We hear a lot these days about “Fight or flight,” a concept credited to American physiologist Walter Cannon, and described as an internal response to the perception of a potentially harmful event. While this reaction to stress was perhaps useful during days when Neanderthals needed to quickly assess whether to flee from oncoming peril, its overuse in modern society can sometimes result in self-harm when we’re misperceiving a happening as a threat that could endanger our lives. For those of us who are adult survivors of child abuse, which includes me, this can be even more true.
There was a time in my life when I relied on my internal fight or flight response to survive. I didn’t describe it like this at the time. I was very young and acting purely on instinct. But there were many occasions that my and my younger sister’s lives were in literal danger, and I had to react quickly and succinctly to stave off what could have been very grave results.
But that was then. This is now. And I have come to learn that my internal panic button (or fight or flight response) gets “hit” all too often—even sometimes when reacting to seemingly mundane situations. This has led to what’s been perceived as overreactions on my part that have resulted in the loss of a friendship or a professional setback. Yes, stuff happens that we don’t like. But we’re not always in severe jeopardy. This thought-out assessment isn’t always available to those of us who, as young children, were put into dangerous situations that could have resulted in real harm if we couldn’t somehow navigate our way out of them.
Recently, a friend of mine who also happens to be an adult survivor of child abuse was notified that a meeting had been scheduled between her and the head of her department at the end of the day, on the last day of the month. My friend was sure this equated to her being fired. She couldn’t imagine why. But she just knew that meeting with her department head with this kind of timing spelled “Clean out your desk and don’t show up for work tomorrow.”
Despite being a savvy individual, my friend panicked—even as I and others tried to help her to be present and breathe through the situation. In other words, we were encouraging her to not overreact. Well, she didn’t want our encouragement. Aside from logging onto LinkedIn and sending out a few resumes, she also began to belittle her company and her department head. My friend became ugly in her discourse and suddenly everything was about getting revenge on this organization that was taking her for granted and unceremoniously dumping her.
Cut to the meeting, when my friend was told by the department head that her direct supervisors knew how hard she (my friend) was working and wanted to know if she needed any additional staff. They were so impressed and happy with her output, they wanted to do anything they could to make her position with the company more satisfying.
No dumping. No contempt. No taking my friend for granted. Yet her internal panic button (or fight or flight response) had indicated otherwise. In this case, she hadn’t verbalized her anger to her supervisors before the meeting. And she hadn’t enacted any of her revenge tactics on the company—but she had certainly planned them out. And while there was no harm done to her or her career in the long run, the mental state she was in for the days leading up to the meeting was very detrimental to her, both mentally and physically, in regard to stress on her body.
As I coached my friend through this situation, I recognized myself in many of her actions. As children being raised under extremely abusive conditions, we learned we could rely only on ourselves (often after seeking help from others). I remember there was a time when I was younger that I called the police to report my extremely abusive parents and ask for help. Not only didn’t the authorities believe me and refuse to intercede, but when I hung up the phone, I discovered my mother lurking nearby, fuming over what she had just heard. This memory gives me chills to this day. And reminds me why my own fight or flight instinct remains so prevalent.
But that doesn’t mean I should give in to it. This instinct can confuse us, lie to us, and even cause us to perform actions that result in us harming ourselves, friendships, family, career, or even our own health. Never has the need to be present and not necessarily respond in the way our initial impulses tell us to been more necessary.
A calmer and more accepting mind can create better solutions. And sometimes solutions aren’t even warranted as in the case of my friend who thought her career was over when the exact opposite was the case.
A first step can be recognizing when we’re hitting our own internal panic buttons too frequently. Our initial reactions aren’t always the most reliable. Just being aware that this might be a pattern is a beautiful first step. And this can be done without shaming ourselves for using an internal instinct that perhaps saved our lives long ago. Compassion for ourselves is as mandatory as not reacting to perceived obstacles quite so quickly. Only then can we begin to truly assess a situation and what might be done to resolve it.
Photo Credit: Anna Tarazevich
After catching myself doing so more often than I’d care to admit, I recently committed to doing less pre-judging when encountering strangers. As someone who once weighed over 450 pounds, I felt like the world was harshly judging me—and so I returned the (perceived) favor in kind and would always look for something negative about someone as a defense mechanism.
Even though I took off the excess weight years ago, I still wrestle with this habit that doesn’t serve me (or any of us) at all. Especially now, as the larger effects of the recent pandemic wane, we remove our masks and re-enter society as a… Well, society.
As I’ve worked to embrace and be open to all aspects of everyone around me, I discovered a pesky habit I have of thinking of myself as a gifted mind reader. This, despite having a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Still, I seemed to think I could guess what someone was thinking or even what makes up their personality within about three seconds of encountering them.
This additional defense mechanism became more clear during a recent early morning run to a favorite coffee vendor. While standing in line, I noticed a woman in front of me who kept turning around and staring at me. I was sure the expression on her face was revealing some sort of disdain. After checking to see if I had any stains on my clothes (hey, you never know), I leaned into the person I was with and reported that this person was looking at me like I owed her $20 and had never made right by the debt. I chuckled to myself, thinking I was being clever. But I was still very disturbed that this person in line kept turning around and looking at me.
After paying and while waiting for my coffee order, I noticed this stranger approaching me. “This was it,” I thought to myself, “The moment she’s going to say something really mean, really prejudiced, or really uncalled for.” I mentally braced myself—and then realized she had raised her hand in front of my face.
“I saw your thumb ring and really liked it,” she said. “I’ve had my thumb ring for over 20 years.” (This was when I realized that she was showing off her thumb ring by holding her hand in front of me.)
This person told me that when she got engaged, the ring was too big for her ring finger, so she put it on her thumb and got stuck. And rather than take it off, she decided to keep it as a thumb ring—forever. She told me she liked my thumb ring and we discussed jewelry for a few minutes (even though this is a subject I know very little about). She was very kind, very complimentary (of my taste in thumb rings), and then wished me a good day and left with her order.
So once again, I’m no mind reader.
This encounter not only reminded me of this but also emphasized the fact that we never really know what someone else is thinking or going through. While our first instinct might be to protect ourselves through the use of negative thoughts about another person (i.e. assuming the worst about someone to buttress our egos), we are better served to just observe and make no judgments at all. This way, we remain open and avoid filling our psyche with toxic thoughts that can pollute the rest of our day or even our outlook in general.
Even if someone is thinking something negative about us, we don’t have to respond in kind. Nor do we have to guess what that negative thought might be. Instead, we can simply look at the person, smile, and then look away. No judgment. No defensiveness. No recoiling.
As someone who’s innately shy, I know that offering a stranger a smile can be challenging. But isn’t this a challenge worth accepting now that protective face masks are becoming less and less de rigueur? We never know who’s having a bad day or whose world might shift if a stranger smiles at them. They might even carry that smile forward to another stranger. And so on and so on.
No thumb ring or mind reading required.
Photo By Pragyan Bezbaruah
There’s probably not one person on the planet who hasn’t been affected by everything’s that’s transpired over the course of the last year. Many have suffered great losses. Others have had to totally upend their lives in order to survive (figuratively and/or literally). We’ve had to change the way we’ve thought about socializing, shopping and in some cases even how we stocked up on toilet paper.
The one constant has been no constant at all. Change was the order of the day. Perhaps there were occasions we thought we’d never get through, learn to accept or even survive. Yet here many of us are, looking to what we hope is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But after all we’ve been through, all we’ve learned to cope with and all we’ve survived, why would our collective mantra be “Let’s get back to normal?”
“Normal” hasn’t existed for a long, long time. We can look to our parent’s or grandparent’s generations for proof of that.
Just think of all the changes that occurred over the ten years before the pandemic and your head might spin. Social media, streaming services and driverless vehicles that are an essential part of life haven’t been around for long. But we’ve adapted to them, accepted them and now utilize them in various and even (sometimes) productive ways. So why should the new post-pandemic world be any different?
Even with what seems to be hope for an eventual conclusion to much of pandemic-related life as we know it, we have to wonder if everyday occurrences like blowing out birthday candles and then serving the cake to everyone who didn’t blow on it will ever be a thing again. Heck, most of us have even learned to recognize “smiling eyes” (above a face mask) even when we can’t see someone’s mouth grinning from ear to ear. Sure, some familiar ways of doing things will seep back into our daily lives. But others will not. And we can choose to be okay with this evolution or choose to mourn the losses.
There’s nothing wrong with mourning, of course. Being reverent about life changes and closing chapters can be very healthy. But there will still be a time to accept and move on—and no longer live in (or yearn for) the past.
For many who’ve orchestrated our own major life changes, this might be a more familiar concept. Perhaps a spouse who never thought he or she could thrive outside of marriage has discovered he or she can. Maybe a person facing a crippling injury is showing the world that someone in a wheelchair can dance. I, myself, once weighed over 450 pounds and, after losing the excess weight with the help of healthier eating and exercise, discovered nothing about my life was ever going to be “normal” again. And that was actually a good thing for someone who used to live a very cloistered existence.
I remember when I was younger, my parents listened to music via records playing on a turntable. I thought they were crazy. My preferred source of tunes was the cassette tape. But then came the compact disc—something I was equally excited about. I remember the transition from cassette to CD was somewhat lengthy. Automobile manufacturers even did us the courtesy of building both options into vehicle stereos for a number of years. I marvel at that audio evolution today. It was slow, peaceful and gentle.
These days we go from an iPhone B.C. to iPhone 2001 with enough speed to give many of us whiplash. But guess what? That’s the way of it. Slow and steady. Fast and furious. And the phenomenon of change is increased by about ten billion percent when we, as a collective society, have to face something like a worldwide pandemic. Change isn’t only coming. It’s here. So why not embrace it?
Often, I’ll meet people who have a mentality I deem as “really ancient.” And this observation has nothing to do with the said person’s chronological age. It’s all about their stubbornness factor. How committed are they to their ways? How much do they refuse to accept, learn, grow or adapt? I love meeting people in their 90s or older who have a lust for life, which usually includes a welcoming attitude toward change. People of this age group have been through a lot. Many have outlived spouses, partners or even their own children. And yet many hold steadfast to their resolve to enjoy life for all it’s worth—including the changes that come at them in often fast-moving ways.
So as we emit a collective sigh of relief in hopes that there truly will be an end to many the pandemic’s effect on our lives and some of our “normal” activities can resume, let’s also stay aware of and open to the changes that are not only here to stay but are also just around the corner (even the kinds of changes we cannot necessarily predict).
The more resolve we have to embrace change and the more we go with the flow, the better chance we have to be a positive and productive part of whatever life might have in store for us—no matter what device our current favorite song is playing on.
At this stage of whatever new year it happens to be, we often focus on areas of our lives that need to be overhauled in one way or another. Perhaps you want to drop a few pounds. Or finally start that novel you’ve had an idea for since junior high. It might be that you’re determined to reinvigorate your love life (with an old or new flame). Perhaps you want a new job or to get that promotion (or, after the calamity that was 2020, simply find any kind of work). No matter what “get” you’re after (even if it’s more general—such as attaining more mindfulness in your daily life), it’s likely to require some kind of mental or physical change. And there’s the rub.
Many of us subconsciously think of “change” in a negative way—often because it connotes shame or guilt; in that we’ve been doing something wrong and, therefore, must be punished for it by altering our lives in seemingly untenable ways. Perhaps some of these change-isms are familiar to your psyche:
I’m not allowed to have ice cream because I have to lose weight.
I can’t watch the football game because I have to work on my resume.
I’m not attracting the kind of mate I want because I’m not attractive enough.
I don’t deserve “wins” in life because I’m not manifesting them properly.
I could go on and on with these kinds of examples. But I’m going to stop short because I want to suggest that we (yes, even myself) change the way we think about “change” in this new year.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to evolve—however that might be defined for you. As someone who once weighed over 450 pounds, I can assure you that dropping the excess weight and getting fit has changed my life in both expected and unexpected ways (all of them very positive).
After attempting to stay on diets time and time again (literally from when I first began putting on extra weight in the first grade and my parents took me to a doctor who put me on a restrictive diet), I associated change with lack and restriction (punishment as it were). I became laser focused on everything I was giving up in order to lose weight—instead of everything I had to gain (pun intended).
After what seemed like a million different attempts at successful dieting, I finally nailed it when I focused on what I was getting as opposed to what I was giving up. To do so, I created a scrapbook that became my personal bible of sorts. In it I placed motivating magazine articles, pictures of clothes I wanted to fit into, helpful advice I cut out of newspapers, photos of vacation spots I wanted to visit in the future, images that captured my relationship goals and more. Then, anytime I wanted to stray from my healthier eating plan, I would pick up this book and instantly be reminded of why change was going to bring me so much more than I thought it would take away. This wasn’t so much a vision board in book form as it was a useful reminder as to why I was enacting the changes in my eating and exercise habits. In other words, I changed how thought about change.
This concept that change didn’t have to be horrible also taught me that there didn’t need to be any kinds of “forbidden foods” as I ate in a healthier way and lost excess weight. Sure, I could adjust the portion sizes. Suddenly what had been eating two quarts of ice cream for dessert became eating one precisely measured cup. Again, I found a way to make the change more positive than negative.
I also worked on not shaming myself for decisions I’d made in my past. About eating. About exercise. About not wanting to leave my home because I felt like the world was adversely judging me. Permanent change is not often born from negativity. If we’re constantly berating ourselves for decisions made in the past (decisions we cannot un-make no matter how often we scold ourselves for making them), how can we possibly feel good about the changes we want to incorporate into our lives?
As you contemplate what it is about this year you want to be different and how some positive (and dare I say fabulous) change might improve your life, think about it from a place of plenty—rather than a place of lack:
I can lose weight, exercise, get healthy and occasionally enjoy dessert.
I’m going to create a resume that attracts an employer that offers the kind of pay and benefits I deserve.
I’m going to have fun dating all sorts of people as I look forward to meeting that special someone.
I deserve good things and I’m going to remind myself of that daily.
Temporary setbacks do not mean I’m not manifesting properly. I’m happy in this moment. No magical thinking necessary.
Try shifting how you think of your new tasks at hand and remind yourself you’re enacting them for a reason. You deserve happiness. You deserve success. Not in the future, but right at this very moment—even with all the wonderful and well-deserved changes ahead of you.
This new year isn’t going to be like the others. Instead of creating goals we can’t possibly live up to, let’s celebrate exactly who we are at this moment — then let’s use that loving energy to create a vision for 2021 that’s full of hope, creativity and peace of mind every step of the way.