NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, July 16, 2022

Trauma and the Fawn Response: People Pleasing to Avoid or Diffuse Conflict

Fight, flight and freeze are the trauma responses that are usually discussed in trauma literature.  In addition to these responses, Peter Walker, MA, a family therapist, coined the term "fawning" as another common trauma response to diffuse or avoid conflict (see my article: Unresolved Trauma: Living in the Present as if it Were the Past).

Trauma and the Fawn Response

Understanding Fight, Fight and Freeze as Trauma Responses
Before describing the fawn response, let's review the other three trauma responses: Fight, flight and freeze.
  • Fight - Confront the Threat: The fight response involves anger and confrontation. This could be either verbal or physical and involves high energy.
  • Flight - Run from the Threat: The flight response involves anxiety, avoidance and fleeing from the threat. It also includes high energy.
  • Freeze - Shut Down to Block Out the Threat: The freeze response can include physical and/or emotional numbing and dissociation.  For animals in the wild, it's also called "playing possum" and it's often a powerful survival response to an imminent threat from a predator (the animal appears to be dead, which would make the predator lose interest).  This shut down is a low energy response. For humans it often involves an involuntary response that includes feeling cold or numb, heaviness in the limbs, holding their breath and a sense of dread or foreboding.
Understanding Fawning as a Trauma Response
The fawn response usually develops due unresolved childhood trauma, which is also known as developmental trauma (see my article: Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From an Adult Perspective).

The fawn response involves appeasing, which includes codependencypeople-pleasing and lack of boundaries to avoid conflict or threat.  

The person who is fawning prioritizes the other person's needs over their own.  In some cases, the person is unaware of their own needs because they're so accustomed to putting the other people's needs first.

Fawning often develops as a psychological survival strategy for a child who is being abused or neglected. The child learns early on that appeasing the parent(s), even if it means sacrificing their own needs will diminish a threat--whether the threat is emotional or physical.

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
Since the fawn response to trauma is a big topic, I'll continue this discussion in my next article (see my article: Trauma and the Fawn Response: A Clinical Vignette).

Getting Help in Therapy
Unresolved trauma can create anxiety, depression and lack of self confidence as well as other psychological problems.  

It can have a negative impact on your relationships.

Rather than struggling with unresolved trauma on your own, seek help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist? and Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective For Unresolved Trauma Than Regular Talk Therapy).

Freeing yourself from your history of trauma can help you to have 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.

As a trauma therapist, I have helped many people to overcome trauma.

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.