Reggie, a member of one of the groups I lead, was describing how he “goes blank” and is unable to respond to his wife when she becomes angry. Reggie revealed, “I just sort of disappear.”
When Reggie’s wife became angry, he would become anxious and freeze. And it wasn’t just his wife. He often felt helpless and confused when anyone was angry with him. He had struggled with this all his life, and it baffled him.
I suggested the next time this happened that he stop for a moment, take a few breaths, even leave the room if he needed to, and see what happened next.
The next week he couldn’t wait to tell us what he’d noticed. He’d done everything I suggested and found that suddenly he could think again. This in turn had enabled him to listen to his wife and actually take in what she was saying.
Now he could clearly see that what she was angry about wasn’t the real problem. The real issue was that she felt alone and afraid when he disappeared. She didn’t feel she could count on him.
I told Reggie that there was nothing “wrong” with him. His biology and psychology were working normally, based on the defenses he had developed as a child to deal with anxious events.
Reggie’s anxiety was triggered by the human fight/ flight/ freeze response, which severely limited his ability to respond how he wanted.
Fight, flight, or freeze reactivity is an ancient and powerful biological system that creates quick reactions to avoid physical danger. It actually overrides our rational mind so that our whole body will respond without cognitive interference. No wonder Reggie couldn’t think.
Reggie came to realize that his biological reaction, prompted by the defenses he had developed as a child to protect himself from his fears, was now amplified by an unconscious belief that he actually was in danger and helpless.
Reggie, a grown man, was reacting as a frightened child.
Reggie’s big “aha” moment came when he realized he had some control over this reaction by controlling his breathing and environment. He no longer felt baffled or like such a victim.
Dr. Glover asserts that the Nice Guy Syndrome is primarily an anxiety-based disorder. The majority of men I work with experience anxiety at very high levels. Most remember being very sensitive and quite reactive as children. Many describe being afraid much of the time.
Nevertheless, most don’t see their anxiety as a root cause of their frustrated efforts to get what they want in life. Instead, they mistakenly judge themselves as weak or flawed.
Gaining the ability to be conscious and to soothe and regulate reactive responses takes time and practice, just as in learning any new skill. You start with small steps, get some training, and accept some failure. With consistent practice over time, you become skillful.
There is no shortcut; it’s a process.
But here is the good news: anyone can learn this skill with some training and practice.
Dysfunctional and/or bad habits are not caused by essential defects in a person’s character but by misconceptions about how the world really works and/or lack of skill.
When you reflect on your childhood you may notice that you received precious little training in these life skills. Instead, you probably picked up some unhealthy anxiety-management behaviors that worked at the time. Here are a few common ones:
· checking out with video games, porn, TV, work, etc.
· acting small and quiet
· relying on alcohol, drugs, food, and/or sex
· staying very busy or very isolated
· trying to be perfect and do everything “right”
· being overly nice and friendly; caretaking
You survived by reacting to your environment the best way you knew how. You found ways to soothe your fears and anxiety and be acceptable to your parents, friends, and teachers.
You aren’t broken; you simply lack the skill, maturity, and training to develop sustainable, healthy ways of facing anxiety, such as:
· slowing down to match your ability to be conscious
· tolerating discomfort with healthy self-soothing
· staying present and aware without judgment
· accepting that you make mistakes and are human
· telling the truth without shame
· being persistent with the process of change
While these are essential in facilitating the process of change and growth, many just expect to know how to do them with little or no training. But without some degree of direction and practice, challenging yourself to grow and change can be a setup for failure.
Developing the ability to relax and to regulate your anxiety is a fundamental need, not a luxury.
If you would like to develop the skills to:
· slow down and calm your mind and body at will,
· use your breath to balance your biology,
· re-label your experience of emotional and physical pain to match reality,
· notice your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings without judgment,
· accept yourself as you are and be accountable, and
· become your own source of safety,
then join me as we start another class of Fierce Relaxation.
Make an appearance in your life, and stay there. Your life and everyone around you will thank you.