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Why The Submissive Cluster Does Not Come From The Freeze Response

As students go through our Tactical Analysis program, there is a question that often comes up during the portion of the course when we teach how to read and assess the behavior of individual people. The question is usually framed in this manner:

“If the dominant cluster is manifestation of the fight response to a perceived threat or stressor, and if the uncomfortable cluster is the body’s manifestation of the flight response, and if the comfortable cluster represents the absence of the fight or flight response because no threat is perceived, then wouldn’t it make sense that the submissive cluster is the body’s manifestation of the freeze response?”

While this train of though suggesting that the submissive cluster might originate out of the freeze response is certainly logical, the answer to the question is no. The submissive cluster is NOT how the body displays that it is experiencing the freeze response to perceived stressors or threats.

The definition that we use to define what the submissive cluster represents is as follows. The submissive cluster is the absence of the flight or fight response when a threat or stressor has presented itself to a person. Because the definition and observable cues that we would use to make this assessment can be very similar to the comfortable cluster, here is an example that further clarifies the point.

Think of a situation where you are observing two young children on a playground, and the smaller of the two boys is being bullied by the larger of the two.

How might you first recognize that the bullying is taking place? The bully likely has his feet spread out more than shoulder width apart, leaning forward towards his victim, invading the smaller boy’s personal space, pointing towards him in a dominant or aggressive way with his palm facing downwards, has the expression of anger on his face, and might be yelling at him. As these observable indicators all come from the way the body makes itself look larger to take up more space and make territorial displays, you would be confident assessing that the bully is displaying the dominant cluster and leading the confrontation. The next observation is to see how the smaller of the two boys is responding to the dominance.

If you were to look at the smaller of the two boys while he is being picked on and notice that his feet are close together to the point of practically touching each other, that his shoulders are lowered and rounded forward, his hands clasped down by his waist and he is looking down at the ground in order to avoid eye contact with the bully, you would be able to assess him as being in the submissive cluster, as he is using his body language to make himself look smaller and avoid the confrontation.

Keeping in mind that the freeze, flight or fight responses are our body’s survival responses, we say that the submissive cluster is the absence of flight or fight because of the way this smaller boy has decided (whether consciously or subconsciously) to deal with the threat posed in this particular situation. If he has decided that “taking the bullying” is his best way to just get out of the event, than the absence of those others cues is what you will observe.

Since the boy being bullied is avoiding eye contact and not using his body to make himself look larger or prepare for a confrontation, the dominant cluster is not there. The fight is not present or observable in his body’s response to this bully. As there are no blocking behaviors (his arms and shoulders are lowered, therefore not providing any protection to the vulnerable spots on his body) and there are no distancing behaviors (he hasn’t turned to run, as his feet are still together), we can notice that the flight response is absent in how he is dealing with this bully.

I use this scenario of a bully and his victim to highlight the concept of submissiveness, but don’t limit your thought process to only this one example. You could see the same behaviors displayed by an employee who is getting yelled at or disciplined by their boss. If the employee doesn’t want to talk back to their boss and is hoping to not get fired for their error, you might observe the same submissive posture, and the same absence of the flight or fight responses, in response to the boss’ dominance.

One of the most important distinctions about observing this boy being bullied is that those submissive cues are in response to the bully. If you were to look at the same boy displaying the same exact behaviors, but instead of displaying that in the presence of the bully he was standing all by himself, would you still categorize him as being submissive? Not likely. He would likely instead be categorized as simply being comfortable. When you look at the difference between the comfortable cluster and the submissive cluster, while “the absence of the flight or fight response” is common to both definitions, the submissive cluster is when those absences are in response to a perceived threat.

But What About the Freeze Response?

The freeze response is not associated with any of the clusters of observable behavior. The freeze response is a momentary pause in your assessment and, when you notice a person who “freezes,” your assessment of them resets and you are waiting to see what cluster they display once they come out of the freeze.

Think about hosting a surprise party for your spouse that you are going to spring on them when they come home from work on Friday evening. As you see your spouse come through the door, causing 20 people jump out from behind a couch and yell, “Happy Birthday!” what the observer is looking for is to see how their spouse responds to this shock. The surprise will likely cause the freeze response at least for a brief moment, but the high payoff assessment is going to be what they shift into as the surprise wears off. Do they smile and become comfortable, letting you know that you succeeded in a happy surprise? After the freeze, do they shift into dominance, letting you know that you are in for a long night of fighting because you threw the party against their wishes? Do they shift into the uncomfortable cluster, letting you know that they have had a long day and that they were really looking forward to a quiet night at home? Do they shift into the submissive cluster, letting you know that they don’t like it, but have resigned themselves to the evening?

While observing a freeze response is something you want to note, as it shows you that there is something being processed inside the brain of the person you are observing, the cluster that they shift into immediately following the freeze is what will provide the information needed to make an accurate prediction of their future actions.

If you have more questions about the recognition of a cluster or how to use it in your everyday life, don’t hesitate to reach out to us with your thoughts so that we can help you better read situations, people and events.


 

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