Dear Turtle, (May 8th, 2005)

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Dear Turtle,

My question is – how possible is it to change one's response to fear – say from FIGHT to FLEE? I'm guessing one has to shoot for something even better such as calm the reptile and talk – but how about FLEE until one gains perspective enough and calms the lizard (away from the fear stimulus) and is then capable of talking w/o fighting?

I freeze or flee when I feel unsafe with my girlfriend – I withdraw and don't want to interact until my reptilian brain says "looks like safety."

My girlfriend "closes in" – moves physically closer – becomes verbally and physically aggressive – during the time she says she sees me as the source of her unsafety. She states that I "scare the hell out of her" and appears to want to engage and fight the thing that scares her. So I make up that her response to her lizard saying NOT SAFE! is Fight, vs my Freeze / Flee.

I believe this was learned as an effective response from the time she was a small child – almost daily "saving" her mother from being killed by her father, by staying awake waiting by their bedroom door at night. If she heard the sounds of her mothers life being threatened or being beaten, she would rush in and take her father's attention away from beating her mother by getting between them and attacking him both verbally and physically.

My freezing and fleeing may have been learned as a child where I experienced that I wouldn't be heard or get what I needed from others and it was safest to withdraw and try to create for myself whatever I needed – more likely to get it without being yelled at.

We do not live together at this time, and before she can visit at my house again, I would like consistent demonstration that she will LEAVE for 1/2 hr or couple of hours if she feels extremely unsafe – instead of FIGHT and create a huge scene which felt dangerous to me and my child.

I remember her grabbing at me trying to get me to come out of my room, saying "I JUST WANT TO TALK TO YOU!" but the manner and my fear of what that "talk" would be like – told me this was not the time a safe or productive talk could take place and I needed to have a physical barrier between us (a locked door, or as things are now – living apart and meeting some place other than my house.)

For me the first step in safety is that she goes away if too heightened, and meets me later when dialogue is possible. Is that even possible for someone with ingrained FIGHT response to danger?

Signed, Curious


Dear Curious (my response), 

I really enjoyed your questions and what seems your obvious curiosity about yourself and your girlfriend.  I think you are using the image of the Lizard well in trying to find new behaviors that will make your life, and your life with your friend, better.  I also think you are experiencing the kinds of things I did as I moved along in my learning.  Since you have the freshman course in Safety under your belt, I’ll be glad to share some “sophomore level” stuff. 

The answer to your "is it possible" is a definite YES.  There are better and worser lizard defensive actions and I think it is always a good idea to see for the better ones.  I think your lizard wants you to take better care of it. But how to do about it?

One shift I encourage you to make is to visualize your lizard a little more separate from you.  I would language this as “I’ve learned that my lizard typically reacts with FIGHT tactics.  What can I do to give it better options?”  I think it useful to see yourself as “taking care or soothing your own lizard.”  My reasoning is that you see the world very differently from the way your lizard does.   An example might be useful.  I’ve found that my lizard cannot tell the difference between what I do and what other’s do.  My lizard is reactive to criticizing (my mom).  When it hears criticizing it goes on the defense whether someone else is doing the criticizing or I am the one doing the criticizing.  Thus if you see your lizard as “not you,” I think it is easier to start speculating on what it is thinking of or imagining.

Another shift I encourage you to make is to see your lizard as being SAFE or NOT SAFE and that when NOT SAFE it uses tactics to move toward safety.  Flee, Freeze, Submit, Fight are simply the possible tactics, each having maybe hundreds of ways they can be expressed.  Which one your body/mind chooses to use in a given situation, I think, depends on your past experience/training and also possibly some genetic factors. 

The general rules from nature are “if it works, do it again,” and “practice makes perfect.”  That is how we have all come to learn the habits we currently have.  That’s how we learned the forms of reaction that we are using now.  If I typically jump to “fighting” it is probably because that worked in the past when I was trying to meet my need and it worked over and over. Kids learn tantrums because tantrums work for them.  All the wonderful parenting skills that are being taught now (read Love and Logic) are based on training the parents to act toward their children so that dysfunctional behaviors don’t work and functional ones do work.

Since our Lizards always want safety, I always think it is good to find out “what is safe from my lizard’s point of view – i.e. what will make my lizard move toward relaxing.”  Learning a new behavior for your lizard means “finding a way to move toward safety that works better than the ones it has become used to” and “doing this new skill over and over until it becomes automatic.”   One added help is additionally fixing it so that the old behavior works even more poorly – i.e. scares you lizard more than before.  I repeat.  Make the old behavior bad or expensive, and repeatedly practice a new behavior that works better.

Oh, and one more understanding is the issue of self-responsibility.  My lizard really wants ME to be in charge of its safety.  When I get other people to take care of my lizard, it seems to pay more attention to what I do than what they do.  For example if I need peace and quiet in order to relax, my lizard seems to relax more when I can assertively get others to be quiet, than when I just happen to get them to be quiet.  It likes that assertiveness, that sense that “upstairs in the cortex someone is in control of the noise.”  I like to say that my lizard is most scared when my cortex doesn’t know how to take care of it – the lizard.  My lizard is most happy when it trusts my cortex to do the “safe” thing.  I add this last bit on self-responsibility as I think it bears on your situation.

So, now let’s look at your situation and see what we can see.  You’ve put it forth so clearly, looking at one person’s behavior then the other’s.  Now let’s see if we see the sense of the two different lizards. (And why do we need to make sense of these little fellas – cuz you can't beat em.  They always win.  So work with them.)

First on your side: “I freeze or flee when I feel unsafe with my girlfriend.”  These are two styles of response.  One is to crouch (freeze) and wait for your partner to go away, and the other is to get away.  Either one suggests that for your lizard, your girlfriend is doing something that scares you lizard and it wants to get away – either passively or actively.  Thus in this small situation, “getting away” means safety to your lizard.  This is the dog that is crouching by the back door, looking anxiously at you, and wanting to get out.

Next on her side: “My girlfriend "closes in" – moves physically closer – becomes verbally and physically aggressive.”  Sure this is Fighting behavior, but why and which form?  Why would someone’s lizard Fight in this situation?  Seems pretty obvious to me.  And this is a wonderful example of how the lizard is involved in the other needs of the human brain.  For in this case Biological Dream principle #2, Reliable Membership, seems to be threatened. This is the dog that is trying to get out of the woodshed where it was locked in and trying to get into the house.  So her lizard it trying to get Reliable Membership with/from you. Her lizard panics at the idea of being alone. So her lizard Fights by clinging, pushing, pursuing, trapping, engaging, etc. etc.

The overall pattern of this situation with your two lizards is covered in the Two Wall, Reliable Membership paper on my blog.

But you ask for ideas about what to do for yourself. Just some thoughts.  While your lizard wants her to go away at times, even more it wants you to be in charge of her going away.   While her lizard wants you to be available all the time, she can understand you need for breaks and her lizard will relax when it thinks you will come back after a break.  Your lizard needs less connection than her’s.  Her need for more connection scares your lizard. Your need for more distance scares hers.  Practice TimeOuts.  Read the material together if you can.   Get her to ensure your lizard’s need for space and you ensure her need for connection.  Big stuff here!   Practice TimeOuts when you don't need them.  That is easier, and that way you build new habits by repetition. 

I also would suggest you continue to work on developing good boundary skills.  When your girlfriend is coming toward you and it upsets you, she is invading your boundaries.  It is your job to do the things that keep her away from your boundaries.  All boundary skills are defensive and the better your skills are the less work they are.  Having her out of your house makes it easier on you to stand your ground in behalf of your lizard.  Check out my booklet on the theory and skills of Boundaries.

Another thought. Think on how having her out of your house makes it easier to take care of your lizard. Then adapt that to chatting with her. Learn how long you can stand to be in her presence without your lizard going tilt. Examples:

  • Talking calmly about the weather = 2 hours
  • Talking calmly about our problems = 45 minutes
  • Talking rapidly about our problems = 12 minutes.
  • Listening to "you" statements from her = 2 minutes.

Then work on how to "close the door" when it gets too much for your lizard. Perhaps have three colored sticks in your hand: green, yellow, red.  If I put the Green stick down it means all seems ok with my lizard, and let us continue as we are.
Yellow means my lizard is starting to breathe fast, and you had better help me work with it either by switching to calm talk about the weather or just stop talking for 20 minutes altogether. Your call. Red means stop, now. If you choose to continue talking when I put the red stick down, I will get up and walk away and I will call you tomorrow about our next meeting. Your call.
These silly stick, stone or finger gestures often really work.

Good luck.


Dear Turtle, (May 8th, 2005) — 6 Comments

  1. Thank you for your response. Unfortunately I don't have the funds to be able to sign up for chat. I did print that poster, thanks and I read most of your site. I have already started the "W hat to do when he leaves". I have also asked him to be honest with me because if it's over we need to sell our house. No response. I am totally at a loss and some people tell me to let him go and others say, hold on girl.. He will be back. Everything on all aspects of my life is falling apart and not sure I can handle it for much longer, being strong and positive that is.. thanks again for listening.

    • Asking someone to be honest never seemed to work for me.  Finding out and eliminating what I was doing that encouraged my partner to either lie to me or be silent — now that worked!

      When all is falling apart, that's a good time to not worry about others and take care of No.1, even if that means getting help for you.  I really understand about the $$ issue, but I wonder what've you been up to that let you own finances get in such a place.  Sometimes when things get awful, the only way we can get help is to pay for it.   

      Take care and breathe. 

      • Unfortunately it is called self employment and when there are 20 plus pages on Craigslist of people that are not licensed, insured and don't pay taxes in the same city and charge less than half of what I am able to charge… I can't compete, it is hard to survive in this economy. Maybe you can't relate.  I am unable to pay for health insurance as well. I break something, I can no longer do my business. just the way it is. There are people that struggle at every turn in life and I am proud that given my past I was able to overcome and become a business for over 12 years and build a house in San Diego; that's a great accomplishment . Hit another bump, well several to be exact and I reached out for help. Sorry

        • I can easily relate.  I'm not in that kind of position now, but have been.  And I meet lots of people who are.  Very sad, tough and challenging.  Kind of like a bad storm at sea in a very small rowboat.  Not a good time to have trouble in a relationship as well.  Or vice versa, if one has relationship trouble, don't challenge your work income situation.   Sounds like you have both and in plenty.  Do what you are gonna do, which is your best.

          One thing I learned, through a lot of pain and cost, was that I have limits which I cannot (cannot) exceed.  I'll end up hospitalized.  So I've learned to monitor how hard life is, how many waves are coming at me in a day.  If the number is getting anywhere close to 75% of my limit, I cut back – radically.  I was trained to ignore my limits, my capacities.  I was super-man! Well, I learned, through painful experience,  to give up that bullshit.  Twas a thoroughly good thing to do.
          What helped me, back in 1968, was a bit in a book called Games People Play.  Twas about the game, Nervous Breakdown.  It pointed out that right before people have nervous breakdowns, they rapidly increase the number of commitments they are making to an intolerable level.   I had never thought about commitments as something that drained me nor as something I was allowed to reject or remove.  I wasn't a very good self-caretaker.  I developed a two step belief system to preserve me.  a) I am not obliged,  b) I am responsible for me – can't help others if I am not sufficiently taking care of ME. 
          Hang in there. 
  2. Oh my, I read this and started crying- this is so familiar even down to the saving mother- fight, clingy and abandonment issues and my BF is a freeze- flee kind of guy. 
    I was guided to your website from a relationship forum. Here is my post and I really need some insight and guidance. At the moment my world is upside down and I am struggling to pull out of it. My business is failing due to the economy (self-employed 12 yrs) and my BF moved out of our newly built house 2 weeks ago and is not communicating very well with me.
    I am trying to work on my issues by joining meditations classes etc. I am giving my BF space but am not sure if he is playing mind games or really saying it's over. I want to work on myself and work on us as a team but don't know how to get him on board. I believe that we end up in the same relationships over and over again so it's best to work harder to save the one that's worth the work. I want to turn our 7+ year relationship into a life long partnership.  Please help. Thanks

    • Sounds awful… but then the “awakening stage” in a Power Struggle always seems really awful.  Glad you found Enotalone and my website. Lots of help there and lots of ideas here. I built this website for people in your situation.  

      Glad you are doing Meditation.  Gotta “breathe” while this is going on.  Next step is to do nothing irretreivable or profoundly dumb.  Next step is to learn all about relationships as fast as you can using the last 7+ years of your life, as well as perhaps your parent’s experiences, as reference material.  

      Goal: Find the stupid stuff you’ve been doing and replace it with good stuff.  Keep the good stuff.  Put this sign up on your wall.  I have a lot of useful Posters.

      We can always chat. 

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