Fight Flight or Freeze

Wolf in Sheeps Clothing

Adults who have not recovered from complex childhood trauma usually relate to others in one of two ways. They either relate to others as a victim by underestimating their power in a situation or they seek out power over others. I wish I could say that each person chooses one or the other. It would be easy to spot the victims and the bullies if that was the case. Unfortunately, it is usually a combination. While they probably have a favorite style, they may fall somewhere on the continuum between a full-fledged bully and powerless victim. And it may be inconsistent within each relationship.

Before my recovery work, my personal choice was that of the victim, but I have bullied. And honestly, I still have to work hard every day to avoid playing these roles. I write often about my struggles with my internal oppressor and how living as a victim is dysfunctional at best. However, the inner bully is just as important to address.

Bullies show up in so many ways. They may be obvious with a very aggressive approach to others. When I worked in the corporate world, these folks were everywhere and they usually fared well in that environment. It is unfortunate that our society rewards such aggressive behavior. We like to refer to them as “go-getters who know what they want”. But in reality, they are suffering from trauma that has left them insecure and seeking power.

Bullies may have children and continue the cycle of abuse. This may not come as a surprise, but I believe these are the worst of the bullies, and honestly, the wimpiest.

But then there are the bullies that disguise themselves as helpers. They may join movements against child abuse or trafficking. They act as though they want the best for the victims, but what they really want is to tell the victims what to do. They want to save the victim instead of saving themselves. And they want the victim to act and respond as they do. And when the victim chooses a different path, the judgment comes fast and furious. And it works well. The powerless are already wired for these relationships, so they may not realize they have moved from one oppressive situation to another.

I am not trying to be negative about advocates. I have met many fantastic advocates. However, I have had personal experiences with advocates who were entrenched in their own stories of trauma, whether they knew it or not. I have been told how I should act as a survivor. I have been told that I have to tell my story. I have been told not to tell my story. I have been told which laws I should support and which laws I should not. I have been told how to recover. I have even been told that my recovery must include certain elements to be a full recovery.

And I have learned that my own system is perfectly wired for interacting with these people. My fight, flight or freeze mentality automatically picks a response for each experience. Flight is my favorite. I will isolate. I will remove myself from the situation. I will be tempted to remove myself from the entire world if the difficult relationship gets bad enough.

My fight response initially seems like a step in the right direction but it’s not. This is not an empowered fight response. This is a reactive fight response. My fight response will only kick in when the oppression has gone too far for too long. When that happens, my fight response is an over-reaction to the particular incident that was the proverbial “straw on the camel’s back”. It never ends well. It usually leaves the relationship in ruins which was probably the point. Who wants a relationship with a bully? But take it from me, it’s not a good way to end relationships.

My freeze response is a paralysis that can continue for hours or days or weeks. And during this time, I accomplish very little. This doesn’t mean I stay in bed all day. I still look like I am functioning, but productivity is at a bare minimum. I will only do the smallest amount of work to keep everything running. When I come out of this mode, I usually have a lot of work to do.

While it might seem like a good goal to remove all bullies from the world, it is a bit unrealistic. I am reminded of the AA prayer about serenity, courage and wisdom. I have painfully learned that the only thing I have the ability to change is my reaction. Unfortunately, this is hard. It requires rewiring my brain to respond to these bullies in an empowered way. Of course, I don’t know how to be empowered. I was never taught that as a child.

And so I struggle every day to speak my mind and adjust how I view the power of others. Even when the others have made it clear that they are extremely powerful, I work to understand that I have power too. I try to come to the realization that I can love myself with or without the love of others. They may not like what I have to say. They may tell me that. But if I do what I feel is right in my heart and soul, the opinions of others have to take a back seat. And I will have to be strong enough to know that is ok. And that is not easy for a survivor who has only been taught to be powerless because our inner strength is not powerless.

Our inner strength is the only power we need.


Note: For those who work with adult survivors of childhood trauma, please understand that it is not your job to tell a survivor how to recover or how to represent themselves during recovery. You do not know more about them than they do. It is your job to show them what a supportive and unconditional relationship looks like. It is the unconditional relationship that will help them heal. It is the only thing that will.


22 thoughts on “Fight Flight or Freeze

  1. Thank you for sharing for those of us who may have had similar life happenings/traumas in our lives. Keep writing because you are the voice for those of us who are put down still for seeking help for the trauma(s) we have endured during life.


  2. Thank you, we really are tested to move into the heart, aren’t we? I love your quote: ‘Our inner strength is the only power we need.’ It sounds like some advocates have a prescribed notion of what it is to be a survivor. I think you show courage and great strength by recognizing this and talking about it.


  3. Thank you so much Elisabeth for this article. Right on time. I’m sick and tired of people telling me what to do, how I should think or act. People telling me that they don’t understand why or how come I’m still suffering from the consequences of abuse.

    On another hand, you gave me an answer I’ve been looking for for exactly 3 years. My only and best friend in the world, who was my bigger supporter abandoned me when i took my own decisions instead of following hers. Now I understand.


  4. Dear Elizabeth, I recently was confronted with this very issue and it tore my heart out, because it felt like a betrayal but my survivor mind said no your not strong enough, which is what I was being fed by a “well meaning person who loved me” in a abuse survivor talk show role. I kept hearing the messages get stronger and share your story. So low and behold, I get to the point of wanting that strength and freedom so bad enough to share deep intimate details of my abuse on the streets by multiple people and it was met with, “That happens to a lot of people and you were already so abused before that took place!” I am so deeply sad! You talk about fight, flight or freeze…I did all three! I have since abandoned what I was doing to help others and when confronting this person, I was apprised of their levels of healing and how they want us to get there all out of love. I do not know what love is, much less loving myself enough to be ok with what I was told, it comprised my original thinking that I didn’t matter and when people saw these men attacking me, they walked on by. I was invalidated!

    I deeply appreciate that you wrote this! This week I have been racked with doubt and recriminations about past and myself as a warrior to abuse. Moreover, I’m perplexed as to why I can’t achieve what others have in the apparent correct manner. In the fight mode, I tell them you know what I’ve been where you are and right now I am experiencing DEEP SHAME, ANGER GRIEF I never allowed before and like layers of an onion I am unfurling a stinky mess! Inside we feel defective, lost and frustrated! These are the very people that have me share in order to help others and then turn around and disregard my healing journey in the first place. The hardest thing is when these people say they love you and bowl you over with their ideas, their plans and their perception for your healing without really thinking of you in the equation. I’ll never know what safe relationship means… not yet and we thought we did with a new family of survivors who would hold hands in camaraderie, but if the aim is to seek what they want and hurt in the process??? I’m thankful we froze if to look at this square on, then, we fought by confronting with what little feelings I thought I should have. Lastly, I fled all my involvement with the show for now. (I say we because I am multiple) another thing people are trying to get healed too fast. I wish I had people to talk to about this, because as a survivor with no resources and the self doubt, it’s been difficult, because I want to do right by these people who have hurt us.

    Thanks again Elizabeth!


    • Thank you K. There is nothing that has to be done in your journey of healing. You never have to tell your story for you or anyone else. Your healing can be a very private experience. Take your time to find your own healing in your own way. Do what your heart wants.


  5. You are so correct. Our inner strength IS very important. Unfortunatly we have to trust ourselves to use it. I also think faith in something more is important too. Believing in something greater than yourself is a great healing tool as well as forgiveness being very freeing. I just did an article on that check it out of you get a chance. I am the quiet timid one. I have never been the bully my concience is to strong so even when I think about not being very nice I feel bad. The thought of ever hurting a child makes me angry to the level of possibly hurting someone but only the abuser never a child they need love and compassion and clear rules and boundries. If they don’t have a good home environment its so hard for them to thrive and behave the way you would expect. They just need love. I love your article and especially your note to doctors at the end. That is such helpful information to the non abused working with past abused. You just gave them knowledge no textbook ever could.


    • Another great post by Elisabeth, and I appreciated the comments in this reply as well. I’ve found a faith in something higher helps me – I think of it as plugging into the “Good / Light / Beauty” and thus being segregated from “Evil / Bad / Pain.” I pray for “back up” and “to be connected to the good” and I have experienced the peace which passes all understanding. This is my particular story and attempt to relate to the comments here, please by no means take this as any sort of pontification.

      Every word in this post is full of significance and meaning; you have described things with such great and articulate ability, and rawness and honesty. Teaching powerless is such a powerful tool on the part of [Pain / Evil / Illness — however someone wants to label it], as the sick do everything through manipulation, to serve their own inexhaustible horror show.

      I also appreciated your comments about not telling trauma recoverees “what should” be, etc. This extends out into well-meaning friends in general, I think — don’t tell people, “Well, they’re your [insert abusive family member, for example], and all family members act a little crazy now and then,” etc.

      What you’re doing is amazing. To think of what you were put through makes my head spin. I am so so so sorry that these things exist, and that you’ve experienced these horrors.


  6. Elisabeth,
    Thank you for posting this. As a survivor and advocate for other survivors this resonates with me. It is so true that advocates need to be aware of their own issues and not push survivors to process their trauma in a particular way. Everyone’s experience is unique and the way they choose to overcome it, or not is unique as well and depends upon their own struggles, personality, and support. Empowerment is key, even if you think the survivor should choose another course of action, standing behind them in their decisions can be the most healing thing you can do.


  7. Thank you for putting this in a way I could understand it so well. I have always understood the flight/fight response so well because I suffer from Panic Disorder/Anxiety Disorder/PTSD/Social Anxiety. I had forgotten about the freeze & it’s my “go to” response because it was never safe to do anything else.


    • The freeze response is so challenging. It is incredibly common amongst childhood abuse victims who were given no opportunity to fight back or leave, yet it is the least understood. Many in advocacy and law enforcement don’t recognize it as a response to an attack. There is much education to do there.


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