Healthy vs unhealthy responses to FEAR. What’s your style? Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn?

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Bedtime is the time that my thirteen year old son usually wants to be real with me. I hear things like, “Mom you know when you asked me if I had cleaned up my closet earlier today? I was lying when I told you I had already done that”. Ugh! this is also the time that I get to grit my teeth and work on avoiding saying certain four letter words out loud. You might be wondering how I dealt my child’s admission that he lied to me? I promise to share more about that at the end of this post.

One night he said, “There is a kid in my class who doesn’t have any friends and I feel bad for him and I would be his friend except that he is always pushing me and everyone else away by showing off too much. Why do people do that and then complain that they don’t have any friends?” I found myself relating to this isolated child for I myself have entrenched defenses which push people away and it’s so hard to stop even with self awareness. The reason behind this is always FEAR. All of us are frequently automatically managing fear while remaining unaware that this is what we are doing.

4 F Responses to fear and how they show up in the workplace

Peter Levine describes four different mechanisms people use to deal with fear in his books. He calls them the 4F response styles. Most of us use more than one style.


People who use this defense appropriately are assertive. For example if I was micromanaging one of my direct reports and he responded by clearly and politely specifying that I need to give him space then this is an example of a healthy use of the fight defense. Unhealthy uses include aggressive behaviors such as excessive anger, bullying, manipulating and controlling, inappropriately blaming others as well as narcissistic behaviors such as talking too much about oneself and posting too much on social media to unconsciously block the fear of not being good enough.


People who use this defense escape into work, hobbies etc to avoid/distract from the issues that they are afraid to acknowledge to themselves. The upside of the flight defense in the workplace is that it can lead the person to excel in their work. Unfortunately people who unconsciously slide into escape often get stuck in toxic environments. They have learned to tolerate the intolerable instead of resolving problems or moving on.


The freeze reflex is useful in dangerous situations. For example if your boss is a bully and is yelling and making a scene then it makes sense to remain quiet and then report the abuse to HR after the incident. People who are very submissive may use the freeze reflex excessively. For example, not speaking up when someone insults you or takes advantage of you because you are too afraid to have a voice. Often people using the freeze reflex have social anxiety and may prefer to stay hidden buried under work at their desk.


People who mainly use the fawn defense tend to be emotionally intelligent. They stay tuned in to other people’s feelings and instinctively know how to defuse threats by pleasing and placating others. However, they can easily become resentful because they often take on too much and also struggle with asking directly for what they want and with taking in care and appreciation for themselves.

Fawning can show up in the form of giving advice and taking care of other people’s feelings to unconsciously block intimacy. For example, if my friend were to tell me that she was reprimanded at work for being late with her project I might tell her it wasn’t her fault and join her in putting the blame on her boss. The healthier and more loving thing to do would have been to just have listened without judgement or advice so that she would eventually feel safe honestly exploring and owning her own part in this situation.

The biology of fear

Our brains have distinct areas for emotional processing called the reptilian/limbic brain and for thinking which is called the prefrontal cortex. We often waste time and energy worrying about things that are not actual threats to us because the emotional areas of the brain prioritize speed of processing over being correct to keep us safe. To understand how this works imagine that I was walking down the street on a dark night and suddenly I feel something touch the back of my neck. I might jump in fear and then after a second laugh as I realize that it’s just a leaf. In other words, my emotional brain jumped the gun and my thinking brain couldn’t keep up.

Since fear lives mostly in the emotional brain we cannot ‘think’ our way out of it, there is no way to access it from the prefrontal cortex. Telling a kid who is afraid of clowns that there is nothing to be afraid of doesn’t work. Giving him a warm hug works a lot better because the hug is processed in the same place as fear which is the emotional brain.


If we are forced to live in fear in childhood, suffer a bad heartbreak or live through a terrifying accident than our emotional brains often become stuck in jumpiness overdrive. This is called hyper vigilance (low level anxiety which may be largely unconscious). One of the hardest things for most people is to become aware of the fear they are experiencing. If you spend too much time checking/posting on social media or your email/text for example then you are experiencing the fear of missing out or more exactly, the fear of abandonment.

Anxiety can have a strong adverse affect on our lives even when we are not aware when we are anxious. Dr Robert Firestone makes the point in his books and articles that we are strongly attracted to people and situations that reinforce our own worst beliefs about ourselves because this allows us to cling to our defenses and avoid vulnerability. At the same time we tend to get stuck in fantasy/sabotage when it comes to opportunities that could lead to actual growth for us.

For example if a book publisher decides to publish an aspiring writer’s book then he is now suddenly exposed to the possibility of failure if the book doesn’t end up selling as expected. If the writer himself has doubts about his writings (even though these doubts are unfounded) then he might unconsciously sabotage the deal perhaps by procrastinating.

I spent the vast majority of my life oblivious to the fact that I suffer from unconscious anxiety/hyper vigilance . Thankfully the brain has a wonderful feature called neuroplasticity which allows people like me to work on healing themselves. Meditation, mindfulness,yoga and other such psycho somatic techniques can get my emotional brain to quiet down. It’s hard work and requires patience but it works.

Fear and authenticity

Understanding my own unconscious fears has been a life changing experience for me. If we were friends in real life then some of the ways I might have been afraid to show up authentically with you include:

  • Telling you what I think you’d like to hear instead of my truth
  • Putting my own spin on what you are saying as I listen to you instead of really taking you in
  • Not speaking up to let you know what I need or want from you
  • Holding onto resentments and avoiding you instead of working things out with you
  • Using distractions to avoid feeling my anger or sadness when you hurt me or make me angry
  • Failing to show up to be present with you and support you

The three A’s of changing behavior are awareness, acceptance and action. My writing this post helps me with the first two A’s in my own quest for authenticity. Working on changing the behaviors I have listed above has led to improvement in all my relationships across the board.

This is why I don’t penalize and also try to refrain from taking care of my son’s feelings when he tells me he lied or becomes angry or sad, or says that he is not interested in doing something that I wish he would do (at least I strive not to, this can be hard). What I did do was to help him explore the consequences of lying by pointing out that I will not trust him so easily next time so that he could become aware of his losses from this behavior. It’s a fine line because I want very much for him to know that his being truthful about things that I don’t want to hear won’t lead to emotional abandonment. As his mother I hope that he will always feel love and acceptance for himself even when he falters and that he will introspect and take responsibility for his own behavior and happiness. After all, to be imperfect is to be human and also, our imperfections are what make us worth loving.