Unintentional moments of disconnection happen when there is a violation of neural expediencies. Whether micro-moments that register like a blip on a radar screen or lingering stretches of disengagement, the experience of disruption is unsettling at a body level. Biological rudeness, a term coined by psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Porges, best describes the responses of fight, flight, or freeze which can arise in social situations that make us feel unsafe.
Porges uses Polyvagal Theory to explain:
“[We are relational beings with] a capacity for, and pull toward, reciprocity. Throughout the course of our lifetime, we rely on connections with others to find meaning in our lives. The autonomic nervous system creates a platform of safety to serve these necessary connections. To do this, one [person’s] nervous system enters into back-and-forth communication with another [person’s] nervous system, creating a feedback loop. If the signals conveyed are cues of safety, reciprocity and resonance this leads to connection. If the cues sent from one [person’s] nervous system to the another are ones of danger, the outcome is dysregulation and protection through disconnection.”
These are often routine events: looking away, checking a phone, being distracted by an internal thought, or second guessing what a person is going to say. While not meant to disrupt the connection, the unintended consequence is an experience of disruption.
When it comes to raising a child with a history of trauma, Porges says their bodies respond in their “so-called” safe environment as if they are in a war zone. That means the social engagement system is off-line. “And it really begins to feel for the [caregiver] that the child doesn’t love them” as attempts to communicate are repeatedly meet with a violation of neural expectancy: a frown is misread, general meaning (the gist) of conversation is misconstrued, laughter is construed as jeering, redirection or advice is misinterpreted as judgement or criticism, and learning moments are met with withdrawal or confrontation. But mostly what is missing is facial responsiveness of the child, as seen in the ‘Still Face’ experiment (Tronick, 1989).
“The consequences of that is that we lose our ability to be empathetic, to be reciprocal, to be attuned,” Porges says.
So, what exactly is happening here? Let’s begin by looking at the three basic phases of survival mode: fight, flight, and freeze.
- Fight or Flight – Sympathetic System: They are states of mobilization that are activated at the moment we feel unsafe. Mobilization begins as a visceral sensation, a “gut feeling” that something in the environment is amiss which primes us to move into the extremely active states of flight and fight.Porges tells us that when we there is sympathetic charge, the system does not allow connection.
- Freeze / Immobilization – Parasympathetic (Dorsal Vagal) System: We drop into this state if we can’t escape a situation that we perceive as life-threatening. It is characterized by lowered heartbeat and respiration, states of dissociation, and fainting. It’s the survival state that animals drop into once they perceive that they can no longer evade their predator. Many people operate out of varying levels of dissociative states.
Porges argues that behaviours associated with these three states, aka ‘biological rudeness,’ are often evaluated by others from a moralistic point of view, of being either good or bad. However, they are simply adaptive states, which may be due to difficult life experiences which may have seriously impacted their experience of safety.
He says caregivers firstly need to have understanding. Recognizing that behaviours are adaptive (and not intentionally rude or offensive) can help us truly “see” what is happening in our interactions with children who have a limited range of social behaviours (due to their visceral state) and are easily triggered by features in the environment. For example, children who are defensive are habitually living in the sympathetic or parasympathetic (dorsal) systems. They are tired, they have little energy to adapt to new information or environments so reject it, they struggle to learn so resist change, they shut out the world. The stories that caregivers tell about their children lack awareness of the adaptive survival responses: “They are ungrateful, they are argumentative, they do not listen, they are disrespectful, they are rude, they are manipulative, they will never learn, they don’t look at us, they hate us.” And so, society rolls out diagnoses of ADHD, ODD (oppositional defiance disorder), RAD (reactive attachment disorder), PTSD, and borderline disorder, as a means of buttonholing these “non-conforming” individuals.
Secondly, when we understand a child’s adaptive states, we can build self-awareness. This involves learning our visceral cues (tracking negative responses). Then we need to use our big brain (cognitive structures) to map out a strategy.
- Establish safety – think about how your proximity, facial expressions, prosody (intonation and rhythm of voice), gestures, reciprocity (my turn, your turn), eye gaze affect your child. Porges suggests caregivers keep interactions playful and light.
- Track ruptures – instead of moving to reaction (withdrawal or confrontation) following misattunement, bring attention to it (name it), and take responsibility for it (“I felt an alarm in response to your voice”).
- Practice repair – “let’s try that again” with the objective to come back into connection. Successful repair experiences will invite a commitment to build a habit of repair.
Porges asserts that we are wired for connection and without it, we cannot achieve our full potential. Therefore, having insight into the neurological factors associated with survival mode behaviours can help diffuse situations and free us from misjudging others or second-guessing ourselves.
Think of a moment when you felt a rupture recently.
- How did you know a rupture had occurred?
- What cues of safety were missing?
- How did you experience being on the receiving end of the disconnect?
- Did you or the other party attempt repair? (Or acknowledge there has been a rupture?)
- What does repair look like? Feel like?
- What does lack of repair look like? Feel like?
Examples of rupture:
- You approach your partner with the intention to connect and he/she turns away or closes his/her eyes.
- You share a funny experience with your child, and he/she stares at you blankly.
- You are talking to your partner and he/she yawns, looks at something beyond you, or picks up his/her phone.
- You start to tell your child what you need done and he/she interrupts with what he/she is going to do (and it is not even close to what you are going to say!).
- You introduce a subject to discuss with your partner and he/she accuses you of trying to start an argument.
© Felicia Stewart, 2020