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Conflict: The "F" Response

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 203

In his book, Answers to Life's Difficult Questions (Victor Books), Rick Warren observed,

"In life there are only three ways you can move--
against something in anger, away from it in fear,
or with it in love" (p. 66).

For those who choose to move "away...in fear" perhaps one of the most preferred responses is the "F" Response.
 
What Is The "F" Response?
 
The "F" Response is nearly almost unhealthy. Typically the "F" response leaves no open door for reconciliation. Once started, it is virtually unstoppable.
 
Typically, the "F" response is used...
1) when fear exceeds one's "comfort zones;"
2) more frequently by introverts instead of extroverts;
3) by all personalities, but especially by those with a "melancholy" temperament;
4) when the issue at hand is too painful to deal with;
5) by perfectionistic, control-driven individuals;
6) by those who cannot admit they are wrong;
7) by individuals who tend to have problems with intimacy;
8) by those characterized by Adult Child dysfunctionalities (by some estimates as much as 85% or more of all individuals!);
9) when face-saving and avoidance of embarrassment, pain or ridicule supercede the desire for confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation; or
10) at some time in virtually everyone's life.
 
The "F" Response
 
What is the "F" response? Sometimes it is a response to "F"ights and external conflicts. At other times is can occur when things and relationships are going so extremely well that it causes fear and internal conflict. Whatever triggers it, the "F" response is characterized by the following:
 
1) Fear: Perhaps the greatest motivator ever, fear tends to cause people to be afraid to face certain situations. Such situations include those which require decisions, discipline, risk and possible increased pain--whether short or long-term. Often related to self-esteem issues, fear also causes individuals prone to the "F" Response to avoid any situation or relationship which might prove in any way unpredictable.
 
2) Flight: When things are perceived to be out of their control, those prone to the "F" response react by either attempting higher levels of control (aggressive escalation) or fleeing the situation ("flight"). This escapist response can be either a physical removal of their presence or an emotional withdrawal. The flight response can either be sudden or developed over time. Either way, the emerging flight response is often undetected by others until after the event.
 
3) Fixed-ness: Unfortunately, by that time the flight response has been utilized the one who has fled is unapproachable. Phone calls, personal visits, letters, and other strategies are nearly always rebuffed directly or indirectly. Their response is virtually "fixed." This "fixed-ness" is characteristic of the "F" Response.
 
Those accustomed to the warp and woof of reconciliation and forgiveness may become totally exasperated and confused at both the suddenness and the fixed-ness of the "F" responder's unresponsive aloofness. This aloofness, however, is simply a defense mechanism. It is aimed at preserving a sense of control by eliminating chaos, uncertainty and pain. Unfortunately, as long as the individual continues using this element of the "F" response they will never change or grow.
 
4) Failure: Sooner or later the "F" responder will experience guilt, remorse or feelings of shame for having utilized the "F" response. "Perhaps my response was inappropriate," "Maybe I was wrong," or "I really blew it!" or "I made a fool out of myself." Such resulting feelings of failure have numerous effects on themselves, on their self-esteem, on those around them, and on their ability and desire to make and sustain meaningful relationships in the future.
 
5) Fiction-izing: Too fearful to face their own personal failure, "F" responders fiction-ize the situation. Based largely on fantasy, their fictional re-creation is a defense mechanism to avoid guilt, grief, remorse, blame and responsibility for the damage done. Hardened, habitual "F" responders may use the fiction-izing as a basis for continuing direct or indirect attacks at others whom they have hurt.
 
6) Falsifying: Whereas fiction-izing creates a fictuous fantasy of events, falsifying is a direct onslaught against the facts. Those unprepared for the onslaught of falsehoods and twisted, perverted versions of the truth may find themselves overwhelmed by projected anger, guilt, fear, confusion, et al. This can result in intense and prolonged suffering. The longer one wrestles with the lies and gives them credibility, the greater the effort that will be needed for recovery.
 
7) Finality: Whenever the "F" response is triggered, the results are nearly always final. There is no turning back, no reconciliation, no admission of failure, no opportunity to forgive, forget and move forward. The damage, once done, may cause remarkable harm.
 
The grief experienced by leaders who, holding out hope for reconciliation, are rebuffed, refused and rejected is a deep, penetrating grief akin to that Jesus experienced as He wept over Jerusalem. "How many times would I have gathered you...but you would not" (Matthew 23:37). "You would not" is an unmistakable "F" response of "finality."
 
8) Facade: After the "F" response has permanently destroyed the relationship, "F" responders can be recognized by their facade. It is usually over-confident, "stuffy" and/or non-chalant. To the "F" responder the facade is a self-defense mechanism. Its most important function is to cover up their intense fear of confrontation. Appearing "super" nice, agreeable, or unusually confident tends to reduce the potential for confrontation.
 
Unfortunately, the initiated do not recognize it as a defense mechanism. They take the facade at face value. When hurt by the "F" responder, they may interpret the facade as a nauseating mask of hypocrisy and deceit. What they may not understand is how well the facade functions to hide intense fear. The fact that it takes people by surprise is proof-positive of its extreme  effectiveness. That's why its so common. It works!
 
It's A Vicious Cycle
 
Each time the "F" responder goes through the cycle they must deal with the increased fear. In order to deal with these shameful feelings they will often resort to the use of various defense mechanisms including withdrawal, isolation, projection (i.e. blaming and heaping guilt on others), denial and, at times, destructive tactics intended to destroy themselves or others.
 
Not having healthily resolved and reconciled these issues, the "F" responder seeks greater control of their environment so as to avoid pain. Ironically, the pursuit of control heightens their fear of being out of control. Thus they are caught in an escalating cycle of needing a sense of greater control to overcome greater fear. It is at this point that the "F" responder is in danger of utilizing the "F" response again and again. It is truly a vicious cycle.

"F" Responders And Relationships

Certainly there are many opportunities for relationships to breakdown. All relationships are changeable, unpredictable and sometimes precariously dangerous. A misspoken word, an unintended gesture, a perceived hidden meaning, or disagreements can trigger the "F" response and quickly ruin relationships.
 
Unexpected behaviors due to hormonal imbalances (e.g. due to thyroid, pituitary glands, menopause, et al), deficient or abnormal cerebral chemistry levels (detected or undetected), mild forms of major mental disorders, grief, fatigue and even just having a "gloomy Monday" can also trigger fear and uncertainty in every relationship.
 
The "F" Response And Perfectionism
 
Sometimes those accustomed to utilizing the "F" response can become fearful when relationships or situations are too perfect. Habituated to the secure feelings resulting in finding imperfections and making imperfect things perfect, they become extremely anxious when things become perfect. Attainment of perfection leaves their control-driven personality feeling helpless, alienated and fearful. 
 
The "F" responder often anxiously mistakes the healthy and normal feelings of peace and calm as the "calm before the storm." As a means to avoid the unpredictable anticipated fear and uncertainty, "F" responders will seek to control what they feel will be an inevitable breakdown by initiating the breakdown themselves.
 
If they're in control of the breakdown, it will minimize surprises. This strategy is analogous to a "controlled burn." An effective and established technique, firefighters use controlled burning to contain a raging forest fire by starting another fire one that can be controlled.
 
Of course, such breakdowns almost always become uncontrollable. Those prone to the "F" response simply add increased explosive potential. Even if they are in control, they will have difficulty managing their fear. They will start the explosion and then flee the scene. This causes much unnecessary pain, grief, and heartbreak for others as they watch what had been so painstakingly and skillfully built crumble so needlessly by seemingly haphazard carelessness.
 
How does the "F" responder respond to all of this? The classic "F" response is not to change. That's too fearful. So they respond by beginning the "F" response cycle all over again. Some "F" responders have exercised this response so much that they have a rather regular interval of time between cycles. The interval can be months, years or in response to certain recurring organizational circumstances. Sometimes the "F" response can be identified in specific organizations or sub-organizations for their cyclical "dance of fear" at relatively regular intervals.
There's A Positive "F" Response!
 
Fortunately, this cycle can be broken. "F" response recovery can occur. Individuals who are willing to let go of their guilt, failure and, if necessary, reconcile the many ruined past relationships can learn that there is another "F" response.
 
However, the first and most important step is to face the fear. If the fear can be faced, the cyclical return to fear and its resulting avalanche of flight, fixed-ness, and failure can be halted.
 
"F" Response: The Way Out
1) Fearlessness: One of the most frequent commands in Scripture is "don't fear." When individuals really understand that God's calling to Christians is to live without fear, a whole new possibility for life emerges. It is a new life which recognizes that though this world is changeable, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous, "we shall not fear even though the earth be removed" (Psalm 46).
John, the Apostle of Love, wrote:

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because He first loved us." (I John 4:8-10 NIV)

What this verse indicates is that those who continually succumb to fear and respond with the "F" response do not know what agape love really is.

2) Faith: From a Christian perspective the only way an "F" responder can recover from their fear is through faith. Such faith must be based on an absolute assurance and understanding of God's love for them. "F" responders fear because "perfect love" has driven it out. They are overcome "with punishment." The result is, as John wrote, that "the one who fears is not made perfect in love."
 
3) Forgiveness: The most complete knowledge and experience of God's fear-casting love comes only in forgiveness. Rooted in undeserved grace and demonstrated by Jesus' victory over the three great sources of fear (i.e. sin, death and the devil) those who have been transformed by and live in this grace have been made perfect. This did not occur because of our love for God. Indeed, having been enslaved to a fear-driven perfectionism we could not love. We were only bound to a damning "F" response.
 
"We love," John said, only because "He loved us first." When we understand the fullness and simple but profound completeness of God's love in Christ, we are freed from fear. Indeed, Paul said in Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me" (NIV).
4) Future: The final stage of recovery from the "F" cycle is to recognize God's gracious promise to each of us that we have a future.

"'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD,
'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)

This is the real root of all fear. It's doubting that God has a plan for us. It's doubting that God can and will always protect us, provide for us, and oversee every single and minute aspect of our lives.
 
This, the greatest promise of God, is what the "F" response denies. Doubting God's control, the "F" response is essentially the blasphemous, idolatrous response of the weakened and sin-burdened soul. It is the response of one who feels that without their control there is no future. Thus, they cannot escape the fear and the vicious "F" response cycle which enslaves them. They are truly out of control...theirs and, perhaps in their own minds, God's!
 
There Is A Future!
 
In spite of all that the "F" response does to destroy the present and the future, the essence of the Gospel is that in Christ there is hope in both the present and the future. Though the "F" response may destroy the church and the relationships needed to sustain healthy ministry again and again, God has plans to give you--and His church--"a hope and a future."
 
The best hope for countering the "F" response in the church is to appeal repeatedly to God's promise of a "hope and a future." Consequently this demands that every sermon, every teaching, every program, every interaction, every breath that we have proclaim that Gospel.
 
The Gospel must predominate our preaching. It must give joy to us and our hearers. Most importantly, this perfect love of Christ must become the hyper-dominant, all-encompassing motivation for every single aspect of ministry. Indeed, it must be the essential core of our existence.

Are You Feeding Or Defusing The "F" Response?

To the extent that the Gospel is not central in our lives and ministries, the "F" response can take hold. To the extent that guilt, manipulation, perfectionism, "ought to's" and other fear and guilt provoking approaches are used in our ministries we feed, engender and encourage the "F" response.
 
Such legalistic Law-driven approaches also deny the powerful working of God to work His perfect, undeserved, and gracious forgiveness perfectly in our lives through His love.
 
Which are you encouraging in your ministry? What message is your preaching and teaching giving? Are you proclaiming the fearlessness of a Gospel-driven and joy-filled faith in the total and unconditional forgiveness of Jesus Christ? Or are you feeding the "F" response?
 
Thomas F. Fischer

For further insights and discussion on the "F" Response see
Ministry Health's  Reflections On The "F" Response (Article 206).

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:26 PM