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Fight, Flight, Freeze, And Fawn: Reactions To Trauma Inflicted In Childhood

Discussion in 'Discussion' started by dharmaBum, Apr 27, 2010.

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  1. dharmaBum

    dharmaBum Well-Known Member
    Premium Member

    Amongst a generalized childhood of pervasive physical and psychological Abuse and neglect, I experienced various types of sexual assault from about age 3 up to age 15. The perp. from age 11 to 15 was prosecuted, and eventually plead guilty, although the charges from age 11 were missing.

    Even though it would seem like such a conviction was validation- confirmation of the wrongness of what he did- I kept it to myself with great fear. I was afraid of being judged by friends and acquaintances as complicit or even of lying. At the time the crime was "just" statutory rape, which gave it a social sense of being an arbitrary, administrative distinction that didn't mean much.

    My own ignorance of the complexities of his manipulation which enabled him to continue to have access to me for sexual contact for years left me feeling deeply responsible for the sadistic suffering he inflicted upon me. I completely believed the lie. At the age of 13, I thought he was the best thing going and I wanted to marry him, as he and I had promised from before the sex started, when I was still just 10 years old.

    I've been reading about an expanded comprehension of the flight/fight response involved in fearful trauma situations. Pete Walker, a California based therapist who specializes in treatment for Complex PTSD, often related to prolonged childhood trauma, identifies four typical responses to overwhelming trauma: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn. The last of which I think played a huge role in my reactions to rape as a child. The first three occur at face value, fawn presents as co-dependent behavior a rape victim might display that reduces the negative impacts of the assault. Fawning comes about especially when the vicitm must retain a relationship with the attacker in order to meet basic needs, including the need for love.

    Walker sees all four of these responses as involuntary reactions that our organism implements as quickly and appropriately as possible in order to ensure our survival. We fight, run, and freeze when we can. But when those options are not available, or don't do enough to protect us from pain (in my situation), there may be only one thing left to do. Reduce the amount of suffering through coerced compliance.

    I'm glad my "organism" got me through the terrible experiences of rape in my childhood, but every instance of the fawning behavior that I can remember... to say it stings is such an understatement... it feels like pieces of my flesh have been cut away, like I have cut them away. Ultimately- IT WAS ALWAYS HIS FAULT! But in my thinking, probably the thoughts I was having at the time as I desparately tried to find love and care within this abusive situation, the thoughts are that I wanted his perverse attention because I didn't do enough to make it stop. At times I craved it.

    I can see that these beliefs demonstrate a fair amount of trauma-bonding as in Stolkholm Syndrome. I imagine others like me who had a long period of victimization may have trouble talking about it because the psychological impacts can cause some confusing behavior when viewed by an unitiated observer. Heck, U.S. culture isn't very good at supporting the victim in a one-time forcible sexual assault, it seems unlikely that many people will understand or sympathize with a victim who was groomed to comply and hide the abuse.
    Kendra, Froggie and BloomInWinter like this.
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  3. JimmyJames902

    JimmyJames902 Member

    Hi DharmaBum:

    I totally agree with you that the "fawn" response you mentioned is indeed a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome.

    When you're a child, you are completely reliant on mom and dad for your very survival. If one is conditioned over time not to fight, and you can't flee, then one inuitively develops coping strategies to minimize the abuse or the threat of abuse. My coping strategy was to accept and absorb all the punnishment they could dish out, in the hope that the "abuse sessions" would be shortened in their duration. This strategy worked, but I unwittingly internalized all the abuse they heaped on me, and deeply affected my perception of self. I became a stupid, worthless, piece of shit, unworthy and underserving of love.

    I am now reading a book entitled, "Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders," edited by Christine Courtois and Julian Ford, and I'm finding it very helpful. In fact, I can't recommend it highly enough.

    Take good care of yourself,

    Philippa and BloomInWinter like this.
  4. Mercy

    Mercy I'm a VIP
    Premium Member

    I totally agree with you, Dharma,

    For me, compliance was necessary for survival. Attracting, from among the men, those who would be less violent in child prostitution settings was accomplished by fawning. I would try to interest a man who didn't look angry. I would climb up into his lap, search in his pockets for 'candy' all the while trying to figure out to which side he was dressed. I squirmed and tugged his ears... I remember this behavior from age 4 on to 11. Of course, whatever happened after the picking was my fault. After all, I had tried to find the easy way out. I was wrong about my pick so many times, or maybe they were all violent but some knew how to hide it. Fawning was a way of live connected to a sick attempt to control my circumstances. Its adult appearance can look like people pleasing, not being able to say no, heavy Guilt, self accusations of lust, self name calling as in, "I am a little whore".
  5. dharmaBum

    dharmaBum Well-Known Member
    Premium Member

    JimmyJames- I'll check out that book. I can't seem to read high-quality non-fiction psych material fast enough ;)

    Mercy & JimmyJames- thank you both for sharing a bit about how this survival behavior manifested in your life and a bit about how it has impacted your thinking/self-concept. Although not "light" reading, it helps me to read/hear about the somewhat similar trauma experiences of others, because I am much more objective in the listening. I can see that nothing that Mercy or JimmyJames did to survive in and minimize an abusive situation was their fault. It's harder for me to see the innocence in my own experience. But when I see yours, and compare my situation, it is easier to see mine.
  6. BloomInWinter

    BloomInWinter Transitioning to Single Parenthood
    Premium Member

    Thank you for this thoughtful topic. Very insightful and...rings true for so many traumatized people, I suspect.

    Including me.
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