I recently wrote an essay called “It Was Terrifying the First Time I Dated Someone Who Was Really Good to Me.” Here’s an excerpt:
I was used to being self-reliant. I had been conditioned my entire life to never ask for help because it meant being sharply criticized by others or told that I was weak for asking. If help ever came, it was begrudging — and there would be a large bill later, when my helper demanded I return several larger favors. Potentially even ones that violated my core values.
On top of this background, what you were doing was unthinkable. I’d never before had someone look proactively for ways to help me. And I was terrified.
What would I end up paying later for these kindnesses? What could you possibly want from me? Could I give it?
I was floored by the huge response to that essay. It quickly became one of my most popular posts of all time. Many of you had experienced this in the past. Some of you were currently experiencing it.
I heard from a lot of you. I heard from those of you who were in the terrified position, as well as those of you who were trying to love a terrified person who had never been treated well before.
And I got a lot of questions. Perhaps the most common one was this: If being treated good were so terrifying, then why didn’t I run away?
Why I Didn’t Run Away When Good Treatment Terrified Me
The “cool” answer to this question would probably go something like this: A small part of me realized that good treatment was what I really deserved. And in an act of unprecedented self-care, I ignored my fears and trudged on towards what was actually good for me. For once!
However, the cool answer would be a lie.
The real answer is that running away wasn’t my fear response. For the longest time, we described terrifying situations as being “fight or flight.” When presented with a threat, people’s defensive centers would kick in, and they would either attack the thing threatening them or run away.
However, over the past decade or so, public awareness has risen that there’s a common third option in this menu. Freeze. We amended our understanding to “fight, flight, or freeze.” When presented with a threat, some people’s inclination was to simply freeze in place.
Additionally, over the past few years, a fourth possibility has emerged: Fawning. When a person fawns in the face of danger, they create safety in an unsafe situation by attempting to please the person that is threatening them.
My childhood required me to continually cater to a difficult person, and a strict authoritarian parenting style meant that I had little privacy or personal freedom to speak of. No way to “escape” from uncomfortable situations.
Because of this, I grew into an adult who was particularly prone to freezing and fawning when endangered. Those and only those. No fighting. No fleeing. (Unless things got really, really, really bad — and even then only after a long while.)
The Unappreciated, Accidental Romantic Upside of Being Solely a “Freezer” and a “Fawner”
This has caused a lot of problems for me, as one might expect, and I spent a lot of time in therapy building up assertiveness and finding less maladaptive ways to cope with interpersonal conflict (work I’ve been explaining in greater detail in my series “Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser”).
But it’s nice to note that even something that generally didn’t serve me well sometimes had advantages: I was never really at risk from running away from someone who was being good to me. Even if that good treatment scared the bejesus out of me.
I didn’t typically run away from actually dangerous threats — so I wasn’t about to beat feet at what was essentially a false alarm. Or explained another way, I had no instinct to flee from scary things that hurt me, so I had no instinct to flee from scary things that helped me. Running away just wasn’t how I reacted to being scared.
So that’s something to keep in mind, if any of this sounds like you. Sure, it’s an awful recovery. Yes, it causes problems. But running away from people who are good to you is less likely to be your problem if you’re a consummate freezer and a fawner. Instead, you’ll be far more likely to entertain bad actors who don’t deserve you for far longer than you should.
This comes with its own downsides, that’s for sure. But until everyone wrote in, it had never occurred to me that at least you don’t pose a heightened flight risk towards people that are good to you.
It doesn’t sound like a lot to some, I imagine… but from where I sit, with the happy life I’ve managed to build for myself, it means everything.