I’ve been reading Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker, and yesterday, I read chapter six, “What is My Trauma Type?” As I was reading, I realized I’ve had different responses to different traumas, which completely blew my mind. For years, I’ve struggled identifying my “trauma type,” primarily because I believed an individual either responded one way or another. Since writing my first memoir, however, I’ve suspected that wasn’t the case, a suspicion which was completely confirmed for me by reading Walker’s book.
Before I dive into my personal trauma-typing experience though, I want to start by outlining some basic information about the “4F’s,” as Walker refers to them*. For individuals who grew up in households that implemented “good enough” parenting (which psychology says is meeting a mere thirty percent of a child’s needs), there is a positive manifestation of each of the 4F’s.
- The Fight Response may manifest in a healthy manner as demonstrated in traits like assertiveness, ease with setting boundaries, courage, moxie, and leadership.
- The Flight Response may appear in traits such as intentional disengagement, a healthy form of retreat (“knowing when to walk away”), industriousness, and perseverance.
- The Freeze Response may be positively implemented in the form of acute circumstantial awareness, mindfulness, poised readiness, and peacefulness.
- The Fawn Response may be shown beneficially through acts of love and service, compromise, listening, fairness, and peacemaking.
However, when trauma enters the equation, the behaviors of each 4F type become morphed, altered. Rather than being utilized as tools in a healthy, productive manner, these characteristics take on the form of survival skills—and it can become extreme. As Walker writes, “Fixation in any one 4F response not only limits our ability to access all the others, but also severely impairs our ability to relax into an undefended state.”
So, moving on to the detrimental sides of the 4F’s:
Fight characteristics may manifest in explosive behavior, attempts to control others or circumstances, behaviors that resemble entitlement or narcissism, Type-A tendencies, bullying in arguments, demanding things of others, and perfectionism. In relationships, Fight characteristics can also lead to avoidance of intimacy by nature of the individual’s behavior borne of self-preservation triggered states, which alienates others.
Flight characteristics include dissociation and/or OCD, panic disorders, “busyholicism,” micromanagement, perfectionism, mood disorders, and ADHD tendencies. Relationally, the survivor may subconsciously elect to remain perpetually busy, which serves as a defense mechanism to avoid their being triggered by deeper relating to the other person, or in an effort to “earn” the other person’s approval, affection, or to “prove” their own worth.
Freeze characteristics often involve codependency, hiding and/or social isolation, zoning out, fear of achievement, and a generalized lack of motivation. These reported behaviors typically result in the survivor avoiding relationships altogether (or socializing largely online) because their experiences have taught them that relating to others is dangerous, if relation is even possible.
Fawn characteristics are commonly associated with people-pleasing, but also include obsequiousness, servitude, loss of self, and perfectionism. Many of these survivors were parentified as children (although child parentification is common across all of the 4F’s). In relationships, these characteristics may include the avoidance of emotional investment and hiding behind over-helping the other person, which the survivor subconsciously chooses to do because it protects them from self-exposure and/or deeper-level rejection (“If I hide part of myself and they reject me, at least they aren’t rejecting the real me”).
As I read that information (and much more—I highly recommend Walker’s book), my mind was racing. I realized that I’ve implemented all Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn in my life.
With stunning clarity, I now understand that I spent much of my childhood in the household of a Fight Type survivor (my mother). I won’t divulge her trauma details here; all I’ll say is that I’ve spent my whole life wondering what label to apply to her behavior, and at least one that fits is that she’s likely a Fight Type (which breaks my heart all over again for her). When I was exposed to her Fight Response, I reacted with Fawn.
Growing up, absolutely anything could set my mother off, so in middle school, I started a new competition with myself, which I dubbed “Taking Away Mom’s Ammunition.” I had an hour between when I got home from school and when she’d get home from work, so I spent that hour doing chores—any chore. If her bed was unmade, I made it. If the dog was extra energetic and needed a walk, I hurried to do that. If there was a wadded-up paper towel—which she used as coasters for her ice water—left on the counter, I made sure it was thrown away. Absolutely anything that was out of place or unclean, I tried to make sure it was taken care of by the time she walked in the door an hour later; if a mess remained, I made sure I had a plan I could vocalize to take care of it while I did my homework.
My logic was that if there was less for her to do, that decreased the chances she’d be angry when she got home, because there would be less for her to be angry about. I wanted to avoid the Fight, so I sought to people-please, or Fawn.
When people feel unheard—whether that’s the reality of the circumstance or the result of their triggered state—they may use Fight tendencies. Continuing on my anecdote from above, when my mother was angry, there was only room for her emotions…which makes sense to me, understanding what I do now about trauma and Fight Type (and my theory is that she felt very alone, so when she came home to a messy house, that reminded her of her isolation, prompting her angry reaction—she wasn’t necessarily angry about the mess, but the circumstances that led to the mess being solely on her shoulders).
Now, as an adult, anytime I encounter someone whose emotions are the most important emotions—the only emotions—in the room, that Fawn Response of mine is triggered because that’s a learned pattern of behavior for me. (I’d like to note that there are, of course, times when someone else’s emotions take precedence; I’m not talking about those scenarios, but rather the self-focused ones where circumstances logically call for equal recognition of each party’s emotions.) When I strive to resist that Fawning, I’ve found that I tend to shift to my own version of Fight Mode…which typically results in an escalation of the situation, though there is only so much reasoning that can be done when even only one party is triggered.
As Walker encourages, I’m learning how to “redirect [my] rage toward the awful childhood experiences” I had that led to my development of Fawn—and subsequently, Fight—Mode tendencies. I’ve also learned to direct some of that rage at the people who knowingly and unapologetically treat me as “lesser,” which is what most readily triggers me these days.
For example, I was recently told that my life story doesn’t matter because it “isn’t relevant.” That encounter left me seething, because moving forward in a social or familial relationship with me irrefutably involves my healing; arguably, even professionally some understanding of my story is relevant, because I take mental health days as needed. I will not jeopardize my healing for the sake of any relationship, and typically, people get curious “why I am the way that I am,” and I find it necessary to satiate their curiosity (which, I know, is partially a triggered Fawn Response, but I also have no secrets about my story, so if people ask, I tell).
Over the years of my healing journey, I’ve noticed that I have Flight tendencies, especially when faced with social or family trauma situations. In those circumstances, I tend to get stuck in my head and become overly analytical; I find myself rooted in the belief that the situation will only improve if I understand it. That understanding becomes an obsession, and I get panicky when I can’t find the next “piece” of the relational puzzle.
In 2020 and early 2021, when the investigation into my former teacher’s conduct was underway, I was stuck in an emotional flashback. As a result, I was propelled by the fear of the unknown and anxiety borne of what I expected to happen; I would shake anytime I heard a car door, certain that teacher was at my house to retaliate for me speaking out. To break that cycle, I had to learn to ask myself what I was running from, and I realized I was running from the future.
Because anxiety is fear of what hasn’t happened yet—what may not even ever happen.
However, once you’ve already survived the “worst”—or several “worsts”—it can be almost impossible to calm that anxiety. The unthinkable has already happened to you, so it isn’t a leap to think something else traumatic may happen in any new situation—the “worst that could happen” has already happened in other situations, after all. So you want to flee, lest you again find yourself frozen with fear.
In Me, Too: Voicing My Story, in the chapter titled “Groomed & Violated,” I share the violence I survived when I was seventeen; Thomas, the assailant, was twenty-two. The first time he assaulted me, I froze. My body went limp. My ears rang. I felt like a marionette.
Of course, it’s noteworthy that my Freeze Response was already second-nature to me by the time I was seventeen. As a child who was repeatedly abandoned—both logistically and emotionally by many trusted adults in my life—I suspect I’d perfected the art of dissociation by the time I was eight or ten years old at most. As Walker writes, “Dissociation allows the freeze type to disconnect from experiencing his abandonment pain.” In the moments I was assaulted and raped by Thomas (which I estimate happened sixty-five times in about three months), I’d never felt more abandoned.
While my body was absolutely in contact with another and it certainly wasn’t alone, I was alone.
My personhood, my soul, my desires—my humanity—was abandoned and disregarded as someone else sought to use my physical being for their gratification.
A little over a year after the last time Thomas assaulted me, I attended a friend’s senior prom. That friend sought to have sex with me, which I refused—and he refused to respect that “no.” That time, I fought. And I won. I escaped.
In two similar situations—sexual violence—I had two different trauma responses. And as I’ve looked over my entire life, it’s been remarkable for me to read and learn more, seeing how I don’t fit into any one 4F type pattern (which Walker later writes is common). Although I may be more inclined to some types now than others, it’s fascinating that, just like traumas don’t fit into boxes, neither do responses.
For that matter, neither do survivors—we’re all unique, even when our stories or responses are similar.
*All information about the 4F’s in this post comes from Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker, unless otherwise linked.