This is going to be a super-quick summary of a very large and deep topic. I’m going to put some links up, but please don’t leave here thinking that this is in any way a comprehensive blog. For more information on this I recommend starting with Pete Walker’s book, which is a damn good read anyway.
Most people have heard about the freeze-fight-flight response to threats or dangerous situations. All these responses have their place, and all can be successful in the right situation. The problems start when an inappropriate response is used against a certain threat. The freeze response that might have saved you from a sight predator will be less than useful against an incoming bus.
The same kind of semi-automatic response can come into operation during stressful or threatening social situations. Even though we may not be in physical danger, our physiological responses activate as if social conflict was life-threatening. As Rory Miller states referring to the “monkey brain” part of the “triune brain”, “the Monkey cannot distinguish between humiliation and death.” Our reactions may not be as extreme as in the case of physical danger, but our response may be classed under the same three headings. For instance, we might become verbally aggressive (fight), disengage and leave (flight), or not react at all (freeze).
Social conflict can also result in a fourth response – the “fawn” response. This consists of taking steps to appease the person we are in conflict with. Humans aren’t unique in doing this. Even dogs kiss ass to avoid or smooth over confrontations. However, humans in our society may be unique in increasingly trying to raise children to believe that this is the only appropriate response – that there is always an acceptable middle ground, that negotiation is always possible, that being ‘nice’ is paramount, that everyone can be talked down, and that every other kind of response is wrong. (If you wish to teach your children, or your inner child, an alternative view of this, I suggest “Horrible Stories I Told My Children”.)
Through a combination of practice and social conditioning, people can end up having a response that become their go-to response, regardless of how appropriate it is to a given situation. We end up so used to reacting in a certain way that we get essentially stuck with that type of reaction. Every encounter where that reaction is successful (for a given value of “success,” anyway; you might win a battle and lose the war, but fail to register that) will reinforce that response as the go-to response. Problems will ensue when people find themselves in a situation where that response is entirely inappropriate, but it’s so ingrained that it’s very hard to control. For instance, you can end up with someone so used to flipping out every time a situation causes them any kind of discomfort that they flip out in the same way at a mugger, at a traffic warden trying to issue them with a ticket, at a fast food employee telling them that they have no chicken nuggets, and at their child who urgently needs the toilet.
People can also end up with a basic go-to response, and a response they jump to if the first one failed. For instance, there are fawn-fight types. First they try to appease the person with whom they are in conflict, and if that doesn’t work, they go berserk. That was my automatic conflict style for a very long time.
That combination has the potential to work very well in some situations. Dalton wasn’t wrong in encouraging his bouncers to “be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” The sudden switch between those two responses has several tactical advantages. It gives you the element of surprise against ill-minded opponents, which can keep you out of the morgue. If your responses are accompanied by clear verbal clues, being nice until it’s time not to be nice can convince bystanders that you were trying to get along and you were pushed into being conflictual by the other party, which can keep you out of jail.
If done badly, or if done in the wrong situation, however, fawn-fight absolutely sucks. For asocial situations, fawning can make predators choose us as targets because they believe we will be compliant. It can also help predators manipulate us into situations where our danger is much greater – separating us from our friends, taking us to a secondary location, and so on. If our fight is not successful in getting us out of the resulting scrape, we can have serious problems.
Fawn-fight can also fail us in social situations, or asocial situations masked to look social by the perpetrator. People can’t read minds. Fawning can mean that nobody but us knows that we have a problem. If our response to being unhappy with what people are doing is to facilitate them doing it, they will carry on doing it. If they are not ill-intentioned, this could mean that we are unnecessarily putting up with something we find distressing.
The combination of fawn and fight can also make us look like the bad guys. In our heads, it may look as if the situation has escalated to the point where we were forced to take action. From the outside, however, it will look as if out of the blue we just lost it and flipped out at a poor bastard for no reason at all. No warnings, no explanations, nada; just a sudden explosion. In a safe situation, that can make us look not only as if we’re in the wrong, but also unstable, or at least unreliable.
If we are dealing with ill-intentioned people, the fact that we started out going along seemingly happily with the events can greatly reduce the help we get from third parties. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence out there suggesting that relying on third party involvement is risky at best, because not everyone around you wants to be a hero. However, acting as if we’re happy with whatever is going on can pretty much guarantee that nobody will come to our aid, even the heroes. If we do not manifest our distress or unhappiness in some way, people can’t know that something is wrong. If people don’t think anything is wrong, they will leave us to it.
The reason I’m subjecting you to this volume of word-vomit on this subject is this happens a lot. So many people ask so many times why someone won’t cut out a bad behaviour, why nobody is helping them, why something unpleasant keeps happening to them; yet they freely admit that all along they have never done anything to tell anyone that there was a problem. They expect people to know that they are unhappy, even though their fawn response is designed specifically to give no sign of that unhappiness. But now they’ve had enough of it, dammit, and something’s gotta change or someone’s gonna get it! And their fight response leaves everyone around them totally shocked, because nobody but them knew that there was a problem.