If this metaphor of drowning seems too extreme when you reflect on your own behavior, lie back on the couch and let us analyze a bit. Think of yourself in relationship: with your spouse or partner, child, parent, sibling, pet, friend, work associate, boss, employee, classmate, student, neighbor, or roommate. Now, image an interaction that you have had with any of these individuals in which you lost control of your emotions or behavior.
If your anxiety level reaches a critical stage, you will react in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze (and freeze doesn’t last long). If your usual emotional reaction is to fight, you will say attacking or hurtful things to the other– perhaps you will yell. If flight is your accustomed reaction, you become silent, leave the scene; maybe you storm out of the house. Some people deliver the one-two punch of yelling and then charging out of the room or house. The freeze reaction occurs when emotional and behavioral circuits are overloaded, temporarily, and a moment or two passes before the reaction of fight or flight unfolds.
Be honest and self-observant. What goes on internally when that person important to you says or does something that hurts, scares, or angers you or triggers your shame? Are you a fighter or a fleer? If you are a fighter, you likely say and/or do something thoughtless in an attempt to counter the pain that you are feeling. Your behavior, at that moment, is about you and your attempt to treat the pain you are experiencing. Think about it– your behavior is an attempt to regulate your emotion. Even if your desire is to hurt the other person emotionally (or even physically), you are hoping to back them off of you or to pay them back in reaction to your pain.
Returning to our metaphor of drowning, you have just thrown your arms around their neck and shoved them underwater. You are not considering them or your relationship with them. Your goal is survival. (Some people believe they must “win” in order to survive.)
What if your method of coping is flight? Do you clam up, leave the room, or storm out of the house? Some people are sufficiently practiced at the drama of flight that their exit assumes operatic stature. This is the passive-aggressive flight that often leaves crying children in its wake. The intent of this passive-aggression is, like the fighter’s attack, to treat personal pain: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes it “fair,” or perhaps it makes you feel better to deprive them of the satisfaction of continued engagement. You may be saying to yourself “This is just going nowhere, and I’m not going to do this anymore.” The exit is used to treat your pain: it is not a thoughtful gesture for the benefit of the other or for the sake of the relationship. Sometimes, passive-aggressive flight takes the form of a more subtle emotional or sexual withdrawal–a process that occurs over a period of weeks, months, or even years.
There is, of course, a denomination of fleer whose aim is simply to get away as quickly as possible from whom they perceive as the source of hurt, fear, anger, or shame. That itself is the remedy; distance is the treatment of your pain. As with the passive-aggressive type, the process of flight may be emotional and/or sexual withdrawal from the person who is, or who is believed to be the source of pain. This flight, too, may be sudden or it may happen a step at a time. Gradual flight can almost seem natural – “we just grew apart over the years…”
Next: A Legion of Saviors
Copyright © 2011, William E. Spaine, Psy.D.