Road of Fear

How fear plays into our internal predators is complicated. Looking at the seductive aspect of fear is not meant to deny the reality of violence and threat that pervades too many relationships. It is important to pay attention to fear; it helps us keep ourselves safe. Please pay attention and protect yourself whenever you are threatened. It may not be immediately clear why I include fear among the seductive paths, but bear with me.

Fear of physical threats is rational; when we are in terror for our lives or physical safety, our fight or flight takes over, as it should. We need to pay attention to our gut reactions as to whether a threat is serious. Some choose to fight back, though this is often a dangerous course, because it may bring increased injury. For others it makes sense to “fly,” either by submitting to the another’s demands, dissociating and going somewhere psychologically, or physically leaving. We do what makes sense for us at the time, and I encourage you or others not to second guess that.

Fear of emotional threats is also rational and powerful, though often less well understood by others. People can make it clear that we aren’t safe without lifting a finger.  One way is by having demonstrated their willingness to use force in the past. Another way is by overwhelming someone emotionally with constant harassment and chaos. This interferes with people’s ability to think clearly, call on internal resources that ground them, and rally other support to themselves. “I can’t hear myself think” is something I’ve heard a lot. Especially when sleep is interrupted, this becomes increasingly debilitating. Both of these kinds of fear are real and contribute to paralysis.

Psychological fear results from the corrosive effects of the previous two fears. When people are convinced that they are not safe physically and/or emotionally, the helpless feelings steadily erode their self-esteem and confidence. Often abusers have worked hard at convincing their victims that they are all-powerful. In addition, those experiencing coercive control lose faith in themselves and their ability to choose wisely because of the anomaly of a loved one choosing to harm them. Until they understand the dynamics of control they blame themselves for the relationship. All of these factors can lead to continued paralysis even when the relationships are ended or abusers are in jail. Often survivors feel kind of crazy because of this, but there are logical explanations for it.

Continuing to feel unsafe even though you’re safe is a common post-traumatic symptom. This experience of continued distress occurs with all kinds of trauma – accidents, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, domestic violence – just to name a few. It is often triggered by situations, people, or sensations that remind them of the original event. The brain has been affected by the terrifying experience and copes by trying to protect; this leads people to become hyper-vigilant for danger. This experience of triggering especially continues when there have been repeated instances of trauma over time, rather than a single occurrence.

Trauma affects how people see the world and themselves. The seductive element of fear comes from continuing to believe erroneous things about ourselves due to the biological and psychological effects we suffered from trauma. Loss of control is a mind-altering process. When we don’t realize the irrationality of what we’ve learned and don’t get help in changing it, we are seduced into believing conclusions drawn as the result of abuse:

  • We really can’t make it on our own.
  • No one else will love us.
  • We aren’t smart enough, good enough, (fill in the blank).
  • The abuser will always be able to get to us; we’ll never be safe.

Believing these things comes from internalizing what has been heard over and over and/or the helplessness that was experienced.

Again, I want to make clear that I’m not talking about situations where people aren’t safe. Each person knows best their situation, and others should believe them when they are afraid. Planning for the safest exit is very important.

It takes a great leap of faith to overcome fear and break out of what now have become self-limiting strait jackets. There should be no judgment of ourselves or others for the effects of trauma. Having support from family, friends, and professionals is invaluable in beginning the re-empowerment process of healing. Unbuttoning the jacket and adopting a new wardrobe of freedom is a long but rewarding process.

This is the final installment on the seductive paths of controlling relationships. If you or anyone else you know has been in an abusive intimate relationship, you may be interested in my group, Women’s Voices. Information can be obtained by going to my Abuse and Trauma Counseling page and by calling me at 608-255-8838, ext. 6.


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