- Trauma responses are not a choice, they are the body's instinctual reaction to danger.
- Fawning is an unconscious attempt to keep us safe and maintain connection in an unsafe environment or relationship.
- Fawning can become habituated, appearing like personality, without ever knowing its origins as a traumatic response to threat.
I never saw myself as a “people pleaser,” certainly not at my own expense. The phrase alone inspired shame and judgment, echoing things I’d heard throughout my life: “Don’t be a doormat.” “Why don’t you just put yourself first?!” Compulsive caretaking seemed like a choice, and an obvious one not to make.
Fast forward decades into adulthood, as I was putting the pieces of my childhood trauma together with all the ways it had impacted me, I came across the term, “Fawning.” It was coined by Pete Walker, a psychotherapist who specializes in complex trauma (synonymous with developmental, relational or childhood trauma). Walker saw fawning as the fourth “F” of trauma responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn. It was particularly common for people who had, or were experiencing, long-term, relational trauma.
Walker describes fawning as “a response to a threat by becoming more appealing to the threat,” a mirroring or merging with others’ desires or expectations in order to diffuse conflict and find safety. We surrender our boundaries and lack assertiveness when we are fawning. We over accommodate, appease and submit to the very person or people who have harmed us.
While fawning is meant to neutralize danger, it also causes us to abandon our own needs, thereby reinforcing our wounds.
Learning about this trauma response, I felt seen for perhaps the first time in my life. I made sense to myself in a way that didn’t inspire shame. It helped me understand my state of mind in childhood and how I reflexively responded. Like all trauma responses, fawning wasn’t a choice, it was survival.
But it also pointed to something I’d never delved into, not as a client on multiple therapy couches over the years, not even as a clinical psychologist: all the ways I played into my abuser’s hands. Like, trying to stay in his good graces, to make his happy moods last a little bit longer. And how these became chronic, auto-pilot responses, particularly with men in positions of authority, for years to come.
As a teenager, living with a narcissistic stepfather, I remember feeling like I was emotionally prostituting myself. He would swing from icing me out with the silent treatment and steep punishments to giving me lavish gifts and attention. As though a switch had been flipped, I went from being furious to fawning: saying what I knew he wanted to hear, expressing my gratitude for his generosity while swallowing my rage. I felt like two different people, the real me, and the one I had to become in order to endure my circumstances. And I hated myself for it.
I didn’t experience my value or worth in safe and nurturing environments, so my body learned to fawn, trying to keep other people happy or in appreciation of me, in order to prove myself worthy or valuable.
I repeated this pattern to such a degree that by the time I learned about fawning, I had decades of unconscious behaviors to unpack. All the ways I’d privileged other people, tolerated abusive behavior while propping people up. I believe my career as a psychologist was partially built on this foundation, thinking my value could only be found in my helpfulness or caretaking.
Having been sexualized by my stepfather at an early age, my sexuality became intrinsically tied to fawning as a way of morphing into someone’s perceived desire. Fawning looked like flirting when I wasn’t attracted or interested in a person, playing into their fantasy while hoping to keep them at bay. This led to countless boundary crossings by older, married, inappropriate men. I was always shocked when they eventually crossed a line, never understanding how or why I was being pursued this way again, or how I was reenacting my childhood trauma.
We’ve long been aware of the pushback survivors receive when they have frozen in the face of danger. “Why didn’t you just leave, run, tell…?” These are common questions aimed at blaming and shaming victims of abuse. With fawning, the shaming can feel worse because it often appears that we had some agency in the situation. And in some sense, we did.
Using polyvagal theory (psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Porges' model of the autonomic nervous system), I appreciate researcher Janae Elisabeth’s interpretation that a fight or flight response is like putting your foot on the gas pedal. It’s what creates movement and momentum to fight or flee when we are in danger. Freeze is like putting your foot on the brake, disconnecting or dissociating from unsafe events and our bodies. Fawning can be seen as putting one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the brake, at the same time. We have just enough social engagement to appease, while disconnecting from our true selves.
Although it appears like we are agreeable, it’s important to understand this as a mask for the terror that lies beneath. True self-expression is trapped, or only allowed in small doses that don’t rock the boat. Finding safety in a predatory relationship is always the priority, trumping self-esteem, self-care, honoring ourselves as separate beings in any way.
Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D. states, “The fawn response involves people-pleasing to the degree that an individual disconnects from their own emotions, sensations, and needs. In childhood, this occurs because they must withhold expressing their authentic emotions of sadness, fear, and anger in order to avoid potential wrath or cruelty from a parent or caregiver. As a result, they turn their negative feelings toward themselves in the form of self-criticism, self-loathing, or self-harming behaviors. In adulthood, an unresolved fawn response can then become the root of co-dependence, depression, or somatic symptoms of pain and illness.”
Because fawners experience a modicum of safety while being exploited, their nervous systems become accustomed to not only tolerating chaos and exploitation, but feeling a sense of control within them. This dynamic is the foundation for both trauma reenactment and trauma bonding, which is why I found myself in so many dysfunctional relationships over the years.
The more I’ve understood and discussed my experiences of fawning, the more I’m hearing from countless people who have a similar story to tell. We are finding our voices after a lifetime of shame. We are removing blame from ourselves and placing it where it belongs. In understanding how we were traumatized, doing exactly what we needed in order to survive, we are finally finding a truer sense of safety that doesn’t compromise any part of who we are.
Elisabeth, Janae. “Fawn: The Trauma Response That is Easiest to Miss.” Trauma Geek, Sept, 2022. https://www.traumageek.com/blog/fawn-the-trauma-response-that-is-easies…
Schwartz, Arielle. “The Fawn Response in Complex PTSD.” www.drarielleschwartz.com, March 9, 2021. https://drarielleschwartz.com/the-fawn-response-in-complex-ptsd-dr-arie…
Walker, Pete. (2013). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. Lafayette, CA: Azure Coyote Publishing.