You may have heard of fight or flight; the automatic reaction your body has to situations it perceives as dangerous. Glossing over the physiological reactions involved, it comes down to two things: are you going to confront the threat or are you going to run? Evolutionarily speaking, this is an excellent tool. The body’s ability to lend you strength in life-threatening situations is a beautifully designed system. However, a problem arises when we apply this same mentality to emotional pain and interaction.
My personal instinct when confronted with anything that could cause emotional unrest is avoidance. Run, ignore, flight – whatever you want to call it, when I’m faced with a threat to my emotional well-being, I want out. This is due to my inherent dislike of confrontation. I don’t like messy conversations, and when I see people raising their voices at one another in public I can’t help but cringe. So, in order to avoid harsh words and hurt feelings, I began to rely heavily on avoidance. When I felt an emotion, I deemed a possibility for vulnerability. So, I would I squash it down with a smile or a colourful outfit. When I encountered interpersonal conflict, I began blanket apologies, and readily taking fault for situations where the blame was not all mine or mine at all.
I know I am not the only one that does this. Why do we feel that our options are anger or avoidance? Why is honest, effective, communication something that is so difficult for the vast majority of us?
I believe it comes down to vulnerability, which is, in my opinion, the true third option. When we are open, honest, and able to state our genuine needs and feelings, it opens us up to rejection.
Rejection is terrifying. We instinctively protect ourselves from it to the point where we don’t always even realize that our defence mechanisms, those thought patterns we use to keep ourselves safe, have the potential to hurt more than help.
I was not even aware of how much I tend to push my own needs aside to diffuse situations until an ex-boyfriend pointed out that anyone could do anything to me, and I’d apologize to them.
While the statement was delivered less than gracefully, and we are long broken up, I think about it a lot. He was right.
But how do I go about fixing it? How do I advocate for my needs without offending people, or becoming hostile and accusatory? I still have not fully figured it out. I am working on opening myself up, and not jumping to the extremes of fight or flight when it is time for a difficult talk. I am trying to not see problems in terms of black and white, your fault or mine, fight or flight. The dichotomies are harmful.
While I still find myself firmly planted on the shore that is flight, I am starting to realize more and more that it is time to start wading into vulnerability, or at least testing the waters.