Unprocessed trauma keeps our nervous systems searching for resolution around the clock, whether we realize it or not.
When symptoms of trauma are noticeable, it’s often because we’re overperforming.
We’re trying to complete the traumatic event by reconciling what happened with our sense of self.
Put another way, we’re living out the fantasy of what our lives would be like if that thing hadn’t happened to us the way it did.
This manifests in all sorts of ways…
Hypervigilance (if we’d been paying better attention to our surroundings, we’d never have gotten into trouble)…
Hypercontrol (if we manage every aspect of our environments, we’ll be able to manipulate them to make sure we’re not hurt in the same way)…
Disconnection (if we don’t know how hurt we really are, then we don’t have to confront and heal from that pain)…
Mostly, our reactions can be seen as extrapolations of the four nervous system responses to crises: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
Hypercompliance has elements of both freeze and fawn.
It’s characterized by either no internal examination of your feelings, or one that results in not empowering your feelings.
Building a New Neural Pathway
Its purpose is always the same: to maintain the status quo. Often, this is a trauma response from learning hard lessons about what can happen if you prioritize yourself.
Let’s talk about how hypercompliance materializes.
After a trauma, there are any number of neurological events that can happen.
We could get stuck treading and retreading the pathway of the memory. We’re trying to punish ourselves, solve the mystery of why it happened to us, extract data in order to build more careful plans in the future, etc.
Sometimes, we avoid the pathway altogether. We associate the memory with a feeling, a nervous system event like a sinking sensation or a stomach flip, which reminds us on a primal level that this territory should be avoided.
Don’t think about this. It will cause you pain.
Instead, we build pathways around the original memory teaching us how to thoughtlessly navigate situations that would otherwise cause us great distress.
To avoid retriggering and retraumatizing ourselves every time an experience shares the contours of the trauma we’ve been through, our brain creates a protocol.
Especially in cases like recurring childhood abuse, narcissistic abuse, or domestic partnership abuse – where trauma is repeated, sustained, and hinges heavily on victim-blaming – hypercompliance is common.
How do you know if that’s you?
The Face of Hypercompliance
In essence, this looks like playing along.
You may not even realize you’re doing it, depending on how long you’ve been practicing.
In order to tell if you’re being hypercompliant, think about compliance as avoidance instead.
Do you avoid sharing your real opinions because you’re afraid…
- That you’ll upset someone?
- Someone will resent your choice?
- You’ll make an easy situation messy?
- You’ll get into “trouble” somehow for forcing someone to add a layer of consideration for you?
- That you’ll be punished later, even if your assertion is taken well in the moment?
That list is hardly the end of the possibilities, but they are some of the more common fears hypercompliant people experience underneath all of the careful planning.
Hypercompliance can look like immediately acquiescing to a request without thinking. It can also look like saying no to yourself first, because you’re ready for rejection.
It can look like anticipating needs based on previous instances of disrespect, harsh tones of voice, or berating…
Extreme anxiety if your behavior doesn’t match what you’ve decided you need to do to avoid angering the people around you….
Never having an opinion on what to eat, what to watch, where to go, what to wear, who to invite, or what to buy because you know you won’t suffer without being gratified, but aren’t sure how well the egos of others will take it…
Disassociating from the moments of your life that you didn’t choose for yourself…
Over pleasing, even fawning, on authority figures to situate yourself squarely in their good graces…
It’s valuable to watch yourself from a bird’s eye, if you can. The most powerful tool we have against trauma is awareness.
All of these trauma responses live their best lives when we aren’t paying attention to them.
Shine a light on it – force it not to comply.