NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, July 21, 2022

Trauma and the Fawn Response: A Clinical Vignette

In my prior article, Trauma and the Fawn Response: People Pleasing to Avoid or Diffuse Conflict, I began a discussion about fawning and how it's a response to trauma.  As I mentioned in that article, generally, people are more familiar with the three other trauma responses: fight, flight and freeze, but not as much with the fawn response.

Trauma and the Fawn Response

The current article will expand upon this topic by giving a clinical vignette that illustrates a typical example of the fawn response and how experiential therapy, like EMDR therapy, can help a client to overcome this traumatic response.

But first, let's recap by giving examples of the fawning response:

Signs of Fawning Behavior:
The following behaviors are some of the most common signs of fawning behavior:
  • Having problems being assertive and saying no
  • Being overly compliant on a regular basis to avoid or diffuse conflict
  • Having trouble setting boundaries
  • Being overly apologetic
  • Sacrificing your own needs to prioritize the needs of others
  • Denying emotional and/or physical needs on a regular basis
  • Compromising your values to align yourself with others
  • Feeling guilty when you feel angry towards others because you don't feel entitled to your feelings
  • Trying to "fix" or rescue others from their problems
  • Attempting to control others or their choices so you can feel emotionally safe
  • Gushing with praise or being overly complimentary toward someone--even when it's not how you actually feel--in order to appease someone
  • Holding back feelings or opinions on a regular basis in order not to make others feel uncomfortable
  • Changing your response or opinions to comply or be in synch with others
  • Going out of your way to people-please to avoid or diffuse conflict
  • Assuming responsibility for others' discomfort when it's not your fault
  • Flying under the radar (making yourself small) to avoid getting attention
  • Experiencing chronic pain or illness due to the stress of the trauma response
  • Spacing out or dissociating when you feel uncomfortable in a social situation
Clinical Vignette: Fawning as a Trauma Response
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information removed, provides an example of fawning as a trauma response and how EMDR therapy helped:

After her closest friend, Dee confronted Jane about her fawning behavior, Jane sought help in therapy to work on this issue.

Jane, who was in her early 30s, told her therapist that Dee expressed concern to Jane about Jane's ongoing people pleasing behavior.  Dee said she sensed that Jane tended to have problems being assertive and setting boundaries in her personal life as well at work.  

She also pointed out to Jane that she had a tendency to put the needs of other people before her own which led to Jane sacrificing what she really wanted.  

In addition, Dee told Jane that she was often overly complimentary towards people they both knew and Dee was aware that Jane really didn't feel this way.  Dee indicated that when Jane was gushing in an overly complimentary way, Jane came across as disingenuous, which confused and annoyed people.

Jane told her therapist that it was hurtful to hear Dee say these things, but when she thought about it, she realized Dee was right.  But she didn't know why she responded to people with fawning behavior or how to stop it.

When Jane spoke to her therapist about her family history, she described her father as being overly critical with an explosive temper and her mother as being overly compliant with the father's wishes.  

Her only sibling, who was an older sister, moved out as soon as she turned 18 because she had a conflictual relationship with their father and she was frustrated with her mother's passive, compliant behavior.

Although her father had never become physically violent, Jane was afraid of his explosive temper and, similar to her mother, she learned to go along with whatever her father wanted rather than assert her needs--even when she was old enough to make her own decisions.

Jane also realized that her people pleasing behavior extended to other family members as well as friends, colleagues and romantic partners.

As she continued to discuss this issue in her therapy sessions, Jane realized that, not only was her fawning annoying people, it also had consequences for her because she often felt disconnected from her emotions during those times.

Her therapist provided Jane with psychoeducation as to how fawning was related to unresolved trauma.  

In addition, the more they talked about it, the clearer it became to Jane that her childhood fear of her father's explosive temper was an unresolved trauma for her.

After Jane's therapist provided Jane with information about EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy and how it helped clients to overcome trauma, they agreed to use EMDR as the treatment modality (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

As Jane processed her traumatic memories about her father's temper and how her fawning behavior developed as a response to that trauma, she felt an emotional and psychological shift occurring within her over time.

The therapeutic work was neither quick nor easy, but Jane gradually felt she was freed from her history of trauma and her defensive need to fawn over others.  This allowed Jane to assert of her own needs and to be more authentic in her relationships.

The fawn response is a common response to trauma.  

Most of the time, fawning, which is used to avoid or diffuse potential confrontations, is an unconscious behavior, and when clients work on this issue in therapy, they become more aware of it (see my article: Making the Unconscious Conscious).

When fawning behavior is the result of trauma, this behavior is often misunderstood by others.  They might sense that something is "off" or disingenuous, but they might not understand why.

Experiential therapy, like EMDR, allows clients to work through the underlying issues related to the trauma (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy to Overcome Trauma).

Getting Help in Therapy
Unresolved trauma often takes a toll on your self esteem and your relationships.

Seeking help with a licensed mental health professional who has an expertise in helping clients to overcome trauma can help free you from your traumatic history so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome trauma (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.