One of the core issues that I see in many of my clients is that they’re being ‘too nice’.
This isn’t just women, I see it in men too.
Worried about what another person will think and changing their behaviours, likes or dislikes for fear of judgement, abandonment or how the other person might react. Men who end up in relationships where they are highly criticised and become emasculated. Women who lose their sense of self to meet the needs of their partner.
Over the last year I noticed in myself that when people were angry with me or raised their voice, I had this automatic reaction to appease. To accept what they were saying and take responsibility for things that often weren’t mine. I would go into a fawn response - which is basically trying to appease the ‘danger’ by saying ‘yes’, making the ‘danger’ safe again and less angry/critical.
I have a practice that I give to clients who are struggling with setting boundaries. Clients who tend to get into a fawn or freeze response when in conflict with a partner, family member or colleague. The practice includes tapping into the part of them which is predator and protector. The part of them that if they are a man is the instinctive part of them that wants to protect their tribe, their community and group. Women also have this instinct too, to protect their young. You see it in mammals, when threatened by another, they place their boundaries, they bare their teeth, growl, arch their back, stamp their feet, rock their body from side to side (depending on of course what the mammal has available to them). You don’t need to watch wildlife programs to see it, you can see it with pets - cats and dogs. As humans we have words - ‘no’ is the most obvious one, along with ‘stop’, ‘I won’t, etc. All are words to express boundaries and to protect ourselves.
The problem is when we are younger this protective energy is often punished out of us. What does protective energy look like in a child? A tantrum. Stamping their feet, howling, hitting out… all of it frustration. Of asking for what they want and being told ‘no’ and also of being made to do things they don’t want to after they have said ‘no’. And due to our own embarrassment as parents we shut it down. Tell them to be quiet. To not be naughty. (This isn’t to say we let our children have everything or do everything - we validate their experience but hold our ground in a loving and compassionate way)
I remember when I was younger I used to burst into tears out of anger and frustration - everyone would say I was sensitive - no. I was pissed off and angry. I didn’t have a healthy outlet for it so my body released it in the best way it knew how - through tears. It’s likely why I ended up being bullied at school. Not being able to stand up for myself and not using the protector energy, because I had been taught not to - my alternative was to cry, to let the frustration out that way.
When else are we telling children not to trust their protector energy? When it comes to physical boundaries. We go in for a kiss and they turn their head a way as a means of saying ‘no’, or when they learn to speak they voice it. Again, because as parents, we are concerned about how the other person may perceive our child and our ‘ability’ as parents, we tell them to ‘be a good boy/girl and give Aunt Doris a kiss.’
And so we slowly destroy in our children the instinct to protect themselves.
We learn to people-please. To adapt our behaviours, abandon our own needs to prevent the discomfort of the other.
It can be why women may say yes to sexual touch when they actually mean ‘no’ - they have been so programmed to be the ‘good girl’ that they have forgotten how to speak up for themselves.
It’s why so many of us struggle to have difficult conversations. Instead we avoid conflict for fear of upsetting the other - of having to deal with their emotions. Because we learnt that our behaviour upsets others and so we must suppress ourselves.
The thing is, if we aren’t speaking up for ourselves, our bodies and nervous systems find other ways of saying ‘no’ for us. I give some examples below of common ‘dysfunctions’ in sex which are generally a result of a person not being tapped into their protector energy (this is what I see in my practice with clients that come to me).
Vaginismus, painful sex, post-birth issues (especially if there were issues during the birth), numbness - the body’s way of saying no. I have seen this in dynamics where the man can be quite controlling and unkind and the woman avoids any conflict and doesn’t speak up for herself - she will generally go into shut down and freeze or by fawning. Women may have in the past repeatedly had a partner penetrate before they were ready and because they didn’t voice it so their body has learnt to contract when touched. Or they come from a background of extreme religious shame and the fear of doing something immoral creates sexual pain/numbness.
Anorgasmia (not having orgasms) from faking orgasms - because we aren’t speaking up for what we want because we fear losing our partner or upsetting them. We are trying to manage another person’s emotions. The problem is, the more we fake it, the more difficult it becomes to then change and get what we actually want.
Erectile dysfunction - fear of judgement, not doing it right, performing, pressure to do a ‘good job', not feeling ‘good enough’. To maintain an erection a man needs to be in a relaxed state. If they are stressed/worried/anxious and generally in their head and not voicing or infrequently voicing those thoughts, they are holding onto all of that in their body which affects their ability to maintain their erection.
Premature ejaculation - this generally happens when someone is stressed/anxious and unable to relax as the ejaculate response is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the part that’s responsible for fight or flight - so wanting to run away or fight back. If you aren’t finding a healthy outlet for that stress/anxiety it can manifest in premature ejaculation.
Delayed ejaculation - men who tend to be more ‘avoidant’ in attachment style who are struggling to express themselves. And/or men who aren’t able to ‘let go’ emotionally and generally seem very ‘cool’ and ‘together’ on the outside. It is generally an inability to be able to protect themselves and say no. They are generally looking to avoid conflict so don’t speak up for themselves - men who often just want to appease their partner for an ‘easy life’.
The problem is when we don’t voice our ‘no’ and stand up for ourselves we hold onto resentment. We play the stories of what did/didn’t happen over and over in our head. We struggle to let it go. And we begin to resent the other person. Because they should ‘just know’ what our needs are. They should ‘just know’ what we want or don’t want. However, without direct and clear communication we shut down and repress it all. Most of us are just using hints for what we want or avoiding it altogether.
And what we are holding onto there is our protector energy.
What is protector energy? The sympathetic ‘fight’ response to stand up for ourselves. So if that energy is in the body and doesn’t get expressed it can in women cause chronic illness and some of the sexual symptoms above - amongst other issues. For men who shut down it can cause anxiety or depression and a means of escaping that often comes through drug, alcohol and porn misuse. As their bodies learn to hold it all in and they need to channel it somewhere - so compulsive/addictive behaviour is the outlet.
So what does it look like to get into your protector energy? There are two ways I have learnt to tap into my own protector energy.
One is through feeling into situations from the past when I haven’t stood up for myself and changing the ‘ending’. I get onto all fours and I pace, like a lioness. I look at myself in the mirror, bare my teeth, growl. I feel the energy of my ‘no’, or ‘stop’ that I should have said in the situation when I went into freeze or fawn, and instead give it back to myself. I allow it to move through me. I allow my body to express it out.
Another way is play fighting. A few months ago I assisted in a play fighting workshop with a colleague Roy Graff. I had the opportunity to really connect to my rage. I talk about that experience here. However what I learnt was that the pushing and pulling of my whole body in that experience allowed me to release so much that my body was clinging onto. At the time I was menstruating and had been holding onto so much anger in my pre-menstrual state and hadn’t given myself the time to let it out so it had really built up. I allowed myself to make noise, growl from the pit of my stomach and allow the full force of my body to push against the other’s. Having learnt how valuable this is to me, when I’m with my partner and something has angered or frustrated me, he offers to wrestle with me. I find this so therapeutic as it gives my body the chance to do what it needs (fight) but in a container (with my partner) that feels safe and non-threatening. The play fighting then generally moves onto something more fun like a tickle and we end up finishing both feeling alive, lighter and more connected.
We have also used play fighting after a conflict has been ‘resolved’ but there is still that element of tension in the air. What I noticed is that those movements of pushing and pulling, the rough and tumble they allow that ‘tension’ to be released - while also giving us a fun way to reconnect to our own bodies and each other's.
Both of those practices, one solo, the other partnered, allow me to connect to the sensation in my body of the frustration/anger. I then get to listen to how my body wants to move it and release it - tapping into the most primal and instinctive parts of my nervous system and giving it full permission to express. So at the end I experience lightness, safety in my body and awake. The feeling awake and alive comes from using my increased heart rate and adrenaline (from the fight response) in a sufficient way.
These practices have encouraged me to tap into more quickly my protector energy. When I feel a boundary is being violated - my nervous system is able to connect to that sympathetic fight response as I have practiced connecting to it. What I will say is that when we start standing up for ourselves with people who are used to a more pliable and passive way of us being, it can sometimes mean they struggle to adapt to this more updated version of you. There will be others who respond well. I write a bit more about that here.
Having done practices to ‘retrain’ my nervous system, when I’m in conflict now, I can feel the swell of anger in my abdomen.
I allow it to move through my body.
I notice how my body feels activated.
I am able to stay in control of it and not let it overrun into rage because I have practiced being with it.
I feel it.
I take a breath.
And I say ‘no’.
(Credit: the practice of being on all fours and becoming a lioness I learnt from Kimberley Ann Johnson’s book The Call Of The Wild)
Check if there are already dates planned for Playfighting where you are, at this link here. Do you have a group of friends that would love this experience? Do you have a venue in mind? Reach out to me at email@example.com with your location and how many would like to join for a bespoke offering. Carla Crivaro is a trauma-informed and certified Sex, Love & Relationship Coach, she works with men and women internationally to reach their goals in delicious sex, profound love and authentic relationships. Carla helps men and women understand themselves and each other, sexually and relationally, in and out of the bedroom. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like what I do and want to support my work? You can buy me a book (contribute to one!) here. Other resources which are supportive around this topic are: