Most of us have heard of two reactive coping strategies that many of us get triggered into: fight and flight. Without even being conscious of how we developed those "skills", we can fall into one of those modes of reaction when faced with conflict with our students, families, friends, and even strangers.
Fight or flight are crucial nervous system responses that happen when our amygdalas go into action in order to protect us from real or perceived threats. But it can be much more than that. In addition to fight and flight, there is fix, freeze, and appease.
Appease is when we learned from very early on in our caregiving and family units that we needed to do whatever it takes to smooth things out, to make people happy, and to get along. Appeasers are the folks who need to learn how to say "no". These people are so nice. Mr. Nice Guy who never gets mad. The gal who always says yes to a new task. These folks are sweet and funny; they don't rock the boat. They learned to mask their inner feelings.
Freezers are people who go into paralysis under stress. Many of us are Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) who can become overwhelmed when faced with too much stimulation or conflict or don’t know how to regulate a highly active nervous system. Instead, a great coping skill has become shut down mode. These are the people who have to walk away, or go to sleep, literally, or ignore issues, or say things, like "I don’t know" when asked how they feel; they really don't know because they learned feeling too much is dangerous.
The Fixers want to solve problems for people. Their coping strategy, their way of maintaining control (as all of these coping mechanisms are trying to do) is to go into action and see if they can solve problems for other people. They are idea people, high energy, jump-in-and-get-their-hands-dirty folk. You got a problem? They have nineteen ways to solve it. They may even anticipate your issues and try to fix them for you. They are great in an emergency, but they also learned to fix was to forestall or deflect danger.
Fight, flight, fix, freeze, and appease are great strategies in life. They served us at some point, but they become problematic when they remain on unconscious, when they are our reactions rather than thoughtful responses to stress, conflict, or interpersonal relations.
Fixers, Appeasers, Fighters, Fliers, and Freezers can all benefit from working on curiosity, which can be hard to cultivate in this culture. It can be challenging to stay in the softer more vulnerable state of curiosity, rather than trying to move immediately into certitude or trying to figure things out or withdrawing from stress or conflict. To be curious about what’s happening with another person (student, friend, intimate partner, coworker), and perhaps even more importantly, being curious about what’s happening inside of ourselves rather than reactive to our own emotions and feelings, can slow things down and potentially avoid conflict, fear, or, inappropriate self-medicating, and, well, reactivity we may later regret. But it is hard to develop the meta-cognitive skills required to do this.
One way to get into curiosity as a mode is to phrase things differently when we interact with others. Instead of saying, I think that…,we might say I wonder if…? or Is it possible that…? or What do you think or feel about...?"
One of my favorite ones is to say to someone when they are talking about a problem, a concern, or a difficult feeling, Do you want to problem solve or process?
This is a way of establishing a boundary of respect right from the start. It is way of asking what the other person wants without defaulting immediately into coping strategy.
For an Appeaser or a Fixer or even a Freezer, knowing what the other person actually wants from you means you don’t have to reactively go into a habituated way of responding. Perhaps all the other person wants is to be heard and validated. "The gift of a listening face" is so important, and sometimes that’s all someone actually needs or wants. Or they might need that before wanting or being able to brainstorm and problem solve.
On the other hand, if the question is asked, and someone says, Yes, I want help figuring this out, then problem solving is on the table (and for a Fixer like me, I'm all in!), but again, there’s some pressure removed, because if what you wanted to do was just listen and that ended up frustrating the person you were talking to, you know what they actually want from the beginning and you can say whether or not it’s something you can help with. Or if you are not a Fixer or their issue is outside your scope of help, you can also say you are really not sure how to help but maybe you can help them identify where they can get resources or support.
Similarly, we can say to someone else what we actually want from them. We could say, I really need to vent and process; I’m hoping that you can just listen. We can be honest and tell someone that we are dysregulated, and we just need them to be a validating ear to help coregulate with us and bring down our agitation. Maybe that’s what we need before we can figure out our own problem solving.
Or we can say to someone, I have something going on that I am having trouble with, and I can’t figure out an answer, and I was hoping to bounce some ideas off you and see if you could see this differently then I am or give me another perspective.
Do you want to process or problem solve? has become one of my favorite questions. I ask myself it. I ask it with colleagues, students, friends, and loved ones. And I try to think about what it is that I need and see if I can state that upfront, as well.
I often use this question to self-regulate if I find myself trying to jump into fixing things. Not my circus, not my monkeys. I tell myself that when I find I am overstepping my bounds or trying to take on someone's problems that aren't my own.
I work to recognize what my habituated coping strategy is and when I'm unconsciously falling into it.
Those incredible survival skills that we developed before we could even speak are hard to be conscious of because they are meant to be automatic. They are expressions of our nervous systems going into action to keep us safe.
Usually we have one that is our major reactive habit when we are triggered, and often there is secondary one. For me, as a lot of educators are, it’s being a Fixer and if I can’t fix, I want to Fly. My husband, on the other hand, has two totally different primary and secondary triggered reactive processes.
Becoming aware of these in relationship has been incredibly important to us, because these are not deficits. They are strengths, except when they remain unconscious. Learning to respect those reactive strategies while also learning to become curious about them, self reflective about them, asking them inside ourselves what they tell us about our feelings, and then sitting in that dysregulation and that discomfort, while we step forward out of them into conscious co-regulation has changed the way we manage conflict and the way we deepen our intimacy, safety, and health in the relationship,
Because in the end, all human relationships have conflict, but conflict should ultimately be about curiosity about what could be learned from it rather than about winning or being right.
Starting with a question helps to establish the idea of being open and curious and it doesn’t just end with that question; it means shifting into a mode of curiosity about self and other, and if we’re lucky, that leads to more surprises and discoveries and growth.
Whether we work to be curious about students and what unmetabolized traumas they have experienced that have led to emotional scar tissue and reflexive rather than reflective behaviors or we are engaging our kids, loved ones, or friends, remembering that triggers happen and so do reactions and being curious about them rather than judgemental is a start.
The next step is about how to create a safe space for developing self regulation and teaching strategies for becoming responsive rather than reactive.
It always starts with us.