When I encountered the stranger in the post (Fear vs Anxiety part 1) at the bookstore, I broke my Stranger Policy.
My Stranger Policy mostly applies to situations when I’m alone outside. I treat all strangers as potential threats – any kind of threat – violent, pick pocketing or another scam. This policy applies to everyone – men, children, old women, teenagers, groups of women.
Strangers approach me quite often when I’m alone. When I walk to my language school from the train station (20 minute walk) I am approached at least once, if not more, as I walk through a tourist area of Brussels. My policy is not to respond. When approached I say ‘No’ and walk away.
Whenever I break the policy I ask myself: Why did I do that? I never feel good about breaking it which is totally counter-intuitive to helping others. All the signs were there that this woman (from part 1) was a potential threat. Yet, I still continued, for quite a while, to respond to her inquiries.
The positive part of this experience was: had this situation happened to me a few years ago I would not have stopped the conversation short and left; I would have sacrificed my time for her needs. There was definite progress in my actions and when I walked out of that store, I felt good about ending it before it continued even further.
After the incident, I read the Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker where he focuses on listening to true fear and its signals and I was challenged:
- My first conscious weird irratation happened when the stranger did not respond to my apology immediately. She had a delayed response.
- My second conscious sensation was when she asked what I was reading. This signal was a bit louder in my head and yet, I ignored it and answered.
- When I was listening to her, my mind started to look for and analyse the potential threats – she is trying to sell something, she is trying to scam me? My mind was running through a list of all potential threats.
During her attempts to engage me in some sort of conversation, my mind was racing. I was, for the majority of the interaction, focused on what she could do to me.
If I had experienced true fear, would not have the flight-fight response kicked in? Yet, everything inside me felt like fear (heart racing, etc.) And still, I didn’t respond after 2 signals, I stood there and continued to answer her questions.
My initial reaction was habitual: ignore the irritations and my own uncomfortableness and meet the needs of the other person. My thoughts began dispersing every direction – Is she trying to sell me something? is she trying to con me? is she trying to rob me? what if she has a weapon?, etc. This worrying went on for the duration of the conversation.
Daniel Goleman (from the book Emotional Intelligence) writes:
“And so the worrying mind spins on in an endless loop of low-grade melodrama, one set of concerns leading on to the next and back again.”
Goleman does clarify that worry can work – when it leads to a solution (what he calls constructive reflection). The problem arises when we are never nearer to a positive solution (chronic worry, anxiety disorders).
Gavin de Becker, in the last chapter of the Gift of Fear, illustrates the same distinction with clearer lines:
“Worry, wariness, anxiety, and concern all have a purpose, but they are not fear. It may well be something worth trying to understand and manage, but worry will not bring solutions. It will more likely distract you from finding solutions.”
And no doubt, I didn’t find a solution immediately. In my old ways (before recovery), I would never have found a solution until I was forced – the bookstore kicking me out at closing time or DH coming to look for me. De Becker draws the line further:
“People use the word fear loosely, but to put it in its proper relation to panic, worry, and anxiety, … … … , real fear is not paralysing – it is energising.”
I often find myself in endless loops of worries and low-grad anxiety in a lot of situations. But after reading this book, I started to question whether my anxiety, at times, is not masking a true fear signal. De Becker references listening to our instincts and signals of true fear but this ‘listening’ is rather difficult for me because I never learned how.
Somehow the signals I felt with the stranger went unchecked – not listened to – after 2, actually 3 fear signals. The first signal (that I didn’t realise until after) was she invaded my physical boundary – this was actually the first signal my body had noticed, if not my mind. When she came walking down the aisle, I was sitting on the floor and her purse swung and almost hit me in the face until I quickly moved away (DH wondered if she had done this on purpose).
At times, real fear can be paralysing too – if we haven’t learned how to listen to our inner voice. I think abused children learn repetitively to dampen the signals that come from the amygdala (emotional centre of the brain). And albeit, some dampening is necessary in keeping certain signals in check (learning to delay gratification, self-control), it can go to extremes in abusive households. Signals that are essential to survival (emotional survival as well) can be manipulated in abusive environments.
Even with the constant manipulation, the body doesn’t stop responding to stimuli that is dangerous / inappropriate* (as the amygdala is fully developed at birth). In such environments, we are taught to reprogram that signal into something else (as our intellect is developing after birth).
The comment thread of the post on amygdala hijack (Through the Looking Glass) sums it up nicely:
If you are taught that you aren’t worthy of protection, then you will fly into a panic whenever you feel yourself in such a situation. The panic comes not from “overreacting,” but from the inner conflict between the natural survival instinct and the conditioning that we are somehow not worthy of protection/survival. -Kitty (Brave New Kitty)
In cases where anxiety is developed from real, authentic fear signals* (life and non-life threatening), the confusion (inner conflict) between the two creates an advantage for those who abuse. Teaching a child to ignore / suppress fear signals can cause disproportionate reactions (appearing as overreacting, frozen or shut down) thus, providing them the necessary upper hand to manipulate the situation further to create the desired effect. I often gave into their demands just to ease my own anxiety – a decision, an action has been taken – providing temporary relief from the anxiety.
Children who are abused are taught to re-wire emotional signals that lead to many complex problems in adulthood. This manipulation (reprogramming) can manifest itself within the body in different ways. Often developing from the repeated lesson: teach her to disregard reality and herself.
*In the book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker refers to several examples where psychological boundaries were crossed before the act of violence (physical harm) – stipulating that crossing of psychological boundaries is a true signal of fear.
Weathering the Storm: Living and Coping with Anxiety
Through the Looking Glass: Name That Feeling: the Amygdala Hijack
Caliban’s Sisters: Pattern Recognition vs. the Parental Present
Brave New Kitty: Embrace Your Anxiety
In Bad Company: Fear vs Anxiety (part 1)