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Is Fawning a Trauma Response? What You Need to Know

Updated: July 30, 2023

6 min.

Fawning is a people-pleasing trauma response meant to avoid conflict in the short term, but it can negatively impact long-term mental health.

By: Dr. Caroline Fenkel, DSW, LCSW


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Most of us want to make our friends and family members happy. But if you’re constantly going above and beyond for everyone or feeling guilty when you don’t put others first, you might be experiencing a trauma response called “fawning.”

Commonly seen in trauma survivors, fawning is a people-pleasing behavior meant to avoid conflict. In the short term, fawning may prevent arguments and create a feeling of safety, but it can lead to negative mental health outcomes in the long term. If you are fawning, you may ignore your needs to avoid arguments and find it impossible to stand up for yourself—behaviors that can take a toll on your mental health. If you’re a trauma survivor or think you may be fawning, keep reading to learn about what the fawn response looks like and how to recover from fawning. 

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What does it mean if someone is fawning? 

If someone is fawning, it often means they are trying to cope with complex trauma by appeasing others—sometimes including an abuser. When growing up in a dangerous environment, some people become aggressive (fight response), while others run away (flight response), while others still are unable to make a decision (freeze response). According to Pete Walker, M.A., complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is often associated with a fourth possible response: the so-called fawn response. In other words, fawning is a trauma response where a person behaves in a people-pleasing way to avoid conflict and establish a sense of safety. 

When faced with trauma, fawning serves as a coping mechanism. By developing a fawn trauma response, trauma survivors attempt to avoid conflict by pleasing their abuser. The fawn might agree with everything the abuser says, do things that will earn them approval, or set aside their personal feelings to avoid abuse.

For some people, the fawn response can turn into a normal behavior pattern that they carry into adulthood, especially if they’re dealing with toxic relationships or high-conflict situations. Individuals with the fawn response pattern may be targeted by narcissists—a relationship dynamic wherein the fawn response can create a dangerous cycle of codependency.

What kind of trauma causes fawning?

As mentioned, fawning is often associated with complex trauma and can develop as a coping mechanism when an individual feels powerless, threatened, or unsafe. Here are some common types of trauma that can lead to the development of a fawning response: 

  • Childhood abuse: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse experienced during childhood can lead to the development of fawning to appease the abuser to avoid further harm.
  • Intimate partner violence: People experiencing abuse in intimate relationships may develop fawning responses to pacify their abuser and reduce the risk of further harm.
  • Emotional neglect: Growing up in an environment where emotional needs are consistently ignored or invalidated can lead to the development of fawning as a way to seek attention and validation from others.
  • Bullying: People who experience bullying or prolonged social rejection may adopt fawning as a survival strategy to fit in or avoid further bullying.
  • Institutional or systemic abuse: Trauma experienced within oppressive or abusive systems, such as in institutions, cults, or authoritarian environments, can also lead to fawning as a means of survival.

What does the fawn response look like?

‍Trauma survivors often develop a fawn response during childhood, making it difficult to recognize in adulthood. Survivors of childhood trauma may find themselves fawning not just with their abuser but with everyone in their life.

For some people, the fawn trauma response may occur with other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as nightmares, flashbacks, emotional outbursts, and a loss of control. Meanwhile, other people might experience the fawn response on its own.

Some key signs of the fawning trauma response include:

  • You look to others to see how you feel in a relationship or situation
  • You have trouble identifying your feelings, even if you’re alone
  • You feel like you have no identity or authentic self
  • You’re constantly trying to please other people, whether through flattery, affection, or catering to the demands of others
  • At the first sign of conflict, your first instinct is to “appease” the angry person
  • You ignore your own beliefs, needs, preferences, thoughts, and feelings to please others
  • You have trouble setting healthy boundaries in relationships

Young children and adolescents displaying fawning behaviors may experience intense worry about their primary caregivers or feel preoccupied with their caregiver’s emotional needs. They may also be overly cautious during personal interactions with caregivers.

Young woman laying in bed on her phone in a white shirt. The woman experiences a trauma response called fawning.

How can you recover from fawning?

In order to recover from fawning, people must treat the underlying issue—trauma, including PTSD and C-PTSD. Therapeutic interventions are the most effective treatment for trauma, especially childhood trauma. Treating complex trauma, including PTSD and C-PTSD, also requires therapeutic interventions. Therapy can help you reconnect with your inner child, helping you recognize the damaging core beliefs that shaped your behaviors during childhood. Here are some common types of therapy that can help people address trauma and recover from fawning: 

Trauma-focused therapy

Trauma-focused therapy, including trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) and trauma-informed PTSD treatment, helps people process and work through traumatic experiences. These therapies aim to reduce trauma-related symptoms and harmful trauma coping strategies, like fawning. Trauma-informed PTSD treatment, for instance, can help you nurture your inner child, practice self-compassion, and move past the emotional pain of childhood trauma. In this therapy, individuals with the fawn trauma response can learn to set healthy boundaries, prioritize their emotions, and interact with others without needing to people-please.

Somatic therapy

Trauma can have a profound impact on both the mind and body. In traditional talk therapies, individuals may find it challenging to fully express and process their traumatic experiences, as trauma is often stored in implicit, nonverbal memory systems. Somatic therapy recognizes the importance of incorporating the body and somatic experiences into the therapeutic process to address trauma. Various therapeutic modalities, including Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), fall under the category of somatic therapy and can be useful ways to address trauma stored in the body. These therapies integrate the body’s experiences into the therapeutic process to help people manage trauma responses, including fawning. 

Group therapy and support groups

Participating in trauma-informed group therapy or support groups can offer a sense of validation, belonging, and understanding. Trauma-informed group therapy allows trauma survivors to share their experiences with others who understand what they’ve been through. It can also help trauma survivors build resilience, normalize experiences, and learn skills to handle trauma responses, including fawning. 

Trauma support at Charlie Health

If you’re dealing with unresolved trauma, Charlie Health may be able to help. Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers support to people and families dealing with mental health challenges, including trauma. 

Our IOP combines trauma-informed supported groups, family therapy, and individual therapy to help you build resilience and start healing. By working with our trauma-informed therapists, you can recognize your brain’s response to trauma, understand the cause of the trauma, and develop healthier coping strategies.

Whether you’re experiencing PTSD symptoms or struggling with people-pleasing tendencies, our compassionate, experienced mental health professionals will provide a safe place for you to heal, grow, and work through trauma so you can become the best version of yourself. If you think virtual IOP could help with your trauma, fill out our form or call the number below to connect with our Admissions Team and get started.

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