When it comes to trauma responses, you may be quite familiar with the “fight-flight-freeze” response. A lesser-known but equally common response is the fawn response. This is also known as the appease response. But what does it mean to be in a fawn response? Why is this helpful and what can we do about it? Let’s explore it here.
When we are young and experience abusive and traumatic situations, we don't have many options in terms of what we can do to cope and look after ourselves. Children are more vulnerable than adults. As such, one of the ways our nervous system has learnt to cope and survive with trauma is by entering the "fawn" response. In this response, we give up all of our needs and wants and we selectively focus on keeping the peace around us and maintaining the status quo, avoiding any punishment or grave consequences.
It makes sense that this is an advantageous coping strategy. If we perceive other people as a threat, and in the case of childhood trauma it’s usually one or both parents, we want to find ways of reducing any risk to ourselves by giving them what they want, placating them, begging, submitting to their requests, even when this means ignoring completely our needs and saying or doing things that we might regret later on. It’s often not a response that we actively choose but rather our mind chooses it for us automatically when it assesses the best course of action to manage a threatening situation.
We tend to appease or fawn out of fear, but this could equally be out of guilt. When we believe we don’t matter, we are irrelevant, unimportant, unlovable, we don’t deserve to take up space, our needs don’t matter, and we tend to submit to others due to the guilt we experience. Being stuck in a fawn response is similar to being a people pleaser, or being codependent.
Some common signs that you are stuck in a fawn response are:
You don’t like upsetting others and you tend to avoid conflict
You don’t know what your needs are
You are not in touch with your emotions and thoughts
You struggle with setting boundaries and saying no to others
You tend to save, rescue and protect others
You often do things out of guilt which you later on regret
You get validation from pleasing others
You feel selfish and guilty for having needs
You feel resentful and angry for taking care of others especially when this is not reciprocated
You tend to go along with what others want or need
You are seen as being overly polite and agreeable
You are hyperaware of other people’s emotions and needs
When we are young, being in a fawn response works well due to our vulnerability and lack of options when dealing with threatening people and situations. However, when we are adults, it’s important for us to learn that in situations that we perceive as threatening, there are other ways of dealing with them. We no longer have to submit fully to the needs and wills of other people, to the detriment of our own needs and wants. We are worthy and deserving of identifying, understanding and pursuing our own needs, emotions, goals and values. Being an adult also means that our drives and motivations are different to what was important to us as kids. In adulthood, we care more about our values and purpose in life and generally want to live meaningful lives.
So, in order to let go of people-pleasing patterns and overcome the fawn response, it’s so important that we start identifying our needs and wants, our goals, learning to communicate our needs, saying no to others, and pursuing our value-based goals. It is a journey of rediscovering ourselves and reconnecting with parts of ourselves that we have had to suppress for so long. It’s a journey that often can’t be done on our own, requiring hours of therapy, reading books, journaling, practising, and listening to podcasts. But it’s a journey worth embarking on because what a feeling when you finally return back home to you!
Ioana Rotaru is a London psychotherapist specialising in working with people with histories of childhood emotional neglect and trauma who now want to improve their relationship with themselves and others. If you would like to explore addressing any of the issues in this article, please contact Ioana at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15 minutes consultation about how therapy might help.