When most people think of trauma responses, they think of fight or flight. They might even extend this into fight, flight, or freeze, but did you know there is another trauma response? Fawning is a trauma response that uses people-pleasing behavior to appease or supplicate an aggressor, avoid conflict, and ensure safety. This trauma response is exceedingly common, especially in complex trauma survivors, and often gets overlooked.
What Is Fawning?
Like the more well-known trauma responses, fawning is a coping strategy people employ to avoid further danger. Rather than trying to fight or escape the threat, the fawn response attempts to befriend it. By presenting oneself as a friend, supporter, or partner, a person who fawns in response to trauma may avoid further aggression from their abuser.
Examples of fawning include:
- Ignoring your needs to take care of somebody else
- Ensuring that you are as helpful and friendly as possible
- Responding to criticism with praise or admiration
- Never being able to say no
Fawning in response to trauma often has several downstream effects. A person may carry this behavior into other interactions, even when it is no longer beneficial for them, because the fawn response has secured their safety in the past.
How Fawning Can Be Harmful
Fawning isn’t just being helpful and looking out for others; it requires suppression of basic needs that can cause someone to sacrifice their physical and emotional health.
Someone dependent on the fawn response can adopt several behavioral patterns that work to their detriment. Though fawning may have helped them in a traumatic situation in the past, continuing these behaviors can stand in the way of them living a healthy, balanced, fulfilling life. Here are some examples of how the fawn trauma response can present.
1. Ignoring Your Own Needs to Take Care of Somebody Else
People who fawn in response to trauma often learn to care for others rather than themselves. For instance, a person who dealt with childhood abuse may have learned that taking care of their parents may have led to fewer violent outbursts. Of course, this caretaking is going in the wrong direction; a parent is supposed to take care of the child, not the other way around.
This behavior can continue into adult relationships and friendships even after they are safe from traumatic events or continue as a response to new traumatic events. While caring for others is admirable, it must come with boundaries.
Someone well-versed in the fawn trauma response may never learn to make their own needs a priority. Self-love and self-care are essential for maintaining a healthy sense of mental stability and well-being. People who fall into the trap of ignoring their needs to care for others will often find themselves burning out and becoming overwhelmed.
2. Not Feeling Seen or Heard by Others
Another common symptom of the fawn trauma response is not feeling seen. People who fawn tend to be primarily concerned with other people and their reactions and never get a chance to express themselves.
In fact, they often hide their true selves in fear of judgment or retaliation. Even when surrounded by friends and family, they can feel incredibly lonely. Psychologists have studied loneliness extensively. It is a distinct phenomenon that differs from social isolation. Loneliness can have several negative side effects, including:
- High blood pressure
- A weakened immune system
Not feeling seen and heard can be incredibly discouraging and dysregulating for the nervous system, and this can manifest in a range of physical symptoms.
3. Never Being Able to Say No
Always wanting to help and encourage is another common behavior among people who fawn. They jump at the opportunity to help others and can often take on more than they can handle. Instead of carefully considering whether they can accommodate requests, they may agree without hesitation and struggle to rearrange their schedules afterward.
This behavior seems positive on the surface: others may see you as friendly and self-sacrificing. But constantly saying yes can leave fawning types stretched thin and over-encumbered, never getting a chance to recuperate or focus on the tasks that are important to them.
4. Feeling Responsible for Other People’s Emotions
Often, people who fawn will see the emotions or actions of others as a direct reflection of their own self-worth. For example, if you recommend a restaurant to a friend who doesn’t enjoy the food, you might feel like you disappointed your friend because the restaurant was your choice.
Rather than accounting for personal preferences, people stuck in the fawn trauma response see others’ emotions as their responsibility. Negative emotions are a threat that needs to be managed, and if someone is sad, frustrated, or disappointed, you may feel like it’s your fault and scramble to find a solution.
This trait is particularly dangerous for people in codependent or toxic relationships because it lays the foundation for a harmful power dynamic. Other people may take advantage of the lack of boundaries. Other people’s emotions are truly out of our control – only by learning that you aren’t responsible for others can people who fawn find relief.
5. Not Voicing Your Values
Struggling to speak up about the things that matter to you is another behavior associated with fawning. This behavior can range in severity; it could be as simple as not voicing your opinion on where to go to dinner or as severe as finding yourself agreeing with people whose views compromise your morals, values, and safety.
Essentially, many people who fawn in response to trauma are overly agreeable. They give up their voices to avoid conflict, even though it means more hardship for themselves in the future.
6. Not Having Clear Boundaries
Lastly, not having clear boundaries around your own needs is another key symptom of fawning. For example, a person who is uncomfortable with touch may find themselves not speaking up about their preference with colleagues or friends. Even though they may feel extreme stress over seemingly appropriate physical interactions, like friendly hugs or a hand on the shoulder, they allow it to happen because they struggle to set clear boundaries.
Again, this behavior is a matter of attempting to avoid conflict. When we fail to set clear boundaries early in relationships, it can make it difficult to break away from uncomfortable situations. And, when we constantly find ourselves in stressful situations, we’re more likely to try to cope with unhealthy behaviors.
Starting Trauma Recovery
Fawning as a trauma response can cause a lasting impact, even long after the traumatic events have passed. While fawning is often useful in life-threatening or dangerous situations, carrying these behaviors into everyday life sets people up for undue stress, fatigue, and hardship.
Fortunately, there is a path to recovery. If you have identified with the behaviors listed above, you’ve likely learned to fawn through one or more events in your past. Starting therapy with a trauma-informed therapist can help you to identify the root cause of the behavior and guide you toward new ways of acting and thinking that will help you find safety and healthy coping mechanisms that help you flourish.
If you’d like to learn more about how All Points North integrates trauma-informed therapy into our treatment plans, reach out to our team to discover our comprehensive suite of mental health and addiction treatment services.
- “Loneliness and Social Isolation – Tips for Staying Connected.” National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 14 Jan. 2021, https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/loneliness-and-social-isolation-tips-staying-connected.
- Walker, Pete. “The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD.” Pete Walker, M.A. Psychotherapy, http://pete-walker.com/fourFs_TraumaTypologyComplexPTSD.htm.