Fight or flight – our automatic response to danger. When fear is present, adrenaline pours into our system to prepare us to fight or flee – from the tiger, the bear, the lava from the volcano.
Fight or flight – today we automatically respond this way to the present dangers, the deep fears that come up in relationships: rejection and engulfment – fears of loss of others and loss of self. Often, when we feel rejected and fear the loss of the other, we fight for love not to go away by defending, explaining, blaming, attacking, complying, fixing, or we flee through withdrawal.
Often, when we feel engulfed and fear losing ourselves through being controlled by another, we flee through resistance or withdrawal, or fight by attacking, defending, or explaining. Just as our ancestors fought or fled from physical danger, we fight and flee from emotional danger. The problem is that, while fight or flight is appropriate in the face of physical danger, this same behavior in the face of emotional fear causes deep problems in relationships.
When we respond automatically to the fears of losing ourselves and losing another, we behave in the very ways that create fear in the other. Our fight or flight reactions create fear in the other person – the same fears of losing themselves or losing us. Our fighting and fleeing activates others’ fear of rejection and engulfment, creating a vicious circle of fighting and fleeing.
These unconscious, automatic reactions to emotional danger were learned long ago when we were very small and had to rely on fight or flight as part of our survival. Today they are no longer necessary for our survival and need to be replaced with loving actions toward ourselves and others.
What does it mean to take loving action in the face of another’s fight or flight behavior?
Where do we get the role modeling for what it looks like to take loving action in the face of another’s unloving behavior?
Most of us had parents who did not role model loving action in the face of conflict. We have not seen much of it on TV or in movies.
How do we learn to take loving action on our own behalf when in conflict with another – an action that takes care of ourselves without violating or threatening another?
The steps we can take to move out of automatic fight or flight and into loving actions are:
- Start to attend to your feelings, the physical sensations within your body that let you know when you are anxious or afraid.
- Stop and breathe when you feel fear or anxiety in the face of conflict, or in the face of another’s fight or flight behavior. Give yourself some breathing time to make a conscious decision rather than go on automatic pilot.
- Take action on the information you receive.
Examples of loving action are:
- Move into compassion for the other person, recognizing that he or she would not be in fight or flight without being in fear. Asking the other person, again from a deep desire to learn, what he or she is afraid of that is causing this behavior may de-escalate the situation and lead to understanding and healing.
- If the other person is not open to calm discussion and exploration of the conflict, disengage from the interaction, speaking your truth without anger or blame. For example, you might say, I don’t want to fight with you. I’m going to take a walk and let’s try to talk about it later. Or, This isn’t feeling good between us. Let’s take a break and get together later.
- If the other person has withdrawn from you, loving action may be to do something fun or nurturing for yourself.
Both staying and learning together or taking some time apart to reflect on the issues or self-nurture will break the cycle of each person going into fight or flight in reaction to the other person’s fight or flight.
It takes conscious practice to stop going into automatic behavior, but the payoff is well worth the time it takes to practice loving action.
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Alternatively, you have the choice to “Fight” or “Flee”