Women who have been in pathological relationships come away from them with problems associated with fear, worry, and anxiety. This is often related to Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or what we call ‘High Harm Avoidance’—being on high alert, looking for ways they might get harmed now or in the future.
PTSD, by its own nature as a disorder, is an anxiety disorder that is preoccupied by both the past (flashbacks and intrusive thoughts of him or events) and by the future (worry about future events, trying to anticipate his behaviors, etc.). With long-term exposure to PTSD, this anxiety and worry begins to mask itself, at least in the mind, as fear. In fact, most women lump together the sensations of anxiety, worry, and fear into one feeling, and don’t differentiate between them.
Fear is helpful and safety-oriented whereas worry and anxiety are not helpful, and are related to phantom ‘possible’ events that often don’t happen. To that degree, worry and anxiety are distracting from real fear signals that could help you.
In his book, The Gift of Fear, which is now a classic on predicting harmful behavior in others, author Gavin deBecker delineates the difference between what we need fear FOR and what we DON’T need anxiety and worry for. In some ways, the ability to use fear correctly while stopping the use of anxiety and worry may do much to curtail PTSD symptoms.
deBecker, who is not a therapist but a Danger Analyst, has done what other therapists haven’t even done—nix PTSD symptoms of anxiety and worry by focusing on true fear and its necessity versus anxiety and its false meaning to us.
Freud used the term ‘fear’ (in contrast to anxiety), to refer to the reaction to real danger. Freud emphasized the difference between fear and anxiety in terms of their relation to danger:
~ Anxiety is a state characterized by the expectation of and preparation for a danger—even if it is unknown.
~ Fear implies a specific object to be feared in the here and now.
(Anxiety is: “He MIGHT harm me;” whereas, fear is: “He IS harming me—with his fist, words, actions, etc.”)
If you heard that there was a weapon proven to prevent most crimes (including picking a dangerous partner) before they happened, would you run out and buy it? World-renowned security expert, Gavin deBecker says this weapon exists but you already have it. He calls it “the gift of fear.”
The story of a woman named Kelly begins with a simple warning sign. A man offers to help carry her groceries into her apartment—and instantly, Kelly doesn’t like the sound of his voice. Kelly goes against her gut and lets him help her—and in doing so, she lets a rapist into her home.
“We get a signal prior to violence,” Gavin says. “There are pre-incident indicators— things that happen—before violence occurs.”
Gavin says that, unlike any other living creature, humans will sense danger, yet still walk right into it. He goes on to say, “You’re in a hallway waiting for an elevator late at night. The elevator door opens, and there’s a guy inside, and he makes you afraid. You don’t know why, you don’t know what it is. And many women will stand there and look at that guy and say [to themselves], ‘Oh, I don’t want to think like that. I don’t want to be the kind of person who lets the door close in his face. I’ve got to be nice. I don’t want him to think I’m not nice.’ And so human beings will get into a steel soundproof chamber with someone they’re afraid of. There’s not another animal in nature that would even consider it.”
Gavin says that “eerie feelings” are exactly what he wants women to pay attention to. “We’re trying to analyze the warning signs,” he says, “and what I really want to teach, today and forever, is the feeling of the warning sign. All the other stuff is our explanation for the feeling—why it was this, why it was that. The feeling itself IS the warning sign.”
What happens over and over again is that women dismantle their OWN internal safety system by ignoring it. The longer they ignore it, the more ‘overrides’ it receives and this retrains the brain to ignore the fear signal. Once rewired, women are at tremendous risks of all kinds… risks of picking the wrong men, of squelching fear signals, of impending violence, shutting off alarms about potential sexual assaults, shutting down red flags about financial ripoffs, squeaking out hints about poor character in other people… and the list goes on. What is left after your whole entire safety system is dismantled? Not much.
Women, subconsciously sensing they need to have ‘something’ to fall back on, swap out true and profoundly accurate fear signals with the miserly counterfeit and highly unproductive feelings of worry and anxiety.
Then they end up in counseling for their fourth dangerous relationship and wonder if they have a target sign on their forehead. No they don’t. They have learned to dismantle, rename, minimize, justify, or deny the fear signals they get or got in the relationship—as if their ability to ‘take it’ or ‘not be afraid’ of very dangerous behavior is some sort of win for them, as if their ability to look danger in the face and STAY means they are as tough or competitive as he is.
No—it means they have a fear signal that no longer saves them. Their barely stuttering signal means it’s been over-ridden by her. She felt it, labeled it, and released it, all the while staring eye-to-eye with what she should fear most.
Then later, another day or week passes, and she has mounting anxiety, “over what?” she wonders. She has a chronic low-grade worry, wisps of anxiety that waft through her life. She can’t put two and two together to figure out that ignoring true fear will demand to be recognized by her subconscious in some way—an illegitimate way through worry and anxiety that does nothing to save her from real danger. Her real ally (her true fear) has been squelched and banished.
When coming to us for counseling she wants us to help her ‘feel safe’ again when actually, we can’t do any of that. It’s all in her internal system as it’s always been. Her safety is inside her as is her future healing.
She will sit in the counselor’s office denying true fear and begging for relief from the mounting anxiety she is experiencing. She doesn’t trust herself, her intuition, her judgments—all she can feel is anxiety. And with good reason! True fear is her true intuition…not anxiety. But she’s already canned what can save her, and now, on some level, she must know she has nothing left that can help her feel and react.
Animals instinctively react to the danger signal—the adrenaline, flash of fear, and flood of cortisol. They don’t have internal dialogue with themselves, like, “What did that mean? Why did he say that? I don’t like that behavior—I wonder if he was abused as a child.”
An animal is trained to have a natural reaction to the fear signal—they run. You don’t see animals ‘stuck’ in abusive mating environments! In nature, as in us, we are wired with the King of Comments, which is the danger signal. When we respond to the flash of true fear, we aren’t left having a commentary with ourselves.
“The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.” ~John Schaar