When trauma strikes, our instincts kick in – for better or worse. Fight, flight, and freeze are the typical go-to reactions. But a fourth coping mechanism flies under the radar: fawning. This counterintuitive response deserves our compassion and understanding, especially in the context of PTSD.
In this blog, I aim to bring this overlooked trauma reaction into the light. By exploring the nuances of the fawn response, we can gain clarity, self-awareness, and tools to navigate the complex aftermath of traumatic experiences with gentleness and wisdom.
What Is Fawn Response
Many of us learned to survive childhood by becoming little people-pleasers, conflict-avoiders, and safety-seekers. This fawn response was our go-to strategy when faced with abuse, neglect, or punishment for simply expressing needs.
As adults, our fawn response still kicks in when we perceive a threat. We automatically try charming, flattering, or pleasing the threatening person, suppressing our true feelings and needs to avoid potential conflict or rejection. We aim to win the threat by making ourselves small, discreet, and compliant.
Causes and Triggers of Fawn Response
1. Childhood trauma and neglect: We all have basic needs for love, safety, and security. When a child’s caregivers are unpredictable or neglectful, meeting those needs becomes a daily struggle. Desperate to feel cared for, the child learns to “fawn” – to push down their feelings and become hypervigilant to the caregiver’s wants and moods. They seek to please at all costs, believing their survival depends on it.
2. Abusive relationships: When faced with abuse, some people instinctively react by trying to please their abuser. In an attempt to avoid further harm, they may comply with the abuser’s wishes and push down their own needs. Though understandable, this coping mechanism can perpetuate the abusive dynamic. There are healthier ways to establish safety.
3. Bullying: Bullying can have devastating effects. Victims may reflexively try to please and appease the bully to avoid further mistreatment. This “fawn response” is an instinct to submit in hopes of defusing the situation. While understandable, it often encourages further bullying by signaling weakness.
4. Workplace dynamics: Have you ever felt you had to agree with your boss or co-workers, even if you didn’t want to? Many employees experience this urge to appease and avoid conflict at work.
When we fawn, we instinctively suppress our own needs and ideas to gain the approval of others. We may laugh along with offensive jokes, work late nights and weekends without complaint, or refrain from sharing suggestions that could improve workplace culture.
5. Power imbalance: When facing an unbalanced power dynamic, some feel compelled to fawn as a self-protective measure. They may try to please or appease the more powerful person or group to avoid harm, gain approval, or meet their needs.
This instinct is understandable, but consistently suppressing your needs to cater to others can take a toll. Research shows that chronically putting other people’s needs before your own can contribute to mental health struggles down the line.
Signs and Symptoms
People with fawn responses often exhibit the following signs and symptoms:
1. People pleasing – They often feel like people-pleasers, going out of their way to avoid ruffling feathers. They may say “yes” even when inwardly wince, hoping to skirt tense situations.
At the same time, they intend to keep the peace, their people-pleasing stems from deeper roots. Their desire to please others can become almost instinctual and a survival mechanism developed long ago to navigate conflict.
2. Trouble saying no – If you find yourself constantly saying “yes” when you want to say “no,” you may have developed a fawn trauma response. This coping mechanism stems from a childhood where your needs were ignored or rejected.
As an adult, you instinctively avoid conflict and put others’ needs before your own. Though well-intentioned, this tendency to “people-please” prevents you from setting healthy boundaries. You may take on unpleasant tasks or ignore your triggers to avoid disapproval.
3. Hypervigilance to others’ needs – Seeking connection and avoiding conflict, those with fawn responses have a sixth sense for others’ needs. Their powers of perception allow them to read between the lines and decipher subtle signals.
While attuned to those around them, their inner voice grows fainter. In their quest to please, their personal needs often fall by the wayside. Yet truly relating to others starts with being true to oneself.
4. Difficulty expressing their needs – We all want to feel accepted and valued. But for some, the fear of rejection runs so deep that their needs get buried. Fawn types are so attuned to others that they lose touch with their inner compass.
Speaking up feels risky when belonging itself seems precarious. They may not even recognize their desires – their gaze fixed outward, not inward. This adaptive strategy kept them safe long ago.
Effects on Relationships
The fawn response can significantly impact relationships in various ways. Those who frequently use it often struggle to set healthy boundaries. They may say “yes” when they want to say “no” out of a subconscious desire to please others and avoid conflict. This can build resentment, lose one’s sense of self, and attract manipulative people.
They also tend to communicate passively. They may refrain from expressing their true feelings, needs, and opinions in their relationships. This pattern erodes intimacy, as their partners don’t know them. It also invites mistreatment, as others learn they can take advantage without hearing objections.
A fawn response can also contribute to a weak sense of identity. When the perceived desires of others overly influence decisions, one’s preferences and values often get suppressed. This lack of a strong inner compass can confuse one’s beliefs with those of a partner. It becomes difficult to know what you want when you reflexively defer to everyone around you.
Effects on Mental Health
People who engage in fawn response often suffer adverse mental health effects. The most common issues associated with fawn trauma response include:
- Anxiety – As most of them tend to be people pleasers, they are often anxious about displeasing others or being rejected. This chronic anxiety can lead to generalized anxiety disorder.
- Depression – Constantly putting other’s needs first while suppressing one’s own can lead to feelings of emptiness, worthlessness, and depression. Fawn types often feel alone and unsupported.
- Low self-esteem – It involves minimizing one’s needs to avoid conflict. This pattern erodes self-worth and self-confidence over time. Fawn types think their needs are unimportant.
- PTSD symptoms – Fawn response is a survival response to trauma. Being in a frequent state of submission around others can recreate feelings of past trauma, leading to emotional flashbacks, hypervigilance, nightmares, and other PTSD symptoms.
Overcoming Fawn Response
Fawn response is a coping mechanism that can be unlearned with time and effort. Here are some ways to overcome fawn response tendencies:
1. Set Boundaries: Start with setting boundaries amongst your close circle. Learn to reject requests causing discomfort or overstepping your personal space. Setting boundaries is an integral part of maintaining personal well-being and developing self-respect.
2. Practice Saying No: To become comfortable with setting boundaries, it’s crucial to practice declining. Begin in low-stakes situations to cultivate self-assertion skills before moving on to more challenging circumstances.
3. Address Core Shame: Individuals with a fawn response often have a deep-seated sense of shame. Therapy can help unravel these feelings. Constant reminders of your self-worth and daily affirmations can play a significant part in rebuilding your self-esteem.
4. Assertiveness Training: Working with a counselor or participating in assertiveness coaching can significantly help manage the fawn response. These sessions can include role-plays and exercises that teach you to assert your needs without aggression.
5. Inner Child Work: Recognizing when and how the fawn response pattern was established can often lead back to your childhood experiences. It’s essential to heal and nurture this ‘inner child.’ Activities like journaling, visualization techniques, and affirmations can reassure your inner child that they are safe.
Seeking Professional Help
Seeking professional help from a therapist can be highly beneficial for overcoming fawn responses and healing from trauma. Qualified mental health professionals are equipped with the skills and experience to guide you through this journey in a safe and supportive manner.
Benefits of Therapy
Therapy provides a space to process traumatic experiences with an empathetic, non-judgmental listener. A therapist can help you identify unhealthy fawn responses and rewire your brain to respond differently to triggers.
They can teach coping skills to manage anxiety and calm the nervous system. Therapy facilitates trauma recovery by building self-awareness, confidence, healthy boundaries, and communication skills.
1. Somatic Therapy: It focuses on the connection between the mind and body. It uses body-centered techniques to address past trauma that may be stored in the nervous system and muscles. Somatic practitioners help release stored tension through massage, breathing exercises, yoga, and movement. This can provide relief from chronic anxiety and fawn response symptoms.
2. EMDR: Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an effective treatment for PTSD and trauma. It uses bilateral brain stimulation through eye movements, taps, or sounds while recalling traumatic memories. This helps reprocess the memories so they become less distressing over time. EMDR can help overcome fawn response by rewiring the brain’s reactions to past trauma.
Finding the Right Therapist
Look for a licensed mental health professional specializing in trauma and with fawn response experience. They should make you feel safe, understood, and empowered. Don’t settle for a therapist that minimizes your concerns or pushes you past your comfort zone. Trust your gut feeling and find someone you connect with. With the right therapist, you can overcome fawn response, reclaim your needs, and heal.
Taking care of yourself is important to overcoming fawn responses and establishing healthier relationships and communication patterns. Here are some self-care tips to get you started:
1. Tuning Into Needs
Make a habit of checking in with yourself daily and identifying any needs you have that aren’t being met. Needs include physical needs like food, rest, and movement, and emotional needs like connection, validation, and understanding. Don’t ignore or downplay your needs – they are valid and important.
2. Relaxation Techniques
Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, visualization, yoga, or meditation. These can activate the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract anxiety and stress. Set aside time each day to calm both your mind and body.
Start incorporating positive affirmations into your daily routine by looking in the mirror and stating empowering phrases like “I deserve to have my needs met” or “My voice and opinions matter.” Affirmations can rewire neural pathways over time.
4. Support Groups
Join a support group, either in-person or online, to connect with others who understand the fawn response. Sharing stories and advice can make you feel less alone. Look for groups focused specifically on trauma, codependency, or people-pleasing.
5. Communicating Needs
A fawn response can make expressing your true feelings and needs in relationships difficult. You may be used to concealing your needs and automatically acquiescing to others. Communicating in a healthy, assertive way is crucial for overcoming fawn responses. Here are some tips:
- Practice nonviolent communication. Be clear about your feelings and needs without blaming or criticizing others. For example, “I feel hurt when my needs aren’t considered” vs. “You never care about my needs.”
- Take time to process your feelings before reacting. Don’t feel rushed into responding. Think through what you want to express.
- Script out what you want to say in challenging conversations. Writing it out can help organize your thoughts. Practice the script with a friend or therapist.
- Start small. Expressing little needs builds your confidence to express bigger ones then. Say no to little requests first.
- Be specific about your needs. Don’t hint—kindly and firmly state exactly what you require.
Recovery and Outlook
There are many reasons to be hopeful for overcoming fawn response trauma. While the effects of fawn trauma can be debilitating, recovery is possible with professional help, self-care, and community support.
Healing from fawn trauma is a journey that takes time, courage, and compassion. It may feel overwhelming initially, but each small step forward is progress. Many others have traveled this path before and recovered. Their success stories can inspire us that a better life lies ahead.
With professional counseling, people can process their traumatic experiences, leave victimhood behind, rediscover their needs and boundaries, and reclaim their power. Therapeutic techniques like EMDR can help to reprogram the brain’s response to triggers. Medication can ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Support groups provide community and remind us we are not alone.
While a fawn response feels like a survival instinct, it stops serving that purpose after the trauma. The good news is we can heal, transform our automatic reactions, and relate to others from a place of wholeness. We can move from surviving to thriving.
The future is bright for overcoming fawn trauma. Though the process has challenges, there are caring professionals, treatment options, and stories of hope to light the way. We can reclaim our lives, develop healthy relationships, and find freedom. With compassion for ourselves and others, we will get there.