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, it could be the result of childhood trauma.
Even if you can easily stand up for others, you might find it difficult, or even impossible, to stand up for yourself. You might try to "appease" those who treat you badly or ignore your own needs to avoid arguments and conflicts. As a form of complex trauma, the “fawning” response is an unhealthy defense mechanism that can take a serious toll on your mental health.
What is fawning?
Fawning is a trauma response where a person develops people-pleasing behaviors to avoid conflict and to establish a sense of safety. In other words, the fawn trauma response is a type of coping mechanism that survivors of complex trauma adopt to "appease" their abusers.
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.
By developing a fawn trauma response, trauma survivors attempt to avoid conflict altogether by pleasing the abuser. They 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, where the fawn response can create a dangerous cycle of codependency.
What does the fawn response look like?
Trauma survivors often develop the fawn response during childhood, which can make it difficult to recognize in adulthood. Survivors of childhood trauma may find themselves doing this 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.
How can you recover from fawning?
The most effective treatment for complex trauma, including PTSD, involves therapeutic interventions. Therapy can help you reconnect with your inner child, helping you recognize the damaging core beliefs that shaped your behaviors during childhood. In particular, trauma-informed PTSD treatment can help you nurture your inner child, practice self-compassion, and move past the emotional pain of childhood trauma.
Through PTSD treatment, individuals with this type of response can develop effective strategies to set healthy boundaries, prioritize their own emotions, and interact with others without feeling the need to people-please.
Navigating unresolved trauma can feel intimidating, but therapy can be a valuable tool during recovery. By working with a therapist trained in the treatment of PTSD, you can recognize your brain's response to trauma, understand the cause of the trauma, and develop healthier coping strategies.
At Charlie Health, we offer virtual mental health treatment for adolescents, young adults, and families experiencing mental health crises. Our intensive outpatient program (IOP) combines trauma-informed therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and can arrange access to psychiatric support (if needed) to help you build resilience and start healing.
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.