Balancing fight, flight, freeze and fawn: A plural...

Balancing fight, flight, freeze and fawn: A plural perspective 1

I’ve written a fair bit here lately about the trauma responses of fight, flight, freeze and fawn, and how these can become stuck patterns with which we approach our relationships with others, ourselves, and our lives. Pete Walker suggests that we can usefully see these responses on two spectrums: freeze to flight, and fawn to fight.

I was particularly struck by Pete’s idea that it could be valuable to reach a balance between these four different ways of being. None of them are intrinsically ‘bad’, but when we can only act from one end of either spectrum we are limited, and perhaps also more likely to become stuck in the ways of reactive thinking and behaviour which hurt ourselves and others. 

It seemed like a useful non-binary approach to ask how we might find a more both/and or in-between approach to fawn/fight and freeze/flight. From a plural perspective I have a great way into this because I can access four selves who map onto each of the four Fs. So I thought it’d be fun to put them into dialogue here to explain what each of the four Fs feels like, what their strengths and limitations are, and how they’re doing the work – now – of operating together to become more balanced.

I’ve written here about how a move from flight and fawn, towards freeze and fight, can represent a shift from being with the fear of making yourself into something for others, to the shame of being for yourself. I’m also struck how, for me, freeze to flight represents that kind of shift around work, and fawn to fight around personal relationships.

This post focuses on freeze and flight. You can find the other conversation – between fawn and fight – here. There’s also more from Max about the challenges of changing the Flight habit here.

Freeze and Flight (Max and Fox)

Max: Looks like we’re up first.

Fox: My first time writing on here as me!

Max: How’re you feeling?

Fox: Excited! How about you?

Max: Terrified, as usual. But I do think you and I have been doing some great work together. I like the idea of sharing that with other people in case it’s useful to them.

Fox: Shall we start by saying a bit about who we are?

Max: Sure, well in our inner landscape it feels like I have been at the front and you at the back for most of our lives right?

Fox: Yes because we learnt when we were young that flight was better than freeze. Flight is when you always go into doing mode, and freeze means you can just be. I guess we learnt from the world around us that we got most approval when we did well, worked hard, and achieved. And it wasn’t very valued to be in the moment, chill out, or play. Everything had to be done for a reason.

Max: Right. As trauma responses, people who flee – like me – try to act right away: do anything to sort it out and make it okay. People who freeze, like you, would go immobile, struggle to do anything at all, maybe hide away.

Fox: Mmhm. And as bigger life strategies, that could map onto what Brené Brown talks about as overfunctioning and underfunctioning. Overfunctioners throw themselves into work, have to be the best and succeed, don’t feel okay unless they’re producing something. Underfunctioners struggle with any of that stuff. They’re often scared of putting themselves out there in any way, and feel safer watching TV, reading books, playing computer games, that kind of thing. What’s it like being a flight type Max?

Flight potentials and pitfalls

Max: Right now I’m mostly in touch with how much it has hurt me over time. Looking back in my journals, the start of every summer of my adult life I made a list of all the things I felt I should achieve and produce over the vacation time. It’s exhausting just looking at them. My life was governed by alarms, to-do lists, and deadlines. I’m terrible at holidays: they stress me out. And life easily becomes a series of false hills. When you reach the top of one there’s always another stretching up above you. Ugh even when I actually go for a relaxing walk I have to get to the top of the hill!

Fox: Is there anything good about being a flight type: a flee-er?

Max: I guess I’ve always had a clear sense of purpose. I know people at the freeze end can really struggle with figuring out what they should do with their life. That’s never been a problem for me. And because I put my ‘flight’ instincts towards figuring out my struggles – learning and writing about love, sex, gender, and mental health from every angle – my doing mode has brought us to this point where we at least have a lot of knowledge and wisdom available to us.

Fox: As we go through a massive trauma time.

Max: Yep. I feel like – in a lot of ways – it was my way of being that put us here. My whole life I went so fast into everything with no spaciousness or slowness or caution, and got so badly hurt along the way. But at the same time I did also learn a lot of tools that help now that we are here. What about you though? What’s it like being a freeze?

Fox: It feels so funny because you’ve always struggled to understand people who default to underfunctioning rather than overfunctioning, and now we have a part of us who does that!

Freeze potentials and pitfalls

Max: I know, and one who is here more and more, thank goodness. We see you as the part of us that we were when we were very young: before all the messages about being good and productive kicked in, or even about needing to be a certain way for other people at all You seem so much more able than me to follow what you find fun or pleasurable.

Fox: I still feel like that little kid, even though I’m now in this older body with all the other occupants! It does almost feel like I went to sleep around 5 years old and just woke up a couple of years ago. I think we see me as like an animal or a child because I feel more free and wild. But I probably did pop up at times during our life, like when we just couldn’t overfunction any more – because things got so hard – so we lost ourselves in things like books or TV shows. But because it wasn’t very balanced, that kind of freeze wasn’t so good for us. It was about disappearing into fiction, fantasy, food: stuff that is comforting but isn’t great if you just lose yourself in it and then the world is still there when you’re done.

Max: Plus if your main strategy is flight, you can end up being really hard on yourself about the times when you do go into freeze. So the answer is not to eradicate flight and go all the way to freeze huh?

Fox: No because then we’d lose you, and you’re brilliant, and you got us here because of your survival strategy. In many ways you protected me and I’m so grateful for that.

Max: Thank-you littlest.

Fox: I think it’s about learning how to work together as a team. And I love that we’ve figured out that we’re two ends of a spectrum because it means that you and me are a team, and we didn’t realise that at first. It’s nice having a special relationship with you.

Max: I like it very much too. D’you want to say how it works?

Balancing flight and freeze

Fox: Yes. Well I think if you’ve been way, way, way towards one end of the spectrum most of your life then you probably need to swing to the other end for a while so each end becomes equally strong and forward. That’s what we’ve done anyway.

Max: With a certain amount of kicking and screaming from me!

Fox: Heh it’s not easy for you not being productive. But I think it helped you to see that when you pushed fast and forced yourself to work, in some ways you were hurting me – and all of the parts of us who don’t want to do things that way. 

Max: It was a lot about consent: realising I was being really non-consensual with myself, and other parts of us.

Fox: So now we try to really tune into where we’re at. And it often feels like I’m in charge at those moments because I find it easier to tune in, rather than just doing what you think we ‘should’ do.

Max: And we’ve definitely put you in charge of evenings and other relaxed time. You’re the guru of gentleness!

Fox: And we notice that when I have plenty of time at the front I don’t choose to just watch endless TV – although I do give us that if we’re really sick or struggling. Today I took us out to the rockpools. Often I do feel creative too. I’m just not doing it in order to produce something.

Max: Ugh tell people about the time you got me drawing.

Fox: Hehe that was so funny. I love Lynda Barry who is all about getting back to your child self who loved drawing and storytelling before they’d been told they weren’t doing it properly and all of that. So I got us all doing a Lynda Barry drawing exercise – drawing our monsters – and you found it So Hard. In the end we had to let you do yours in pencil first because you couldn’t handle it if it didn’t look good, even though it wasn’t for anybody else to see except us.

Max: Yep that’s me: Ms. Fun Sponge.

Fox: You’ve been getting much better lately though Max-y. You seem a lot more at peace than you were at the start of the year.

Max: I think I’ve learnt a lot from you. I see how much better everything feels when we flow with it rather than trying to force it. Some things we are doing less of, for sure, but I’m trying to see learning to treat ourselves in a more consensual and friendly way as our main job these days. So it’s okay to not be working on some big project right now. We are the big project. 

Paradox and balance

Max: I also notice paradoxes. All my life I had this holy grail of what kind of person I thought I could be – how productive – if I got up before 7. And I never managed to stick to it even with all the alarm clocks and stuff. You convinced me to finally stop setting an alarm.

Fox: And quite often these days we wake up around half past six!

Max: It’s wild. Also I have a sense that some of what we do produce – creatively – by waiting till it feels live and only going for it then, will be better quality than anything I ever produced from pushing it.

Fox: I guess this is an example. We’ll see what people think. It’s interesting that Lynda Barry, and Natalie Goldberg, and a lot of the people we’re working with as a writing mentor, also find that better writing and art come from a place of self-consent and going with what feels most alive and exciting. Audre Lorde talks about that too doesn’t she?

Max: Yes, we end up encouraging our clients not to write, and instead to focus on finding their younger parts – if they have them – who can still create from that place of delight and playfulness, not worrying about what it’s for, or whether it comes out ‘right’, or what other people will think. It can be intensely challenging though, can’t it, because it involves revealing our more fragile sides to ourselves, and potentially to others.

Fox: Something you particularly struggle with because you also tended to present yourself as bulletproof.

Max: It never felt safe enough for me to be open and vulnerable: I always felt I had to cover that stuff over. And creating in that way – this way – is vulnerable. It involves revealing our smaller, more fragile, sides to the world. Even ‘just being’ is vulnerable because it involves staying with the kinds of feelings I’ve always been running from by ‘doing’.

Fox: You’re doing great Max-y. It is a lot. Can I say something else?

Max: Of course.

Fox: I’m thinking… I’m good at being, but I’ve also made our ‘doing’ thing better. So I don’t reckon it’s just about balance in the sense that now we have me who can ‘be’ and you who can ‘do’; me who can be gentle and rest, you who can be strong and push forward. It’s more like we both become better at both. Like you can now be peaceful sometimes, and when you are ‘doing’ you can let it come as it wants to more easily. And I can now ‘do’ sometimes, in fact I’m really excited about the kinds of projects I might do, as well as helping us know when we need gentleness and what that might look like.

Max: That’s spot on Fox. Enough from us for now? Shall we give our fawn and fight some time to talk.

Fox: Oo yes I can’t wait for this one!

You can find the second part of this conversation – between fawn and fight – here. There’s also more from Max about the challenges of changing the Flight habit here.

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.

Plural tag: This post was written by Fox and Max.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).