Survivors of Abuse - unpacking Guilt, Blame and Shame....
Many people are aware of the Fight or Flight response to threat situations. Struggling against someone and defending ourselves (Fight)..... or running away (Flight) are both highly publicised in the media, films and often make gripping television dramas and during less aggressive situations, Fight or Flight may have a measure of success.... but if an aggressor doesn't back off or presents a constant threat, the risk of danger intensifies - which often leads to less publicised instinctive responses instead. Society's perception of what "should" happen therefore often varies greatly from the realities some people face. When this happens, it can lead to fears of being judged as complicit by family, friends and authorities, as well as intense self-criticism when no attempt to fight back, run away or break the silence occurs.
Unlike film and TV dramas, the mind and body respond instinctively to threat in ways which we are not consciously aware of at the time - in a similar way to how bodily reflexes respond to dangerous stimuli. When our hand runs under boiling water for example.... it's quickly withdrawn; we don't stand there pondering if it should be removed while the water continues to scald; the brain senses danger and it's quickly withdrawn without hesitation.
Similarly, when a threat situation is realised, terror and immediate survival will supersede all rational thinking, causing a number of different responses to occur instead; becoming tense and unresponsive (Freeze).... pleading or negotiating for mercy (Friend).... and/or, a complete lack of resistance (Flop). In violent and abusive situations, all five responses may appear over a period of time.
In domestic abuse cases for example, Friend may attempt to diffuse aggression by apologising, pleading or trying to negotiate and buy time. There may be times when this works but as violence intensifies, many victims experience Freeze when neither Fight nor Flight are possible and Friend begins to fail them. This is thought to be because Freeze provides a natural analgesic (Levine, 1997) to pain and trauma before violence even occurs.
The Flop response is perhaps one of the least understood reactions to abuse and trauma and misconceptions of consent have done little to support survivors to understand and process what has happened to them. As the struggle to make sense of things continues, survivors will sometimes minimise actual danger in order to justify why they were no attempts to fight back, run or break the silence - leading some people to carry misplaced blame, shame and self-hatred around for years; punishing themselves further through acts of self-harm; cutting, addictions and/or other self-destructive behaviours to try and cope with intrusive feelings of being complicit in some way or for deserving it.
In part, this is often because survivors often overlook the context of their own reality and focus upon what they "should" have done instead. While Fight or Flight options are easier to see in hindsight, it's far too simplistic to think of these as rational choices available to us during an attack situation or, when faced with an ever-present threat. Whether we realise it or not, the mind and body work simultaneously to counteract a perceived or actual threat in ways that are hard to rationalise afterwards from a place of safety.
Life is not a television drama where events get solved within a number of gripping episodes however; some people are surrounded by circumstances where reality is far more traumatic than fiction. When these experiences can be unpacked, processed and understood through counselling and psychotherapy, then foundations for understanding, healing and recovery can be laid down....