Last week was an interesting one.  I was facilitating a session for a large client, and we were talking about reactivity in the context of emotional intelligence, specifically how to notice and control a stress reaction when you are triggered by something.  Humans being the amazing animals we are, when our button gets pushed by something that deep down scares us, let’s say an unexpected piece of negative feedback that was badly worded from your boss for example, our reaction often falls into 1 of 4 fear-based states:

Fight – “I am right.  You are wrong.”  Often characterized by feelings of irritability, anger, aggression

Flight – “Can we talk about something else.”  Often characterized by feelings of anxiety, panic, avoiding, worrying and perfectionism

Freeze – “Silence.”  Often characterized by a feeling of being stuck, collapse, feeling immobilized, can’t speak fluidly, dissociation and feeling checked out

Fawn – “I like you outfit.”  Often characterized by a feeling of needing to people please, avoiding conflict, difficulty saying no, unable to hold a boundary.

We’re all reactive creatures when afraid

Every human does all of these by the way.  A lot of it has to do with the specific context we’re in, and how comfortable we feel in the environment where the trigger originated.  I may feel more comfortable to lash out in anger at my family but might find myself reacting differently in a work situation.  Or maybe not.  Different strokes for different folks.

I noticed as I was facilitating the session that I kept skipping over the last point about fawn, often referred to as the please/appease reactive state by psychologists, or in other words, the “sucking up” tendency many of us have when faced with conflict or a fearful situation.  We figure it’s easier to just roll over and give the other person what we want, just “roll with the flow.”  Except we’re not really rolling with the flow. We say these things to make ourselves feel better about it because keeping the peace in that moment is more important than getting our needs met.

There’s a cost to pleasing

Later that evening, 3 am in the morning to be precise, the reason I’d been avoiding talking about Fawn as a reactive tendency hit me like a ton of bricks.  I had a hard time owning the tendency to do this in myself, because I’ve done it so often.  I’ve only myself recently woken up to just how un-assertive I’ve been at many points in my life.  I often wore a steely armor, but on the inside I was really shaking in my boots.  I started thinking about things like, how many times I’ve done things I didn’t want to do because I didn’t want to admit any weakness.  How I’ve shoved my needs down rather than risk a challenging conversation where I wasn’t sure what the outcome would ultimately be.  How I’ve tolerated bad behavior in relationships and not spoken my truth about what I was seeing.  How I’ve allowed others to take advantage of me because I didn’t value myself enough to realize what I was giving up.

This is a tough realization at 3 am.  Even tougher was the resentment that’s been sitting under it all these years, laying there if you will, like a powder keg ready to ignite.  When we fall into the fawn behavior, there’s often a lot of unfelt resentment underneath it.  Resentment that we didn’t speak our truth in the moment.  Resentment that we didn’t stand our ground.  Resentment that we didn’t make a decision that honored what we authentically wanted.  Resentment that we compromised ourselves to feel loved, which in the end was never forthcoming even after all that unnecessary sacrifice.

It’s amazing how we willingly give away our power.  And yet we do it to belong.  We do it to feel safe.  Humans are tribal creatures after all.

Ask for what you need

What got me out of the eye of the storm was when I realized how far I have come.  I thought about a recent situation where I had stuffed my opinion down with a co-presenter of a course I’m delivering.  As a result, I didn’t really understand the decision we had taken with the program and felt uncomfortable delivering my piece of it.  And then it manifested, and I did a wobbly job of delivering my part of the presentation and felt bad about it and started to shame myself about it afterwards.  And then I got pissed at him for forcing me to do something I didn’t want to do.  And then I went really off the rails and plugged into an old story I have about how men are jerks push us women around.  Basically, I was on a very fast train to nowhere…

But then I did something different.  Rather than silently seethe with resentment and find passive aggressive ways to work it out with him next time we were together, I wrote him that next time I’d like to deliver it in a different way, that I didn’t understand some of the activities we were asking participants to do, and to deliver a program I have to feel comfortable giving participants instructions.

I directly and politely asked for what I needed.  I owned my confusion because I was grounded in my sense of self-worth, and it didn’t matter to me whether he judged me, or how I looked.  And it worked.  The next delivery was great, and we both “rolled with the flow” we felt most comfortable with.

In what situations do you find yourself falling into the reactive tendency to please and appease?  What would an honest conversation in these situations look like?  What fear about yourself would you need to let go of in order to do so?

Shelley Pernot is a leadership and career coach who is passionate about helping her clients discover their strengths and talents and find a career that utilizes them.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!