Fawn Is The Trauma Response Tied To People-Pleasing and Toxic Relationships — Here’s How To Heal

You’ve likely heard of trauma responses like fight, flight, or freeze. But have you heard of “fawn?” Fawning is a trauma response characterized by appeasing a predator or complying with their demands to avoid danger and mitigate threat. According to licensed therapist and complex trauma expert Pete Walker who coined the term, “Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others.” Children who grow up in abusive and chaotic environments can find themselves “fawning” to their caretakers out of a need to survive. They learned that in order to survive threatening situations and maintain access to food, resources, shelter, and to avoid abandonment, they had to obey the demands of their abusers. This is a deeply ingrained and embedded subconscious survival response that they can carry onto adulthood. You may be experiencing fawn trauma responses if you find yourself regularly people-pleasing, avoiding conflict, overapologizing and overexplaining, attempting to overly meet the needs and expectations of others while neglecting your own, and forfeiting your boundaries to avoid abandonment by predatory people.

People who experience traumatic experiences as adults can also react by “fawning” – for example, in situations of domestic violence, sexual assault, kidnapping, hostage situations, chronic manipulation, or situations where trauma bonding and becoming enmeshed with the predator can act as key survival mechanisms. Sometimes the threat that leads us to fawn is not a physical threat but a psychological one. For complex trauma survivors especially, the fawn response can also arise in response to psychological threats like the threat of abandonment, heightened emotional and psychological abuse, or fear of retaliation which may have been life-threatening situations in childhood and can feel similarly in adulthood. Here are three powerful ways you can battle a fawn trauma response effectively:

Regulate your nervous system on a daily basis.

Survivors who grow up in chaos are accustomed to being punished and berated for speaking out. As a result, they learn to silence their inner voice and defer to others. Their minds and bodies are conditioned to revert back to these trauma responses as a way of life. To be clear, there are times that “fawn” can save your life – for example, appeasing a kidnapper may keep you alive for enough time for you to escape. There are also times it can overwhelm and debilitate you from making choices in your best interest, or place you in even more danger – for example, going on a second date with someone who has shown red flags of being a dangerous predator because you feel uncomfortable saying no. Regulating your nervous system can help you better recognize when a fawn trauma response may be hindering rather than helping you. You can do this through activities like mindfully breathing, engaging in vagus nerve exercises supported by research (such as humming, applying a cold compress on your neck, or using box breathing methods), yoga, meditating, laughter therapy, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, gentle exercise like walking, connecting with nature, and grounding exercises. You can also work with a trauma-informed therapist using specialized therapies such as DBT or EMDR to process traumas that may still be affecting you and learn effective emotional regulation tools. This will help you in making decisions that benefit you while still keeping you safe.

Get in touch with and identify your authentic emotions – including anger.

Identifying and validating your own emotions can be key to fighting people-pleasing in situations where it is safer to speak up and set boundaries than it is to silence yourself. Although there are times anger can be expressed maladaptively, anger can be a vital survival response used to protect and defend ourselves, allowing us to go into “fight” mode when it is necessary to battle danger. It can also help us to “unfreeze” and become “unstuck” in states of learned helplessness and effectively own our agency and power. A person who is accustomed to fawning may unfortunately become a target for manipulators and abusers looking to exploit their trauma responses, so staying connected to a healthy sense of outrage when violated is actually essential to keeping ourselves safe. Journaling can be a powerful tool to stay mindful of when fawning is making you susceptible to manipulation. Whenever challenging situations occur, write down what you felt and how it may have been different from how others wanted you to feel or you wished you “could” have felt to please others (i.e. I feel like everyone expects me to let this go, but I still feel angry). Connect with that emotion and the basic right it relates to (i.e. That person talked down to me. I didn’t deserve that. I deserve respect.) Keep a track record of times you felt angry but didn’t speak up. What were the pros and cons of fawning? The perceived benefits and the actual consequences? Once you get to know what you think will happen and what does happen in situations where you fawn or don’t fawn, you can get better acquainted with the possibilities and choices you have available. You can make a “tiered” list of these options that evaluate the decisions you can make ranked by these benefits, consequences, and safety level. Reminding yourself you have a choice can help to ease the anxiety and burden of deciding how you can act in your best interest without having to cater to toxic people.

Master Your Body and People-Pleasing Tendencies By Taking Up Space

Identify situations where you tend to become anxious, hyperaroused, and irritable. Additionally, observe times when you were hypoaroused, emotionally numb, or dissociated, and write down how you typically responded in both states. This will give you a sense of your behavioral patterns in different dysregulated states. What did you feel in your body? Where did your body tend to “store” the tension and anxious energy or if you felt numb, what kind of bodily sensations did you experience? How did you “cower” both physically and emotionally in response to perceived danger? Challenge yourself to begin taking up space. Start small and begin speaking up for yourself in ways that still feel safe: say no to smaller requests, stop apologizing as often and overexplaining as much, and ask yourself how you genuinely feel about something rather than feeling pressured to take on the beliefs and opinions of others as your own. Notice what happens to your body and mind each time you do. You may experience discomfort. That’s okay. It means your body and mind are relearning what it means to take up space and feel worthy of it. You want to incrementally work toward setting healthier boundaries in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you. At the same time, you also want to teach yourself that you can still keep yourself safe and approve of yourself even in situations where you risk abandonment or someone else’s disapproval.

Different situations will call for different actions and your nervous system needs time to adjust to this new empowerment. Sometimes asserting yourself will be more loud and proud – like standing up to a bully with a safe witness by your side. Other times, you may have to self-validate and take actions that most benefit you without necessarily rocking the boat all the way because that feels like the safest route to take. Perhaps this time, however, you don’t apologize for your boundaries or act obsequious to the people oppressing you. It can also help to engage in “power posing” which can help you increase a sense of empowerment to embody what it would feel like to do the opposite. Practice what it would feel like to gain mastery over your mind and body – shift your posture, stand up tall, figuratively get ready to “fight back.” What actions would you take from this empowered state?

Practice self-compassion and give yourself grace. If a friend was struggling with people-pleasing or a similar situation as you, what boundaries would you remind them they deserve to have? How would you ask them to shift gently from self-blame to self-compassion? Now imagine that friend is you and begin talking to yourself as you would someone you deeply cared about and would feel angry on behalf of if they were violated. This is the self-compassionate stance that will help you remember you are truly worthy and deserving of asserting yourself in situations where you need to defend and protect yourself from harm. Even if you fear others abandoning you, you don’t have to abandon yourself.

About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.