Maggie Horton-Brande on "Tend and Befriend" and self-care

Below is an excerpt from June guest speaker Maggie Horton-Brande's TWSS™ talk about the lesser-known stress response "Tend and Befriend" and its place in her own life. It is published with Maggie's explicit permission.

By Maggie Horton-Brande | June 4 2018

📷  © Morgan Shidler

📷 © Morgan Shidler

To share, in a meaningful way, what happened for me through taking IMPACT Bay Area's Women's Course, I need to touch on some of the ways the nervous system processes stress.

In my private practice, I track and work with what is uniquely happening in a client’s nervous system:

  • Is their system fight-, flight-, or freeze-dominant?
  • How is the conditioning in their system keeping them from moving forward in life?
  • How can I gently support them out of a state of overwhelm?

We work with fight and flight a lot--natural, healthy self-protective behaviors of the sympathetic nervous system. We also work with the freeze response, which can show up as disconnection, depression, and fatigue, among other things.

There is another self-protective response, though, that my IMPACT course virtually re-wired for me. Unlike fight, flight and freeze, which no matter one's circumstances are bound to come up at some point in everyone’s life, this one is specific to women and oppressed peoples...

In the last several years, freeze has been getting a lot of attention because it used to be less understood. But I prophesize that the next hot topic will be “Tend and Befriend.”

"I thought of myself as an independent, strong woman... But it was impossible for me to know to what degree I was compromising and devaluing myself… We need to do what we do without compromising our own boundaries, as even the small, day-to-day breakages build upon themselves and contribute to our suffering."

Tend and Befriend is where the person with less power in a situation appeases and manages the emotions of the person with more relative power. It’s when your physical safety, or your financial security, or the safety of your children depends on your ability to calm down or stay on the good side of the other person (boss, husband, justice system, etc.)

Because we now know that these survival behaviors and some of their associated gene expressions can be passed down through generations--even if you are not currently in danger, even if you live in a more egalitarian culture than your parents or grandparents--this pattern may still be operating under the surface.

You may still hold the belief that you need to protect yourself in relationships by managing others’ emotions while disempowering your own experience. This is where good boundary work comes in--it was crucial for me as a woman to learn that I was worthy of setting boundaries to undo patriarchal damage, and it was crucial for me to practice doing that.

From age 13 on, I had boyfriends, one after another, and then I married the love of my life. The subliminal emotional education I received early on made me extremely uncomfortable to say what I needed to say, in fear of the response I would get. As a teen, my boyfriends’ issues were my issues. Their needs were my needs. Deep in my nervous system, I felt that their disappointments were not only reflections of me but also dangerous for me! These beliefs lived inside me in the form of an intense discomfort at the prospect of saying "no," and too much shame to say what I really did want. (If you’ve ever had a hard time turning down sex in a relationship, or breaking up with someone when it’s really not working, you know what I’m talking about.)

Going through my weekend-long IMPACT course, I developed the knowing that although I may strive to be kind and generous in life, I am not responsible for managing other people’s emotions at my own expense. This happened because my instructor and the class assistants modeled these behaviors, and then I got to practice them in realistic, customized ways, over and over. During practice, I would feel a spike of adrenaline simulating the real thing. I flexed my muscles, doing the scary things anyway, working on everything from simple verbal confrontations, all the way up to physically fighting my way to safety, feeling everything come up, triumphing, then coming down.

As things settled, a new, powerful sense of self of emerged that felt so good... I couldn’t believe what I had been missing.

Please don’t misunderstand: before this class, I thought of myself as an independent, strong woman, and in many ways I was... But it was impossible for me to know to what degree I was compromising and devaluing myself without a new and direct experience of a different way of being.

The survival strategy of Tend and Befriend is evolutionarily connected to creating stable alliances and the coherence of groups of people. If you do possess the natural abilities of a mediator, diplomat, or peacemaker, then that is wonderful and a major contribution to our world. But to be effective even in that work--especially in that work--we need to do what we do without compromising our own boundaries, as even the small, day-to-day breakages build upon themselves and contribute to our suffering.

As a default mediator and diplomat in my family, I had to painfully learn, slowly over time, that sometimes people aren’t going to get along, sometimes your truth lets another down, and if someone is angry with me, it doesn’t actually mean the end of my very existence on this planet.

But thinking these things doesn’t help. I had to learn them from the bottom up.

Maggie Horton-Brande is a bodyworker, meditation instructor, and somatic practitioner. She sees clients in San Francisco who are seeking relief from chronic stress and symptoms of trauma. Maggie is also Program Manager for IMPACT Bay Area, a local nonprofit that teaches empowerment self-defense, personal safety, and boundary setting courses for women, girls, and the LGBTQ community. She also was the June 2018 guest speaker at That's What She Said™ in San Francisco.