Updated: Aug 19, 2021
Childhood trauma can lead to adulthood spent in survival mode. The instinct to fight, flee, or freeze gets embedded in identity and shapes how an adult conceptualizes themselves, shows up in their relationships, and functions in everyday life. A fourth trauma response that has been given a name in the past several years is the instinct to “fawn.”
The 'fawn' response is an instinctual response associated with a need to avoid conflict and trauma-triggering situations through people-pleasing and codependent behaviors. For children, fawning behaviors can be a maladaptive survival response which developed as a means of coping with a non-nurturing or abusive parent. Additionally, being bullied, chronically teased or otherwise abused or neglected by peers can also bring about the fawning response.
There is a natural healthy instinct for humans to be kind and care for each other. The fawning response, however, is a continuation of childhood relationship patterns that result in the forfeiture of self to be liked or loved by others.
Fawning is a unique trauma response because it doesn’t “look” like a trauma response at all. In fact, it is so high level that it is often considered a part of someone’s personality and identity. “She is so nice,” someone might say affectionately; or adoringly, “he always puts others before himself.” There is nothing wrong with kindness or care giving. It’s a natural human tendency to secure relationships and feel connected with others.
The part of fawning that makes it fawning and not care giving are a few key distinctions:
The fawning person does not feel a sense of agency or choice (they have to be this way)
The fawning person feels guilt and/or shame when they have needs and/or express them
The fawning person has a poor sense of personal and relationship boundaries
The fawning person’s identity is wrapped around how others feel or behave
The other three trauma responses, fight, flight, freeze, have more social consequences as they typically push away and disconnect from others in an attempt to feel safe. Fawning takes the role of falsely securing relationships and brings others inauthentically closer.
Symptoms of fawning
An inability to say “no” in all its forms. Saying “no” may not even occur to you as an option because the only response you have practiced is “yes.”
Your values and opinions vacillate depending on who you are around. It’s one thing to be flexible with your thinking, however, fawners take it to the next level where they may experience a complete 180 degree shift in their beliefs.
Guilt is your most common emotion
Anger and resentment are buried under the surface. You feel it (a lot) but no one sees it or knows about it.
Disassociated from your primary emotions. This is a fancy way of saying you get caught in the trap of fear, guilt, and anger and have trouble connecting to and naming other emotions.
Disproportionate reactions. Uncontrollable urges to vent, cry, or scream at seemingly benign triggers.
Feel responsible for others' reactions. At the core of a fawner's belief about themselves, lies the fundamental concept of “it’s my fault.” Even if it is obvious the situation or other person’s emotional response is not about you, your immediate conclusion is that you somehow caused it, therefore need to fix it
You feel like no one really knows you. The real and authentic you has been hiding because you concluded they were not good enough to be seen. While you may have figured out a way to secure relationships, you generally feel like those even closest to you don’t know or understand the real you.
Overfunctioning. You place your value and self worth on what you produce and how much you do for others. At the end of the day, you may shame yourself for not getting everything done on your mile-long to-do list.
Fudging facts. You tend to exaggerate or minimize accomplishments, values, beliefs, opinions, or experiences based on who you are around. If you determine they need to be impressed for you to remain safe, you will embellish. If you sense that staying safe means becoming invisible, you will minimize.
The people-pleasing actions of fawning typically serve the function of getting others to like you, accept you, love you, or show you care. Without deep self-inquiry, a person is likely to fall back on fawning behaviors as a response to stress in relationships.