Since the beginning of time, human beings have been equipped with different protective mechanisms and behavior patterns in order to ensure survival. As we evolve and the world changes, some of those innate instincts change, fade away, or new ones develop. In today's current world, the fawn response is no different.
The 4 Fs
When we are exposed to stress, a threat, or danger (real or perceived) stress hormones are released that enact physiological changes to protect us. These changes keep us alert and enable us to react in an instant when we are in life-threatening or traumatic situations.
The four Fs are the four instinctive reactions humans respond with when we are in stressful or dangerous situations. Fight and flight are the most well known trauma responses, but over the years, as we study and learn more about our psychology and physiology, we have added the freeze response, and the latest addition, fawn.
When in danger, you subconsciously evaluate the situation and your options and choose the course of action that seems most likely to keep you alive in that moment. Do you choose fight, flight, freeze, or fawn?
Someone in the fight response mode will physically or verbally fight the threat. People in this state will likely feel emotions such as anger and irritability and will retaliate or confront the threat head on.
Someone responding with flight will run away from the threat, avoid the threat, and find a place of safety and refuge. This can be done by actually running away, or avoiding a threatening situation as long as possible. This could look like someone regularly staying for an extra long time at school or work, staying busy with other activities, or simply wandering around the neighborhood.
Another response is to freeze. The freeze response can lead to physically being unable to move your body, but also can include mind paralyzation. The freeze response can debilitate you from making a decision on how to act or respond altogether.
Dissociating, numbing, isolating, and sleeping as a response to stressful situations can also be considered the freeze response.
The fawn response to trauma is not an uncommon one, but it is the newest accepted addition to the primary reactions to perceived danger. The fawn response is when an individual tries to avoid or minimize distress or danger by pleasing and appeasing the threat. Someone responding in this way would do whatever they can to keep the threat, or abuser, happy despite their own needs and wants.
The Fawn Trauma Response
Pete Walker is a psychotherapist who coined the term “fawn” and added it as the fourth F in the collection of instinctive responses to trauma. Someone using the fawn response will try to avoid conflict or danger, keep the peace, and ensure their safety at the expense of their own needs.
Signs of Fawning
A person responding by fawning will be heavily focused on others in an attempt to pacify, please, and cater to the needs of others, rather than their own.
Some traits of fawning include:
Total neglect of personal need and boundaries
Giving constant praise and compliments, even if it is not authentic
Inability to say “no”
Being a people pleaser
Having no sense of personal identity
Hypervigilance and awareness of others moods and emotions
Unaware of one's own emotions and feelings
Looks to others to find answer to how the feel or “should” feel
Makes themselves as helpful and useful as possible to others
Grants every wish and demand of others
Feeling guilty when not being helpful or able to fulfill someone’s request
Someone might declare themselves as non-confrontational, when really they’re fawning. It’s a learned habit from traumatic experiences.
Why Do People Fawn?
Complex trauma refers to a series or repeated traumatic events that occur over a period of time, rather than a single incident. Childhood trauma is often complex and can have effects well into adulthood. When we are young and in an unsafe, neglectful, or abusive (physical or emotional) environment, we adapt in order to survive and, ideally, minimize the danger.
A child exposed to repeated stressors or abuse, they may try different tactics to protect themselves. Some people may turn into fighters, or learn to dissociate or freeze. Some run, but this threatens survival in other ways. Others learn to “handle” their abuser by giving in to their every demand and making themselves useful.
This is the fawn response and it can serve to avoid abuse or lessen the severity of it at times. While the other F responses can occur during any type of trauma, complex or singular, the fawn response often is only seen in cases of abuse.
Trauma Responses and Attachment Styles
Our default trauma response is closely tied to our attachment style that typically develops in our formative years. When we are young, we are dependent on our primary caregivers to meet our basic survival needs as well as other additional needs.
As humans, we have these various trauma responses for a reason, in order to survive when in dangerous situations. A healthy upbringing allows individuals to access all four of the Fs, when appropriate. But an unhealthy upbringing may cause individuals to get stuck in a habitual F response, even when it no longer serves a purpose.
Some individuals have an overactive trauma response that is active or triggered excessively. Being alert and in a regular state of stress can contribute to poor physical and mental health, as well as relational.
What Happens Now?
This default behavior pattern can ripple into other relationships, regardless of if they are healthy relationships or a relationship you still need. Fawning may continue out of habit, to continue to avoid a threat, or because of a belief that you are only lovable if you are being useful or bolstering the other person. Fawning habits can bleed into both personal and professional relationships leading to an overly full plate and neglecting self-care.
However, the habits you’ve developed from your past does not have to be a life sentence. You can learn new mechanisms and unlearn old ones.
Better Habits to Practice
Some ways to combat a hyperactive fawn response to trauma include:
Acknowledge that this response once served and protected you—Think back and recognize why and how this became a pattern, and what it may look like when you do it. When you notice yourself doing it again, pause and think about whether or not it is truly necessary now.
Talk to someone—Good old fashioned talk therapy, as well as other more targeted types of trauma therapy can help you get to the root cause of the trauma, as well as develop strategies to resolve it.
Set boundaries—Setting boundaries in your relationships, both personal and professional, and sticking to them will help you avoid taking on too much for another person and let you focus on your needs.
Don’t apologize or over explain—When you set boundaries or say no to a request, you do not need to explain yourself or apologize. You have the right to say no for any reason, or even none at all.
Learn to say “no”—As someone who responds by fawning, you likely have a lot on your plate, say yes to adding more to it, and won’t ask for help with anything. When you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed, you can say no to adding more things to your to-do list, and you can relieve yourself of some of the stress by asking for help or delegating tasks.
Let go of relationships that no longer serve you—As a child, you depend on other people to survive, but as an adult, you have the ability to take care of yourself. This frees you from being tied to any unhealthy relationships that cause you more harm than good. Let them go and find people who treat you well and don’t take advantage of you.
Remind yourself of your worth—Your value as a human is not directly related to how useful you are. The right people will recognize that and not expect you to serve them.
The fawn response is an example of our ability to evolve and adapt as humans. It shows that we can grow and it can be helpful in particular situations, but not all the time.
The fawn trauma response demonstrates our ability to change, so when it reaches an unhealthy level, we know we can change. Your past does not have to define your future.
Resolving Trauma at Inner Balance
Inner Balance Counseling is here to listen and help you through as you begin to understand and break old behavior patterns. We’ll guide you in finding healthier ones that serve you better. Our specialized trauma therapists understand that these habits are a long time in the making, but you’re strong enough to break them. Reach out today to start your journey.