When the “Fawn” panic response drives you to read minds, kind of literally

I’m still reading Pete Walker’s book on C-PTSD, which might morph into one of my a-religious Bibles (if you have C-PTSD, here is Pete’s website with helpful excerpts).

While I went through really good (well, unpleasant, but large) parts of recovery without a map and without even knowing this thing had a name, figuring stuff out somehow – reading his detailed description of the route and all the little detours full of quicksands and mirrors and mirages, I recognise so many crooked corners that he describes. I can just say, this person knows the territory intimately – at this point I’ve walked substantial portions of a recovery journey, having been guided by dreams, visions, and fortuitous encounters (i.e. kind of randomly) – and I recognize virtually all of that stuff on the overarching, yet incredibly detailed map that Pete provides.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who gets caught off guard by random intense and confusing emotional whirls or knock-outs in your normal state of consciousness and is tormented not only by the disruption but also by an inability to figure out what on earth is going on (that was my state before substantial recovery).

Looking back on some of the path, this is a highly trustworthy description.

My point in this post wan’t actually praising the book though – got a bit derailed by enthusiasm. There were actually several points competing in my mind, and I guess they got stuck in a memory bottleneck now …

Ah, ok, I remember one. The crazy involuntary “telepathy” topic from yesterday and Pete’s description of the “Fawn” panic response – which he describes as an additional alternative to the well-known (if you read about trauma and panic) Fight, Flight or Freeze responses to threat.

Again, Pete’s description of the shapes of the Fawn (as in dog wagging tail to gain favours) response is detailed and explanatory, but the basic idea is that in addition to (or instead of) fleeing, fighting, or freezing, specifically a child that faces abuse or neglect can implement yet another self-defence strategy, which is putting its intelligence and empathic and intuitive powers to use in order to figure out 1) how to psychologically appease a parent or other source of thread (in the case of abuse) 2) how to obtain some kind of sense of connection, even if fleeting and/or one-sided (in case of pure neglect).

Thankfully personally I don’t know much about case 1), but the understanding of the importance of 2) in this book really struck me. Pete Walker’s thesis in general is that even when there is abuse, emotional abandonment is still the core cause of C-PTSD, and C-PTSD can be genuinely caused by it alone (this in my case validates, once again, why I was so confused for so long by having plentiful evident trauma symptoms, but not remembering anything drastic at all – “just” not getting my emotional needs met almost ever seemed normal and innocuous to me). While I’ve seen a review of the book by someone who survived very drastic things saying it’s maybe less suitable for their case, this really is a book that is highly emotionally sensitive and gives many illustrative examples of how emotional coldness, blindness or meanness leaves lasting traces in children’s psyches.

Again, for me being raised with the view that such touchy-feely stuff simply doesn’t matter (which is both part and cause of my later self-abandoning behaviour) it’s just good to read descriptive examples of how my parents were wrong, and it does evidently greatly matter – how inner feelings and the invisible subtleties of human connection are essential to our quality of life.

… so again, that wasn’t the point. Point was the Fawn response: emotional attunement and human connection matters so much to us as children that in its absence we respond with panic leading to Fight, Flight, Freeze – or in children which have the aptitude and sensitivity, to using all of their mental and emotional resources (in a self-abandoning panic-spasm) to figure out / read the parents’ psychology and obtain some form of connection.

What follows is from my own experience / understanding, not explicitly from Pete’s book. One way that I’ve seen described by Pete but also other people of this happening is that the kid simply figures out very, very early (before it can speak) how to please the parent, or at least how not to displease, so as to get approval and not punishment based on reading tiny mood cues from the parent and adapting its own emotional display accordingly, or reading parental wishes based on cues and trying not to cross them. These can be pragmatic wishes and actions, but in some cases (I think in mine) this gets so refined as to read the parent’s emotional needs and tiptoe around them so as to not disappoint or emotionally “burden” the parent in any way.

From my own case, I’d say that this can happen not just with abusive parents, but with simply fragile parents – or possibly even with moderately fragile or non-fragile parents in stressful or excruciating circumstances.

And specifically, with an autistic or otherwise extremely emotionally sensitive child, it can happen that the parent doesn’t even need to blow up to trigger this response – I’m trying to travel back and remember. It might just be that the parent, for example, dissociates (shuts down / withdraws their emotions) or pulls away attention, or shows mild displeasure, or (even unintentionally) consistently ignores or is unresponsive to certain emotions and behaviours and needs from the super-sensitive child. It’s enough that the parent is simply emotionally unavailable, even if they try to be “good” and spend time together. Emotionally closed (because of their own pain) or emotionally unresponsive (because of poor empathy skills) or emotionally much less sensitive (not noticing signals from the child or not reading them, or assuming small calls for help indicate a minor nuisance when they in fact indicate deep distress).

I feel intensely guilt-tripped even writing this, even though I think – given all evidence accumulated over years and decades – that this kind of stuff, simply a parent not being emotionally open and empathically skilful – is enough to give an exceptionally sensitive child complex PTSD that takes decades to just halfway manage. I think it sucks, but it’s the truth – even if writing this makes me feel guilty for being “too sensitive”, being so sensitive that I “caught” a major mental health disorder even with relatively sensible, but simply highly stressed (by stuff like migration, material insecurity and unemployment) parents …

Although the fact that my father has his own version of C-PTSD (very clearly) is a contributor. But the way it affected me as a child isn’t the standard expected way – my father didn’t really act out. Rather, as a toddler probably I was already sensitive enough to perceive his massive implosions and to take it upon me, for some reason, to help him avoid them. For example I remembering at age perhaps 5 or 6 getting a present from him that I didn’t really like; my intense preoccupation was about how if I showed that I don’t like it, it would make him implode and I would be devastated – I still get a strong physical cringe-and-hide sensation now just recalling this – by feeling his emotional hurt (I think now the name for his hurt was probably “intense rejection”).

Question is, why? Why was I set up to be so extremely preoccupied about not letting a parent’s inner implosions happen at age 5 or so? Why did I even notice them happening if they were not acted out?

I think one reason is innate sensitivity and a tendency for empathy (as a kid I empathised with bugs, etc. and still do; it cost me a lot to not be permanently depressed about the state of the ecology, etc.). Another reason is, though, that already by that age I had strongly internalised the Fawn response – I think this because of the intensity of my attunement that was almost a fusion (and still apparently is, at least my therapist thinks that).

My dad really isn’t awesome at responding to the emotional states of others – despite some general goodwill – because of his own unhealed (unacknowledged) trauma. My mother is better, but far less sensitive than me – and assumed that I can cope with what she could cope with (despite the fact, as I still want to stick in her face sometimes, that she didn’t have to cope with moving away from most of the family to another country she knew nothing about and being pretty much left alone to figure; she also isn’t autistic, while my dad is; and nobody except me is trans … that’s into the bag of reproaches). …

This and other things (the material instability of my earliest childhood, frequent moves etc.) I think led to me using my mental resources to obsessively track the tiniest moods in my parents and replicate them not to avoid punishment, but simply to feel attunement – closeness in some way. If they didn’t really have the capacity to attune to my emotions, to “enter my world”, guess how I feel and respond to it in such a way that I wouldn’t feel lonely but reassured – I think I learnt to do that. I kind of learnt to live in their worlds and with their troubles. If my dad couldn’t really read my signs (of when I had enough of something, when I wanted or needed something or not) I learnt to read his so that we could spend time together and so that I could feel we were close – by me moving into his world.

I think with my mother a similar process happened at some point, though it’s less clear to me right now. But it was in place in my teenage years when I was acting as a parentified “confidant” while having given up getting any emotional support on the hell I was going through in adolescence.

In short, I think I learnt – mostly through mere unresponsiveness – that to be close to someone, I have to morph and “move into their head”. This maybe isn’t full closeness, but it’s better than just being disconnected or in a parallel universe, or bearing the inner anguishes of my early childhood without any way out at all.

The problem with this is that while I think empathy and being able to figure out a bit about other people’s world is good, a toddler doing it as a reaction to the panic and confusion of feeling disconnected (for whatever reason) is problematic on several levels:

  1. If the kid is 2 or 3 or something (as I presumably was when this started), they don’t have the cognitive ability to really empathise with adults. For example, I couldn’t understand that my dad was stressed because he was unemployed and that he imploded when someone didn’t like his presents because he has C-PTSD. Instead, what a child has is a lot of affective empathy, I think – the ability to intuitively mirror another’s feelings in its body (and then make rudimentary theories from there). When trying to attune to an adult, I think the child is stuck with a lot of bewildering, intense sensations (say if the parent has rejection sensitivity, flashbacks, or other intense emotions) “in the belly” … which it accepts because opening up to how the parent feels at least provides a sensation of contact and connection (one-sided), and because they can sometimes be used as predictive materials on how to act as a “good child”.
  2. But there’s no way to actually metabolise what has been absorbed. I mean, how? Not only doesn’t anyone teach mature emotional skills; I’m not sure a kid at that age could learn them.
  3. The absorption process itself gets into the cogs of building a sense of self in the child. If a large proportion of the emotions “floating in my belly” were copied from my parents (without understanding their context or meaning) that’s a huge interference with building an understanding of my own emotions (and thus needs, preferences, values).
  4. Since the absorption / mirroring process seems to be the only option for feeling connected, and no connection means threat of death to a child, the process becomes compulsive – it’s not a generous expression of empathy and compassion as much as it is the substitution of one inner world for another: there is no genuine contact between two worlds (two psyches) because one of them hasn’t properly been build/grown yet. In a way, it’s not even exactly empathy, it’s identification (self-substitution) – because empathy would need two whole, complete selves. The truly relational element is missing.
  5. … this was actually my main point in this whole lengthy essay: because it becomes ingrained as a defensive reaction, this process of self-abandonment and substitution will later tend to be activated in situations of stress and perceived threat.

So, in case anyone is actually still following this (does anyone else need to dig out all these deep roots just to not get flooded constantly in the present?) … I think this might be why I get intense “telepathic” flashes of (confusingly) other people’s thoughts (and emotions, which I figured out years ago – empath articles) at very specific moments: 1) when first seeing someone; 2) in situations of boundary violation / potential conflict. [These are the situations described in yesterday’s post.]

I think first seeing a new person, at least for me, is a paradigmatic situation in which the fear response arises in the form of heightened attention, “scanning” the person to figure out within milliseconds whether they’re a potential threat or friend. It makes sense that in this situation, my old panic-response – to completely “empty myself” and identify with the other to “feel them out” – would activate. The same is true for potential conflict situations, which can send me into a panic response in themselves. So, it makes sense that the “telepathic intrusions” would happen at these moments?

One of my dominant learnt responses to stress (initially the stress of feeling alone = unprotected as a child) is to self-abandon and put my “mind’s eye” into the other person’s body, basically, the way I did it to avoid abandonment anguish and feel somewhat connected to my caregivers.

For a variety of reasons (C-PTSD itself), people (except a few chosen ones) stress me out. Because of the learnt stress response however, I react to that by putting my mind’s eye into their heads (bodies) and sensing their feelings and thoughts, especially when I’m stressed. At a certain stage though, that is a recipe for further disaster – because then getting all that random input is even more bewildering and panic-inducing.

It’s also highly confusing when I’m good at it – it’s like someone smacks intense, intimate information about complete strangers into my face as soon as I see them. And until today (or recently), I really didn’t know why, or that this is what’s happening (I’d just know my mind is suddenly filled with STUFF, and stuff that I can’t tell anyone). But I think this is more or less “it”.

I think this is “it” – the explanation for the involuntary telepathy-like phenomena in certain critical moments. It explains why it might be accompanied by a flashback, but feels distinct. When I think back of the last two really bad rounds of this – of my mind being swamped with thoughts and feelings that were relevant to another person’s life, not mine – and my inability to see wtf is going on or take control of it – I kind of “see” (sense/feel) this inner movement of shifting my inner eye outside of my own body, leaving my own perceptions and sensations and self-location behind to give 100% or even 200% or 1000% of all my resources to sensing the world from the other’s perspective in a pang of panic.

Pete Walker is also correct in that to those of us who learnt this as a defence in childhood, it feels safer. It feels safer to leave the sensations and emotions and physical location of my own body behind to substitute them with someone else’s – that’s what gave me a sense of connection with humanity (my caregivers) in childhood, and this meant psychological survival and some illusion of safety. Safety by closeness, but closeness was only available by merging/fusion – by me developing my “shamanic” sense to the point where I morph into other people/beings, kind of, being under the illusion that I’m then close to them.

[I’ve also written about something similar in my “empath” era, but I think I understand it much more deeply now.]

The paradox is also that at a later age, and with other people, this habit actually sabotages real closeness. Cause I kept my own self hidden and undeveloped – so it didn’t really go out to meet other selves enough, even while it still vicariously experienced (and experiences) things through their eyes.

*

All this is weird and kind of like in some science-fiction story. I think it’s true, though. It’s also astounding to see how my recent hermit life is on some level really not boring; here and there it flourishes with “trips” – to the perhaps further shores of what inner experience holds; how sensitive we actually are and how much goes on under the surface, all the time.

*

What’s the remedy to the telepathic trips? Based on my logic and Pete’s experience, it would be not moving my mind’s eye out of me and into another when fear strikes. That would then cause me to feel the fear and dread directly, in my body, as well as the dread of what will happen in me when I don’t escape by moving my “eye” away. I guess facing the primary anguish and then anger and grief, the classic flashback remedy (again, see Pete’s materials for clearest explanations I’ve seen on how it works).

2 thoughts on “When the “Fawn” panic response drives you to read minds, kind of literally

  1. I relate to this so hard I’m shouting at my computer. I’m deeply pleased that you continue to write about it in such fine-grained detail.

    Liked by 1 person

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