To Run In, Freeze, Or Flee


Run in, freeze, or flee - coverPlease be patient while I lay out some things that may seem disparate or self-indulgent at first. They do connect:

Self-preservation is important. We need our bodies, souls, and minds together, functioning, and as healthy as can be.

Self-preservation is also not enough.

One of my writing teachers, in talking about fictional characters, outlines three basic human types: Those who run in. Those who freeze. Those who call for help. I would add a fourth: those who run away.

Fight, flight, or freeze (or call others for help).

These types are believed to be hardwired into us. We need to know our basic type to better train to compensate the weaknesses each type has.

I’m a runner inner. A fighter. I can’t help it. However, I’ve learned to moderate this for reasons of self-preservation. I had to learn to do so at a very young age in order to manage my encounters with a randomly violent father. My impulse to run in would have been dangerous for me, so I taught myself to freeze, railing at the injustice of it inside, wanting to punch things because forcing my runner-inner self to freeze bottled up a lot of anger.

I’ve run toward situations and intervened numerous times when people were later aghast that I did so: confronting a man when he was trying to keep his elderly mother from getting in a car. Coming right up to a woman who was being held by her partner, not allowed to get on the train, to ask her point blank if she needed help. Stopping a boy from choking another boy over a wad of drug money.

Over and over, I’ve done this. It’s not noble. Sometimes it’s probably stupid. It’s just my impulse.

At the soup kitchen, I ran in to break up fights, often interposing my body between people in order to attempt to keep the peace. The interventions worked, though I got clipped a couple of times, and threatened with violence more than once. I ran in to break up fights until one day it became too much for my emotional body. I needed to take a break, for my long term self-preservation.

At a recent Trans Pride March, I heard shouts for security, and immediately started moving toward the noise. I didn’t think. I just moved. Luckily, I wasn’t needed.

This week, at a march and rally for Black Lives to counter multiple extrajudicial killings by police, I was standing on the edge of the second rally site, taking photos and live tweeting some of the speakers. In the middle of one tweet, I saw some people backing a white man up around 15 feet from me. I saw him reach to his waist and unsnap a holster. “Shit. He’s about to pull a gun!” I thought.

There were some children near by. I turned and starting backing them up, away from the direction the man was heading. Once other adults came to take the children out, I turned, to see what to do.

This story is here because of what I did next:

I started to walk around one of the cars, looking for a sight line. I thought “Is there any way I could get to him from the side or behind and get the gun?” No. There wasn’t. And other people were much closer to the man.

He was waving the gun around, the shout came up to “Hit the ground!” So I made a decision. I could do nothing at that point, so I crouched down for a moment, generally shielded, a few feet behind a car. The rapid fire thoughts going through my head were the equivalent of “There isn’t anything I can do to help this situation so the prudent thing to do is to get myself out of harm’s way.”

I had to tell myself that.

I had to remind myself that sometimes, when a person is waving a gun around, it’s good to temporarily crouch near a car.

Self-preservation is a good thing.

All of this is said in service to these times.

I know a lot of activists and organizers. I also know a lot of people just trying to get through, day to day. Black parents. Trans women. Many other people who just don’t know when danger will turn the corner.

I want to speak out loud something many Black women activists have been saying lately, because it is so necessary: Take care of yourselves. Whatever that means. Whether it means going to the gym. Or not reading the news. Or sitting in a garden instead of doing whatever else is on your list. Take whatever kind of break you need to. And push yourself to allow that break.

Especially if it goes against your natural impulses.

I want to equally speak out loud something on the other side: Some of us err too much on the side of self-preservation. PEOPLE ARE DYING IN THE STREETS RIGHT NOW. And they have been for far too long. Some communities have been reeling from it, and built around the pain. For the last several years, those of us who could ignore it before have known about it directly.

So if your impulse is to always just tend your own garden, and to mind your own business, now is the time to step outside. Now is the time to speak up. Now is the time to get in your friend’s and neighbor’s business and say, “Hey, that is not okay with me.”

And maybe it is time to march. And maybe it is time to organize with a group that’s already putting in the work towards social, racial, or economic justice. Or to protect women and children. Or the water supply. Or to keep oligarchs and plutocrats from stealing any more than they already have.

There are many groups doing the work. We can all find one that speaks to us. Organization is important. We need each other. We can’t get caught up with in-fighting, but must keep our eyes on the larger aim.

We can also try other actions: Tell a growing list of corporations, “Prison labor is theft, oppression, and a form of slavery, plus it undermines local jobs. Stop doing this.” (I’m looking at you, Whole Foods and Starbucks). Start a letter campaign to Congress. Harass city council around policing. Call the Chief of Police. Sit in, or blockade. Say something when a person on the bus is harassing an immigrant, or a woman.

Know your impulse type, and gently practice countering it in order to increase options and become more effective for the long run:

If your impulse is to freeze, practice the small things first. Practice calling for help. Ask, “Did you see that? What should we do?”

If your impulse is to call for help, practice the small things first. Practice moving toward something that feels slightly risky, like countering a racist or misogynist or anti-queer statement with the words, “Did you just hear what you said, friend? That’s pretty dehumanizing.”

If your impulse is to run in, practice the small things first. Ask if you’ve been running in too much. Ask what you can do that is at the very least the equivalent of letting yourself crouch behind a car if there is nothing effective running in will do.

If your impulse is to run away, practice the small things first. Stand still and face the situation. Look at it. Then run if you still need to. But you might also find a way to call for help, or to offer help yourself.

For us all, no matter what our impulses, I hope we ask for help from friends, colleagues, and family.  Say, “I’m trying to speak up more. Will you be a safe space for me to collapse afterward, if I need to?” Or say, “I know I’m doing too much, but I don’t know how to stop. Will you call me up to take a walk once a week?” Or say, “I don’t even know where to begin. How are you coping? What ways are you finding to help? Is there a group you recommend we connect with?”

We are all needed, in so many situations right now, and we are needed for the long journey ahead.

Please choose self-preservation, but simultaneously, please choose to offer the help that is so desperately needed right now.

The world has a need, and you have a need. It’s time to figure out the places they can meet.


Copyright T. Thorn Coyle, June 2016


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15 Responses to “To Run In, Freeze, Or Flee”

  1. Sherry

    Thanks for this, Thorn. I’m a fighter, too, and have waded into situations that later had me wonder, “What was I thinking?” I was thinking I could change an outcome, and often I did. You have given me a framework for the work I am currently doing. You’ve dropped a pebble, and the waters are rippling.

    • admin

      I’m grateful to hear that, Sherry.

      It is kind of startling that I even had to have the conversation with myself about crouching. But I did. I need to know that clearly, so I can make better decisions.

  2. Hecate

    May I share this with a group here on the East Coast?

  3. rain crowe

    Thank you Thorn. What you’ve eloquently spoken to here is what has been moving beneath the surface for me over the last week. I especially appreciate the way that you’ve not proscribed a one-right-way approach to being present with all that is aswirl right now, but rather to engage self-awareness and make choices with respect to complexity. Blessings on your works in this world.

  4. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    This is an interesting set of questions to ponder…I’m reminded of some things that have been discussed in relation to the three triads of the Enneagram, which line up with three of these four things pretty well (the “ask for help” option could potentially apply to any, but probably mostly to the “heart triad”…!?!)

    If it is a spiritual matter–no matter how dangerous or fraught–I tend to be a “run in” sort of person.

    If it’s something that takes me by surprise in everyday life, I tend to be a freezer, at least initially.

    If it is something in which I immediately know I’m out of my depth, I’m an ask-for-help sort of person.

    Generally, though, I’m no longer a flight person.

    I’m glad you’re paying attention to self-preservation, and especially so in this most recent case! May you continue to do so, and may those of us who need to adjust in one way or another have the strength to do so when appropriate, and the clarity of mind to recognize that such should occur long before it must.

    • admin

      It’s interesting to look at responding differently to different types of danger.

  5. Bekah Evie Bel

    I wonder if there is a fifth type? Because for myself, I know my instinct would be to protect my kids, who I am with all the time. If that means walk away, walk on and ignore or flee, then so be it. And whilst in certain situations I might call for help, in others my focus would purely be on protecting my kids. Rarely would I feel it is in my kids best interest (meaning safe for them) for me to run in.

    While the actions may fit one, or more, of the four types you outline, the instinct behind them doesn’t fit – because it isn’t about my preservation, it’s about protecting my kids, it’s about their preservation. Wouldn’t “those who protect” or something like that, be another type?

    Obviously this speaks only of certain more dangerous situations. Less dangerous situations, standing up for someone on the bus, or for someone being insulted in public and the like, I am all for jumping in and standing up.

    • admin

      Good question.

      My first thought is that a parent/guardian protecting children likely trumps the other instincts.

  6. Labrys

    I am a run in as well. I’ve been more of a hermit the last few years because I do have problems moderating my impulse. I’m a small old woman, but somehow have the wrong body language and tend to make angry people more angry. Knowing this about myself, I often force myself to opt for staying clear of confrontations that I might make worse.

    • admin


      it’s good to know ourselves…since I don’t know you, I don’t know what to say about the ‘wrong body language’ – but it makes me wonder what your friends’ perceptions of you are, and whether or not they match your own.

      • Labrys

        I’m not sure, myself, what to make of comments on my body language. Sine youth I was ever criticized as “not feminine enough” (whatever that means?), or told I didn’t smoke enough, came across as too aggressive for a woman and so forth. I’m not aggressive, to my mind, but I am assertive and don’t shrink or retire back. Apparently, to some people, this means I need putting in my place – or what those folks consider my place?


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