What is a fawn trauma response?
A fawn trauma response involves responding to a perceived threat by being pleasing. Like other responses to stress – fight, flight, and freeze – it’s an unconscious survival strategy. We don’t choose to have a fawn trauma response. When we’re fawning, we can appear calm and are able to engage others in ways that puts them at ease. This is why people might not even realize we’re fawning. They just think we’re helpful and easy-going. Sometimes, fawning becomes so chronic that we don’t know who we are without it. Accommodating others feels so natural that we lose touch with what we think, feel, and want.
Where does it come from?
The term fawning was originally coined by therapist Pete Walker in Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving to explain how we adapt to traumatic childhood relationships.
Fawning often comes from growing up with parents (or other caregivers) who were either scary or scared. They might have struggled with mental health or substance abuse in a way that made them threatening. Perhaps they were narcissistic, explosive, withholding, abandoning, unpredictable, controlling, or physically or sexually abusive. Or, conversely, they might have struggled with anxiety and poor boundaries and were not a source of security. When parents are scary or scared, children become acutely aware of their anger or distress and seek to regulate or soothe it.
In either case, the parent-child relationship gets reversed and the child becomes parentified.
They learn to be helpful, pleasing, and compliant in order to take care of the parent. They self-sacrifice and feel as though their parent’s happiness is their job. Their natural fight response becomes extinguished because it would either result in being harmed by a threatening parent or “harming” a parent who did not seem capable of handling healthy assertiveness from a child.
Unless we develop self-awareness and self-compassion around having a fawn trauma response, it’s unlikely to change. This is why seeing the signs is so vital.
7 Signs You Have a Fawn Trauma Response Pattern
1. You’re hypervigilant
When you’re hypervigilant, you monitor and scan your environment in search of potential threats. Hypervigilance comes from overexposure to real danger. It can make you over-focus on others and fixate on reading social and emotional cues.
2. You’re a chameleon
You use mirroring and listening as a defense. You shape-shift and match other people’s emotions, tone, and body language. This makes people assume you agree with them – which increases the likelihood that they accept you and not see you as a threat.
3. You’re a people-pleaser or caretaker
You try to anticipate other people’s needs and expectations and work hard to meet them. Fawning is at the root of codependency – which is a pattern of seeking safety in relationships by giving up your own needs and rights and trying to take responsibility for other people’s needs, emotions, and behaviors.
4. You don’t express opinions, preferences, or needs
Fawning makes you disconnect internally and suppress any expression of your own opinions, preferences, or needs. For example, you rarely pick the restaurant and are unlikely to send food back if they bring out the wrong order. Any type of self-disclosure feels scary, and if you do manage to express yourself, you ruminate about it afterward wondering if you offended someone or if they’re mad at you.
5. You appease to avoid conflict
Conflict can trigger an emotional flashback to a time when anger felt dangerous as a child. This dysregulates your nervous system in the present. As a result, you immediately jump into peacekeeper mode and try to appease the other person. You might even insert yourself into other people’s conflicts to try to de-escalate them. This usually provides short-term relief to your nervous system at the expense of long-term solutions to problems.
6. You tolerate toxic behaviors and struggle with boundaries
Fawning makes you more accepting of behaviors that would not be tolerated by others. For example, you might tolerate narcissistic monologuing and maybe even feel relieved when the focus is not on you. Or you might accept domineering behavior because it feels safer to defer to someone else who won’t ask you to self-disclose. You might also excuse toxic behaviors because you can see where they came from. After all, to successfully fawn, you have to understand the other person, which means you might see their wounded inner child and think it’s your job to take care of it.
7. You secretly envy assertive or entitled people
You wonder how other people can take up so much space and feel entitled to just express themselves when it feels so dangerous to you. Sometimes you judge people when you see them doing things you wish you could do. Compared to your selflessness, it seems selfish. Unfortunately, seeing them as a role model doesn’t quite work for you because their behavior feels too far outside of your comfort zone – that is, until you start healing your fawning response pattern.
We all need a healthy relationship with anger and access to assertiveness so we can express our authenticity, get what we want, and protect ourselves without always resorting to people-pleasing. So, now that you’re aware of fawning, what can you do about it?
First, give yourself a break. Fawning is a trauma response. It makes sense that you needed to use this brilliant survival strategy as a child. It’s helpful. And yet, with some practice, you can develop new strategies for navigating relationships as an adult.
How to Heal a Fawn Trauma Response Pattern
1. Notice the urge to fawn and self-regulate instead
When you notice an urge to please someone or do something helpful, pause. Don’t say or do anything. Instead, take a few deep breaths and notice and release any tension you feel in your body. From a more regulated state, choose your response to the other person intentionally.
2. Notice and resist your automatic mirroring behaviors
Don’t just agree. Pause and consider your authentic thoughts and feelings. You don’t have to express them all so don’t worry; just begin to notice that yours are separate from someone else’s. This is about disrupting a pattern by bringing in awareness.
3. Experiment with expressing yourself
Disclosing your opinions, preferences, and needs is not easy when you have a fawn trauma response pattern. It feels dangerous and requires a gentle and slow approach. Give yourself small doses of discomfort by expressing little things over time. Start with situations that feel relatively safe to you. Maybe it’s ordering what you really want at a restaurant or telling someone what type of music you prefer. This is the essence of exposure therapy. You slowly expand your window of tolerance – the more technical term for your comfort zone. This ensures that you don’t have an overwhelming experience that causes you to retreat and avoid.
4. Imagine you’re a powerful animal
To gently tap into a healthy fight response in your body, you can try the following exercise. Imagine a powerful animal – perhaps a lion or tiger – and embody their posture. How do they move? What sounds do they make? What look do they have in their eyes? Can you imagine that you’re the animal and be with the powerful feelings for a few seconds or minutes?
5. Focus on your relationship with your inner child
Rather than focusing on external relationships, work on your relationship with your inner child. Try checking in with it to see what it needs. Does it need reassurance, soothing, or maybe even an apology because you’ve been neglecting it? This is called reparenting and it can be a powerful way to deepen your healing.
6. Grieve the childhood you didn’t get because you were parentified
Grieving can connect you to healthy anger and a desire to advocate for yourself (and your wounded inner child) when your needs aren’t met or your boundaries aren’t respected. (This step might require the support of a therapist.)
7. Nourish yourself and connect with your inner wisdom
Spend time connecting to yourself and engaging in self-care. This might include journaling, being in nature, exercising, connecting spiritually, or exploring your interests.
8. Get support
A trauma-informed therapist can help you process childhood wounds and work on boundaries. Professional help is especially important if you’re in an abusive relationship. In addition to therapy, consider joining a community of other people who are trying to heal childhood wounds. (Do your research to make sure the community is a safe space first.) Lastly, recognize that it’s ok to ask for help and to lean on others. If they’re supportive, ask your friends or family members to be there for you once in a while.
Now that you’re more aware of fawning and why you might do it, be kind to yourself. Starting a healing journey is a brave act that requires taking small steps in the right direction.
Your turn: I’d love to hear from you. Are there any subtle signs of fawning you didn’t see on the list?