As I explored the area of childhood abandonment, common defense coping mechanisms were discussed. All these response mechanisms are good when the perceived threat is real and in fact, you should have all of these response mechanisms in your toolbox depending on the situation. Childhood abandonment created a hard-wired survival coping mechanism to a traumatic event, which at the time was perceived as a threatening, hurtful situation. However, the challenge now in adulthood is still using this coping mechanism when a non-threatening situation is perceived as a threat!
Most individuals will have one or two dominant defense response mechanisms. When you deploy your dominant defense even when there is NO real threat, you’ve been “triggered”. Recognizing when you are deploying a dominant defense mechanism can help you better understand your actual triggers and begin to shift your behavior. Awareness is the first step!
Here are the 4 most common defense coping mechanisms. Note again that each defense coping mechanism is useful in threatening situations and has positive aspects to it. It only becomes an issue when the coping mechanism is repeatedly used in response to a non-threatening situation (trigger).
FIGHT (The Bully) – Acts to feel safe; protects self from threat by attacking first
– Uses Power & Control to create safety and assuage fear of abandonment pain; needs to establish power over the perceived threat
– “I need to eliminate the threat before it eliminates me.”
– Defends self through yelling, fighting, controlling others, bullying, attacking, rage and lashing out, desire to punch
– Someone who is dominated by this coping mechanism can: be impulsive, avoid isolation, have autocratic behavior, have sense of entitlement, demand perfection in everything, hold others to unrealistic expectations and is angry when expectations not met (ex. someone not following rules), have outburst of temper (even at self), have road rage, often clenches fist or jaw/grind teeth
– Positives of coping mechanism: assertiveness, setting boundaries, courage, determination, leadership, being articulate
– Ideas on Recovery if using in non-threatening situation – redirect rage towards childhood circumstance, grieve to release hurt, shrink the critical voice that demands perfection, take timeouts (rage management), practice mindfulness (breathing)
FLIGHT (The Workaholic) – Acts to feel safe; protect self from threat through escape
– Perfection & Achievement will make me safe & love-able
– “I need to run away from the situation before it can hurt me”
– Constantly doing (staying busy so I can outrun/avoid the danger); constantly trying for competence & perfection in self; Type A busyness, overachiever; tendency to run (physically or mentally) from conflict/problems
– Someone who is dominated by this coping mechanism can: use escapism to feel acceptable – escaping into work, into doing (compulsions), into thoughts (obsessions), into addictions; have an inability to sit still and just be/relax; be constantly worrying, constantly active, micromanaging details; have shallow breathing; often feel trapped.
– Positives of coping mechanism: healthy retreat from harmful/dangerous situations, industriousness, know how, perseverance, objectivity
– Ideas on Recovery if using when non-threatening situation – redirect analytical thinking towards childhood circumstance, grieve childhood losses, shrink the critical voice that demands perfection, decrease habitual doing and practice introspection and slowing down, practice mindfulness.
FREEZE (The Couch Potato) – Avoids people to feel safe; protect self from threat through disassociation (physical, mental or emotional separation)
– Avoidance of people because the world and people are dangerous
– “If I don’t do anything, the threat cannot hurt me.”
– Inaction and withdrawal from world; hide, detach, disassociate, isolate; disappear into own silent zone (computer, TV, reading, social media, gaming, sleeping); struggle with people; achievement phobic, general apathy
– Someone who is dominated by this coping mechanism can: have difficulty making decisions or getting motivated/starting projects; have fear of achievement and standing out / being noticed; feel stiffness and coldness, have restricted shallow breathing, low heart rate, emotional numbness
– Positives of coping mechanism: mindfulness, awareness, peace, readiness, presence, detachment
– Ideas on Recovery if using when non-threatening situation – redirect social anxiety towards self-compassion; grieve childhood helplessness; shrink the critical voice that sees imperfection in others; regularly connect to friends to develop support network.
FAWN (The People Pleaser) – Avoids independent action to feel safe; protect self from threat through people pleasing
– A relationship requires me to forfeit my own needs/rights/preferences
– “If I can appease this person, I can be safe from conflict pain”
– Acquiescence (goes along) to keep others happy, defers to others, merges with others; high servitude, loss of identity
– Someone who is dominated by this coping mechanism can: constantly avoid conflicts, want to be socially perfect, be prone to codependency, have difficulty saying no or sharing true opinion, prone to over-apologizing
– Positives of coping mechanism: compromise, active listening, empathy, love, service, amiability, mediating, compassion for others
– Ideas on Recovery if using when non-threatening situation – redirect people-pleasing towards self-compassion, grieve childhood stifling of individuality, shrink inner critic to allow assertiveness & self expression to emerge, develop mindfulness of triggers, reduce habit of mood mirroring, practice self compassion
There is often a duality of response to non-threatening triggers: Fight/Freeze or Flight/Fawn are both common. I am Flight/Fawn. Like others with Flight/Fawn combo, I have an inner critic focused on pointing out every time I am not achieving perfect performance. I also do obsessive thinking (what if scenarios, over-planning), actively avoid conflict, and am in constant pursuit of new interests (dabbler). And I:
– Used my workaholic tendency to avoid feeling non-belonging pain and fear of facing conflict. Yet my workaholic tendency actually prevented life connections and a feeling of belonging.
– Have high need to meet expectations – endless seeking approval and validation, not meeting expectations was (is!) emotionally painful. I even hear expectations when they are not even there.
– Am overly sensitive and over-react to criticism and am hyper-vigilant about perceived rejection.
– Only experience brief happiness from achievements – always feel not quite enough (not perfect). My pursuit of self-development is because of my inner belief that I am broken.
– Often feel I “walk on eggshells” to avoid emotional confrontations & perceived conflict.
– Have fear of doing things alone, which prevents me from engaging in life.
My Deep Belief is if people really get to know the real me, the ORIGINAL me, they will abandon me, just like I was abandoned as a newborn. The original, authentic me was not worthy. And so I need to be the socially acceptable, people pleasing, “perfect” Pat. And when I am not (triggered by feeling incompetent, feeling rejected, making a mistake, not being good enough), I react as if I am being abandoned again.
What My Healing Journey looks like–
1) Acknowledge and GRIEVE my traumatic experience, grieve to release hurt (even if I cannot recall all/any of the actual event)
2) Notice (AWARENESS) of my defense coping mechanism behavior in a non-threatening situation. Learn my triggers. Know my responses.
3) REFRAME thinking by actively using my self-empowering beliefs; build (better) skills for conflict management.
4) Find SUPPORT – discussion with partner/close friend – let them know about my fear of abandonment and enroll them in my healing journey.
5) PRACTICE Thought Stop – recognize when I am triggered into thinking & reaction patterns (self hate, self doubt, compare & despair, over-doing, over-reaction, feeling rejected, etc.) and shift to self-empowering beliefs.
6) Continue POSITIVITY Practices – yoga and breath work, loving kindness meditation, meaningful dialogs to build connections with others, self-empowering affirmations, more time being (less doing, more mindfulness, more time in nature), do things solo (build comfort doing things alone).
Becoming more aware of my triggers and response mechanism was helpful in stopping a negative emotional spiral recently. I will continue this healing journey.
Are you deploying dominant defense mechanism(s) in non-threatening situations? Do you know what your triggers are?
Picture Credit: Me, another spring bloom from my garden.