Coming out of Appease
Coming out of Appease
Understanding, noticing, and dismantling the habit of appeasing
Appeasing is a hybrid defensive state wherein we use our own social engagement (ventral vagal) skills to diminish an external threat. It is hybrid because this social and outwardly-pointed attention is overlaid on a deeper internal defensive state (sympathetic or dorsal), with which a person generally does not have direct visceral contact.
In the image at left, if you just allow your eyes to notice where in the image they are drawn, you will likely find that they rest on the woman's face, as well as her hand. The face conveys a level of distress, while the hand, wrapped around her partner, is a gesture of reassurance. This is a hallmark of the appease state. In this image, the husband (partner) represents an incipient threat that the appeaser is actively down-regulating. This activity (the hand wrapped around) is in conflict with the innate defensive state the woman is experiencing, which registers irritation and alarm, both sympathetic states. If you allow yourself to suspend your attention between the face and the hand, you will likely be struck by the awareness that the expression and the gesture don't add up. They are not congruent.
In the appease state, the body is doing something (activities of peace-making, reassurance, accomodation) that is incongruent with what the nervous system is experiencing (distress, fear, anxiety, irritation, anger, withdrawal). This conflict creates a biological conundrum for the organism, confusing the appeaser's sense of where they end and the other person (the person appeased) begins. In our research we see a high correlation between appeasing, as a defensive strategy, and auto-immune issues, complex chronic illness, fibromyalgia, migraines, and gastro-intestinal disorders.
Like all of our innate defensive responses, appeasing is a method for finding safety. As an adaptational strategy, it often begins early in life, and can be driven by the needs of a family situation, gendered social expectations, and social oppressions. In our work we tend to see appeasing more often in people who do not occupy centered social locations: e.g., people who are non-white, non-male, with non traditional gender presentation, etc.
Appeasing, like all defensive responses, is a way to disarm threat. It is a behavior that we can exhibit when those around us are unpredictable, unable to process and metabolize their own emotions, or when we are perceived as dangerous. Children of parents with personality disorders, who from a young age are in proximity to a caregiver unable to metabolize their own emotions, are particularly likely to develop appeasing behaviors. Non-white people growing up in a white supremacist society are likely to develop appeasing behaviors toward white people. Employees in hierarchical systems are likely to exhibit appeasing behaviors toward their superiors. Appeasing, as a strategy, is generally motivated initially by a power imbalance. In these situations, there is too great a risk if we directly express defensive behaviors. If, for example, we go into a fight response, and get angry, we are likely to be physically harmed. It becomes more effective, therefore, to calm down the aggressor than to fight them.
Appeasing is a brilliant survival strategy, but over time, if it becomes a habitual default strategy, it is costly to sovereignty of the organism. Appeasing is a sacrifice of self. It is the insertion of our body–into the realm of the threat–to put someone else at ease. If we begin to do this automatically, we lose boundary clarity. This can lead, eventually, to a withdrawal of awareness from our own visceral interior, and the habitual location of attention on the space between us and others. When we are no longer in contact with our own visceral interior, but are defaulting our attention to what is between us, we no longer have a clear sense of where we end and others begin. This is the realm of murkiness that opens the doorway to inter-personal confusion, to using others to regulate ourselves. If it is a way of processing conflict that we learn early on in life, it may lead us into relationships with others (intimate partner relationships) where we play this role. It generates co-dependence and fusion with others. As it advances biologically, it can open the doorway to auto-immune issues and complex chronic illness, as we lose a biological sense of the integrity of our own boundaries, and can no longer extricate ourselves from our relational settings.
This video explores the neurobiological nature of the appease state, as well as a set of foundational awareness exercises for beginning to bring attention to the state, to its bodyset (not its mindset), and to the adjustments of attention required to begin to get back into contact with the pure defensive states that underly it. As an initial framework for understanding appease, it constellates a set of inquiries that can be pursued more deeply with specific targeted restorative practices.
Related Practices:If you recognize that you are appeasing, and are looking for next steps in addressing this, one part of this is learning to disrupt the activity of appeasing (accomodation, peace-making behavior), and to experience the underlying distress states that appease generally habitually masks. In order to do this, it is first necessary to increase your ability to direct attention purposefully. You might begin with Spotlight of Attention, which is part of the film Heartfulness. From there, as you get clearer about which defensive state is underlying, you can begin learning how to work directly with these states, for which the following frameworks are likely useful: see Calming Anxiety, Coming out of Flight, Coming out of Fight, and Coming out of Freeze. In tandem with this process are exercises that are designed to help you develop a stronger clearer sense of boundary clarity. These range from the gentle, such as Healing Neglect, to the more intense, such as Empowering your F*ck No, and Boxing. These are part of the process of Learning to Set Clear Boundaries. At some point in your journey, you may find that you need to Allow Yourself to Grieve. You might in fact want to Apprentice to Grief. Throughout this process, you will need Self-Compassion. As your body begins to release accumulated emotion and memory, you may find it useful to engage in Dream Tracking. At the level of theory, this general conversation is related to all things Polyvagal. See the Polvagal Theory film. See Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory. If you'd like a brief introduction to the theory, visit our Brief Illustrated Guide to Polyvagal Theory. For a comprehensive exploration of the theory with its developer, see The Future of Medicine and Mental Health, with Dr. Stephen Porges, PhD. See Polyvagal Mapping. With general regard to healing trauma, see Healing Trauma. To better understand the analogy of water, see Core Neurobiological Self. And finally, if you are interested in looking at the social dimensions of oppression, and why it constructs a society where people need to appease in the first place, check out Deprogramming the Colonial Mind and How Whiteness Operates.
Who taught us this?
The most comprehensive academic work on appeasing that we've come across has been done by Professor Shelley Taylor at UC Irvine, who conceptualized the Tend and Befriend response. Her work, however, does not address directly the physiology of this response. Our study of appease has therefore largely taken place in our own research, and with the aid of our faculty and advisors and friends, including Tiara Maldonaldo, Earl Simms, Katrin Welch, Doug Woodson, LMFT. We are grateful to polyvagalists Michael Allison, Developer of the Play Zone, and Michael Westgate, for conversations about the distinction between negotiating and appeasing, and the continuum of appeasing.
Teach me how
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Who taught us this?
The most comprehensive academic work on appeasing that we've come across has been done by Professor Shelley Taylor at UC Irvine, who conceptualized the Tend and Befriend response. Her work, however, does not address directly the physiology of this response. Our study of appease has therefore largely taken place in our own research, and with the aid of our faculty and advisors and friends, including Tiara Maldonaldo, Earl Simms, Katrin Welch, Doug Woodson, LMFT. We are grateful to polyvagalist Michael Westgate for conversations about the distinction between negotiating and appeasing, and the continuum of appeasing.
Teach me how
Check here for classes.
Video: Alex Green| Photography: Alex Green | Licensed from Pexels.com, used with permission.