- Fear plays an important role in difficult conversations and conflict transformation.
- In order to become conflict transformers, we need to understand how fear works.
What is a Fear Bunker?
When we are trying to have difficult conversations, it’s common for one or more people to shut down and get so defensive they can no longer reason. I like to call this going into our “fear bunker.”
The fear bunker is the place we go when we feel threatened. It’s not shameful to have a fear bunker; sometimes we go there for good reason. The more we have been hurt by conflict in the past, the more conflict can feel hazardous, and the more likely we are to jump into our fear bunker.
Every part of our fear bunker holds information about what is safe and unsafe. It helps us make decisions about what we can handle and what we can’t. If you are well-acquainted with your fear bunker, you are definitely not alone.
Fear bunkers usually come with anger fuel, a red panic siren, a reservoir of sorrow, and an anti-vulnerability door. Some might have lashing-out missiles or a periscope of vigilance. If someone forces their way through that door, the bunker will be compromised, and that person may self-destruct.
Wrapped around many fear bunkers is what I call a trauma fence. A trauma fence is a collection of our significant wounds that are interconnected. Tug on one link in this chain-link fence, and all the links down the line will often move, which can be disorienting and troubling.
Trauma is what happens when we are so deeply wounded that the body stays in a state of permanent alertness and stress. If someone gets triggered during a conversation (“trigger” has become a buzzword, but here I mean triggered in the sense of medically informed trauma theory), all of the experiences remotely related to that trigger will get brought up in that person’s mind and body. In a highly sensory way, the person relives those experiences as if they are happening all over again. Here is a more formal description of a trigger from the University of Alberta’s Sexual Assault Centre:
A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of [their] original trauma. Triggers are very personal; different things trigger different people. The survivor may begin to avoid situations and stimuli that [they] think triggered the flashback. [They] will react to this flashback, trigger with an emotional intensity similar to that at the time of the trauma. A person’s triggers are activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.
When someone is triggered, it’s like a jolt of electricity runs through that trauma fence, sending a big red-alert signal: “Get away! Not safe!” Sometimes even a small touch of the trauma fence can cause a strong and even overwhelming reaction, depending on how strongly that fence has been constructed by the body.
This might sound like a harsh system, but our bodies build trauma fences to protect us from further harm. For example, if someone was mauled by a dog and their brain developed lasting symptoms of trauma, hearing the sound of a dog barking may trigger a trauma response (also known as a fight-or-flight response). The person may sweat, try to physically escape, hyperventilate, or look for a weapon. If recurrent, non-rational trauma responses happen, psychologists might diagnose this as post-traumatic stress.Trauma fence responses can be so strong that the person has little control over them. Panic attacks are a prime example of the trauma fence at work.
Why are we talking about bunkers and fences? Because fear and trauma play such a huge role in the ways we interact during conflict. When someone has a fear or trauma response, especially if they or the people around them don’t understand what’s going on, situations can escalate quickly.
Our fear bunkers and the trauma fences are not bad. They are a kind of body intelligence, protecting us from harm, sending us information when things are dicey. And while some physical responses are largely out of our control, we do have options in how we choose to respond to these sensations. The choices we make can have a significant effect on our ability to navigate conflict.
Fear Bunkers Isolate Us
Fear bunkers work to protect us, but they are built for only one person. When we are inside them, we are isolated from other people.
My friend Jordan is a great guy who has been a part of a local dance community for many years. At a dance several months ago, the dance organizers took him aside and told him he had done something inappropriate and offended one of the women dancers. He asked who it was, so he could speak with her, and they said they couldn’t tell him. He said he understood and perhaps they could tell him what he did wrong, so he could know what not to do in the future. They said they couldn’t tell him that either. He asked if they would arrange some kind of mediation between him and the woman, so he could apologize and clear the air, and they said that wouldn’t be possible. He asked if he could send a message of apology to her through them. They declined.
Since Jordan was unable to address the problem, had no idea what he had done wrong, and had no idea whether he would cause further offense without meaning to, he no longer felt welcome. He stopped going to the dance night completely, and as a result, he effectively lost a community that meant a lot to him.
My hunch is that the unnamed woman in this story had a trauma fence response. Many people have a level of trauma that can be extremely difficult and even debilitating to live with. With immense compassion and validation for this woman’s pain, and with awareness of the difficult job of the dance organizers to keep everyone safe, I believe this situation could have been different. Given that the woman sought protection but avoided any attempt to transform the conflict, it sounds like she dove into her fear bunker. And given that the dance organizers attended to one dancer’s need to be protected but glossed over the other dancer’s need to make things right, it sounds like they also dove into their fear bunker. This caused Jordan to dive into his fear bunker. With everyone isolated and afraid, Community shut down.
We humans are pack animals—tribal creatures. We have socially adapted as a species to warn each other of danger, even on subconscious levels. We learn about what is safe and not safe by watching each other carefully. Basically, we are like a big herd of zebras sitting by the water. When one zebra thinks it has spotted a crocodile nearby, suddenly all the zebras are galloping away frantically.
When we sense one person diving into their fear bunker, our primal instinct is to dive into ours.
Since we are all wounded, many of us wounded deeply, how do we navigate conflict and impasse without making things worse? It can take an intense amount of work to stay out of our own fear bunker when we don’t need to be in there, figure out what to do when other people are in their fear bunkers, and navigate trauma fences without doing further damage.
For us to move forward in changing our relationship with conflict, it’s highly important to use a clinically informed understanding of fear and trauma. With this knowledge, we can learn how to interpret fear and conflict as we experience it in ourselves and witness it in others.
Dealing with Fear Bunkers
Smoke, Coax, or Flow. When it comes to dealing with fear bunkers—either our own or someone else’s—we have three options: smoke, coax, or flow.
- Smoke. We try to smoke someone out of the fear bunker by attacking them, showing strong emotions like anger or frustration, or threatening punishment if they don’t come out. This represents a form of control that is rarely effective.
- “Stop being afraid, Nina. You’re so ridiculous! Why can’t you just get over it?”
- “Hey, self, you’re so stupid. Just quit acting like this. Turn off your feelings.”
- Coax. We can try to coax out the person with patience and gentleness. This approach is hit or miss. In its worst form, a coaxing approach represents manipulation or not truly caring about someone’s needs. However, when this approach is done well, it is attentive, protective, and kind, and it speaks to the person and the relationship between you.
- Less effective: “Hey, self, do you think you can get it together? You aren’t really under threat; it just seems like it. Can you please just stop being scared now?”
- More effective: “Hey, Nina, I want you to feel safe with me. Are you okay? You seem a little freaked out. What can I do to help? Talk to me.”
- Flow. We can go with the flow and respect the fact that sometimes people just need to be in their fear bunkers. In this approach, we trust that they will come out when ready, and we make sure they know we are there to support and encourage them whenever that time is to be.
- “Nina, I’m getting the sense that you are having a strong reaction to this conversation. I want to be a safe person for you to be around, and I will never force you to open up if you don’t want to. I’m here whether you want to talk or not, and I won’t leave unless you want me to. Take all the time you need. Know that I really care about you.”
- “Self, you’re doing your best. It’s okay to be scared. Everyone gets scared. Your pain is valid. Feel that? That’s the ground under your feet. Breathe. Take your time. It’s going to be okay.”
Honor fear, but don’t be afraid to gently challenge it
Fear might work to protect us, but it also isolates us and can drive us to unhealthy behaviors. To experience Community with each other, we have to venture out and be a little vulnerable. Because fear bunkers have space for only one person, strong relationships and connection can happen only outside the fear bunker.
Since humans are pack animals and we learn from watching each other, it’s a powerful and loving thing to lead the way and be the first person to step out of our fear bunker. Instead of waiting for someone to come along and love us out of our fear bunker, we each have a unique ability to be the first to step out. Each of us can choose to show leadership by modeling safe and healthy ways to step outside cycles of fear.
How do we do it?
We raise a hand and ask, “Is this fear serving us, or is it getting in the way?”
This post is an excerpt from Brave Talk, Melody’s book. Pre-order here: broadleafbooks.com/brave-talk