How I Moved Past Shame By Understanding My Fight-Or-Flight Response

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How I Moved Past Shame By Understanding My Fight-Or-Flight Response

“You’re going to be a terrible wife.”

I was 20 years old and I took my grandmother’s response to my refusal to make my male friend a sandwich since he was capable of doing it himself as a huge compliment. She’d been what amounted to my grandfather’s servant throughout their marriage and I had no interest in anything of that sort.

What I couldn’t shake off was the expectation of emotional servitude. At least not until another 20 years had passed.

One of the toughest things for me to do is to express my needs, let alone believe I deserve to have them met.

The more secure I am in a relationship, the better I am at doing so since I don’t have the same fear if I say one wrong thing they’ll decide I’m not worth the hassle. In less-secure relationships, I attempt to be the one doing all the need-fulfillment in order to prove my worth, which often leaves me feeling unfulfilled and undervalued.

As a female, I find it challenging to feel entitled to have a voice.

We’re been trained and told by women and men our entire lives to defer to boys and men. We're told not to speak our mind much or guys won’t like us, not to be too smart or we’ll be seen as intimidating and undesirable, not to demand our due or we’ll be seen as bitches, not to ask too much of our partners or we’ll be nags, and on and on and on ...

It was beyond inspiring for me to see millions of women (along with gender-non-conforming and intersex people, and men) around the world using their voices and taking up space at the Women’s Marches following Trump's inauguration in 2017.

I even sucked up my crowd aversion with the help of a group of friends and participated in the Vancouver march, carrying a Black Lives Matter sign and feeling good about loudly expressing my discontent. I was humbled to acknowledge that, as a white woman, I have a LOT of listening I need to do to those far more oppressed than my own cisgender, middle class, privileged, Canadian ass.

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I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, but I henceforth resolve to listen more to vulnerable voices without getting defensive, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel.

In my personal world, I’ve been finding my voice more and more thanks to the confidence being in my 40's gives me.

Yet I’m surprised how often I still find myself incapable of expressing my opinions, needs and limits.

That old programming to be polite and quiet kicks in when someone crosses my boundaries — especially if I’ve already expressed them clearly at least once — and I doubt, then blame myself for allowing myself to be in a position in which they could be crossed.

Internal victim blaming for the win!

Common wisdom says that, when threatened, the body’s response is either "fight" or "flight."  

Just a few years ago, however, scientists discovered that there is a third response survival response — "freeze."  

This reaction is especially typical for those who are most physically vulnerable. For the physically powerful, kicking ass or getting the f*ck out of a dangerous situation is a viable option, but for many of us, trying to remain as still as you can in order to prevent further harm is the natural default option.

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where the person I was with intended to hurt me in a malicious way, but knowing that someone I was with could hurt me if they chose to has sent me into frozen lock down on more than one occasion.

As I’ve written about previously, I’m not into anal sex.

In one circumstance, a guy I’d been seeing for a while decided to pay way more attention to my ass than my vag, to the point he’d pressed the tip against the bud and was jerking himself off. I was furious. I’d made myself exceptionally clear that I wasn’t going to do anal and the wife he had waiting at home to hear about his date with me loved anal, even preferred anal, so if that’s what he wanted, he could have stayed home and had sex with her!

Did I throw him off me, yell at him, and kick him out?

Nope. My doubts and fears took over as questions ran through my mind.

Had I not been clear enough?

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What had I done wrong to get myself in this situation?

These thoughts left me frozen as I lay on my stomach on the bed, absolutely rigid until he eventually noticed something was wrong and stopped. His explanation when I finally found my words to express my distress? He said he was just teasing me.

I’d also been clear previously that I hate being teased.

There have been several other circumstances where crossed boundaries have led me to a similar shutdown. In other cases, I've simply grown tired of trying so hard to express myself and decided to accept some discomfort in order to get whatever is happening over with as soon as possible.

As I've chatted with other women, I've learned that nearly every one of them has had a similar experience with the freeze response — as well as with the flood of shame and self-recrimination that comes along with it.

Understanding that this survival mechanism is part of the sympathetic nervous system’s automatic response (think deer caught in headlights) is helping me let go of some of the self-blame and put it back where it belongs, on the person who crossed my explicitly set boundary.

I’m almost never able to find my words in a frozen moment, but I am getting much better at expressing myself clearly when the crisis has ended, as well as at deciding who deserves a second chance and who does not. 

My hope is to continue releasing the programming I internalized over the past four decades regarding how women "should" behave.

I’ve come a long way from where I was only a couple years ago in many areas. It’s been much easier to toss out monogamy and slut shaming than it has been to de-program the defer-to-men setting, particularly when it comes to taking on emotional labor for two, getting my own needs met and demanding respect of my boundaries.

So am I going to be a terrible wife? Nope. I’m going to be a nasty woman!

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Kat Stark is a geeky, Canadian, queer, bi/pansexual, feminist who came to ethical non-monogamy 21-years into her relationship with her husband. After a quick toe-dip to test the waters (and hours of obsessive reading and podcast consumption), they dove in and she almost can't imagine they ever lived any other way.

This article was originally published at Life On The Swingset. Reprinted with permission from the author.