How Does Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn Show Up for Gay Men?
Ever found yourself reacting instantly to something without even thinking about it? If you said yes, then you already know something about this topic.
You might have heard about the “fight, flight, and freeze” response before. But there’s also a fourth: the fawn response, originally coined by Pete Walker. I learned about the first three responses years ago during my undergraduate degree, but didn’t hear about “fawn” until a few years later. All four of these have also been called the “4Fs.” These can all show up in some specific ways for gay men. Let’s explore these concepts in more detail.
What’s the point of all these responses?
The purpose of these responses is to protect us from immediate danger, plain and simple. In our evolutionary past, these responses were a way to mobilize and push our body to do what was needed to survive in mere nanoseconds without having to consciously think about it. It’s a pretty amazing ability!
If you came across a predatory animal 5000 years ago while you were foraging (or even now–mushroom foraging anyone?), your brain and body would analyze the situation instantly and implement whichever of these four responses would give you the best chance of survival.
Because humans are such intensely social animals, these responses can also get activated in our relationships and social interactions. In fact, this is probably where the responses get activated most for people in modern times.
However, when someone has experienced trauma that has not been processed, these responses can kick in even when there isn’t any immediate danger. This is what’s meant by someone having “triggers.”
So how do each of these responses work and show up?
This response seems pretty straightforward, and in a lot of ways it is. Fight is about advancing toward a perceived threat. Put another way, it’s about the belief that your best bet for protecting yourself is to exert your power over something, or someone, else.
This can make the response sound pretty toxic. And if we think about how this response can play into existing beliefs, it could be a default response for someone who believes they’re superior compared to someone else. There are definitely some interesting implications for the fight response in relation to privilege and/or narcissism that warrant whole articles or books on their own.
But if we think about the original purpose of this response, its roots are less toxic.
Although it may seem like the most “powerful,” of the 4Fs, it can also be the most risky and desperate from an evolutionary standpoint. This is the response of the animal backed into a corner that’s now lashing out: it’s terrified and out of options.
From a developmental perspective, someone who gravitates toward this response under threat is likely to have learned growing up that “fight” was the way to keep them safe. This can include physical and emotional safety. As you’ll see throughout the rest of this article, exploring the origins of a response can help to bring some self-compassion toward ourselves for the things we’d like to change.
“Fight” can show up in the following ways for gay men:
➡️ Explosive anger toward another person or even your partner. For some gay men, this may also happen when their sense of being “imperfect” or “less-than” is triggered. Alan Downs explored this topic amongst gay men in his book The Velvet Rage.
➡️ It’s not necessarily about dramatic displays of anger or aggression (although it can be that too). Rather, at the most fundamental level, it’s about engaging with a perceived threat. This can look like being “mean” or bullying others when we see some quality in someone else that makes us feel insecure or threatened.
Flight is about avoiding and fleeing. As the name suggests, the original purpose of this response was literally to run away from a perceived threat.
But often times this shows up as avoidance in a modern context. You can think of this almost as “preemptive flight.” That is, fleeing a future imagined scenario by avoiding it altogether.
“Flight” can show up in the following ways for gay men:
➡️ Trying to be “perfect” / perfectionism. At its core, perfectionism is an anxiety management and survival strategy. The belief is that if something is just done perfectly some threat to our survival (emotional, social, or physical) can be avoided. The survival threat potentially being that you are seen as “less than.” This is a big one for gay men, because many of us developed the strategy of being “the best little boy in the world” as a way to stave off feelings of not being good enough.
➡️ Similarly, flight can also look like constant anxiety, worry, and/or “busyness.” It can be a difficulty being still/relaxed/calm or concentrating because your mind and body are in a perpetual state of “flight.” This anxiousness is also often a part of perfectionism for gay men.
Freezing is about becoming invisible and/or being removed from a situation. Its original function was to literally make us “freeze,” like a deer in headlights, so that a threat might just pass us by. This can also happen in a social situation when you find yourself locking up without knowing what to say.
Other less intuitive ways that this can happen are when you isolate yourself into solitude and/or find yourself dissociating or “spacing-out.”
“Freeze” can show up in the following ways for gay men:
➡️ Withdrawing into yourself and feeling invisible in groups of other gay men, or people in general.
➡️ Feeling like you’re perpetually “disconnected” from the people around you, like you live in your own surreal reality and are on the outside looking in.
➡️ Losing awareness of your surroundings and feeling ungrounded, like you’re partly or fully disappearing.
Fawn is “new” in the sense that it has only started to come into public awareness in the past few years.
Fawn is about “people pleasing.” …Did your stomach go into a bit of a knot reading that? Let your breathing and body relax if you can, and keep reading.
This one has a particularly interesting twist for gay men (and other marginalized groups).
Gay men have often been encouraged to portray themselves in ways that make them more palatable to dominant society. That is, by becoming the ultimate people-pleasers. Think about the “comedic” portrayal of gay men as nonthreatening, dramatic, and sassy characters that straight people can laugh at.
Or the gay man who’s an expert in some helping or service field that makes other people’s lives easier (not that I would know anything about this personally…)
Of course, these roles aren’t inherently bad or wrong. While unjust societal pressures or traumas from our past may have shaped who we are in the world as adults, this doesn’t mean we are perpetually damaged. We can clear unprocessed trauma and be left with the benefits that a difficult upbringing gave us. This is called “stress-related growth.”
The fawn response can also be related to a low sense of self-worth. When we have a low sense of self-worth, this often extends to our needs being put aside, and focusing on pleasing the needs of those around us instead.
Like the other 4Fs, it’s also a survival strategy. From a developmental perspective, this response can often develop when a child is “parentified” by their caregivers. This is when a child is placed in more of a caregiver role for their parent. They’re expected to be available and sensitive to their parent’s emotional needs, but the parent is unavailable to the child.
This can also perpetuate as an intergenerational cycle. A child is parentified, then might play out the same dynamic by parentifying their children to meet their unmet childhood emotional needs, and the cycle repeats itself. This dynamic is elaborated on further by Alice Miller if you’re interested.
“Fawn” can show up in the following ways for gay men:
➡️ Getting into sexual/romantic relationships where the other person abuses you, doesn’t express care for your needs, and/or convinces you to do things that you’re not comfortable with. This can include getting into relationships or friendships with people who have narcissistic tendencies.
➡️ Caring for others, flattering, and saying “yes” to your own detriment. This might come up particularly around people that you are worried about getting into conflict with, or getting rejected by.
➡️ Constantly feeling taken advantage of and difficulty expressing your feelings.
➡️ Low sense of self-worth and concern about fitting in.
➡️ Apologizing for everything because it feels like everyone else’s needs matter more than yours.
➡️ Having a sense of responsibility about things going “right” for other people.
You might be thinking: holy shit I think I do some of these things. Okay–breathe–let’s debrief…
You may have read some of the descriptions above and found yourself feeling angry, scared, hopeless, sad, defensive, numb, or spaced-out. That’s okay. 🙂 What that probably means is that one of the 4Fs was activated a little (or a lot) for you.
The interesting thing is that these responses themselves can feel threatened when we start to try and look at them a bit closer. They were probably necessary and served to keep you safe in the past, so there is often a good precedent for you having them. As a result, your brain and body are going to have an attachment to them. They like stability and predictability, even if a response isn’t serving you anymore (this can also be looked at through the lens of homeostasis).
As an aside, it’s also important to note that having some of these responses is not necessarily something to be “fixed,” or overcome. The responses themselves have a purpose outside of being a locked-in trauma response. And for someone in a perpetually distressing environment or who faces constant physical, emotional or social threat, these responses make sense and are doing their job.
Similarly, this one is obvious but needs to be said: people are different. Some gay men will be more extroverted or introverted, and will have different comfort levels and different ways of responding to situations that are not necessarily related to trauma. A way to evaluate if one of these 4F responses might need to change is to ask yourself if it’s hindering you more than helping you, and if it feels like the magnitude of the response matches your current reality.
Because if we think about the origins of our responses, or the “reasons” we have them, it usually starts to make a lot of sense. It’s then easier to move from this place of understanding toward increased self-compassion, healing, and growth.
Self-compassion, as Paul Gilbert puts it, is simply a sensitivity to our own suffering with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it. It means giving yourself the same level of compassion that you might give to someone else in your situation. This can start with something as simple as the way you talk to yourself when you feel triggered:
➡️ Of course you exploded in anger, this is how you learned to protect yourself from being harassed and made to feel worthless growing up. You’re trying to do better.
➡️ Of course you’re constantly anxious about doing things “right” or “perfect.” You were held to impossible standards as a child and it wasn’t acceptable to struggle with anything.
➡️ Of course you freeze up when you’re in social situations. Staying quiet and unnoticed was how you avoided being picked on in school.
➡️ Of course you try and turn your needs off under pressure, this was the only way you could get validation and avoid the judgment of your parents.
Of course, this is all easier said than done.
How can you move forward to untangle some of these responses for yourself?
Well, good news, you’ve likely already started doing it by reading this article on some level.
Another way is to deepen your understanding of how the 4Fs show up for you. This means actually coming into closer contact with the responses and seeing if you can drop down into whatever emotion might be below the response itself.
➡️ This can be done experientially, by curiously and non-judmentally trying to sit with a feeling longer than you normally would.
➡️ It can also be done through reflective journal writing (doing this with a self-compassionate lens is immensely therapeutic).
➡️ Another way to make some changes around the 4Fs is to work on them in counselling. When I work on this issue with clients in counselling, we will usually approach it through deepening our understanding of the response, learning new grounding and emotion-regulation strategies, finding alternate responses that serve your needs better, and processing any related trauma.
If doing this exploration, healing, and growth in counselling feels like the best option for you, click the button below to get started. 🙂
MA, CCC, RCC
As a counsellor at The Centre for Gay Counselling, Jordan excels at helping fellow gay men understand their emotions better, heal from past trauma, and grow their sense of self-worth so that they can enjoy living fully as themselves. He believes that gay men have inherent worth, and that they deserve to live fulfilling lives. Interested in working with Jordan? Click the button below to get started.