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

Balancing fight, flight, freeze and fawn: A plural perspective 2

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.

This post focuses on fawn and fight. You can find the other conversation – between freeze and flight – here. 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.

Fawn and Fight (Jonathan and Beastie)

Beastie: Our turn kid, are you up for this?

Jonathan: Yes. Nervous like Max, but yes.

Beastie: Seems like the sides of us who have been to the fore all our lives find this harder than the sides of us who’ve not had as much airtime. Me and Fox are ready to do some talking! But you should probably start. What’s it like to be a fawn?


Jonathan: I always called it people pleasing, before I heard about ‘fawn’ as a trauma response. I’m very frightened of disapproval so I try to do whatever people want, to keep them happy. I love feeling like I’ve been good, and I hate feeling like I’ve been bad.

Beastie: Right. So fawn as a trauma response is where you try to appease people – do whatever it takes to get out of danger. Fight – my response – is where you get angry and lash out, or use your power to control others and get out of danger that way.

Jonathan: The same way flight became familiar to us, and freeze almost impossible, fawn became our everyday way of being, and we hardly ever went into fight.

Beastie: It worked a bit differently between me and you thought didn’t it? We did have a ‘fight’ part – me – but I became turned inwards instead of outwards: the inner critic

Casting out fight

Jonathan: Yes. The way we think about it, it was like we learnt young that it was never okay to be angry, or even really to say ‘no’, so we had to get rid of the part of us that would’ve been capable of doing that. We imagine it was like severing you from us and casting you out into the ocean, and then you became this terrifying sea monster, attacking us from out there.

Beastie: Like if people get rid of their capacity for anger, blame and criticism, that can easily become turned against themselves. And that’s what I was: the terrifying inner critic roaring at you from the depths. Like Fox I occasionally came forward and let that anger out at another person – often in extreme conflict – but mostly I was out there turning it in on us.

Jonathan: You still sound just a little bit proud of being the terrifying beastie.

Beastie: I’m not, honestly I hate how much damage it caused the rest of you to have me out there instead of in here. But I do kindof like the image of me as a powerful kraken destroying everything. I like being familiar with the darkness: it’s important.

Jonathan: We were so scared of you. We kept reading all those books about how you should embrace the inner critic and we were like, ‘are you kidding?’

Beastie: You did try to eradicate me. Sadly not an effective strategy with inner critics. I just got louder and meaner.

Jonathan: Because inner critics are trying to protect the whole system. We understand that now. They just can’t communicate very effectively when they’re out there. Because nobody is listening they say whatever they need to as noisily as they can to get heard. So it is often confusing, contradictory, and extremely harsh.

Beastie: Poor Max-y, it’s a killer combination with ‘flight’ isn’t it? I keep screaming about how terrible you are, and she keeps working harder to try not to be. Meanwhile our little people pleaser…

Jonathan: Gets stuck in the chalkboard room trying like hell to figure out how to keep everybody happy, which is an impossible equation, I know that now. We made a comic about that.

Beastie: So fawn and fight both have their potentials, and their big risks right, when it comes to relating with ourselves and with others.

Fawn potentials and pitfalls

Jonathan: Right. Fawn means you constantly shape yourself to win other peoples’ love and approval, so they don’t really get to know you, and you can’t really be vulnerable or get close to people. You often lose relationships because it’s hard to sustain. We wrote before about being a shapeshifter and the down side of that. 

I guess the potential of being really great at fawn is that I’m so tuned in to other people’s feelings. I learnt how to do that early on. So I think I can be really good at compassion, if I can learn to stay with people’s feelings rather than trying to fix them. I usually find that I can imagine why a person might be behaving the way they’re feeling. Even when it’s tough, I can feel for them, and for all of us caught up in these painful dynamics.

Beastie: You’re so good at feeling for others, when we can get you out of that chalkboard room. Whereas I find it too easy to dismiss people as being assholes.

Jonathan: You should maybe say how things changed when we finally did embrace you Beastie.

Fight potentials and pitfalls

Beastie: Right. Still only just over a year ago – it’s not been long at all. I guess it felt like I became an ally rather than an enemy. Instead of being outside focusing all that anger in on us, I was inside and able to feel anger out. That doesn’t mean just going from shame to blame, but finally we were able to set some boundaries with people, and see more clearly other peoples’ roles in difficult dynamics instead of just taking all the responsibility on ourselves. Also I guess it helped Max to relax that there wasn’t that loud voice screaming at her all the time.

Jonathan: It was hard for her to realise that she still did that to herself though, even without you there. It’s not like embracing the inner critic makes all the mean thoughts and shameful feelings go away overnight. It’s like the whole inner system takes time to adjust. But since you have been on the inside it has been easier to evaluate those critical thoughts we have.

Beastie: I feel like my potential is that I can be a force for clarity, knowing what we need, asserting boundaries. But unchecked I can just be angry, blaming, critical and judgemental. That’s where the fawn/fight dream team comes in right?

Jonathan: I think it’s still a work in progress. I feel like Fox and Max may be a bit ahead of us.

Balancing fawn and fight

Beastie: Perhaps a scared little boy and a terrifying sea monster is an even less likely partnership, but I loved it as soon as we saw the importance of our relationship.

Jonathan: How do you see it working?

Beastie: Well at the moment it feels like what happens is that life throws us a situation where you would previously have gone into fawn. You still retreat into the chalkboard room at those points and we feel all the fear and shame feelings come up. You want to do whatever it takes to make the other person approve of you so that you can avoid shame, but you’re also very frightened of ending up in another situation where someone is treating you non-consensually, or you’re treating yourself that way.

Jonathan: It’s so scary when that happens. I feel like I have to think about it all the time to figure it out: fear or shame, fear or shame, fear or shame. It gets so noisy in my head.

Beastie: So my role at the moment is to help you see you’ve gone into that, and to help you see that there are usually other options than ‘override yourself and feel fear’ or ‘upset someone else and feel shame’. Often the other option we find is to explain honestly and vulnerably where we’re at, and clearly state what our boundaries are. We sometimes think of it as expressing our ‘can’t’ and our ‘won’t’.

Jonathan: So what often happens is that I spend several days in fear and shame, trying to figure it out, and then you step forward and write an email or have a conversation like that.

Beastie: Because the fight part is good at honesty, boundaries, and seeing the whole picture clearly. But what I lack – on my own – is kindness and feeling for the other person. What I hope is that we can do over time is to bring my clarity and boundaries together with your kindness and tenderness: Protection and connection.

Jonathan: Tough and tender.

Beastie: Right? Sounds like an excellent crime-fighting duo!

Paradox and balance

Jonathan: And like Max and Fox it’s not just that you bring tough and I bring tender, more that I can help you bring tenderness to your toughness, and vice versa.

Beastie: So I always try to get you to vet what I’m thinking of saying, to make sure it’s kind enough. And I try to remember that if I go into proper rage I’m probably missing where the other person is coming from.

Jonathan: They’ll be acting out of their survival strategies just as much as we are.

Beastie: And now we have an inner experience of all four of these strategies – the four Fs – that could mean: far greater capacity to notice when other people have gone into theirs, far greater empathy for the harm that causes them, and far better ability to be clear what we can and can’t offer, depending on how much people are up for looking at this stuff themselves.

Jonathan: That’s the team we could be, I hope: having the compassion and tenderness to understand why other people are acting the way they are and feel for them, and the clarity and toughness to let them know what we will, and won’t, accept.

Beastie: Or maybe the clarity and toughness to understand why other people are acting the way they are and feel for them, and the compassion and tenderness to let them know what we will, and won’t, accept. I’m just thinking that it takes both of us for both parts really. It’s like what we once wrote that kindness without honesty isn’t really kindness, and honesty without kindness isn’t really honesty. You always need both the kind tenderness and the honest toughness I think.

Jonathan: Like when I’m people pleasing I’m not really being kind however much they might like it. It hurts people long term. And when you’re angry-critical you’re not really being honest because you’re missing so much of what’s actually going on.

Beastie: Looks like we’re stuck with each other. Neither of us works without the other one.

Jonathan: Which means I’m safe from the chalkboard room and you’re safe from the ocean. We need us both for either of us to be what we really want to be: kind for me, and honest for you.

Beastie: I’ll come get you out of the chalkboard room and you come get me out of the ocean, if we slip back. Deal?

Jonathan: Deal.

You can find the first part of this conversation 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 Jonathan and Beastie.

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).