I received this question in blue from a member of my Stucknaut Collective community. I will call her Hilda. I asked Hilda if it would be okay to address more publicly, and she agreed.
I think it's something you may be able to resonate with. I'm hoping that reading this will normalize your experience and also bring some clarity to how you responded.
In this blog:
Why does someone lose their personal boundaries in danger?
I will address this more generally, pretending it's a fictional character. This is not therapy, nor is it intended to be a replacement for therapy. Do not take this as life advice or a specific recommendation for you in particular. These are my general thoughts about a situation I will generalize and fictionalize.
I have a rambling question that doesn’t need to be addressed right away. I’m not sure how to ask this, but I’m going to give it a shot… how do others handle when your overactive defensive states expose you to danger?
Yesterday, I was approached by a man in the parking lot at my work, and nothing “bad” happened. He cornered me although I was in no way trapped. We chatted and he kept pushing for information about me. It may have been innocent, but after he finally left I felt super exposed and unsafe. He knows where I work and how to contact me. 😳
I was reflecting on that and why I react the way I do. And if I hadn’t been in my defensive state, I would have had the clarity to not give him my number. Idk if my defensive states are supposed to protect me, they do the opposite 😆 🤷♀️.
I know this has to do with setting boundaries and speaking up for myself and skill sets I do have! But in my defensive state, all those helpful tools are gone.
I don’t land in fight/flight unfortunately. I freeze. Regardless of what level of un-safety I am in.
How have others found enough of their safety state to assess danger? I’m working on increasing my access to safety, but How do you access appropriate levels of defense?
Let's first look at Hilda's situation through the lens of the Polyvagal Theory. If you are brand new to the Theory, start with my free Polyvagal Intro page and then come back here.
In this situation, we can identify that there are autonomic shifts, which lead to behavioral responses. If you've been through something similar, you may just focus on the behavior and engage in self-shaming thoughts that make things worse. But there is more to your experience that is driving the behavior and the thoughts.
Polyvagal autonomic state shifts lead to behavioral responses.
In this situation, Hilda gave the man her phone number and "chatted," which she regretted. If we were to simply look at the behavior without any other context, it would look like Hilda wanted to chat with the man, give him her phone number, and have more contact with him in the future. From the outside looking in, with no other context, this would be a reasonable assumption to an onlooker.
However, if we were to understand what was happening within Hilda, we would get a different story. Hilda identified that she shifted into a Polyvagal defensive state. When she did, she lost access to skills and knowledge she otherwise would have, such as:
critical thinking and clarity
Polyvagal safety is important in enforcing healthy boundaries.
All these skills require access to one's Polyvagal state of safety. These skills and more can be utilized with clarity and assurance from the safety state. If the safety state is inactive, the defensive activation becomes overwhelming. If the safety state is active enough, then dysregulation does not occur.
Accessing the safety state enough allows one to access their defensive states and repurpose them into something different. When in flight/fight with safety, the result is play. When in shutdown with safety, the result is stillness. (These are two of the three Polyvagal mixed states, the third is discussed soon.)
Hilda, soon after, felt regret and exposure. She did not want to have contact with the individual again and is fearful of the man knowing how to contact her and where she works. Her behavior did not match her actual wants.
So what happened?
The behavior serves a purpose.
In situations like these, the behavior serves a purpose. The purpose here is not to have more contact with the man. Instead, the behavior's purpose is to get out of the situation without immediately worsening things. It's a means to resolve the immediate situation - being cornered by a strange man in isolation in a strange place filled with danger cues.
We know what Hilda wanted - to be left alone and escape the situation without compromising her personal boundaries and safety. And, of course, we all want that for ourselves and her as well, right?
This situation could have many outcomes, but let's narrow it down to a few:
escaping the situation through flight activation
freezing and complying
enforcing personal boundaries through empowerment
Escaping the situation
One likely possibility for this situation was the body activating the sympathetic flight system for escape. It's very normal and appropriate for some flight activation in these situations. It's completely okay to simply walk away from the situation, there is no explanation owed to the other person.
Freezing and complying
However, escaping this situation relies on being able to access flight energy and utilizing it. Hilda was likely activated for flight, but her shutdown immobilization state also came online. This is called "freeze," and results in immobility. The body is prepared to flee, but is also immobile. A large-scale example of a freeze would be a panic attack.
Hilda was not forced to immobilize in this situation, but her system seems to have immobilized itself. She likely experienced some level of panic. The immobilization could have entered her system from many different possibilities. These include:
the body detecting that the situation would worsen by fleeing (by maybe detecting something the man was portraying in his body language or face)
detecting that escape was not possible due to physical limitations
not identifying a likely escape route
cultural and familial norms teaching an expectation to be polite
learning in childhood not to "make a scene" or bring attention to danger
contextual cues that were similar to past trauma
The compliance behaviors should be seen to be stemming from a Polyvagal mixed state, likely freeze. The compliant behaviors served their function and successfully got her out of the immediate perceived danger, even though the longer-term repercussions were less than ideal.
Enforcing personal boundaries
A third potential outcome of this situation is enforcing personal boundaries directly and assertively. Enforcing personal boundaries relies on accessing both fight and safety state activation. Combining the two results in empowerment, motivation, and assuredness. If Hilda were able to allow fight energy along with safety, the behavior she exhibited would have been much different.
Learning skills vs. using skills for personal boundaries
Skills like assertiveness and communicating clearly to enforce personal boundaries are great. If you are currently learning these, I recommend to continue. There is nothing wrong with learning new skills. However, learning new skills does not guarantee that you will be able to also utilize those skills.
Throughout my career workplaces, I have been taught how to manage assaultive behaviors. I worked in a non-lockdown facility for high-risk juvenile offenders and this was standard training we all got as guards/counselors. It's also standard in my public school district.
I've been taught these skills, but does that mean I will actually use them? I hope so... but realistically, no. And even if I did, would I use them effectively and with fidelity? Again, I hope so... but realistically, no.
It's not because I don't want to. Learning these things cognitively is great, but it is way different than real-world application. Part of this is practice and muscle memory, sure. But there's another reason I want to focus on.
In danger, your learned skills are less available.
The primary reason people might not use the skills they have learned is that those skills are pretty much gone when they are in danger. Cognitively, the individual will not be able to remember the skill.
During times of stress and danger, critical thinking and memory recall are difficult. Instead, the individual focuses on what is before them and reacts from their defensive state. The wonderful higher brain functions needed to recall and plan out the learned skills are offline. Survival and quick reaction take their place.
Despite the standardized training that the staff goes through at my various historical workplaces, when the s*** hits the fan, for the most part, those skills are not used. Instead, they make it up as they go along to force compliance and control.
Conversely, there is a small team of therapists, teachers and security monitors that regularly need to assert physical control over children that pose severe behavioral problems. This small team frequently confronts these behavioral problems and regularly use the skills and techniques they were taught.
How is it that they are able to do so? Because they have a tolerance level to the dangers present and have more muscle memory for how to use the techniques. Basically, they have practiced. On top of that, the dangerous situations they confront no longer feel dangerous due to their high level of tolerance to their own defensive activation.
How to strengthen personal boundaries.
If you've been in a situation like Hilda, I hope it went smoothly and didn't pose any more problems. I also hope that you were able to learn from it and prepare yourself better for the possibility of similar circumstances.
To strengthen your personal boundaries for the future, prepare now. Here are 6 things you can do starting right now to solidify your personal boundaries better:
Validate your true experience: you went through some sort of autonomic shift, which changed your thoughts and emotions. Just recognize this is true without judgment. You can read more about validation here >
Normalize the context of the true experience: your state shift occured in a context that triggered it. Hilda was in a garage and being approached by a strange man. That alone is normalizing of the beginning of the state shift. On top of that, a parking garage is lonely, maybe dark and dreary. Think back to the pieces of the context and ask yourself if it made sense that you shifted in Polyvagal state. You can read more about normalization here>
Mindfully allow the true experience: If you can ground yourself in your safety state enough, then allow yourself to re-experience some of the true experience you had in that moment. If it's intolerable, then just a little bit is fine for now, using meditation or journaling or something else you know helps you. If you are Unstucking Defensive States, use the A->W->E Process. Being grounded in safety is the priority for this step. You can read more about giving permission here >
Get acquainted with the underlying sensations and impulses: Likely, you experienced an impulse in these moments that you were not able to effectively act on. As you feel into the experience (while grounded in safety!), those impulses and sensations that come with it may resurface. As best you can, allow yourself to feel and familiarize yourself with them. Doing so will build a stronger reference point and less fear when they resurface.
Praise your body for what it accomplished: Even if the outcome was not ideal, like with Hilda's, your body still successfully got you through the situation, even if it froze. You're alive. The Polyvagal state shift worked. You successfully identified danger and responded to it. So give your wonder nervous system some gratitude if you can.
Practice your personal boundary skills ahead of time: Yes, learn them. But also practice them. Role-play with yourself in the mirror. Role play with a therapist. Role-play with a trusted loved one. Imagine the scenario happening again but doing something different. Set a timer and add a bit of pressure to get your flight/fight energy to simulate better what it might be like. Challenge yourself to be assertive in one sentence or less. In 5 words or less. Practice being assertive without making apologies. Imagine you're the biggest badass you can (whatever that looks like for you), and speak as they might speak. Speak aloud and not in your head.
Mastering Panic Attacks: Coping vs Self-Regulation
Struggling with panic attacks and what to do about them? In this blog, I teach you the difference between coping and actually self-regulating. Whatever you're currently doing to deal with panic, give this a read to make sure it's the most effective for what you need and are ready to handle.
Q: What is the role of Polyvagal Theory in responding appropriately to danger?
A: Polyvagal Theory provides a framework for understanding our reactions to dangerous situations through a validating and normalizing lens. It allows illuminates that we need to work on strengthening our safety state in order to tolerate higher levels of defensive activation.
Q: How does neuroception affect our responses to others?
A: Neuroception is the unconscious detection of safety and danger from the external environment, including from other people. When we detect danger, we shift down the Polyvagal ladder into a defensive state. The Polyvagal state shift adjusts our behavioral response possibilities.
Q: Why is it important to practice personal boundary skills ahead of time?
A: Practicing personal boundary skills ahead of time allows individuals to develop familiarity and confidence in asserting their boundaries. By role-playing scenarios and challenging oneself to be assertive, individuals can build resilience and increase the likelihood of effectively enforcing their boundaries when faced with real-life situations.
Quotes from this blog:
Accessing the safety state enough allows one to access their defensive states and repurpose them into something different.
Skills like assertiveness and communicating clearly to enforce personal boundaries are great. However, learning new skills does not guarantee that you will be able to also utilize those skills.
During times of stress and danger, critical thinking and memory recall are difficult. Instead, the individual focuses on what is before them and reacts from their defensive state.
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.