Noticing the Lizard in yourself and others.

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This began as an answer to a question on the Marriage Advocates website.  Twas written back in February of 2011.

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.



Noticing the Lizard in yourself and others. — 19 Comments

  1. Hi Al -I came across this article and it was like a light bulb came on. My boyfriend of a couple years is a lizard a fleer never emotions get so that he can’t handle them he disappears the last time this happened two months ago he’s pretty much stopped all communication and not replied to any of my texts or phone calls . We have very different styles I tend to talk to much and when pushed saying mean things but I don’t really mean and regarding them afterwards I boyfriends extremely sensitive has a hard time dealing with conflict . My boyfriend sister tells me his mother was very abusive to them as a child . I am the overhand freak out if abandonment I will sacrifice my own dignity self-respect to try and get him back . I know everything I do is the wrong thing. I can’t seem to leave him alone I’m just sick over the whole conflict . I see conflict and understand why to people who live is Heather just don’t deal with it and fix it I like solutions . I don’t want to lose this man I love him very much I may have already lost him I know he loves me as well I just think between his childhood and the way I deal with things it’s al I don’t want to lose this man I love him very much I may have already lost him I know he loves me as well I just think between his childhood and the way I deal with things , just enforces his lizard consistencie just enforces his lizardness. I’ve been going to counseling with more stuff for myself I am completing my own self but I do want him in my life . The problem is he lives in our away and he will not respond my phone calls or text because I pushed him so hard trying to get him to respond part of me wants to go up there just offer my friendship but I’m not sure that’s a good idea either but do I do do I just let them go I don’t want to do that
    Thank you ,

  2. Dear Al,

    thanks for your answer. I appreciate your quick reply. I think that I have read a lot of your material. I understand that you suggest creating safety for the person who does not want to talk. I also think I did not find any advice on what to do when that person does not want to meet you, because you don’t live with them any more. See, the problem is that apart from my husband being absent very often, because of his work, he seems to avoid seeing me when he is at home again.

    Maybe I miss something in the rare phone calls, maybe I’m really clueless.

    By the way I have been seeing a professional for quite some time. She is a behavioral psychologist and does not seem to be very concerned with my marital situation. She told me that I had to accept that my husband left me, it was his free will and that I could not make him do what I wanted from him. So she tells me to focus on my well-being (which I think is not wrong) and on a life without him.
    When I tell her that I don’t want this, she replies that that is what I’m already doing. So I see no way to get any clues from her concerning my behavior towards him. T
    hat’s also the reason for my being so glad to have found your site with all the articles, and charts and drawings (the iceberg e.g.)
    I suppose I don’t know how to react/find the right words. What comment should I have made when he told me that it is better to keep a safe distance to people because then they can’t hurt you so much? Should I tell him that I’m the one who he can trust? Me, who he ran away from?
    But perhaps I should really get my therapist to give me some clues. What could I ask her? I don’t think that she is familiar with the lizard concept. And when I told her that I’m interested in brainscience/neuroscience she told me that I should deal with my more important problems at hand (daughter, job etc.). Moreover I won’t have many more sessions with her, and when you are writing me that it’s difficult to find out clues on my own, I’m quite at a loss.


    • I hear the problem, Margaret. You want to know “what you can do differently so that this guy become interested in you.” He’s already pulled away and is still pulling away. And you understand that his behavior makes sense – to him. So you want to know “what is he pulling away from, so maybe you can change it.” Good planning. You go to your professional who seems to only focus on his behavior as a fact rather than a process that you’ve been involve in and that you want to be involved in.

      Now, I, Al, am being a “dork” and saying that I think the clues are all around you and you remain clueless. Ouch. I’m willing to keep a going, but after the 9 pages of our emails, I think we better shift to phone chatting. Need more data to flow. And I don’t want you to remain clueless forever. Let’s switch to emailing ( and then find some time for phone chatting.

  3. Dear Al,

    I hope you are well, because I think that you have done a tremendous work by creating this website. All the essays, audio pieces, and also your contact with all the desperate people from all over world who are seeking help in their misery.
    Like myself. I feel so stuck in my situation. I still had no chance to meet my husband. Since my last mail to you, there was little contact, via email.
    Last week I tried to get him on the phone. He promised to call back, but was not able to, he was busy working until late into the night. So i tried againg twice on Sunday and twice today. Today at last, he gave me a call, not without mentioning that he had seen my ” permanent” attempts – sigh, Al, I know that I’m the pursuer – but, at least, he seemed comfortable to chat with me or over an hour. It was like always, we talked about politics, at home and abroad, the dollar, the Greeks, and world economy in general, not about our relationship, which for him is a word between inverted commas (“relationship”).
    But also about some family members. This is where he gave the statement that it is better to keep a safe distance to people, and (!) the closer they are, the harder the impact when they hurt you. I was so sorry for him, because I know how he suffered by some malevolent close relative. And when I told him that he sounded so sad and that it was a pity that people were so disconnected and not ready to forgive, he did not agree. Better no contact at all, for the rest of their lives, better clear conditions so that you know where you are.

    At last I told him once again about my wish to meet him. He replied that he would be away – for three months!!
    I swallowed hard, because like that we’ll never meet. He will again be far away.
    I’m trying to calm my lizard down, but he refuses. And when I proposed to meet whe he is back, he only said “We’ll see”.
    Dear Al, yesterday I reread some of your essays, which is always useful. I only wondered what I should do with all the wonderful advice when I never have a chance to practice it. I’m rather clueless about what options still remain – with the absence of the protagonist?
    Best wishes Margaret.

    • Hello Margaret, Seems to me that among my articles there are lots of suggestions of what to do when he won’t talk/see/deal with you. Usually I say that “the person who can leave has all the power.” That normalizes a situation where someone is leaving – they think they need lots of power to survive with you. Of course when you do “clingy” stuff they are reminded of feeling overwhelmed with you and are glad that they have all these boundary skills that they are using to be able to find a place to relax.

      You are in charge of you. I think you have to clearly decide what you want. Talking with a professional is useful. When all the clues are around you, and you can see them, and you remain clueless, then maybe you have trouble picking up the clues. Lots of people do. Maybe get a professional who can help you learn to see the clues. It’s not easy to do alone.

      Good luck.

  4. Dear Al,
    thank you very much for your last message. I’m still writing under this topic because it’s where I started. In the meantime I have not had
    any chance to do something about my husband’s lizard, as you told me. There was one email exchange, because I needed some urgent advice concerning our daughter, and so he wrote back. It was quite friendly, although we (still) have different views on how to deal with her.
    He was abroad but seems to be back now. I have not contacted him since then, because I really don’t know what to say or do. There is some contact, because we do have this daughter, but he only writes back, no initiative from his side (which seems to happen quite often, according to what other people are writing here).
    Now I hope that maybe you can give me some advice or comment on “mirroring”, which you also advised me to do. I tried doing it with my daughter. But with some unexpected result. (There was not a real conflict between us when I tried it). At first she laughed at me, and when I continued she told me to stop or else she would get angry. I really tried not to “parrot”, but felt soon that I was not very successful. I had studied your audiovisual presentation some time ago and thought I had understood the procedure.
    Moreover, it really sounds better in the English language. Even to me, my words sounded a bit clumsy, so I ended up joining in her hearty laughter. Then I seriously explained to her the purpose of “mirroring”, I told her about the many misunderstandings that may occur, and in order to give someone the feeling that he is really, really heard, we need to do more than just contributing some sympathetic noises. But she predicted that if I should ever try this on her dad, I would really be getting on his nerves.
    So, my question, Al, can you imagine what I did wrong?
    I would really appreciate it if you could give me some hints. Thank you very much.

    • Dear Margaret, I have no idea what you were doing “wrong” with Mirroring. Perhaps you were doing everything “right”. People who try Mirroring often have trouble at first. (Usually young kids like it because one effect is that they get attention.)

      I liked your comment that your daughter threatened you with “get angry” if you did more Mirroring. That sure suggested that she’s old enough to have been taught to be a bully and that bullying is part of your family, and that you probably don’t know how to remove the bullying behavior. Well, mirroring will show that up and also is 1/2 of the fix. Nice to know that bullying (punish or threaten to punish people if they don’t do what you want) is present and what to do about removing it. You can read in my Master/Slave papers all about that.

      But back to Mirroring. Remember it is a training tool (both for you and the other), and if something goes “wrong” then it is probably trying to teach you something. Your daughter didn’t like it. Ok, something is going wrong. But what? That’s the lesson. I’ve learned that if I try mirroring with a stranger, they will notice something is weird, unless I am pretty subtle. So I get pretty subtle. Maybe I will not repeat back their words, but just Pull them to say more – showing I am listening and don’t want to interrupt till they are finished with their point. Maybe I will repeat back just what I think is the “central” word or phrase that they said and then Pull them to go on. Maybe, after a pause, I will ask them if they are through or want some more time. Mirroring teaches, eventually, when to use which of the many tools it is teaching.

      I believe that if you do it “well” the other person may not even know you are doing it. But you have to start somewhere. That’s why its good to let them know what you are doing and why. Tis really a luxury to have a partner who is learning also! You don’t, but might find one. It is a bit like learning to slow, close dance with someone who has never done anything except free-style, individual, dancing before.

  5. Dear Al,

    I was just trying to calm myself down and found “Some Days are Tough” on your website. But this article is only for couples who are together. My (still/paper) husband is on a longer work trip on the other side of the globe.
    I’m writing to you Al, because my lizard is really freaking out at the moment. It suddenly hit me that maybe, he is no longer alone, and I went to look at the place where he has recently moved to, and found a second name tag. I never did that before!)
    I had a very bad night, the scene when he left me: on replay again and again, words he used, mainly the hurting and also angry words he wrote in his emails (I saw him only three times since he left nearly 3 years ago, he avoids me), it all haunted me, I still feel my heartbeat in my throat.
    All night long and again in the morning, I re-read some of your articles (by the way there were a lot of “database errors” and I was not able to connect to your website, which sent my lizard into another fit of panic, because I did not know what that was, and I saw myself never being able again to connect with “good ol’ Al”, my sole comfort in many months (hope you don’t take offense!) )
    Today, in my despair, I looked up the last email (they have become very rare) he wrote to me, two months ago (we had two phone calls). This one had a very angry beginning where he complained about several short emails I had sent before. I know that I had been pushing him to answer, but I was so desperate to get an answer. He wrote that he had read my mail, “partially”, that I had no right to expect anything from him, that I should at last accept that he was no longer part of my life (that’s why I wrote ‘husband on “paper” ‘in my lines above), that he had explained this time several times, and that he was tired of doing so. After that, the “tone” changed and he began to explain to me my job situation as he saw it (I had written about that), and told me I should not worry. I should take all that as a new step in my life and be glad about a fresh start.
    I have also read your article “When to Fold Them”. So I have the impression that, sometimes, it is time to give up. I can’t. He tells me that he is no longer part of my life. What is a nearly 30 year long relationship, which he once qualified as a “so-called” relationship? Can you cut it out, delete it? Is it really possible to negate two thirds of one’s lifetime?
    And I still don’t know why there is such an layer of anger in him that I can’t reach, which tends to surface from time to time, like a subterranean volcano, which terrifies me. And he gives me no chance to talk about that!

    We had a phone contact before he left: It was me who called (as always!), and to my mild surprise, he did pick up the phone and said that he was (like always) at work and still had a lot to prepare. He seemed eager to talk about our daughter and expressed his concern for her.
    After about 40 minutes of talk, mainly from his side (I was trying not to interrupt him, so I could not really “get in”), I was just about to take a deep breath to ask him when we could meet, he said, he had to finish. We said our goodbyes, I wished him a good and safe trip, and he closed with the words “we’ll stay in contact” (very vague, I think).

    Although I have a lot of patience, I’m desperate. I’m still seeing a (behavioral) therapist once a month (his comment: you should have learnt that (“giving up”) in your sessions by now. I haven’t.
    Now, I’m at a loss at how to connect. I wanted to send him some short emails once a week, while he is away. But this new piece of data sent me down the “abyss”. What can I do?


    • Dear Margaret, I’m still here. Took me quite a while to get back to my computer. Good ole Lizard. Very glad you found the articles on it and can watch it and learn to make its “care and feeding”, one of your tasks. The better your Boundary skills, the less anyone can bother you. Most they can do is “amuse” you. Those late night panics are familiar Lizardy stuff. Remember the rule, “The Lizard has no way to tell the difference between reality and a vivid imagination.” So it is really easy to scare the heck out of your own Lizard by what you are choosing to think about. Of course, that leads to discoveries of how to go about changing what you are thinking about.

      So the Lizard loves “Predictive Information” and a “Sense of Control.” And it, by itself, doesn’t care about connection to others. That allows you to shift your life into putting this guy at least temporarily “outside” your world, so that his unexpected or undesired behavior is not affecting you. Sometimes that means some pretty radical changes – personal, financial, friends, occupations, locations, etc. But doing that with “sense of control” along the way and slowly so that each step is more predictive, often works.

      And while you are learning about your Lizard, remember to note his. “People never pull away from where they are Safe.” So work to make his Lizard safe. I had a friend who once said, “I don’t talk to my wife. I talk to her Lizard.”

      Keep a going.

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