We’ve all heard the term “fight or flight,” which is used to explain the primal response that people have when faced with a threat. If you choose fight, you resist the threat, but if you choose flight, you flee the threat. We know things aren’t so black and white, however, so some people have coined the term “fight, flight, or freeze,” which adds the threat response where you tune out, shut down, or even disassociate.
Psychologists and therapists have dug even deeper into trauma responses and have raised the notion that there’s a fourth response that may look eerily familiar to you: fawn. Originally coined in his paper “The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD,” therapist Pete Walker wagered that the fourth response to trauma, fawn, is when someone unconsciously seeks safety from threat by appeasing. Do you feel like you’ve been conditioned to always play nice and remain docile in the face of adversity? Are you overly self-sacrificial, to the extent that you feel like you’ve lost your own individual identity? You may be having a fawn response.
What Does a Fawn Response Look Like?
Codependency, feeling overwhelmed, a lack of personal boundaries, and the loss of your own personal identity are all characteristics that are very common on their own, but all together they might be signs that someone is fawning as a maladaptive coping mechanism. There are many other ways that this manifests in day-to-day life.
You might find yourself going along with another person’s beliefs and compromising your own values. While you might think you’re just highly agreeable and willing to go with the flow, you might actually be going along with someone else’s opinions simply because it's the path of least resistance. Did your family ask you where you want to go for dinner, and, despite you having a preference, you told them you don’t care because you don’t want to upset anyone? That’s a pretty mild example, but this response also manifests in behaviors like feeling pressured into physical intimacy to avoid conflict or allowing a friend to continually dump all of their problems on you and leave you drained of any energy you should be expending on solving your own problems.
Perhaps you’re always making excuses for other people’s poor behavior and blaming yourself for their shortcomings because you find it hard to be mad at others. The guilt you feel while trying to come to terms with anger at someone else’s behavior might actually be appeasement to remain on good terms with that person. For example, your boyfriend might have been sending flirty texts to another girl, but instead of feeling mad at his sneaky behavior, you start to wonder if you’re just not enough for him and are convinced it's your fault that his gaze is wandering.
A fawn response is also characterized by not knowing how to say no. Well, you might know, but you can’t act on it out of fear that you’ll disappoint. You’re stretched thin, like a tiny dollop of butter over bread, and you think that you’ll feel more fulfilled if you’re always making others happy. Instead of “I can help you later,” you’re more likely to drop what you’re doing and give yourself a laundry list of favors that leave you weary. Instead of telling your family you can’t make it to a gathering or social function, you bite your tongue and put your own priorities aside.
A fawn response is characterized by being unable to say no out of fear.
While the fawn response was primarily coined to address trauma survivors, it’s entirely fair to look introspectively at your own life experiences and recognize if you’ve developed a codependent defense system. If left unmanaged, constantly allowing yourself to fawn could lead to you entering or getting lost in toxic relationships. You might not be able to realize your most authentic self because you’re constantly appeasing others. In turn, you’ll likely feel alienated and misunderstood and be left wondering why you don’t feel seen by your coworkers, friends, or family.
Why Might This Happen?
For trauma-related cases of fawning, theories point to Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs), which happen in your early developmental years prior to adulthood. Whether that’s facing abuse firsthand or witnessing abuse secondhand at home, watching your parents go through a divorce, facing homelessness, or dealing with other household challenges like substance abuse or mental illness, ACEs are precursors to negative behavioral and health outcomes down the road and can be passed on from generation to generation. There’s research that suggests that experiencing abuse in your childhood could cause you to either be revictimized later on or be the one victimizing your own children.
With one or more ACE – especially those including narcissistic abuse – you might become conditioned to attach yourself to a person (or multiple people) and constantly give yourself up to make them happy. After you’ve felt trauma, you’d likely feel threatened by the continued feelings of unhappiness, conflict with those you love, or the risk of social isolation and loneliness.
Another factor to consider is the attachment style you developed in childhood. If your parent, grandparent, aunt, or whoever raised you was dependable and took care of your physical and emotional needs, you likely developed a secure attachment. People were sensitive to your feelings, responsive, available, and reassuring.
If your parents or caregivers were only sporadically responsive, you might have developed anxious-insecure attachment. If your parent or caregiver minimized your feelings, didn’t help you through difficulty, and left you to be self-reliant, you likely developed avoidant-insecure attachment. Finally, if your parent or caregiver was outright frightening, ridiculed you, and rejected your feelings, you might have developed disorganized-insecure attachment. These different attachment styles can alter how you cope with challenges in the present and future. Those with anxious-insecure attachment are more likely to have a fawn response.
This fawn response, where you’re naturally gravitating toward soothing someone and keeping them calm as an automatic response to conflict, could disrupt your life many years down the line. If left festering instead of fixed, you might find yourself stunted at your job because of fear of negative feedback, missing crucial boundaries that allow you to invest in yourself, and being confused about what your own identity even is.
How Can I Break the Cycle?
Conflict and other stressors will always pop back up in your life. That’s a given. What’s not a given is how you react to them, even if you feel absolutely stuck in your self-deprecating ways. Psychologist Dr. Kate Balestrieri wrote in her group therapy practice blog Modern Intimacy all about the various ways a person could combat their fawn response and break the cycle.
The first, most important step in healing is to observe your behaviors. Take a deep, introspective look into exactly how you feel when you face a traumatic or simply stressful situation. Dr. Nicole LePera, a psychologist known as The Holistic Psychologist online, shared that her first step to healing from fawning is to first understand your limits and your own needs.
The first step to healing from fawning is to understand your limits and your own needs.
“After a lifetime of ‘sure’ ‘whatever you want’ and ‘doesn’t matter to me,’ it’s important to express your needs. Then, you can begin clearly communicating your needs and boundaries,” she wrote on Instagram. This may sound like saying things such as “I can’t. I need rest,” or “I’m not comfortable with how you’re speaking to me.” She also shared that, though it’s hard to say no, constantly practicing honoring your own needs is key to working through a chronic fawn response.
You should additionally make some notes on your phone, or if you have time to journal out your feelings, you can write out answers to some of the following questions. Why am I having a fawn response right now? What fawning behaviors am I experiencing? What do I actually want to do right now, not how I think I should be reacting? Dr. Balestrieri believes that these initial questions are a good start before you seek help, and furthermore, research confirms that journaling can help address your mood more quickly.
Seeking help can come in two different ways. The first is to find a safe person who can hold you accountable for processing your personal development and reducing the amount of fawning you do. This person could be a close friend, a parent, a sibling, a boyfriend, a husband, or anyone in between. Lean on them if you find yourself struggling, but don’t use their goodwill as a crutch: They’re your support system, but they can’t solve your problems.
The second step, if needed, is to seek out therapy. Dr. Balestrieri advocates for the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) process for healing trauma, which she says could help rewire your brain’s natural trauma response. The most important thing to note before you seek therapy, however, is to remain open-minded to the therapist’s outside perspectives. If you approach therapy thinking that your behaviors will be affirmed, rather than challenged, you likely won’t find healing.
It’s really easy to fall further and further into a cycle of people pleasing, especially if you developed that response early in life. What you need to know is that your value and worthiness of being loved are not predicated on how much of a pacifist you can be when faced with conflict. Transforming your response isn’t something that can come overnight, but with consistent practice, you can recognize when you’re fawning, fight back against that urge, and gain a real sense of independence.
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