Quote: I have found that I’m very bad at identifying when other people’s lizard, particularly my partner’s, is triggered. I really need to work on that.
I thought I would start a series on how to recognize the Lizard in action. I actually spend more time with each couple when I teach this than you will find in my paper on Safety and The Lizard. So here goes.
The Lizard is such a simple but elegant part of each of us. If it gets the idea that death is nearby, it responds immediately with Fleeing, Freezing, Submitting or Fighting behaviors.
Sometimes if you look into people’s words, yours or others, you can hear this. “I’ll die if you say that one more time.” “I think I am gonna die if he doesn’t tell me he is coming back.” “Say that and you are dead.” “When she gets mad I think I am dying.” etc. I think the words of the Lizard can show up in dreams, but in dreams images of death often are more related to big changes – which can be a kind of death to the Lizard.
The most common way to recognize a person whose Lizard has taken over is to observe their Fleeing, Freezing, Submitting, or Fighting and to work backward. If these behaviors are present, their Lizard has probably taken over.
I define Fleeing as the visible action of getting away.
In actual reptiles this appears as scurrying across the rocks. In mammals it appears as running through the forest or across the prairie. In humans…. well, these are learned skills.
Now in each person the number of Fleeing behaviors seem pretty limited. The way I think it works is that my Lizard says, “Looks like death, so let’s get out of here,” and then it looks into my cortex, my memories of my life, for a list of applicable Fleeing tactics to choose from.
Let’s pretend that I have 20 Fleeing tactics in my memories. And let’s pretend my wife has 20 Fleeing tactics in hers. Some will probably be pretty darn similar. Some will be unique to me and some unique to her. Generally, I think we learned these tactics during childhood by a) watching others doing them and b) practicing ourselves.
Over time I will get to recognize my partner’s tactics and she will get to note mine. At the same time I will begin recognize mine and she her’s. The task becomes simpler as most people seem to use only a few of their tactics most of the time – their list of favorites.
When I see one of her tactics, I just shift my thinking to say, “Her Lizard thinks she is dying. How do I go about helping her Lizard to feel safe now.”
This is how I teach this in my office. “In humans Fleeing is pretty tricky to recognize sometimes, but it still always involves visibly getting away. Here some ideas.”
Walking away. Hiding behind the newspaper Playing Video Games Lots of time in the bathroom with the door locked Jumping in the car and driving off “I won’t talk about that” Driving home from work, slowly Changing the topic I gotta watch the game Here, you deal with him One gal told me that she would sometimes go to sleep in the middle of her husband’s sentence (only a Lizard can do that) Etc, etc
I turn to partner #1 and say, “So who does most of the fleeing in this relationship?” They will likely say, “I do” or “He/she does.”
I say, “Good, great! Give me an example of what they/you do that is Fleeing.” I mirror what they say. Then “Do you/they flee too?” If they say, “No” I probably say that not everyone uses Fleeing. If they say, “Yes,” then I ask for an example that is different from the one their partner gave. I want two examples of their fleeing tactics if I can get it, both from an observer point of view and the Fleeing partner’s point of view.
Then I turn to partner #2 with the same question and invite them to share something different from what their partner has shared. At this point, if I am lucky, I have heard 4 examples of Fleeing tactics from this relationship. (Remember this may be 4 out of the maybe 40 tactics they have between them.)
If some Fleeing tactic seems pretty dramatic, I may invite the partner who does it to share who they think during their childhood taught them to do that. I believe this is all about demonstrating validation and normalizing panic behaviors.
Then I shift to the one where both seem to agree that the other Flees. I say, “When your partner flees in that way, do you ever, have you ever gone after them – followed them around.” I hope for a “Yes” answer.
Then I say, “Let me share why that following never, ever works. You see, when they are moving away it is cuz their Lizard has decided that you are killing them. That’s enough by itself. And then you start following them! Before Godzilla was near, and now Godzilla is running straight at them. Won’t ever work! but you’ve probably noted that.” I want to introduce Clinger Follower dynamics, into the reality of their relationship.
“Whenever your partner suddenly starts to leave, the only rational thing to do is open the door and help them out. I had to learn you will never get love by chasing a Lizard. I put that sign up in my house for five years to remind me.”
I define Freezing as invisibly moving away, imploding rather than exploding – the act of becoming invisible.
In reptiles this seems to be what they do most of the time – they don’t move. That’s why they can be so boring in a zoo. In mammals you see the same thing – they hold still. This is the deer in the headlights. There’s a rule in nature that “if you are not moving, you are not there.” To get away from T-Rex in the original Jurassic Park, the actors held still and he couldn’t see them. The behavior is so Lizardy that a human who is freezing often stops breathing – for a moment.
In humans I think Freezing is often a miricle of art. During childhood we can learn so many different techniques of “laying low.”
When I teach this in a class I often ask for a volunteer to come forward, stand in a chair to demonstrate. Rarely does anyone move. I then wait 5 seconds and say, “Well, I think I have 26 people freezing right now.”
A common example for guys (gals too) can be found in Practical Jokes. Now I believe that a practical joke is a normal little bit of sadism. We do a) something to someone, they b) feel hurt, and we c)laugh. Steps a and b are simple cruel. What makes it sadistic is the laughter. When my wife and I discovered this awareness that Practical Jokes are cruel sadism, we gave this behavior in all its forms up. The most common form is teasing. Guys seem to often do it. Tis just cruel – and sadistic. Not very nice and the Lizard hates it.
But even though teasing is pretty mean stuff, that’s not what makes it Freezing. That occurs when the victim, who is lying on the floor hurting after you pulled their chair out from under them, speaks up and says, “Ow! That hurt!” That’s when you say, “It was just a joke!” or “I was just funnin'” That I think is beautiful [Bleep!]. You were being sadistic and now you are trying to pretend that your cruelty doesn’t exist. Now you are trying to be invisible, I think.
My parents teased their kids all the time. Told us it would strengthen our character. Years later I realized they were often pretty angry people and were expressing their inner rage at their kids. Not too nice.
Anyway I hope you can see how “invisibility” or Freezing works here.
Women (sometimes men) use another typical technique of Freezing. Instead of saying what they want, they ask a question. I come home. My wife has been thinking of going out to dinner for six hours. She really wants it. What comes out of her mouth is, “What do you want to do tonight?” All that eagerness for dinner out is invisible. She still wants it, but she’s layin low. Why? She’s been taught to be polite and to hide herself – to avoid being selfish (or honest). Freezing.
And when she asks that question, my Lizard notices the Freezing and glances around quickly to see the danger. So we both go on the alert. I think a whole pile of “questions” are really just examples of “freezing.”
I turn to partner #1 and say, “Who does most of the Freezing in this relationship?” I try to get two examples from each partner.
I may say, “Remember, if your partner is Freezing, a little part of them, their Lizard, thinks they are about to die.”
And now I might have 8 practical examples of Lizard behavior from this relationship.
At this point, you who are reading might be able to start putting together a list of stuff and marking which is Fleeing and which is Freezing. The most common form of Freezing that I run into is the phrase, “I don’t know.”
I see this as the sister-behavior to Freezing. Both are a form of laying low – of lying about yourself for the sake of survival. Freezing seems to me as a movement to be invisible – when that works. “I am not here and you don’t see me.” Submitting, I think, is all about a movement toward invisibility when they see you. “I am here cuz you see me, but I am not a threat. (Or better, “the threat I represent is invisible for the time being.)”
If my partner says a piece of threatening MasterTalk (all MasterTalk is threatening), if I say nothing or just move on to another subject, that I think is Freezing. In the same situation if my partner asks what I think (now I am visible), I say that I agree (in order to avoid conflict). That I believe is Submitting.
In actual reptiles this is their behavior when they are belly up, legs out, not moving. Try it. That same behavior in mammals is seen in dogs or cats lying upside down.
In humans this is a very common behavior. I think it is the core of conformity, obedience, not wanting to make waves, conflict avoidance, etc. I’ve found that agreement is so often a sign of submitting that as a rule of thumb it is best to assume that agreement = submitting. I am sure that people do agree sometimes or at least come close, but the trouble that comes if people submit and agree is so huge that I am very cautious about the word “agree”. You will hear me, for my own survival, asserting that “two people never agree on anything, really.”
Why am I so cautious? Submitting is always a two step process: the actual submit behavior and then the revenge sometime in the future. That revenge step you can see in mammals occasionally. But in humans it is epidemic and I call it Resentment. At the lowest lever Resentment seems just rage, hatred, and movement toward revenge. It seems to be pending warfare. At the highest level I define resentment as the Memory of having been Invalidated, and have a popular article on it and what to do about it. Whatever you call it, it is buried, hidden, and thus really really scary to the Lizard. I think of it as future trouble.
Resentment/revenge seems part and parcel of being human, having a Lizard and having a Cortex that never forgets. If I were just a Lizard, I would submit and forget it. But I am a human and I can’t forget. Therefore in humans I believe Submitting equals Resentment, and there seems no way out of this. And so I firmly believe it is best to avoid agreement so that you can avoid submitting so that you can avoid having to eventually face the resentment.
Any cultural system that is based on submission, conformity and obedience, seems doomed to have to deal with this. For example, some of my Christian friends interpret the Bible so as to create a “culture of agreement”. I think of this, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever, as a walking-timebomb. Some interpret that being American means we all agree. I actually think of that as Un-American. And I firmly support those who disagree with me.
One time an old couple put this topic clearly for me. The old guy said, “If two people are agreeing, you know one thing for sure. At least one of them is lying.” Part of the problem of Submitting is that it is profoundly lying. The liar, the submitter, knows what is going on. They also know that their partner, the lied-to person, is in the dark, is in delusion.
Another part of Submitting in humans is blaming others and being irresponsible. But you’ll see this in Topic #3.
I hope you get the idea that Submitting is a huge problem in humans but not so much in reptiles or mammals.
Mind you, I am clear that when a person Submits, it is because their Lizard thinks they are gonna die. But when the Lizard calms down, and in order for the Lizard to calm down, our higher brains have to figure out some way to make it safe to disagree in the open.
“If I am thinking something, and I think this topic will upset you, do you want me to share it anyway or do you want me to keep it a secret and lie about it? This is partially your call. If you want me to share, you’re gonna have to give up getting upset.”
Examples of Submitting (all of which build resentment) Yes, dear. Whatever you want. I have to do that. I agree Saying “I’m Sorry” often Putting on piles of make-up before you go out What did I do wrong? Placating Shoulds I can’t help it I fear this could go on forever.
This is, for me, the last resort of a Lizard. To move toward striking out so as to survive.
In my office, I don’t give lots of examples as I assume the couple has seen a lot of this.
In humans, fighting has frequently been retrained as the first resort of a person. If I strike out at you and you submit, then I get what I want and so I do it again. Fighting as a style is trained into people or retrained out depending on what others do.