We can be intelligent, capable, and outwardly successful, we can have the greatest relationships in the world, and yet we can still be trapped in survival mode most of the time. We just don’t realize it. We think we’re relaxed, but really our brains are still on high alert, scanning for danger. In this state our brains instruct our bodies to pump out the stress chemicals that make us feel pressured, frustrated, or depressed, all in an attempt to make us more alert and aware.
Jon Wortmann; Julian Ford
If you’ve been paying attention to my blog over the past couple of months, you’re probably familiar with a catchy new acronym called VUCA. If you’re new to my blog, welcome! Let me catch you up. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and I think these terms encapsulate what it’s like to be alive today. Our work, personal, and relational lives are increasingly defined by VUCA, and as a result, we’re all learning how to best react to these often-stressful circumstances.
In this series, we’ve been exploring the different ways we tend to react to our VUCA environment – different styles for dealing with stress and the unknown. In my book Going Reptile, I outline four different categories of reactivity – the Four F’s: Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn. So far we’ve covered Fight and Flight. Now it’s time to discuss the Freeze styles.
The Freeze Styles are a bit harder to detect than the Fight or Flight Styles. Often a person exhibiting a Freeze style can look good on the outside, but on the inside, they are moving through varying degrees of shut down. In it’s extreme, the Freeze styles literally leave you speechless, frozen, and foggy.
If you are the person experiencing this reaction, it’s not a comfortable feeling. If you are witnessing someone going into a Freeze response, you may well not recognize what is happening.
One of the ways a Freeze Style shows up is what I have named The Winner.
The Winner is a style that finds safety in appearing successful. This is a paradox, as this person desperately wants to appear successful, but finds it harder and harder to do so as the perceived threats around them cause them to fall into varying degrees of shutdown. This creates quite a bind. The more they react, the less they appear successful. As they try to not shut down, in order to continue to appear successful, the worse it gets. A vicious cycle – and one many of us get caught in – particularly at work.
Perhaps you can appreciate the complexity of this paradox. I’m safe if I appear successful to those around me, and, if I show that I feel scared, I won’t appear successful. So I need to hide feeling scared, yet by the very act of hiding my feeling scared, I accelerate my shut down. This style, and this dynamic, is more prevalent that most of us realize.
Indicators to look for: Presenting yourself as in control and successful, but feeling scared below the surface, and not letting others (and perhaps even yourself) see what is happening. “Don’t let them see you sweat” may well be your reactivity motto. If this is your style, you may find that you often seem to be fine, and then suddenly appear to fall into a meltdown of one form or another, unable to navigate the situation. Your capacity to not show what’s happening inside inevitably cracks at some point, often surprising yourself and those around you.
If you recognize this style, The Winner, as a way you react, be gentle with yourself. Just as with the other styles, this was developed in response to situations that were too much for us to hold as children. We learned that it worked better to not show how scared we were, and we learned to make it look good. And, this works for a long while – until it doesn’t.
When it’s the inquisition we’re up against, this style of reacting may well be life saving. When it’s our boss, our co-worker, a friend, or our spouse, this reaction moves us away from connection and relationship and into isolation. In the inquisition, isolation and making it look good may be exactly what is needed for survival. When it’s people we need to relate with, holding it together on our own may not be so helpful.
The good news is that this is not an irredeemable situation. Recent psycho-neurobiology provides a lot of information about how we can learn to better understand our own reptilian reactions and become, as I like to say, more fully human :-).
There are a few steps you can take to begin to see what is happening and to learn more.
Observation: Get to know the reactive styles that are showing up in yourself, and those around you.
- What do you notice?
- How do you or someone else show up in different stressful, uncertain or threatening situations?
- What do you feel as you notice? Disgust, Blame, Irritation, Judgment, Shame or Gentleness, Compassion or Understanding? Just notice. Don’t try to change anything. Just notice what is coming up.
Understanding: Reactivity is wired into us by design. It is not a flaw. It’s a human safety feature. The question is whether these reactions that may have supported our ancestors or even ourselves when we were younger still serve us now. As you notice, pay attention. Does this reaction still serve you? Again, just notice. Don’t try to change anything.
What we resist persists: If you find yourself in some form of frozen terror around not getting that first place medal, not making the team, not landing that huge account, or not being invited to that important meeting, and you feel some version of shut down or disconnection, recognize that you are in the middle of this dynamic. For some of us, this is so “business as usual” that it may be hard to recognize as a contributing factor to the very issues that you need to address. Be gentle with yourself and continue to pay attention to what happens and when.
Get to know your styles: This brings us back to observation. Compassion is central to loosening reactive styles. If you blame yourself or others for how they react, the reactive patterns become more entrenched, more clever. Their job is protection. They do it well. Practice noticing these patterns. See if you can gently appreciate that they were created for really good reasons – even if they don’t seem to serve the family, team, or organization in the present.
It’s rather easy to recognize someone who has an outburst of aggression. It’s a lot harder to recognize someone who is freezing while making it look as if everything is good on the outside. Yet both reactions have a similar effect: the pre-frontal cortex goes offline more and more as the reaction grows in intensity. And, as we’ve learned, we need our pre-frontal cortex online in order to navigate effectively.
In the next post, we’ll continue with the Freeze styles. The deeper we go into the styles, the more subtle they become.