Being Biologically Rude
A light went on for me when I first came across the expression ‘biologically rude’ because at times, in my youth, I had been accused of being “rude.” This was so puzzling to me because my manners were not the issue. Something else entirely was going on! Let me explain.
In my young adulthood, certain personalities, social situations, or environments would tend to set my nervous system on edge, ushering me into a cautious, contracted, tense state of alertness which might be misinterpreted by others as rudeness. When this happened, I would begin to feel uncomfortable and seek to remove myself from the situation, by physically leaving or by detaching. I was especially sensitive to social situations in which someone’s words and actions did not match up or were in-congruent in some way.
Eventually, I came to understand that my childhood experience of trauma and domestic violence had left me sensitized, on the alert.
Biologically Rude or Survival State?
‘Biological rudeness,’ a term coined by psychiatrist Stephen Porges, best describes the viscerally-driven sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system responses of fight/flight/freeze which can arise in social situations that feel “unsafe.” The reason it is so difficult to be social when you’re in this state is because it’s a defensive or survival state.
Living one’s life in the survival mode is not comfortable at all. However, understanding the basis for our visceral or gut responses will help us forge better coping skills and closer relationships.
Let’s begin by discussing the three basic phases of survival mode: fight, flight, and freeze.
Fight or Flight
The first two phases are fight and flight. 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.
Freeze and Immobilization
The final activation phase of the survival mode is the freeze response, also known as immobilization. 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.
Behaviors: Biologically Rude, Adaptive States, or Bad Manners?
Porges argues that behaviors 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. Understanding this can help us understand what might be happening in our interactions with individuals who are easily triggered. This may be due to their physiological make-up or difficult life experiences which may have seriously impacted their experience of safety.
Defensive reactions to social situations have been commonly reported by individuals who experience anxiety, depression, difficulty learning in school environments, stressful work environments, chronic debilitating illness, autism, PTSD, and RAD. Reactive defensive responses usually reflect a wide spectrum of experience, occurring along a continuum, from chronic to severe. Unfortunately, the end result of defensive interaction is a loss of connection.
Wired for Connection
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 behaviors can help diffuse situations and free us from misjudging others or second-guessing ourselves.
Experiential: Think of a relationship that was important to you but left you feeling dissatisfied and disconnected. You may recall a specific instance that typified the relationship or just take a moment to tune into a general sense of it. Notice what happens in your body as your recall these memories. What sensations or emotions do you experience (warmth, flow, openness, joy, tension, contraction, cold, sadness, or . . . )?
Read more about the effect of childhood maltreatment and bonding written by one of my favorite researchers, Dr. Bruce Perry: