Understanding the fawn response to trauma


Do you often find yourself going above and beyond to make others happy ? Do you find yourself feeling extremely guilty constantly when you aren’t able to please others? Being overly concerned with only the emotions of others and not thinking about your needs can be a trauma response called ‘fawning’.

You may know of the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response to an emotional and physical trauma. While fawning is a lesser known response, it’s a response to complex trauma that takes an enormous toll on one’s mental health.

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What is ‘fawning’ or the ‘fawn trauma response’?

Fawning is also called the “please and appease” response and is related to pleasing people and codependency. When people are repeatedly traumatized due to childhood abuse they overly rely on one or more of the 4F (fight, flight, freeze and fawn) trauma responses when they feel threatened. 

“Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others.” writes Psychotherapist and complex trauma (C-PTSD) expert  Pete Walker

What causes the fawn response?

The fawn response is an automatic response that occurs to deal with the conflict and trauma with people pleasing behaviors. This response may be a coping mechanism to deal with an abusive relationship, however this trauma response is maladaptive and discounts one’s own needs. Research shows that when a child is brought up in an environment where emotional trauma and parentification was prevalent, they can develop a codependency in their relationships as adults. 

Walker writes about how fawning develops in children and how it continues to manifest in the present, “this loss of self begins before the child has many words, and certainly no insight. For the nascent codependent, all hints of danger soon immediately trigger servile behaviors and abdication of rights and needs. These response patterns are so deeply set in the psyche, that as adults, many codependents automatically and symbolically respond to threat like dogs, rolling over on their backs, wagging their tails, hoping for a little mercy and an occasional scrap”

5 signs of the fawning trauma response

Some key signs of fawning trauma response include:

  1. You find it hard to identify your feelings
  2. You’re either spewing emotions out of nowhere or unloading them on to strangers
  3. You constantly feel guilty when you’re angry at others
  4. You dissociate in social situations when you’re overwhelmed 
  5. You find it hard to say no to people though you may want to  

Often the fawn response can be confused for kindness, compassion and selflessness. Fawning is complex, linked to trauma and can be influenced by factors such as gender, sexuality, culture and race. 

What are fawning behaviors?

  • You follow others lead to know how to feel in a situation or within relationships
  • You’re constantly trying to please others and overpour flattery, affection and cater to all their needs. 
  • You have trouble setting healthy boundaries in relationships
  • You over apologize
  • You find yourself fixing and rescuing others from their problems
  • You change your preferences based to be alignment with others
  • You may find yourself feeling depressed due to your trauma

Children who display fawn response can be overly careful of how they interact with their caregivers and worry a lot about their well-being.

stressed girl covering her ears

The Fawn Response and Attachment style

The attachment style one has reflects the bond one shares with their primary caregiver. This further translates how you relate to others over the course of your life.

If your caregiver was there to provide and attend to your needs both physical and emotional , you probably grew up being able to trust others and build healthy secure relationships. Having a secure attachment then enables you to use a trauma response that you learnt worked well in dealing with stressful and challenging situations. 

On the other hand, going through abuse and neglect may cause you to develop an anxious – insecure attachment style. Those with anxious-insecure attachment are more likely to have a fawn response. The response of automatically calming and soothing someone due to conflict can disrupt you by not allowing you to seek out what you need most and crippling you due to the fear of others’ negative feedback. 

How to recover and heal from the fawn response

1. Awareness and acknowledgment

The first and the most important step in the process of healing from trauma is observing and becoming aware of your patterns of fawning. Taking a good look at how you feel and react when in a traumatic or stressful situation is important. This will help you understand your limits. When you find yourself fawning, ask yourself: 

  • What am I feeling right now? Am I reacting by putting my needs aside and trying to please someone else? 
  • What about this situation is making me have this fawning response?
  • What do I actually want in this moment, not how I think I should react ?

Journaling about these in different situations and making notes can help you have a good start and gain an understanding of your patterns.  

2. Validate your experiences and feelings

People who have a fawning trauma response would possibly have their emotions invalidated during their childhood by their primary caregivers. To help change this response, its important to learn to validate your experiences and feelings. Some ways of validating your feelings is telling yourself: 

  • “ I’m allowed to feel all that I’m feeling” 
  • “ I’m going to try to be patient with myself and allow myself to grow”
  • “ What happened to me was painful, I acknowledge the challenges I have been through” 
  • “ My needs and wants are important” 
  • “ I’m allowed to express my feelings” 

3. Improving your relationships

When you’re fawning, your relationships can be unfair as you would be compromising a lot. And building a satisfying life involves improving your relationships and that may take a lot of work, time, patience in yourself. Your relationships will get impacted as you try to build better boundaries and you may need to limit contact with people who don’t understand and meet your needs.

4. Self compassion

You may end up beating yourself up for developing the fawn response and blaming yourself for the trauma. Learn to honor the fact that you found a way to survive through some terrifying circumstances. You never deserved to be harmed, even if you were fawning to the person doing it. You may struggle in this journey of growth, but remember to hold on and try again. Show yourself the compassion you need to come through this.

5. Pay attention to your body

Start noticing your body when it’s under stress, or when someone is upset with you. What do you feel in your body? Where do you feel it?  Do you feel heaviness or tightness in your chest, lump in your throat? Do your thoughts start racing in that moment? Start growing your awareness over the ways you’ve learned that it’s not safe for other people to be upset, especially if they could be upset with you. Then work on tending to yourself and the fear that these interactions can bring up.

6. Support groups and therapy

The most effective treatment for PTSD, involves therapeutic interventions. Trauma informed therapy can help nurture your inner child, practice self compassion and reframe your thinking, move past emotional pain and childhood trauma. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) process for healing trauma, could also help rewire your brain’s natural trauma response. Support groups are also helpful as you can feel understood , heard and grow with people who you can connect with. Sharing your story with others may help you feel more comfortable talking about your trauma. Or it may help to listen to other people talk about their experiences with a similar trauma. Peer support groups can help you cope with memories of the trauma.

Way Forward 

When you’ve prioritized other people for a long time, it can be overwhelming as you take this brave step to grow and heal from the trauma. Reprogramming your responses to trauma, can be a slow process but it’s a courageous step ahead. This process can be uncomfortable , painful and hard but honor yourself for being open to examine your past and trying your best to live a more emotionally balanced life.


Photo by Monstera 

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