn't be taking on a fight because that's going to escalate it or drag you into some unnecessary conflict, you need to be able to flip that script and learn to walk away sometimes. What about freezing? Think about what are the advantages and disadvantages of freezing.

In my mind, I almost think of like, this isn't exactly freezing because it's not inaction, but it gives you a moment to kind of think about what's going on, if your impulse is to not blow up at the attacker sometimes the attack will pass. Sometimes this gives you a few minutes to kind of figure out what is going on here. What am I going to do? And it's preventing escalation at the same time, you know, contrast this with somebody in front of me screaming. If I immediately start screaming back, that problem is going to escalate. If somebody starts screaming at me and my impulse is to just freeze up that's giving me at least some time to go, "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" The problem comes, if I don't ever take action or the the point of conflict, the attack or whatever it is that's going on ends up rolling over me because I was frozen in my situation with the rental properties, I think is a good example of that going haywire. I ended up suffering a lot of financial problems because I just ignored it and things could have been much better than they were for me had I started moving. So here again, there can be advantages and disadvantages. Fawning. Fawning is an interesting one. I I have some experience here too, but not very much.

My impulse is not usually to go to fawn, but when your impulse is to fawn, there is. There's a reason that that behavior pattern has developed in the first place, because sometimes you can de-escalate an attack. One of the problems with fight or flight is that often times the attacker will inflame their behaviors. If you immediately directly confront your opponent or you just start immediately trying to run away from them, that either one of those scenarios can make them ramp up the attack. If they sense that you want to run now, they're going to become emboldened and maybe go even harder at you. If they sense that you're being combative back now, they've got to put you in your place. So, by fawning, you can frequently de-escalate an attack. If you come up and you say, "Oh, what's wrong? How can we help you?" You avoid getting yourself into additional problems. You don't risk the same kind of injury there. But here again, if your only mechanism here is to fawn and you have no other legitimate behavior patterns at your disposal for dealing with conflict, then the second this person is not dissuaded by your efforts to fawn, you could be rolled over injured, something terrible could happen. So, all of these things have positives and negatives. They all have strengths and weaknesses. Now that we've talked about which responses you engage in by default. Think about which ones are really hard for you.

For me, standing up and fighting was hard for a very long time. And sometimes still is. Sometimes I have difficulty with that confrontation. I know I've spoken with a number of counselors who've mentioned that assertiveness training is huge. A lot of people have difficulty with confronting other people with engaging in the point of conflict. With standing up for themselves or their rights. Is that one hard for you? Or do you take the opposite side of this? Do you have difficulty backing down? Are you too noisy? Are you finding it difficult in a moment of conflict to step back and say, "All right, I'm not going to scream at this person or blow up?" That can be a problem, too. Is it difficult for you to just take a moment and kind of freeze up and just say, "Wait, wait, wait, what's going to happen? What do I need to do?" Is it difficult for you to be nice to an attacker and say and basically engage in the fawning? Like where where is the hard part for you? For me, the analysis is really revolving around, in terms of self-improvement, the analysis has to revolve around what am I good at? Then what am I really struggling in terms of improving? And then how do I adopt the ability to engage in those other things. A lot of this is just practice. It's initially you have to become aware of it, but then once you become aware of it, start to notice times where you run away or you fight unnecessarily.

And then after the fact, go back and think how you can rewire it. This is a for me, this is a huge strategy where if I run through a situation and I think about it later and I go, "Oh my gosh, I should have done this other thing, I totally did that wrong." Replay it in your mind and think about what the appropriate sequence of actions were. And then the next time you run into a situation like that, see if you can implement that. If not, run through it again. Come up with different hypotheticals in which you I mean, consciously sit down and think, okay, where might I run into problems like this and what would I do in that situation? When would it be appropriate to fight? And practice with it. If you run into a situation where you're running into this conflict intentionally don't back down or intentionally back down or whatever the reciprocal is. Hypotheticals are huge. And just visualizing can be important. Now, when one cautionary note, because if you follow me at all, you know that I'm big on Law of Attraction stuff. You don't want to think too much about the failures in this whole string of hypotheticals you're running through. You want to think about how you're going to prevail in it.

So, imagine a scenario where you're being faced with conflict and you're successfully using the thing that's hard for you to prevail over that conflict. Just don't think about here's me losing. Don't dwell on the things that you messed up or that you think that you should have done differently in the past. Fixate on here's what I should be doing and here's a more positive outcome.

Another big one for me is to meditate. This, I find this to be absolutely huge. There is something about meditation that, in the moment of meditation, I feel like I sort of disconnect from my body at times, especially when I'm doing a kind of mindfulness meditation or something of that nature. I have this almost sense that I'm not even in my body sometimes, that I'm sort of disconnected from what's going on, and I've been able to carry that same sensation into moments of conflict where I say, for example, somebody screaming at me, I have almost an ability to step back when that's happening. And I go, "Oh yeah, that feeling when I'm in meditation" and I almost can see the conflict happening like it's between two other people and I'm watching it on a movie. And there's something about that dynamic that really makes it feel different. If you're watching a movie, sometimes our heart rate goes up a little bit as we're watching something, but very often we recognize that we're not in the movie.

And so there's a different level of stress that goes on when we're watching a movie versus when we're there in person. And you can capture that same sensation of this is just on the screen, even if it's really happening to you. And that, for me, is a product of meditation. There's other things you can do similar to that. Our last show we talked about Jiu-Jitsu and how the practice of Jiu-Jitsu can be almost like a way of desensitizing yourself to conflict. We're taking these little doses of conflict and exposing yourself to it. Then it becomes easier to step back from conflict when it's happening and temper your reactions to not be quite so reactive in the moment just because you feel like it's life or death. Now you can kind of step back and say, "Oh, here's what's happening." Journaling is another big one for me. I am I'm huge on journaling. And in case anybody isn't aware of this, I've got a guided journal. It's called My Reality Generator. You can learn more about it at myrealitygenerator.com. And in there, if you're writing about your thoughts and feelings, it's sort of forcing you to work through the same sorts of things that going through hypos helps you with. You can kind of analyze things post, post-event. You go back and look and say, What did I do wrong? What could I have done better? You're simultaneously fixating on here are the the better ways that I can do things. Here is the the feelings that are holding me back, that kind of thing.

One more big thing for me and this is sort of come out of an understanding of the big five personality aspect scale. And I'm not going to go into what that is right now, but it's probably have to do a separate show on it because it's pretty amazing and it essentially just looks at how personalities are constructed, how they work, that sort of thing. So within that, within certain of the parts of your personality, there seems to be some research showing that it's hard to change them. For example, if you're an introvert versus extrovert, if you're high on extraversion, for example, it's really hard to make yourself into an introvert. I don't even know if that's possible or vice versa. If you're like a hard core introvert, it's really hard to make yourself an extrovert. And so sometimes it can be challenging if you're seeing the strengths of the other end of the spectrum. If I'm an introvert, which I am, and I look at extroverts and I think, "Gosh, I really wish I was an extrovert." That can be challenging. And so, one of the things that you do to kind of get around that is you sort of recognize where you are. You recognize your strengths to something and you figure out how to adapt to it in a way that's going to benefit you.

One of the examples I think of this for purposes of what we're talking about here, the fear responses was when I first became an attorney, I had this family court case that I was working on, and I had this lady across from me, an attorney on the other side. She was representing her client, of course. And every time I would have a phone call with her, she would start yelling at me. She would scream at me. She would tell me I was an idiot and I was doing everything wrong. And my client was an idiot. He was doing everything wrong. And it was just rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah. Very, very toxic. And it got to a point where I was like, terrified of talking to this woman on the phone. And when I see the phone calls come in and they were coming in a lot, I was like, I felt like I was being bullied. But I was afraid, you know, that I was going back to that same flight thing. And I remember we couldn't work it out. I tried to work it out and we didn't resolve. We ended up going to a trial and I put on my case and we're sitting there and the judge ruled from the bench and the judge ruled entirely in our favor. And ruled entirely against the other side in the middle of the hearing.

And so, the other attorney just started having a tantrum in open court, and the judge yelled at her and started arguing with her. And I remember turning to my client, I wrote down on a notepad like, "Just be chill. We're winning." And it went really well. And so later on, I was talking to a retired judge who was kind of a mentor of mine at the time. And I said, I explain this whole story about what had happened. And he goes, "So what is the lesson from that?" And I went, "I don't know what is the lesson from that?" And he goes, "Well, the lesson is you initiate representation. You talk to the other side. You see if you can work it out. If not, you go to trial and you let the judge figure it out. If you can work it out, great. And that's it." And I remember thinking, "Holy crap. It's so simple." I was so wrapped up in the moment of conflict with this woman who was trying to bully me, bully my client into submission, that I was getting freaked out and I was fixated on that. But if I just sort of ignored that and I figured, okay, here it is, take it or leave it, can we work it out? Cool. Let's be reasonable. No. All right. Let's go to trial. And I can just sort of dispassionately put on a trial because I knew how to put on a trial.

I had been trained on that in law school, and I had some experience after that working for other people. So I knew how to do a trial that wasn't really scary. And so it really became this super simple dynamic. And ever since that moment, every time I've had a really conflict-oriented case, I think, here it is. Let's take it or leave it. It doesn't I don't care if we get into an argument about it because I'm not going to argue with you. And it almost disconnects me from this need to fight. So it's like a way of fighting without having to be combative. It's a way for me to stand up for my rights or the rights of somebody else without having to feel like I've got to turn myself into this person who by default will fight. And I think you run into problems when you do it that way. I think you run into problems when you try to say, "I need to become something I'm not." Because now you're spending all your time trying to convince yourself to turn into a different creature. And again, if we go back to the law of attraction implications here, then I start to think about here's what I'm not. And then I basically just manifest, I'm not that thing. And so, it becomes even harder. So basically, just figure out how to tap into your own strengths that you already exist with.

Find ways to overcome the thing that you're terrified of. If you are if you're the biggest challenge of this whole thing is kind of combating that immediate impulse. And that starts with an awareness and then starts with kind of practice after that of learning to redirect the direction of your or alter the direction of your default behavior patterns. If you can do that, then over time you can start to really change around what's going on. And then the ultimate objective objective here is to learn to have multiple tools at your disposal. So that if you are in a moment of conflict, it's not just, I'm going to be super passive and run away from the conflict or it's not I'm just going to immediately puff up and start screaming. You have different tools for different situations. And you can use the appropriate one. That is incredibly powerful empowering. It's also incredibly important because you can save yourself a lot of grief by using the right tool for the right situation. Sometimes it's right to fight. Sometimes it's right to walk away. Sometimes it's right to take no action whatsoever. Sometimes it's better to see if you can just make the attacker feel good just because that'll soften everything up. Pick the right tool for the right situation and be capable of using that right tool, no matter what your default behavior pattern is.

And that takes practice. But you can't even get to the practice till you have awareness. I think I'll wrap it up there. That should cover our discussion of the fears, the four F's, and kind of our default behavior patterns and what you can do with those. How do you shift into a place where you're using them for your benefit and you can pick whatever the right tool is? That's what we've been talking about, practicing through those different things like meditation, journaling, running hypos in your head, learning to adapt the behaviors in such a way that they don't feel like you're having to reverse and adopt something that just isn't you. Think about that and analyze where where your behavior patterns are falling. How can you change them?

I hope you found this useful, and I hope that you can take away something here. I hope that this is inspiring. Some thought doing something to contribute to your life, making you just a little bit better. Remember, keep becoming more emotionally embuffed all the time. You can't just do that one time and say, I'm done forever. You got to keep on working on it all the time. At the end of the day, I want you to be able to walk around in such an emotionally strengthened state that you are going to go from saying, "The struggle is real," to saying, "What struggle?" Thank you all for listening. I hope you've enjoyed this. Have a great week and we'll see you on the next show.