We all experience trauma—an emotional or physical response to a disturbing or distressing event—in different ways. When faced with a situation that feels dangerous or overwhelming, we resort to various coping mechanisms to help us process the threat. Some people become angry or aggressive (fight response), some people choose to avoid or run away from the situation (flight response), and others respond by simply shutting down or dissociating (freeze response).
A fourth, less discussed, response to trauma is called fawning, or people-pleasing. The fawn response is a coping mechanism in which individuals develop people-pleasing behaviors to avoid conflict, pacify their abusers, and create a sense of safety.
What is people-pleasing?
People-pleasing is sometimes referred to as the “fawning” trauma response because it’s so closely associated with overly-appeasing behaviors and cycles of codependency. An example of people-pleasing is making decisions to please your parents at whatever cost–this could be anything from choosing your career path to deciding what to order for dinner based on someone else’s wishes.
Said to be first coined by Pete Walker, M.A., MFT, individuals who respond to trauma with fawning or people-pleasing tend to “seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others.” This means that a person will do whatever they can to avoid conflict—including abandoning their own needs, agreeing with their abuser, and going out of their way to receive approval or avoid abuse. Fawners may experience high levels of shame or guilt or believe they're worthy only of conditional love.
What kind of trauma causes people to be pleasing?
The fawn response is usually demonstrated by people who have been exposed to repeated traumatic events, as opposed to a one-time traumatic event such as a car crash or bad breakup. Fawning is most commonly associated with childhood trauma, relational trauma, and complex trauma—such as ongoing partner violence. Complex trauma can become even more problematic when coupled with the collective trauma that occurs from experiences like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fawning is also seen in teens and young adults who have difficult or dysfunctional relationships with parents or other family members. When a person grows up in a shame-based environment, they may feel the need to behave a certain way in order to avoid mistreatment or to cater to their caregiver's emotional needs. A child’s parents or caregivers might be abusive, controlling, or emotionally withholding, preventing them from developing a healthy relationship with emotions. In this kind of unsafe environment, children can easily become cut off from their own feelings. They may develop a heightened awareness of their parents’ distress and abandon their own feelings, needs, and desires to tend to the needs of their caregivers. Growing up into a "people-pleaser" can be a natural stress response under these circumstances.
This resulting people-pleasing often involves children taking on parental roles (known as parentification) and developing codependent relationships–not just with their parents or caregivers, but with many people in their lives. Further, for many people dealing with long term psychological trauma or complex PTSD, any perceived threat can be construed as an imminent danger, thus triggering an almost instinctual fawning trauma response.
Codependency versus people-pleasing
One of the side effects of fawning is codependency. Codependency, or relationship addiction, is a behavioral condition that affects a person’s ability to have a healthy, two-sided relationship. It’s typically a learned behavior from other family members and often affects people who have a family member who is suffering from substance use or a chronic mental health condition.
Children who engage in people-pleasing behaviors are often overly dependent on other people and can be vulnerable to narcissists or others who want to mantipare or control their actions.
How to spot people-pleasing behaviors
Most of us want to make our friends and family happy, but it’s important to note that people-pleasing is not the same as showing kindness or compassion to others. Instead, it’s an unhealthy defense mechanism that can have consequences on a person’s mental health and quality of life.
People who exhibit the fawning response to trauma tend to have certain people-pleasing behaviors. Below are a few ways to help you understand if you’re prone to fawning or people-pleasing.
- You have trouble saying no or setting healthy boundaries in relationships
- You're constantly seeking approval or trying to please other people
- You worry too much about other people’s needs
- You don’t feel like you understand your authentic self
- You turn to others to determine how you feel in a relationship or situation
- You find it difficult to identify and understand your feelings
- You frequently feel like you’re walking on eggshells because you are afraid of how other people will react
- You try to control others’ decisions in an effort to feel emotionally safe
- You experience guilt when you’re upset with others and immediately blaming yourself (sometimes called “self-gaslighting”)
- When there is conflict, your initial instinct is to "appease" the angry person
- You ignore your own needs, preferences, thoughts, and feelings to please others
- You shapeshift your needs depending on others’ moods (not just parents or caregivers, but everyone)
How to stop fawning
If you find that you're too focused on the needs of others or have trouble standing up for yourself, there’s a chance you could be trapped in a cycle of fawning. When left untreated, people-pleasing can become a toxic pattern that affects personal and professional relationships during adulthood. Untreated trauma can also lead to serious mental health consequences, including an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The youth mental health crisis in the U.S. adds another level of urgency. While suicide rates dipped in 2019 and 2020, a new CDC report shows that 2021 brought back near-record levels-approximately 14 deaths by suicide for every 10,000 people. Between 2020 and 2021, suicide rates among young girls, specifically ages 10 to 14, increased more than any other group. This trend was closely followed by suicide rates for teenage boys and young men ages 15 to 24.
For those struggling to cope with fawning, therapy plays an important role in understanding the cause of the trauma and developing healthier coping strategies. Trauma-informed treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) are said to be effective for helping people to set boundaries and prioritize their own emotions when breaking the cycle of people-pleasing.
In addition to psychotherapy, there are other self-care practices you can follow to manage people-pleasing and other stressful effects of trauma.
- Acknowledge your emotions
Fawners and people-pleasers tend to over-apologize, repress their emotions, and have trouble expressing their needs. It can be difficult to shake trauma-related feelings of guilt or shame, so show yourself some compassion as you connect with your emotions and build the skills to cope.
- Validate your needs
Self-care is a valuable tool for coping with trauma and prioritizing mental health. Take time to ask yourself what it is you need to feel your best, and remember that a balanced diet, quality sleep, and exercise are the pillars of good health.
- Get creative
Music can be an incredibly effective way for children and teens to express and process traumatic experiences, feel more empowered, manage difficult emotions, develop trust, and build social awareness. Of course, any form of therapy must be facilitated by qualified professionals.
- Create boundaries
People-pleasers may have learned to protect themselves by trying to make everyone else around them happy. Taking the time to set healthy boundaries may help to end cycles of codependency.
Final note: The fawning response is a new area of development. Many therapists have seen it described by their clients, and many clients find that it's a useful framework when processing their responses to traumatic experiences. More research is needed to fully explore this response
Find help with Charlie Health
Trauma responses like fawning or excessive people-pleasing can lead to more serious mental health challenges if left untreated. If you or someone you know is struggling to break the cycle of people-pleasing behaviors, consider Charlie Health.
Charlie Health offers 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, and family therapy to help you build resilience, begin healing, and break free from cycles of trauma.