Fight, Flight or Freeze

We have heard of the Fight or Flight instinct that occurs when we sense we are in danger, our bodies become ready to either fight or run to save our life. We are rarely told about the freeze response. The deer in the headlights response where you know you are in danger but can’t move. It is the thing nightmares are made of.

In the 1960’s (prior to laws preventing cruelty to animals) a researcher, Martin Seligman did an experiment where they placed a dog in a kennel divided down the middle with a low barrier. They shocked the dog with electricity and the dog learned that if he jumped to the other side of the kennel he didn’t get shocked. Then they tied to dog so he couldn’t jump over the barrier and shocked him. Later when he had the opportunity to escape the electric shocks he didn’t, the dog would just lay down and whimper. The dog had learned that he was helpless to stop the shocks and just gave up. (God that makes me sick to the stomach to even talk about it but it makes my point).

You can read more about the experiment here.

I know in my case, after the initial love bombing stage, when the abuse started I was very strong in my objections to the treatment. The first time I caught him with a personal ad I was ready to walk out but he cried and convinced me to give him another chance. When we fought I would walk out, I wasn’t taking any of his bullshit. After 10 years of it I didn’t even react. His sister was staying with us and when he didn’t come home all night she was amazed at how calm I was. In fact I had no reaction whatsoever. One day I was really sick and she called him at work and told him I needed to see a doctor. She told me that he had said he was coming right away and to tell me to get my coat on. I didn’t move. She said, “Come on, he said he was on his way and to be ready.” I told her to tell me when he pulled in the driveway and I would put my coat on. He didn’t show up for hours, I knew he wouldn’t rush home, I was surprised he came home at all.

I am sure most victims can relate when I say that throughout the 10 years I was with him I would be consumed with figuring out how to make him happy. I would have an epiphany and think, “I’ve got it! I know how to fix this and make him happy.” My hope would be restored and I would be filled with optimism only to have that not work either. There was no making him happy, no matter how I reacted, it was never good enough. I I got angry, didn’t react, explained calmly and rationally, left him, stayed, nothing made a difference and what made him happy one day made him angry the next. Nothing was certain.

I credit his sister with saving my life because it was through her anger over his treatment of me that I realized exactly how dangerous and dysfunctional the relationship was. I STILL struggled to leave, I was afraid, of what? who knows, I was just afraid and had decided this was my lot in life. Like the dog in the experiment I just laid down. You can call it Learnd Helplessness, or just giving up but;

I became frozen.

I purposely picked a sing-a-long video so you can read the words, this song actually has a very good message.

Some people may freeze sooner in the relationship, if they were abused as a child they may already feel they are helpless to help themselves and they may have a harder battle making themselves leave. I tend to be the type of personality that will get beaten down and feel hopeless but somewhere deep inside I find the strength or deep down I know, I can do this, I refuse to give up. Stubborn? it is an Aries trait after all.

There are a few woman new to site who are still being controlled by their ex narcissist, even divorced, he is with the new woman and they are still allowing him to control their lives and wondering why he doesn’t just go away. They never just go away peacefully, the victim must make the move and that can be very scarey for reasons even the victim doesn’t know.

I came up with an analogy yesterday to describe it in a way victims might be able to relate to.

Have you ever been sitting on the couch watching TV or whatever, totally relaxed and feeling safe when all of a sudden the power goes out and you are in total darkness? Instantly you go from feeling safe to terrified because it is so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your own face. A minute ago you knew there was no danger because you could see the room, you knew no one was there but as soon as it’s dark you imagine all sorts of things. Like as a child and in the darkness you imagine monsters are in the closet or under the bed but as soon as someone comes in and turns the light on the monsters disappear, even a little night light in the room can make you feel safe to fall asleep.

When the power goes out I freeze at first, then I know I have to get up and find the flashlight or some candles. I force myself because I know I can’t see in total darkness forever and logically I know there is no one or nothing in the room that is going to hurt me. I might trip over a shoe or bash my shin on the coffee table but I know where the flashlight is and find it. Once I turn it on my fears start to melt away, I am able to lock the door, making myself feel even safer, I can find the candles and before too long the house is glowing from the flicker of a dozen or so candles and I actually enjoy the coziness of the candles.

The narcissist blocks all the light from your life, logically you know that in order to see clearly you need to have light but taking those first few steps is so scary. Let us, the ones who have gone before you be you flashlight, your light in the distance saying you will be ok, come towards the light and away from the darkness. Once you get away from the darkness you will see that there is nothing to fear, you will see clearly what the darkness was hiding and as you light candles, you will start to enjoy the warmth.

But, you and only you can take that first few steps towards the light.

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11 thoughts on “Fight, Flight or Freeze

  1. Imagine how it is after a relationship of 31 years. After three years out of this relationship I am still not totally ‘defrosted’. I cannot believe there will become a day I will be. But I am out of his control. Two years on No Contact. And there are so many warm people around me who will at the end defrost me.

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    • Very good article Carrie…that fight or flight thing is so true…for me when i started the “freeze” part it scared me..and if anyone knows me being afraid will put me into action faster than anything..i HATE being afraid and being manipulated with all the hate filled comments and veiled threats ,the “i was just Kidding ” from him afterward..that put me into action..i found your blog Thank God !! and found what to look for, what to believe and not believe ect; he was a master at making things seem like it was “nothing important”, but guess what ..women are SMART, and once given enough clues that all was not as it seemed and doing a bit of detective work, phone calls from people asking for him on MY phone, ( he set up my phone using HIS old number that he had control over, and i had no idea)and when i put my phone number in a search HIS name came up as the owner of my number, and his phone was listed under his middle name..sneaky, hate filled. horrible man and he set me up to find out about the women too, and he is …and soooo gone Thank you Carrie!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My husband and I just separated 2 months ago and he is the one who initiated the whole divorce.
    I’ll give the Reader’s Digest version…We have been married 6 years. When we married his house was in foreclosure and I talked him into applying for a loan modification. It would only be approved if I would move to where the house was located and find a job in that area. I agreed, but asked my husband to put me on the title. He said he would do that when the loan modification probationary period was up…in 3 years. At the end of the 3 years I asked about my name being put on the title and he said he thought it would be better to do a trust and name me benificiary. I said ok. A number of months later his brother who is an attorney said he would do the trust for free. When we got to his brother’s house I was told I had no right to any ownership of the house and would not be the benificiary, but only my husbands’ daughters would be named on the trust. I felt betrayed and stabbed in the back. 3 days later my husband filed for divorce and is blaming me for everything. I also spent several thousands of dollars upgrading the bathrooms, but according to my husband and his brother, that is my problem because I should have gotten everything in writing before moving or putting any money into this house.
    So now I’m faced with a sudden unexpected divorce. I am definitely the deer paralyzed by the headlights.
    My attorney thinks my husband and his brother are both narcisstic. My husband bullied me during our marriage and I put up with it because otherwise things were good. Now I’m dealing with being so nieve.
    I now need advice on how to deal with him going forward.

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    • Don’t deal with him going forward.

      Consider what you spent on that house a bargain because it only took 6 years to buy your freedom. Imagine what 33 years would have cost!

      Trust God to give you back more than you could have ever imagined and be sure that every penny he has stolen will be demanded of his soul 100 times over.

      God bless you! And yes it is the naive mistakes we made that hurt the most but I would rather have been foolishly loving than intentionally malicious. There are so many of us out here like you! You will be fine if you really take time and learn how we attract these people and how hopelessly soulless they are. It was your goodness that attracted him. Stay good but learn to give these types a fast cold shoulder!

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      • Thank you Tracy for your response and feedback.
        God is already giving me back 500%. All the friends I made through my husband are supporting me 100%. They have known my husband 40 plus years, but have only known me 6 years. They all are in complete shock over what he has done. 2 of his friends have tried to talk with him to no avail…they both threw in the towel.
        Interestingly, after knowing my husband 40 years, they didn’t expect this behavior out of him…they were fooled too! So he has not only hurt me, but our friends too.

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  3. Wow 33 years and now 2 1/2 years later I marvel at how easy it was to leave compared to what it took to live everyday in misery. There is no loneliness remotely as bad as the loneliness I felt lying beside the narcissist each night. Even my dog lightened up and became a happier soul! What on earth was I so afraid of?

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    • Tracy, it is amazing once a victim gets free of the constant influence of the N how they start to see things clearly again and wonder, why the hell they couldn’t leave sooner.
      When you are in the middle of it, living it day after day you just don’t know how dysfunctional your life is and how screwed up your thinking becomes. It takes no contact and getting clear of them to start to heal.

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  4. My heart goes out to everyone that has survived this type of abuse for so long. I commend you actually! I only lasted 3 months to long. I actually disliked this person when I first met her then when I confronted her on the image that everyone around her truly say, she portrayed into someone completely different. (Silly me) I fell for it, I was completely in love within 1 month (definitely not a character of myself) and engaged by month #2 lol sooooo not me by the third month the cheating, lies, devaluation all took place. This happened so fast..I was completely heart broken not just by this but I was still in grief over the loss of my 9 yr old son. I couldn’t get past that there was a person who was so loving and caring, kind you know the drill turn into such a cold and empty predator. As I started to read about narcissistic abuse and reading all the blogs I was shocked at the devastation these carcasses create. It was then that I decided this POS is an empty shell why am I continuing to hurt and giving them my power, self esteem and worth..I had flash backs of all the craziness and would have nightmares and couldn’t believe the person I had become….I went to therapy and Alanon as couldn’t wrap my head around any of it….Guess what I wasn’t suppose to wrap my head aroundwhat the abuser did nc I don’t think or act in those manners. I gave myself freely love, kindness, my entire being without inhibition and that is who I am and I’m not changing…What had changed is that I stopped reading about narcissistic traits and started to focus on gaining myself flaws and all back. It was alnost instantly (within 2 weeks) that I kicked her ass to the curb, told her my worth cost more than a few bull $#@! crumbs and I went on my merry way..not looking back and pray for the “new victims ” there were many before me and there will be many more after..don’t worry of the new supply will get better that’s a trick your mind plays, that person is/will get exactly what you got NOTHING, NODDA as they have about as much emotion as this lamp sitting next to me on this table…so. every time I think about the ex I look at a lamp ..see she’s still there nothing absolutely nothing…sounds a little off but so does the craziness with the narc. We have no reason to fear as we’ve already lived in hell, we are beautifully made, perfect and imperfect, intelligent, funny, charismatic and WORTH more than an empty carcus. Take back your power and turn on your lamp the lamo will atleast give you light.
    Don’t worry about what he/she will do let them have their tantrums of a 2 yr old and keep walking..don’t look for closure or justification just walk away as they did you so many times..that’s your closure and justification..to you and only you.

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  5. Thank you, Carrie! This is just one more explanation and clarification of events that I’ve found so difficult to describe – to anyone else and even to myself. A ‘freeze response’ pretty much hits the nail on the head.

    I know that I went dead inside and even lost my desire to climb out of it. My desire to live eventually returned, but I still feel there is a part of me that struggles with motivation over simple things (let alone big things). As of now, I have been out of that situation longer than I was in it. I don’t believe one person’s experience negates or trumps another’s – whether they were there for a year, five, ten, or thirty. We all have our own coping mechanisms and feelings as well as defenses and interpretations. Hurt and trauma doesn’t sting any less because someone else thinks they had it ‘worse’.

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    • siouxzyq, you are right on all counts! Narcissists may all be the same but the victims are all unique with their own history, ways of coping, economic standing, education, looks, and ages, cultures, religions, nationalities and so they all suffer their own trauma and pain in their on way and they heal in their own time. Also it depends on how dedicated the victim is to healing, some people only want to get to the point where they can date again others want to ensure it never happens again to them so they work on themselves more.
      As you know I had given up and it was a real struggle for me to leave and find the motivation to carry on. To this day I don’t know how I ever drove away the day I left for good. How I loaded up my truck. I just knew I had to or die and I didn’t want my son to be left with that legacy. But I truly didn’t care.
      I am not as motivated as I used to be either. But I used to be a go-getter, over-achiever, perfectionist and very much in control of my life. I had to give all that up with my ex and I have gotten a lot back but I think I learned to relax and go with the flow out of self preservation or I would have gone insane for sure. Now I just don’t get as riled up as I used to and leave things to work out on their own or let people solve their own problems instead of feeling like I need to fix everything for everyone. I think when you face the devil you learn to slow down and appreciate the simple things in life.

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  6. Thank you for this! Nobody understands why it takes so long to get out unless they’ve been in it. I get different reactions to my novel, which doesn’t include nearly the abuse that my marriage did–in the book, it stops at emotional. Still, there are people who felt that the female protagonist should have moved on earlier. Well, of course she should have. But what does that mean? You do what you are able to do. The example of the dog being shocked is brilliant. In my case, my brother, who had been molested, something we didn’t know until he was dying of AIDS (in 1988), would have explosions of anger. My ex told me he sometimes had “rages” on our first date, but there was all this chemistry, and I thought, I know how to deal with that. Which meant, I shut down. How sick was I? My brother’s anger was terrifying, and I always felt shaky after putting up my tough front. Why would I invite that in my life when it didn’t have to be there? I thought my love could heal him. Psychology is…interesting.

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