Breaking Free of Your Trauma Type to Reclaim Your Full Human PotentialSep 06, 2023
"Trauma is not what happens to you, trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you."
-Dr. Gabor Maté
All human beings possess an innate set of trauma responses - fight, flight, freeze, and fawn - to deal with threatening situations and ensure survival. However, when we suffer repeated trauma in childhood, we often over-rely on one of these responses as a primary coping and defense mechanism, distorting it into a rigid posture that constricts our lives. Figuring out your own dominant trauma type is the critical first step toward releasing its grip and reclaiming access to your complete range of options.
The Core Trauma Responses
Let's briefly review the four fundamental trauma reactions that reside deep within our most primitive animal brains:
Fight - This response deals with perceived danger through aggression and intimidation. When over-developed, it manifests as dominance, emotional control of others, narcissistic rage, criticism, and efforts to force the world to meet one's needs.
Flight - This high-arousal response tries to escape danger through constant motion and activity. Becoming stuck in flight looks like drivenness, perfectionism, workaholism, obsession, worry, and staying perpetually busy.
Freeze - The freeze response deals with overwhelming threats by shutting down, retreating inward, and disconnecting from external reality. Overuse of freezing shows up as isolation, avoidance of social interactions, and dissociation from one's bodily experience and emotions.
Fawn - This reaction copes with danger through total acquiescence and merging with the needs of others. Chronic fawning looks like compliance, forfeiting one's own boundaries, and losing a sense of self in relationships.
These innate responses reside along a spectrum, ranging from healthy flexibility to detrimental over-reliance. For those who endured repetitive childhood trauma, one of these reactions can become a rigid go-to defense for navigating the world.
The Costs of Fixating on One Response
When our trauma response gets locked into a singular, go-to adaptation, it comes at a profound developmental cost. Each type of trauma fixation severely constricts our life experience and capacity for intimacy.
For fight types, anger and control keep the world at bay, but lead to chronic conflict and emotional isolation. Rage replaces grieving, undermining intimacy.
Flight types stay continually busy, distracted from core emotional wounds but never able to outrun them. Their inner world remains void and unprocessed.
Freeze types incredibly limit their lives through isolation and dissociation. Lost in inner disconnection, they forfeit opportunities for attachment and fulfillment.
Fawn types fail to develop an inner sense of self, losing it in obligatory service to others. They retreat from authentic engagement and expression.
In complex trauma, we sacrifice access to our full human potential in exchange for a perceived defense against repeated wounding. One part of self amputates the other parts in order to survive.
Photo credit: Annie Spratt @Unsplash
Recovering Wholeness and Flexibility
The good news is that by recognizing your habitual trauma type, you can begin the journey to recover your full range of options. You don't have to remain trapped in the distortions of fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
For instance, fight types can question the voices that tell them criticism and control can protect them. They can address their inner wounds directly instead of redirecting them as anger toward others. This clears space for genuine mutual care.
Flight types recover through reevaluating priorities, taking moments to breathe and be present, and carving out time for self-reflection. Slowing down and getting support reduces the need for ceaseless doing. Vital feelings emerge.
Freeze types benefit immensely from professional help to carefully build trust and re-engage with life. Anger toward their original perpetrators thaws the icy walls of separation. Social needs re-awaken.
Fawn types learn to set boundaries, express their desires, and recognize their habitual caretaking as remnants of childhood submission. They unfold into selfhood and mutual nurturance.
The goal for all trauma types is to regain access to the full spectrum of options - assertion without attack, active focus as well as calm being, peaceful solitude along meaningful engagement. We reconnect with the genres of human experience and expression that were cut off.
Hybrid Trauma Types
Most people with CPTSD utilize both a primary trauma type and secondary compensatory responses. Let's look at some common hybrids:
Fight-Fawn - This type vacillates between aggressive confrontation when triggered and desperate attempts to force affection or submission from others. This unstable pattern reflects underlying narcissistic entitlement coupled with codependent panic. It can look like borderline personality disorder.
Flight-Freeze - Withdrawing through frantic doing at some times and total internal shutdown at others provides a constant escape from attachment. OCD and addictive behaviors often accompany this frequent Schizoid pattern.
Fight-Freeze - This trap combines narcissistic control over others with near-total social disengagement. Like an emotional black hole, their demands dominate yet no real relating occurs.
There are countless variations and combinations of trauma responses. We each utilize this primal survival repertoire in our own way to cope with childhood wounds. However, mapping your personalized strategy provides a blueprint for choice and healing.
Assessing Your Trauma Type
Noticing your habitual trauma responses is the first step in loosening their grip. Here are some questions to uncover your default programming:
- What are your go-to reactions when you feel afraid, abandoned, or ashamed? Do you externalize these feelings through anger or activity? Or internalize them via retreat or compliance?
- In situations of conflict or rejection, which instincts feel most automatic - fight, flight, freeze or fawn? Which makes you most uncomfortable?
- Can you observe your trauma type getting triggered in real-time? What purpose does it serve? What beliefs or fears does it reveal?
- Were you trained into certain responses by your family environment or birth order? Oldest siblings often become a fight, while younger ones acquiesce.
- How does your trauma type constrain your life? What feelings, needs, or potentials does it cause you to hold back?
- Does your trauma type shift or alternate depending on the situation? What secondary responses do you utilize?
Noticing the grip of trauma adaptations is challenging but liberating. It turns our conditioned reflexes into choices. What helped you survive then can help you truly live now. As Dr. Maté suggests, it's how you relate to your trauma, not just what happened, that allows growth. Your innate responses, though distorted, contain genius waiting to be unlocked. Realign them with your integrity and whole self.
Embracing Our Common Humanity
Whether our trauma type is a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, it reflects an innocent attempt to cope with an unspeakably difficult situation. Getting stuck in one gear was the best our child minds could do to navigate an impossible environment.
There is no shame in carrying these primal survival mechanisms into adulthood. Our responsibility now is to meet these hurt parts of ourselves with compassion while expanding our possibilities. We go from being trauma victims to survivors to thrivers as we cultivate the entirety of our capacities for fierce compassion, liberating action, mindful stillness, and collective healing.
By understanding and assembling the fractured pieces of self, we reclaim our wholeness. We cease abandoning and amputating parts of our being in the name of adaptation and defense. Our full humanity emerges from its conditioned constraints.
This journey requires brutal honesty and tender courage. We look unflinchingly at old wounds not because they define us, but because wholeness awaits on the other side. May we reclaim in fullness these minds and hearts of ours.
Photo credit: Jackson Simmer @Unsplash
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