articles,  trauma

Understanding the Fawn Response

“Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.”

Pete Walker

Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” response to danger (or perceived danger). But what about the fawn response? Or the freeze response? These are additional responses that are often found in trauma survivors who were unable to fight or run from the situation they found themselves in. These additional trauma-based responses were first outlined by Pete Walker: doctor, survivor and author of the excellent book CPTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. You can find his article on the fawn response here.

In this article I outlined the freeze response to danger. I will now focus on the fawn response– another common response in traumatised people. The introduction to fight/flight/freeze/fawn below is taken from the previous article, so feel free to skip over it (head for the section “Signs of a fawn response”) if you have already read that one.

Fight/flight – the basics of survival.

Our nervous system is designed to activate in situations where we either are, or think we are in danger. In a split second, our brain analyses the situation and weighs up our chances. If the situation is one in which we think we are evenly matched, or stronger than our opponent, our natural response could be to fight them off (or argue back). If the situation is one in which we think we have a good chance of getting away we might choose the flight option, and run (or change the subject).

But what about those situations where we cannot fight, because we are completely outmatched, and we cannot run away, because we have no chance of getting away from the situation? In these situations we have a different set of responses to choose from.

Freeze / fawn- trauma responses

Freeze/fawn are both common responses in survivors. The freeze response refers to a “deer in the headlights” state, where the body and mind are paralysed with terror and unable to move. The brain, having realised there is no possible way to fight or run away- such as in cases of child abuse where the perpetrator is much older and stronger- simply dissociates and “numbs out” to avoid the reality of the situation. Natural opiates are released to decrease pain sensations and in extreme cases, the brain and body separate (dissociate) entirely. Those who tend towards a freeze response are also more likely to turn to alcohol, cannabis and opiates in later life to maintain this disconnection from reality.

The fawn response (sometimes called “feign“), is common amongst survivors of violent and narcissistic-type caregivers. It is “fawning” over the abuser- giving in to their demands and trying to appease them in order to stop or minimise the abuse. This occurs because, as a small child, we are entirely dependent on our care givers and if they are abusive, we still have to keep them “on our side” in order to stay alive. Those who tend towards a fawn response are more likely to find themselves trapped in co-dependent and abusive relationships in later life, willing to take more abuse from a partner than most people would without fighting or fleeing the situation.

Signs of a fawn response:

  • Lack of assertiveness
  • Finding it hard to say no to anyone
  • Backing down in disagreements
  • “Bending over backwards” to keep others happy
  • Neglecting own needs
  • Faking personality to “fit in” with others
  • Trying to “read” other people constantly
  • Fear of losing a partner by saying/doing the “wrong” thing
  • Avoiding conflict at all costs
  • Little to no personal boundaries
  • History of being “taken advantage of”
  • History of codependent relationships

If you recognise yourself in the above list, you might sometimes adopt a fawn response to cope with stress. Being helpful, accommodating and empathic to other’s needs are wonderful qualities to have, but in excess they can be very damaging. Of course, your personality and response to stressful situations is not set in stone, even if it is deeply ingrained due to childhood traumas. Once we recognise and accept these issues in ourselves, we have the power to change them.

What causes someone to adopt a fawn response?

As children, we were at the mercy of our caregivers. Our survival literally depended on our relationship with them. Children who experience a loving, healthy relationship with their caregivers learn that their needs matter, that they can say “no” and be heard, that relationships are reciprocal.

Children who experience abuse, however, develop maladaptive coping strategies to survive because they grow in an environment where love is scarce or a thing to be earned, where they are criticised, shouted at or hit for doing anything the caregiver does not approve of, where they are treated like slaves or second-class citizens. Their needs did not matter to the people most important to them.

Some children in this type of environment default to a ‘freeze’ response- becoming dissociated to reality, living inside their heads. Others learn that fawning over their caregivers- suppressing their own needs, being acquiescent and silent, taking care of everyone else’s needs- leads to a somewhat easier life. The child of a violent alcoholic parent might learn that running around after their parent fetching beers from the fridge, cleaning the house, making no demands, looking after their younger siblings is preferable to being screamed at or hit. This behaviour can continue into adulthood- the inner child who craves healing and acknowledgement leads us into one abusive relationship after another- both because the abuse feels familiar, and because the repetition of past situations can lead us to finally acknowledge that child within us, and begin to heal.

It is important to remember that, no matter how badly hurt we may be, healing is always possible. Though we may feel stuck in old ways of thinking and being, there is always a way out.

Feeling “unseen”

“Many of us live in denial of who we truly are because we fear losing someone or something-and there are times that if we don’t rock the boat, too often the one we lose is ourselves. It feels good to be accepted, loved, and approved of by others, but often the membership fee to belong to that club is far too high of a price to pay.”

Dennis Merritt Jones

Those who excessively fawn over others can easily lose themselves in the process. This leads to a strange feeling of never being seen by others- of other people not ever knowing the “real them”. This is because the real person is buried deep beneath layers of trauma, locked away inside, terrified to reveal themselves in case people don’t like them.

People with this coping mechanism tend to change their personality, likes and dislikes, and opinions based on what the people around them will like. They are unconsciously still terrified of saying the “wrong” thing because the fear of the violent caregiver still looms over them. They are afraid to assert their own needs and wants, and to set and maintain clear, healthy boundaries with others.

Co-dependency in relationships

Because of low self esteem and deep seated insecurity, the co-dependent cannot be the person they really are. Instead, they work to please the other person in order to ensure they will be loved. Therefore, a co-dependent submerges their needs for those of the other person.

Allan N. Schwartz

Those who tend towards the fawn response often find themselves in co-dependent relationships with addicts and/or abusive individuals. A co-dependent relationship is comprised of two “lost souls” who depend on each other to an unhealthy degree. Often there is a “victim/rescuer” dynamic involved. Where an emotionally healthy person sees red flags, the co-dependent sees a challenge. The partner of an alcoholic might live for years with the fantasy of “saving them from themselves”, while actually continuing to enable the alcoholic behaviour because in reality they are scared to lose their partner.

At the root of co-dependency is a need for control. The co-dependent feels they can control (and even manipulate) the behaviour of their partner if they sacrifice themselves and their boundaries. They feel that they are the only one who can “save” their partner, and they are happy to lose themselves in the process. A healthy relationship would actually feel terrifying to someone who has not addressed their co-dependent behaviour, because their partner would be more independent of them, and their sense of control would be diminished.

Sometimes, we hyper-focus on our partners, obsessing over their weaknesses and faults and trying to “fix” them, because we do not want to do the work of fixing ourselves- which is, ultimately, the only thing we do have control over.

So, how do we heal these wounds?

Healing is a life-long process of unfolding. By taking a long, honest look at ourselves, we begin the process. If you recognise fawning or co-dependent behaviours in yourself, don’t turn away from the realisation. Accept that you may have adopted some coping strategies that are not serving you anymore, but that helped you survive through some awful times. Never berate yourself for the ways in which you survived, but make a conscious choice to grow into the person you want to be.

Grieve, grieve, grieve.

Grieving is such an important part of the healing process. When we grieve, we acknowledge what was done to us, the effect it had on our lives. We acknowledge all that we have lost, and all the time we have spent engaging in unhealthy coping strategies. By acknowledging these losses, allowing the tears to fall, allowing space for all the heavy feelings- we acknowledge our hurt inner child. We let them know that they are not alone, not anymore. That their feelings matter and their pain is valid.

When we stop fighting painful emotions by numbing them, ignoring them, trying to rationalise them, and just allow them space to be, we begin the process of releasing them for good. Each time we return to those memories or feelings, they hurt a little less, and we grow a little more.

Focus on self care.

Fawn-types often put everyone else’s needs above their own. Make a conscious choice to focus on self-care- you could start with just one day a week if it feels intimidating. For that day, as much as you can, just go within. Ask your body what it needs, what would make it feel good. Do some exercise or gentle yoga. Run a bubble bath, use a face mask. Wallow in the tub with a good book for an hour. Sit in the garden, make yourself your favourite food for dinner. Have an afternoon nap. Give yourself that love you give so readily to other people. Think of that hurt, needy child within you- don’t they deserve love, too?

Self care is the foundation of self love. You matter- your needs matter, and it is not selfish to attend to them. The more you practise, the more caring for yourself will feel natural to you.

Get to know yourself.

As I said before, the reason many fawn-types feel “unseen” by others is that they hide their real self from the world. The real self can become so hidden that we might even feel like a stranger to ourselves.

Through journaling, therapy, shadow work and self reflection, we can develop a stronger sense of who we really are, and begin to present that person to the world. Not everyone will like you- and that’s fine! I am sure you don’t like everyone you meet, either. But when you are authentic, when you show your true self to the world, that is when you attract the people who really love you for who you are, which creates much more meaningful relationships than those in which you have bent yourself out of shape to please the other person.

Learn to set and enforce boundaries.

Boundaries are something many survivors find difficult, and learning to set and enforce them is vital for healing and developing healthy relationships. When we set boundaries, we are telling ourselves and others that we matter, that we have a right to assert our needs and wants. When we set boundaries and people violate them, it tells us that they do not respect our choices or individuality.

Fawn-types tend towards having weak or no boundaries. They repeatedly allow others to cross boundaries they have set, reinforcing their low self-esteem and signalling to abusive people that they are an “easy target”. When we learn to clearly speak our boundaries, and enforce them by calling out violations and cutting contact with repeat violators, our self-esteem grows. We begin to see ourselves as strong, worthy and deserving of respect both from ourselves and people in our lives.

Examples of healthy boundaries:

  • “I don’t feel like talking about that right now. I need some time to process first.”
  • “I need some alone time.”
  • “I feel frightened when you raise your voice like that.”
  • “I don’t like being tickled.”
  • “When you tease me about that, it upsets me.”
  • “Please don’t sneak up on me like that.”
  • “I can’t lend you any money.”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable right now. I’m going home.”

There are many different kinds of boundaries. You can use journaling to determine your own personal values, which will help you to define your own. Boundaries are not completely rigid- they may vary from person to person and situation to situation, and they may change over time. As a survivor, it will probably feel very strange at first, but as you practise with boundaries you will become more and more empowered and the process becomes easier.

I hope this article has helped you become more informed about the fawn response and given you some ideas for how you can heal. Above all, I would like you to remember:

Be kind to yourself.

Healing and growth require a lot of compassion, and fawn-types tend to have this in spades (when it comes to other people) – so always remember to extend this compassion to yourself.

You are stronger than you know, you have survived the worst. A beautiful future awaits!

Thank you so much for reading, thank you for Being!

With Love and in Love, always.

💜🌱

More articles from artoftrauma:

Ten Ways to Heal Trauma Part OnePart Two
Survivor’s Guide to Self Soothing
Trauma bonds (and how to break them)
Emotional Flashbacks- and how to cope.
Understanding the Freeze Response to Trauma
5 Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Trauma Symptoms you didn’t know were symptoms
5 Journal Prompts for Trauma Healing
5 More Journal Prompts for Trauma Healing
Survivor’s Guide to Shadow Work

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