''Only Let Yourself Have What You Can Afford to Lose.'' - A Life Lived in Flight.
Updated: May 13, 2021
The following is shared with full permission. The words used by Tom (not his actual name) are based on my recollection of what was shared and are not intended to be an exact transcription of our conversations.
Of the main responses to threat - fight, flight, freeze, and the now widely-recognised fourth 'f'' fawn - many of us came to predominantly favour one defensive strategy over the others in the face of life's dangers and challenges. Which strategy we chose will probably have depended on a combination of what our natural tendency was, and the options that were available to us at the time. For some of us, that choice was flight.
Flight can manifest itself in many ways, but for some it can look like an inability, or a refusal, to engage in life too deeply. We live life being evasive, never really showing up, never fully committing to a place, a person, a job, a set of beliefs or opinions. We are hiding in plain sight, being careful not to get pinned down or trapped.
''Only let yourself have what you can afford to lose.''
This was the description given by Tom during one of our early sessions, in a moment of insight about the way he had always lived life in a state of flight.
''I realise that I don't really let myself 'have' anything because I live with the assumption that whatever is mine - my house, my relationship, happiness, my job, money, friendships - could all be taken away from me.
"My whole life feels like it's been an adaption to loss. I've built everything around never having to experience that terrible sensation of loss again. The goal has always been to keep moving so the pain couldn't catch up with me. I've lived a shallow-rooted life because of this, I think - emotionally, and sometimes literally. A life where nothing too big, or too solid, could ever be built. Everything - including my attachments to people and things and places - had to be able to be packed up quickly, or left behind. I only let myself have those things I felt sure I could be in control of.'' He frowned as he said these words, looking thoughtful and a little dazed.
Tom had worked hard over the past 10 years to change his patterns of avoidance and was now in a committed relationship which had produced a young child. He had even managed to find work he enjoyed doing and was experiencing some success in his chosen field. "I've worked so hard to change things over the last few years but something in me feels real anxiety about this new rootedness I've managed to create. Something in me still insists it would be much safer not to have all these things tying me down.
"The only person it feels truly safe to love is my young daughter because I know she can't leave me, even when I repeatedly fall short as a human being. This also makes me feel horribly guilty, of course. Something in me is tortured by the fact that I can't protect her from all my human failings, just as I wasn't protected as a child. A part of me has always wanted to run from the responsibilities of parenthood. Really, though, I think I just want to put some distance between myself and all the difficult feelings and memories that being a parent brings up in me.''
This poignant and articulate description of what it's like to live a life in flight highlights the heavy price paid for the commitment we make to never being hurt or experiencing loss again. The irony, of course, is that so much is itself lost and sacrificed through this decision.
If we are truly committed to flight as a strategy for getting through life, we will eventually realise that we cannot live this way for very long and still hold on to our sense of self .
In order for this strategy to really be effective, we also have to hide from ourselves. Life may be fine on the surface but underneath there is often the feeling of things being flat or unfulfilling. We tend not to probe too deeply into this feeling because we sense that to do so might be to open a can of worms. Better to keep moving and not think about it too much.
Although Tom had done a great deal to change the outward shape of his life - even choosing to settle down and have a family, a choice he would once have considered unthinkable - there was still a lot of survival energy trapped in his body: the 'profound anxiety' he described to me. With patience and persistence on both sides, Tom was slowly able to learn how to better tolerate the anxiety he had always sought to hide and suppress. By then working with the flight energy as life force, he was able to experience it differently and to find ways of allowing it to release and integrate,
even, to his surprise, sometimes emerging feeling energised rather than drained after a session.
Crucially, Tom discovered that it was possible to survive slowly opening the 'can of worms.' The terror experienced by the young Tom growing up in an unsafe family situation, with a dangerous and sometimes violent father and a mother who did not protect him, had caused him to lock his feelings away. It was important to realise those same feelings were able to be borne by the adult he now was. ''I think I thought I was going to die or something if I allowed myself to feel this,'' he reported.
We also worked on Tom finding ways to gently challenge his tendency to 'hide in plain sight' or go into flight in his daily life. Primarily, this involved Tom learning how to say 'no' for the first time and stand his ground in different areas of his life. To his surprise, he discovered that, as he became better at holding boundaries, the quality of many of his relationships actually improved. He began to have some of the difficult conversations with his partner that he'd previously been ducking and discovered that, far from rejecting him or getting angry as he had feared, his partner actually appreciated his new honesty and the greater clarity it brought to their relationship. ''She told me, 'I feel like I'm getting more of you,''' Tom said, after one particularly difficult but productive conversation. ''Once upon a time that statement would have terrified me, but it actually felt kind of good!''
This boundary work proved to be important. As Tom began to release some of the flight energy in his system, long buried feelings, sensations and memories started to emerge. He remembered times where he had gone into flight around his father's anger - a man prone to sudden rages - running away to hide in a den at the bottom of the garden, sometimes staying there for hours and refusing to answer even when his mother came to search for him. He also remembered a particularly painful uprooting that had happened when the family moved unexpectedly from the house he had loved so much, leaving his life and his friends behind. ''I learned that what I needed didn't matter. The feelings I had then were so big, so overwhelming, but no one was looking after me because they had their own feelings to attend to. I started spending more and more time by myself. It felt safer that way.''
For Tom, no longer running meant having to start to face the difficult feelings he'd spent his life trying to get away from. But, as his capacity to do this slowly increased, he found that it was possible to stay present with even overwhelming feelings that once would have caused him to shut down, or disappear into displacement activities. The unexpected bonus of this was that more space began to open up for Tom to just enjoy being himself. ''I don't think I ever realised that the thing I had really been running away from all this time was myself. I think I secretly believed that if I allowed the world to see who I really am I would be hated or rejected or abandoned. The funny thing is, all of those things could still happen to me but it seems to matter less now. Because I've got myself.''
© Gavin Conochie
Photo by Alejandro Villa