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Fawn Response: A Trauma Response + The Reason for People-Pleasing Behavior

by | Dec 23, 2020 | RELATIONSHIPS, TRAUMA

A woman is fawning. The fawn response is a response to trauma.

When the going gets tough in your relationships, what is your gut reaction? Do you feel like you spend most of your time pleasing other people? Or do you have a hard time knowing how to meet your needs? Maybe you feel like you don’t see a fight response or flight response in yourself, but you notice one of the two lesser-known responses: the freeze and fawn responses.

You might be wondering, what exactly are the freeze and fawn responses? Two of the four trauma responses (fight, flight, freeze, and fawn) that can stem from childhood trauma, and they both involve symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). A fawn response occurs when a person’s brain acts as if they unconsciously perceive a threat, and compels survival behavior that keeps them under the radar.

What is the Freeze Response?

This response is paralyzing. You are so overwhelmed by fear that your body stops.

You stop thinking, stop moving, and, in some cases, stop breathing.

Because your body stops, it is an unconscious act of dissociation with whatever is happening around you. This response is also associated with “shell shock” or basic post-traumatic reactions. If you have the “freeze” response early in life, you may be predisposed to experience freeze symptoms later in life.

What is the Fawn Response?

Different from the fight, flight and freeze responses, the fawn response points to people-pleasing.

Though people-pleasing is not the only manifestation of fawning, it tends to be the most evident sign.

Pete Walker was a pioneer in defining “fawning.” Walker says this response is developed in childhood to avoid mistreatment from adults.

Fawn responses can be any number of things but are nervous attempts to deflect attention. This can mean flattery, admission to toxic relationships, or complete destruction of personal boundaries.

People who fawn tend to deny their preferences and boundaries to make other people happy. They unconsciously believe that the price for relational security is compliance. They think that if they make others happy, they will be in less danger.

Do I Show the Fawn Response?

Sometimes those who show the fawn response don’t even know they are fawning, and they have likely experienced positive feedback from others in return, so it may not register as a problematic behavior.

Think you may fall into this category? Think back to any time conflict has come up. You can start by asking yourself these questions to find out:

Do I put my needs aside to make others feel better?
Do I feel empty in relationships after giving too much of myself?
Do I avoid conflict at all costs?
Do I feel everyone’s emotions all at once?
Do I think I am responsible for making everyone happy?
If you answered yes to more than two of these questions, it is likely your default is the fawn response.

Why Do I Have a Fawn Response?

There is not a short answer to why someone may show the fawn response. Generally, those that fawn are extremely empathetic and would rather take the emotional blow than someone else, the price of admission in relationships, and fawn types seek safety in interpersonal dynamics.

The most popular theory on fawning comes from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs.) These are events usually happen before the child is eighteen years old and can impair children for the rest of their lives.

Adverse Childhood Experiences can range from poverty to neglect to abuse at home. Continuances of these events can establish negative thought patterns early-on.

When our brains are still developing, we will do anything to avoid danger. The fawn response is to seek safety by merging with the perpetrator. So as children, we do what we are told, even if it isn’t what is right or good for us.

This response invokes strategies from “flight,” “flight,” and the “freeze” responses, so it is seen as the most adaptive reaction. Fawning requires knowledge of whomever is hurting you and skill to know how to appease them. It is often seen in people who endure narcissistic abuse.

Fawning is also sometimes associated with codependency. Both are emotional responses that are triggered by complex PTSD.

In both fawning and codependency, your brain thinks you will be left alone and helpless. The brain’s response is to then attach yourself to a person so they think they need you. This can lead to do things to make them happy to cause less of a threat to yourself.

Though, the threat is the variable in each scenario. In fawning, the threat could be social isolation, conflict with a loved one, or unhappiness. Codependency is generally paired with loneliness.

How Can I Help My Fawn Response?

Trauma affects everyone, not just the one experiencing the trauma.

It affects the one inflicting the trauma, the one affected by the event, and anyone who interacts with those people.

The fawn response is a great example of this since it involves submitting to what others want.

So, how can you begin healing from trauma?

Observe Yourself

One of the first things to do to stop fawning behaviors is to observe them.

Whenever you are triggered, think about these things:

Why am I fawning right now?
How am I experiencing fawning behaviors?
How do I feel right now?
What do I want to do right now, not how do I think I need to react?
Asking yourself these questions will begin to unlock the trauma-affected regions of your brain.

Therapy

A next possible step is to enroll in therapy appointments. Being able to share your trauma with a professional can help you process. Not only will you have a listener, but someone who can offer science-backed suggestions!

There are several different methods for healing trauma, including the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) process. This system helps re-wire your brain, creating new neurological pathways that help you react to trauma when it comes up.

Taking stock of your fawning behaviors before going to therapy is good. You can fill your therapist in on the issues since they likely will not see your trauma responses themselves.

Many times, you learn about traumas you weren’t didn’t even know were affecting you.

Find a Safe Person

Aside from a therapist, find a person you can talk with about your recovery. This can be a friend or family member that can hold you accountable.

As you’re healing, they will ensure you continue taking steps to stop fawning behaviors. But, they will also be the first ones you call when you’re struggling!

Next Steps

If you are ready to face your fawn response, to improve your mental health, there are many steps you can take. Begin thinking on ways to stop your fawning behaviors and how to ask for help from trusted people. There is no need to be obsessive compulsive about it, though. The main thing to remember is that other people have benefited from your fawn response, so they may have reactions to your changes.

Don’t worry, you can open up little by little and practicing the art of saying no more readily. Grab a cute mug that promotes positivity and healing. Write something that describes how you’ve been feeling. Or, try a yoga class to deepen your mind-body connection.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.

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Author Bio

Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a Licensed Psychologist (CA, FL, IL + NY), Certified Sex Therapist, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, and PACT III trained Couples Therapist. She is the Founder of Modern Intimacy. Follow her on TikTok and IG @drkatebalestrieri and the Modern Intimacy team on IG @themodernintimacy.

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4 Comments

  1. Anon

    This is such a strange article. It sounds like you’re talking about fawning coming up in response to an irrational trigger in the course of daily life. “People pleasing” is a really poor word choice, it points to habitual interpersonal relationship behavior. If you’re going to talk about fawning in the context of the acute stress response from a real situation of assault or danger (which is when actual fawning happens), it is important to acknowledge that fawning behavior is just as involuntary as fight or flight or freeze. In the course of my life I’ve been sexually assaulted a few times and I’ve seen my nervous system employ every single response depending on the situation. When I was a child and one of the neighbor kids threatened me with sexual abuse, he was close to my size, so my subconscious picked fight; I grabbed a nearby baseball batt and swung it at him. The mental math checked out and I scared him away.

    There was another time later in my life where someone cornered me, and they were twice my size, a full grown adult male with NPD who was a family member and who I knew was sadistic. The mental math there was that I wouldn’t be able to fight without great risk to bodily injury, so during the assault, I dissociated and froze. It was like I was floating above my body. I wasn’t able to fight or flee, but my mind protected me from the trauma and I was able to get away without physical injury.

    There were times where I felt unsafe and fled, like a time I was followed on the street.

    The fawn response came when I was kidnapped once and drugged and raped, and after the rapes took place at the beginning of the kidnapping, my perpetrator kept me on drugs that made me chemically submissive and for the last two days I was with him, I was in a constant state of panic, but the panic was happening inside my mind and on the outside I was fawning, convincing him I loved him because he was a psychopath. The mental math there was also instinctive and certain; I knew if I told him I felt unsafe he might hurt me or keep me longer. The objective of the fawning is to distract the perpetrator/rapist by making them think their goals are being met, similar to freezing, so as to not escalate the situation to physical violence in addition to sexual assault.

    Having been in sexual assault situations a few times throughout my life, when I think back, I can tell that my subconscious makes a clear hierarchy between sexual misconduct and physical assault; if things can stay in the realm of non-violent sexual abuse, then our chances of escaping alive are still high and we can walk away with at least our bodies in tact. These responses have saved my life every time. I really trust my mind to turn to the right defense to save me, there is so much more available to us than we think and to ascribe shame to any survival response is to completely misinterpret their function… let me explain.

    I am a fawner/freezer in most situations where the perpetrator is bigger than I am, but I am not a “people-pleaser” in daily safe life. I’m comfortable saying ‘no’ and very good with boundaries. I clearly know that my perpetrators are dangerous and terrifying. After I arrived home safely from the kidnapping, I still pressed charges and followed through and worked through fears of retaliation. People don’t fawn because they genuinely believe in the goodness of their abusers, it’s literally just one defense available to us if the mental math of a situation checks out that a person is unstable af but receptive to admiration. When it’s a matter of life-and-death, any solution is a good solution. No way in a situation like a kidnapping would I be able to ask myself things like “Why am I fawning right now? How am I experiencing fawning behaviors? etc”. My conscious mind just goes into the background, and the subconscious mind hyper-reads the delusions of my abuser. I think the fawning response might be a direct defense evolved in response to abusers with personality disorders (which make up something like 80-90% of abusers), so being able to engage their delusional thinking is actually a perfect, clever tactic. After you successfully bargain your way out of a situation like that, it still feels hella empowering. I got myself out of a kidnapping through cunning.

    Reply
    • Savvy McGillycuddy

      This is a striking counterpoint, however regrettable your experiences (and I am hurt for you to read of it, and hope you are thriving today), I want to thank you for sharing.

      Reply
    • Mariem

      I think that this article is avout daily safe life. It talks about how trauma affects our minds in a way that makes us act and behave in one of the defensive way (the 4Fs) in daily safe life or in relationships. Of course defense mechanisms are crucial is assuring our survival in times of real threat and distress. But when you find yourself having these defense mechanisms in your daily safe life due to trauma, especially early childhood trauma, that’s when in becomes a problem for some people. Not everyone has the same level of mental resilience.

      Reply
  2. Savvy McGillycuddy

    This was so very informative, thank you.

    Reply

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