Fawning: The Lesser Known Trauma Response
Imagine you’re on a leisurely hike in the mountains and you come face-to-face with a grizzly bear.
Your brain’s limbic system, the part of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses, flips into survival mode. Perhaps you’re equipped with a weapon and decide to fight off the bear. Or maybe you recognize the likelihood the bear will win the battle, so you turn and bolt down the mountain path. You might even freeze to see if the bear loses interest and walks away.
You have most likely heard of the fight, flight, or freeze responses depicted above to explain a person’s reactions to situations that feel physically or emotionally threatening. However, a lesser known trauma response is the fawn response. The fawn response is “a response to a threat by becoming more appealing to the threat,” according to marriage and family therapist, Pete Walker, who coined the term in 2020.
Fawning may mascaraed as agreeableness or even selflessness. However, the difference between these intentional acts of compromise and fawning is that the latter is an unconscious trauma response that neglects your own needs to meet the approval of the other person.
What makes someone respond in a fawn response rather than one of the other types of trauma responses varies by the individual but is most likely linked to ongoing, complex trauma, rather than a single traumatic incident. For example, a child growing up in a toxic household who learns that keeping the peace and people-pleasing allows for them to escape physical or emotional abuse, could potentially rely on fawning as an adult when feeling threatened or in danger.
An important detail to notice about any trauma response is that people only have to feel threatened, meaning, they may not be in danger but they perceive that they are. Danger, in this circumstance, could be either physically or emotionally based. Some examples of emotional threats are abandonment, feeling unloved, rejection, or disapproval.
So, what can you do if you feel as though your response is to bow down and neglect your own needs, even in times where the perceived threat is minimal or non-existent? Part of the healing for adults who have been sensitized to denying their own needs as children in the quest for safety is beginning to set and maintain healthy boundaries in relationships. This may be difficult to do if you haven’t ever considered what your needs and wants are, so beginning to get to know yourself can be a helpful step. For instance, maybe you go along with anything your partner suggests when it is date night, not because you like it, but because you want to keep the peace and saying “no” in any situation makes you feel uneasy. Beginning with something as simple as figuring out what restaurants you enjoy and speaking up is a step towards advocating for yourself.
Although beginning to set boundaries is definitely easier said than done, each time you challenge that voice in your head that says you need to agree or you are not loved/worthy/kind/good enough, or any other fear that fuels the fawning response, it becomes less and less intimidating if you are engaging with a supportive person. This last point is very important because if you are in a co-dependent or abusive relationship, fawning is likely a way you are able to maintain safety, just as discussed earlier about a child in a toxic household. In this case, couples counselling or individual counselling would be necessary to adjust to relational norms established without healthy boundaries.
Article by: Katie Card
Katie is a registered psychologist working out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She counsels individuals and couples in the areas of addiction, trauma, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and personal growth.