The past few days have brought up several instances that bring to mind a phenomenon I will call the ingratiate melancholic.
As mentioned in a previous post, the melancholic has a tendency to act towards others according to ideals of human behaviour that do not necessarily match how he actually feels, what he really wants or values.
The ideal spouse, friend, child, parent, guest or host, all of these impose an expectation or a role that the melancholic might feel more comfortable, more self-assured if he adheres to. But at the same time, in adhering to the role, the melancholic is not truly being himself. He is not being true to himself and is not developing the virtue of sincerity. His motives may be good, but he is actually giving people less of himself than if he were able to express the thoughts and feelings that do not fit into that ideal.
There is, however, another way to interpret this phenomenon: through the lens of the human response to trauma and stress.
An excellent book on Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by Pete Walker introduces the concept of PTSD developed not through single traumatic events but through consistent patterns of traumatic abuse and neglect, such that the individual develops survival-mechanisms or maladaptive responses to trauma that are in turn subject to the abusive environment. The individual is left with a personality riven through by maladaptive responses; he may not even know which parts of himself are ‘original’ and which are maladaptive response, because both have developed together and are interdependent. So while sufferers of PTSD may be conscious of distinct personality differences before and after the trauma, for complex PTSD sufferers, no such distinction can be made.
Walker describes maladaptive responses in terms of four instinctive responses to trauma. To the well-known triad of fight, flight, and freeze, he adds the ingratiating response of ‘fawn’. For people in long-term abuse or neglect scenarios, the most successful maladaptive strategy can become an ingrained part of the personality, whether it be fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning. Of particular interest in the context of the melancholic temperament is Walker’s depiction of the ‘fawn’ response type:
Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. They often begin life like the precocious children described in Alice Miler’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child, who learn that a modicum of safety and attachment can be gained by becoming the helpful and compliant servants of their parents. They are usually the children of at least one narcissistic parent who uses contempt to press them into service, scaring and shaming them out of developing a healthy sense of self: an egoic locus of self-protection, self-care and self-compassion.
Walker does not utilise a temperament theory, but what interests me is the possibility that the melancholic temperament may be predisposed to developing the ingratiating ‘fawn’ strategy in response to environments that may or may not be dysfunctional in and of themselves, but are experienced as such by the melancholic child in the absence of positive role models or intelligible social and cultural messages and cues.
While a melancholic child could develop any one of the trauma responses, or multiple trauma responses, the fawn response is in many ways most appropriate to the melancholic child’s circumstances. Firstly, like phlegmatics, melancholics are not well-attuned to the external environment to begin with, but unlike phlegmatics they also struggle to recover from traumatic experiences and incidents. An extreme melancholic child will struggle to recognise the same cues or mirror the behaviours of other children, yet will be acutely aware of this disparity and may well suffer for it. Persistent disorientation, confusion, and implicit ostracism can exacerbate actual dysfunctions in family and environment, such that the melancholic child is more severely traumatised than a child of a different temperament would be.
Yet at the same time, the causes of these trauma are systemic and normalised: imagine a melancholic child sitting confused and disoriented in a classroom where all the other children show no signs of confusion or disorientation. If the child expresses his confusion and disorientation he will be the subject of negative attention from the teacher and other students. Of the available responses to this negative attention, fight and flight will only exacerbate it. That leaves freeze and fawn, though even freezing will bring about greater negative attention than the meekness and compliance of the fawn response.
Extrapolate this dynamic across nearly every aspect of life: the growing melancholic child fears hurt and humiliation, has a long memory for it, yet is predisposed to experience it afresh because of his relatively slow and sedate response to external stimuli. Surely such children will learn soon enough that the best way to avoid humiliation, trauma, and negative attention is to ingratiate oneself with others (especially authority figures) where possible – learning to play a compliant, amenable, obedient and good-natured role.
For adult melancholics, the pressure to maintain this long-practiced response to stress and trauma can be both reasonable and deeply emotive. On the one hand, it is reasonable to take care in how you express yourself verbally to others, so as not to unwittingly offend people with careless statements. On the other hand, it is certainly a maladaptive strategy to maintain a deeply guarded approach to social interactions, and to filter one’s statements compulsively so as to avoid any possible negative interpretations.
The danger identified through the complex PTSD concept is that melancholics may mistake this maladaptive strategy for their own personality. They may think that they are ‘nice’ people or ‘considerate’ people rather than simply fearful and ingratiating people, who may even lack the capacity to exercise consideration or ‘niceness’ when their behaviour is already so tightly determined by stress-oriented strategies.
They may find themselves acting in ways that deny their actual thoughts, feelings, and values due to the ingrained influence of their maladaptive responses. Ultimately, they risk being unable to express themselves honestly and sincerely with friends and loved ones, living instead through the filter of an unwarranted survival mechanism that has outlived its usefulness.