Fight or Flight

Hawaiian Fern


For eons, the human organism has been honed and perfected to respond effectively and appropriately to any perceived sense of threat or attack. In modern language, this effective and appropriate response is called the ‘fight or flight response.’ In lay terms, this means that when we feel threatened or attacked, our first line of defense is generally to either fight back, or run. We have likely experienced this at some time in our lives. Our fight response, however, may be hampered by the conditioning of our upbringing and our society. Having been taught that fighting is wrong, we may get frustrated, angry or irritable. We may fight in subtle ways such as passive aggressive behaviors or in not so subtle ways by throwing out language meant to hurt and harm the other person. There can be many ways to fight back. The flight response is often more common, safer, and many times considered the wiser. When a child is bullied in school, prevailing wisdom suggests the child leave, which is, essentially, the flight response.

The fight or flight response can happen quickly. But, there is another initial and very immediate response which is a precursor to the fight or flight response and that is the freeze response. At the very instant of a perceived threat or attack, there is a moment, or sometimes longer, in which we are frozen; in a mild and temporary state of shock. Like the proverbial deer in the headlights, we are immobilized. It is only after that initial freezing of thought and action that we then take up the fight or flight response. It is during the transition from this momentary freezing to the fight or flight response that we decide which course of action to take, either to fight back, in any number of ways, overtly or covertly, or to escape, to run, to flee, to take flight. During that ever so brief moment of decision making, a tremendous amount of calculation takes place. A complex set of equations and cost benefit analysis takes place determining which course of action would yield the most useful and productive result given the resources and capacities available at the time.

Fight or flight is a rather primitive response to a perceived threat or attack. Its effectiveness, however, cannot be argued since that very response has served to perpetuate the species through all kinds of dangers through the ages. There is another, more advanced, more evolved, response to a perceived, or actual, threat or attack, called Fusion. Fusion is actually the de-fusing of a threat or an attack by joining forces with it, by united with it, by fusing with it. One of the key ingredients in a perceived threat or attack is opposing forces. There must be an attacker and a victim, a hunter and prey. But, what if the victim vanishes, or the prey becomes invisible? What if the bully all of a sudden finds there is nobody there? This becomes kin to the Zen koan ‘what is the hand of one hand clapping?’ If there could be a way of eliminating this perceived sense of opposition, of duality, of conflict, then any sense of threat or attack would evaporate like ice turning into steam and merging with atmosphere.

The critical factor in fusion is perception. If, as is often said, perception is reality, then fusion comes about by the perception of a reality in which the self is not at all threatened. And, the question then must arise, what is the self that it can, or cannot, itself, be threatened. It is the asking, and answering, of this question which makes fusion a more advanced, more evolved, response to a perceived threat or attack. It requires an understanding of self as a conception, a fabrication, a mental construct, with not substantial foundation. The self is built up entirely through interactions and has no independent status it can call its own. And, that which has no independent status, that which requires interaction and relationship for its very basis, cannot be threatened or attacked, no more than interaction and relationship in general can be destroyed. Granted, this is a somewhat philosophical, metaphysical and, perhaps even spiritual, orientation. But, then so is fusion as a response to a perceived threat or attack. And, how does one apply this response? Poets and mystics have expressed the idea often…..though simplicity itself, perhaps the most difficult to achieve…the being at one with the situation, the merging of the individual with the whole, the surrender of the self to the universal…..the fusion of the I into the We.

The Seventh Cardinal Sin of Thinking

water lilies

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule. It’s the same idea in just about every religion. But, consider this. What if the original translation was more along the lines of a statement of fact than an injunction: “You do unto others as you do unto yourself.” We treat others as we treat ourselves. If we are kind to ourselves, we are kind to others. If we are self degrading, we degrade others. If we accept this as at least a reasonable possibility, and if we look at the brutality of the world, it’s not difficult to see that we don’t treat ourselves very well.

The history of self belittlement is lengthy and complicated. It has roots in both religious and secular thinking. It is sometimes considered kin to humility and therefore not only tolerated but encouraged. But, like the overly exaggerated self promoter hiding a sense of inferiority, humility can too be a sign of an over active ego. As the saying goes, “don’t humble yourself, you’re not that great.”

But, not being great or successful or wealthy or healthy or smart or…whatever desirable trait we might imagine, is no reason for self belittlement. There is no rational reason for engaging in the kind of self talk which demeans or degrades us. It’s bad enough that others may belittle us. In fact, we often learn how to do it to ourselves from others, in particular parents, teachers and others who are close to us and in a position of perceived authority. The litany of phrases used on misbehaving children is extensive. In many cases, the phrases would fall into the category of verbal abuse. It’s easy to recognize how a child can become an adult with a poor self image.

Self image is the foundation of our psychological life. Although it is just an image, it nonetheless exerts tremendous influence over our emotions and our behavior. There is hardly a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor educator, sociologist or philosopher who would deny the importance of self image. Fortunately, because the image of our self is an image, a mental concept, it can be changed. It is not a fixed, concrete formation. Our self image has been built up largely through our own self talk. Year after year, layer upon layer, the experiences, the interpretations and evaluations, the meanings, the sentences…they all combine to form a knot of self. Tight. Tense. Defensive. Yet, not without creativity, spontaneity, insight, tremendous potential…Coming to understand and accept ourselves may be our life work – for each and every one of us.

Our path towards a new, improved, better self image need not be based on repeating a string of affirmations about how positive we are; it is not, necessarily, about being “ok.” We might not be ok, we might be a wreck. But, that is no reason for self belittlement. Regardless of how bad off we might be, how screwed up, how confused, how conflicted, how much in debt….none of that is reason for self belittlement. Yet, our upbringing has likely trained us to do just that: belittle ourselves when we are not living up to expectations so often set by others – which we often internalize as our own.

Our task, if we choose to take it, is simply to refuse engaging in any self talk which is degrading, demeaning, debasing, disparaging, deriding, or denigrating. Using positive self talk is certainly helpful; however, it is more important to stop the self belittlement as what good would it do if we tell ourselves how positive we are when underneath, quietly and secretly, we are telling ourselves just the opposite. We can also practice avoiding belittlement of others. There is enough research to strongly suggest that people respond better to encouragement than belittlement! And the same is true within us. Encouragement is more productive than belittlement. Stop the belittlement. Increase the encouragement.

We need to pay special attention to our own negative self talk, catch it in the act and gently acknowledge the untruth of it. The habits of negative self talk can be deeply entrenched. It may take years of diligence to uproot self belittlement. The result, however, is a much more natural, healthy, easy going, unfrightened and generous self.

It all comes back to our thinking. Our thinking can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Our thinking can make us healthy and happy or sick and miserable. Unreasonable, unrealistic and irrational thinking doesn’t work to anyone’s benefit. There is no better time than right now to begin the task of making our mind a more heavenly place.

The Sixth Cardinal Sin of Thinking

close up of pink flower

“I can’t do it !” It’s certainly a common enough phrase; I can’t do this, I can’t do that. It probably gets run through much more inside our mind than out. I’m not going to tell you it’s not true, that you can do anything you set your mind to. There are some things you can’t do. I know there are some things I can’t do. The problem is that when we use that phrase “I can’t” it suggests that we are not able to do it at some time in the future; that we are not able to learn how to do it. So, using the “I can’t” phrase doesn’t really do our potential any justice. And regarding our internal self talk, there is no distinction between fact and fiction. So, when the mind hears the self talk “I can’t” it simply says “ok.” There is also no time frame involved our self talk, the “I can’t” phrase has no expiration date. As far as the mind is concerned, “I can’t” means you never have been nor will ever be able to. That’s not quite accurate.

Many in the field of mental health or self improvement suggest that “I can’t” be replaced with “I won’t.” In some cases, that is a good suggestion. There are quite a few times when a person who says “I can’t do that” is really saying they choose not to do that. In such cases, saying “I won’t do that” is not only appropriate but more accurate and more empowering. You can try this out for yourself. If you can catch yourself about to say “I can’t” when in fact it’s a choice on your part not to do it, simply say “I won’t” or “I refuse” or “I choose not to.” Don’t say “I can’t” when in fact you can but don’t want to.”

But, what about those situations when in fact you really are not able to do it. You don’t have the skill, the experience or the capacity? In those cases, it’s still much better to use an alternate phrase. For example, if someone asks you to help them edit a book in a foreign language that you don’t speak, you can say something like “at this time, I am not able to” or “I have not yet learned how to speak that language.” By avoiding the use of “I can’t” we don’t shut down the future possibilities. The mind remains open to the potential.

But, what about a person who is clinically depressed, severely anxious or diagnosed with terminal cancer or some other serious physical condition. Are they not justified in saying “I can’t get better?” It would be somewhat cruel to suggest to them it’s their choice and they should say “I won’t get better.” The latter statement is not just a choice based phrase it is also very deterministic. It could itself be cause for depression as it is an affirmation of the problem. Yet, “I can’t get better” isn’t that accurate either. There are anecdotes of individuals who have overcome these types of problems and if any one individual can accomplish something, it is at least in the realm of possibility that others too can. So, more realistic self talk than either “I can’t” or “I won’t” is called for. What might work? Well, this is the kind of thinking that is required of a person interested in adjusting their self talk. They need to think about alternative phrases and then begin to use them when they catch themselves using the old more irrational or less than realistic phrases. Before reading on, think for yourselves what might work in this situation…..

Because the issue of choice is somewhat secondary in these kinds of situations; that is, we can assume that nobody consciously chooses to be depressed or terminally ill, the “can’t” and “won’t” don’t quite apply. Willpower is not the issue either. According to Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, the beginning of real change occurs when we acknowledge and accept where we are right now in the present moment. So, perhaps we can take the “I can’t” and make it into an “I can” if we “can” simply accept our present condition. “I can accept my problem” or “I can accept my illness” can be the precursor openings which may prove helpful and perhaps even somewhat healing. Of course, acceptance of an illness is itself not a task which is accomplished right away. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has delineated the stages of loss and acceptance is near the end. Nevertheless, we can transform our “I can’t” into an “I can” by changing what it is we think we can or can’t do. “I can’t get better” can become “I can accept this.” Here, of course, the initial response to terrible news or a fatal illness is “I won’t accept this” which is the first stage of loss, denial. But, the truth is, it can be accepted and, as one passes through the stages of loss, is accepted. And then, there is often much more peace, less resistance and openness to the possibilities so often found in “I can.”

The Fifth Cardinal Sin of Thinking

california coastal scene

Some people think in extremes. They just don’t allow any middle ground. It’s kind of like “you’re either with me or you’re against me” or “you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” A person with this “either/or” and “all or none” mentality can be very demanding requiring total allegiance. Any hint of deviation is paramount to a total abdication of that allegiance. A spouse may become insanely jealous, to the point of violence, if their partner is perceived to be paying attention to another person. It is, in the mind of an “all or none” thinker, inconceivable that a spouse could be friendly with many different people of both sexes and still absolutely devoted to the partner. The perfectionist also often suffers from totalitarian thinking when they say something like “I should have done better, I’m such an idiot.” It’s as if you’re either an idiot or perfect, nothing in between.

This kind of thinking, referred to as totalitarian thinking, in which the only possibilities are “yes” or “no” “on” or “off,” “all” or “none” is characteristic of very young children, before the age of 2. At this stage of development, a child believes that, for example, when the mother leaves the room, she is gone forever, she no longer exists. The child’s world is based purely on perception, not a bit of logic. The child does not yet understand “conservation” in which objects which disappear still exist. This is an all or none situation in which the object (or person) either exists in its totality or it does not exist at all. There is no middle ground. There is no “maybe it will come back.” It is an infantile position and one which some people do not outgrow – at least in some aspects of their life. Jealousy is one symptom of this kind of infantile thinking. It is an all or none proposition put into place by a totalitarian thinker. Perfectionism too can exhibit symptoms of all or nothing thinking. To a perfectionist, it’s either perfect or it’s a failure.

Jealousy often comes along with a host of associated feelings including distrust, envy, suspicion and resentment to name a few. All of these emotions arise from irrational an often infantile self talk which is only able to understand the all or none, either/or proposition. It can only see black or white, no shades of gray. This is unfortunate because life is seldom as clearly defined as black and white. More often than not, life is a confusing blend of numerous different shades of gray. More problematic is that jealousy is an extremely emotional state; it is not conducive to logical and rational explanations. Perfectionists are a bit more open to reason.

Whether a jealous person or a perfectionist, totalitarian thinking is behind it. Self talk may shed some light on the source of these intense feelings; however it’s usually difficult to capture the fleeting sentences flying through the mind that triggers these emotions. More often than not, it is mental pictures, or even a single snapshot, that does it. A husband sitting at home in the evening awaiting his wife’s return may become jealous when a picture of his wife with another man flashes through his subconscious mind. Without warning and for no apparent reason, he becomes angry at his wife. The mental picture is completely invalid. But, that does not stop it from passing through his mind and acted upon as valid. At that moment all the evidence of the past suggesting his wife’s devotion is wiped away in an all or nothing interpretation of a single imaginary snapshot in the mind. When explained logically, it is recognized as a ridiculous situation and yet that logic is often unable to overcome raging emotions. The perfectionist, in an explosive fit of self incrimination for making a simple and relatively minor mistake, becomes a totalitarian thinker believing that if it’s not perfect, the effort was a total waste of time. Perfectionists can also unload their negative energy on others demeaning and berating them for making simple errors.

Though not an easy task, the solution to this behavioral and mental health problem is tracking and changing the internal self talk and the internal mental pictures. This is often accomplished by keeping written records of the self talk/mental pictures on a piece of paper along with the resultant emotion. A third column on the paper is for the new, more rational self talk. CBT and REBT utilize an A-B-C theory. A = Activating Event, B = Belief about the event and C = Consequential emotion and behavior. The key to changing our negative and often destructive emotions and behaviors is B, our belief about the event, which is upheld through self talk and mental pictures. Change those, and C, the emotions and behaviors, will also change, even though the actual event, A, remains the same.