The 3 Responses to Conflict: Fight, Flight, and Appeasement

Is David Brooks reading Mockingbird? Or is Mockingbird covertly getting its wisdom from one of […]

Ethan Richardson / 10.15.12

Is David Brooks reading Mockingbird? Or is Mockingbird covertly getting its wisdom from one of the 1950s’ lesser known psychoanalysts, Karen Horney? Either way, in a deeply clairvoyant op-ed about the pluses and minuses of cognitive behavior therapy, Mr. Brooks looks at what’s missing from today’s preferred form of self-knowing, which seems to be more focused on “behavior modification” and “identifying distorted thinking habits.” Not that these things are bad–Brooks actually prefers the cognitive behavioral school to Freudian or Jungian analysis–it just means that people are less versed in talking about personality traits and general neuroses. Brooks uses that platform to give an example on how this endangered way of thinking can be helpful, especially during election season.

But it was a moment of deja vu, I must say, when Brooks, via the work of Karen Horney, describes a few of the most common ways we respond to personal wounds. Taking Horney’s approach that personalities develop in crises, motivated away from anxiety and towards security, he proposes that violated people act according to three major conceptual categories: the domineering, the detached, the dependent. Or, as we have said, the Fighter, the Flier, the Appeaser.

Whether its “wounds” or “accusation” or “Law” the responses to ultimate judgment line up. Indulge me, I couldn’t not quote from This American Gospel; it’s uncanny:

You are brought to a moment of internal crisis, where something you are is in conflict with something you ought to be. In the face of judgment, one response is flight. You run from what someone thinks you ought to be…Or perhaps you attempt to assassinate the judge; it’s not flight, it’s fight. You know the judge isn’t leaving anytime soon, but you’re not either, so it is time to put up your dukes…Or maybe you appease…Appeasement is cowering before the judge hoping at some point the judge might understand and sympathize with your situation (16).

Brooks says the same of the human being’s “personality problem.” It seems no response is superior, and we eventually reach a point at which our reactions are decisively silenced anyway, don’t we? Though his ending remark puts this piece in regard to election-frameworks, he’s also making a simple claim about what people do: whether it’s stiffarming or handholding, we do not want to be hurt; but our pain-averse responses are decisively insufficient to the decisive reality of pain. Where, then, to look?

Some people respond to their wounds by moving against others. These domineering types seek to establish security by conquering and outperforming other people. They deny their own weaknesses. They are rarely plagued by self-doubt. They fear dependence and helplessness. They use their children and spouses as tools to win prestige for themselves.

These people are often excessively proud of their street smarts. They deeply resent criticism and seek the vindictive triumph — the reversal of fortunes in which they can lord their excellence over those who scorned them. These people can’t face their need for affection, so they seek to cover it by earning admiration and deference.

Other people respond to anxiety by moving toward others. These dependent types try to win people’s affections by being compliant. They avoid conflict. They become absorbed by their relationships, surrendering their individual opinions. They regard everyone else as essentially good, even people who have been cruel.

They praise themselves for their long-suffering forbearance, their willingness to live for others, even though in reality they are just too scared to assert themselves. They think they are behaving selflessly, but they are really using others for whatever drips of affection they can provide.

Other people move away from others. These detached types try to isolate themselves and adopt an onlooker’s attitude toward life. As Terry D. Cooper summarizes the category in his book, “Sin, Pride and Self-Acceptance,” “To guarantee peace, it is necessary to leave the battleground of interpersonal relationships, where there is constant threat of being captured.”

These detached people may put on a charming veneer to keep people away. They tamp down desire, avoid ambition and minimize conflict and risk. They want to avoid the feeling of needing someone. They seek to live tranquilly in the moment.

The domineering person believes that, if he wins life’s battles, nothing can hurt him. The dependent person believes that, if he shuns private gain and conforms to the wishes of others, then the world will treat him nicely. The detached person believes that, if he asks nothing of the world, the world will ask nothing of him.

These are ideal types, obviously, conceptual categories. They join a profusion of personality types that were churned out by various writers in the mid-20th century: the inner directed, the outer directed, the Organization Man, the anal retentive, the narcissist, the outsider.

…We’re probably poorer now that people like Horney have sunk to near oblivion — less adept at analyzing personality. We probably have less practice analyzing personalities, whether it’s the people around us or even, say, presidential candidates.

More than that, the vocabulary you use shapes what you pay attention to. If you learn about the cognitive skills that lead to success, you’ll think a lot about success. If you learn a lot about personality, you’ll think a lot about personality.

Which is more important?