The Fawn Response: It’s Not Just Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Written by: Angela Derrick, Ph.D. & Susan McClanahan, Ph.D.

Date Posted: July 6, 2024 10:18 am

The Fawn Response: It’s Not Just Fight, Flight, or Freeze

The Fawn Response: It’s Not Just Fight, Flight, or Freeze

The Fawn Response to Trauma Explained

The fawn response is a trauma reaction in which individuals respond to perceived threats by engaging in people-pleasing behaviors in order to avoid conflict and ensure their safety. Fawning is considered a survival mechanism. It is one of the four primary trauma responses, alongside fight, flight, and freeze.

How Does the Fawn Response Develop?

It often develops in childhood, particularly in environments where there is frequent criticism, neglect, or emotional abuse. It can also develop within toxic relationships with friends, bosses, coworkers, or intimate partners. Interpersonal behaviors from others that might initially lead someone to develop the fawn response can include:

  • Taking out their unregulated emotions on you verbally or physically
  • Being neglectful or violent and unable to care for you in consistently supportive ways due to mental illness, grief, addiction, or other serious hardships
  • Blaming you for their problems
  • Scaring you or causing you harm when you disagree or make a mistake
  • Giving love and acceptance conditionally, based on what you provide for them or how you make them feel
  • Exhibiting a negative response when you display authentic emotions
  • Constantly shaming or criticizing

The term “Fawning”  was coined by Pete Walker, a psychotherapist who specializes in complex trauma. According to Walker, “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.” 

What Might the Fawn Response Look Like in Action?

  • Excessively prioritizing others’ needs at the expense of our own
  • Struggling to say “no”
  • Having difficulty recognizing and asserting feelings and needs
  • Constantly seeking approval from others in an attempt to feel worthy
  • Finding it difficult or impossible to set boundaries and maintain them
  • Walking on eggshells to not “rock the boat,” knowing that bad things will happen if we do
  • Hypervigilance
  • A false belief that if we can get people to love us more, they will stop neglecting or abusing us
  • Over-empathizing with the person harming us and thereby allowing the behavior to continue
  • Losing our identity by being overly concerned with and fearful of other people’s opinions about us
  • Minimizing or making excuses for the other person’s harmful behavior
  • Appearing overly cooperative and helpful
  • Making decisions most often based on others’ preferences
  • A belief that choosing others over ourselves makes us a “good person”
  • Difficulty trusting ourselves
  • Inability to speak up for ourselves
  • Unable to notice red flags in relationships
  • Blaming ourselves for anything bad that happens at work or in relationships

Fawning behavior attempts to maintain a sense of safety and prevent harm. This response can become ingrained, appearing as a personality trait rather than a maladaptive behavior, and can lead to issues such as co-dependency, depression, anxiety, and self-abandonment.

What Happens When We Abandon Our Own Needs?

People pleasing comes with a heavy price. When we constantly go above and beyond or feel guilty when we don’t put the needs of others first, we begin to lose our sense of self. When we attempt to disarm angry people or procure love through approval-seeking behaviors, we lose pieces of our identity in the process.

When engaged in the fawn response, we can vacillate between a sugary sweet niceness and explosive anger. If we act out on the anger, we can feel deep remorse but continue to repeat the cycle. We may swallow our anger only to experience anxiety, depression, and panic as a result.

At its core, people pleasing is dishonest as we attempt to control or manipulate outcomes and attitudes to feel safe, manage how others see us, and not experience abandonment. While the fawn response may have started as a protective coping mechanism, especially in childhood, we find that as adults, we only end up hurting ourselves and producing the very things we were trying to avoid.

How Can We Heal the Fawn Response?

The fawn response is a survival strategy that can be challenging to overcome. We may feel that too big of a deal is made as we minimize the neglect or emotional harm done to us and consider that it only rises to the level of abuse if we are being physically assaulted or having our lives directly threatened. To that, we can say that our bodies do not differentiate or care about the nature of the trauma. If we have suffered ANYTHING that makes us feel chronically unsafe or not good enough, our brains will go into survival mode, and oftentimes, that plays out as the fawn response.

We want to emphasize that there is no shame in needing to overcome the fawn response, as it is not our fault that we have in the first place. We can, however, take responsibility to seek the help and healing we need. We deserve to recover our true selves and find wholeness. The following are a few practical steps we can take to aid in the healing process:

Practice Self-Compassion

Be gentle with yourself and remember that suffering from the fawn response only makes you human. Try not to blame yourself for the trauma you’ve been through, but instead, honor the strength you have exhibited in surviving through terrifying circumstances that were never your fault to begin with.

Connect To Yourself Through Mindfulness

By fully engaging with our environment and staying present in each moment, we can start to tune in to our real needs and emotions. The fawn response has us centering other people at the expense of our mental and physical well-being. Mindfulness will help us re-center our attention and action on ourselves, allowing us to focus on caring for our needs.

Become Aware of Your Body’s Signals

Start paying attention to the physical sensations you feel in your body when confronted with a person who is upset or angry. You may notice a tightness in your chest, a sick feeling in your stomach, or feel panicky and dizzy. Likely, you will automatically blame yourself and may go directly into problem-solving mode by fawning. Start becoming aware of and tending to the fears that are triggered by angry people or people you perceive as authority figures.

Practice Being Yourself

Start practicing being assertive, setting healthy boundaries, and speaking your truth. Remember that implementing these new behaviors will take time, so go easy on yourself and start small. Practice being truthful when you are struggling, letting people see your true self a little at a time, and allowing yourself to receive love and appreciation just for being you and not for what you give. Finding a recovery group as well as a good therapist can make a huge difference in staying the course. With like-minded people, we can find much-needed encouragement and also consistent support. We never have to go it alone.

Healing from the fawn response does not mean we stop caring about others. Instead, we learn to keep a healthy focus on ourselves, our truth, and our own needs. We stop going over the line of people pleasing in an attempt to feel a sense of self-worth, keep the peace, or ensure that we are never abandoned. We learn that our recovery and agency are not contingent on what anybody else thinks of us or their actions toward us. We don’t need their permission or approval to be worthy or feel okay as we are. 

About SpringSource Psychological Center

At SpringSource, we strive to provide the most effective and compassionate care for individuals struggling with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues.

We believe there are many paths to healing, and we can help facilitate your individual recovery journey. With offices in downtown Chicago and Northbrook, Illinois, we offer in-person and virtual support.

Call SpringSource today at 224-202-6260⁠ | info@springsourcecenter.com | We offer free 15-minute initial consultations—schedule here.