Defeating the Fawn Response  

Most people recognize the fight/flight and freeze from articles they have read or television programs. Fight/flight/freeze occurs when you feel endangered, whether or not that danger is real. However, many have not heard of the fawn response to complex trauma.


This article will focus on the fawn response, what it is, and how it affects the lives of survivors who live with the effects of complex trauma.


What is Complex Trauma?



Complex trauma occurs when people are young as multiple traumatic events of an invasive and interpersonal nature. Because the trauma is usually perpetrated by a caregiver such as the child’s parents, the child’s mental and physical health suffers, and their outlook on life becomes unstable without a sense of safety.


Some potential causes of complex trauma are:


  • Ongoing physical or emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse and incest
  • Chronic neglect
  • Chronic abandonment
  • Medical abuse
  • Medical trauma
  • Torture
  • Being held captive
  • Parentification (children fulfilling an adult’s job)
  • Witnessing genocide campaigns
  • Human trafficking
  • Living in a war zone


When children experience trauma, their limbic system is activated, shutting down all nonessential systems such as digestion and sleep. The body becomes flooded with stress hormones, such as cortisol, to prepare the body to fight off the danger, flee from it, or freeze to avoid it.


Often traumatized children will remain on high alert, which will carry into their adult lives.



What is the Fawn Response?




Evolution has gifted humanity with the fawn response, where people act to please their assailants to avoid conflict. One might use the fawn response, first recognized by Pete Walker in his book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, after unsuccessfully attempting fight/flight/and freeze, which is typical among those who grew up in homes with complex trauma.


For instance, if you grew up in a home with narcissistic parents where you were always neglected and rejected, your only hope for survival was to be agreeable and helpful.


Pete Walker, in his piece, “The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex Trauma,” states about the fawn response, “Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences, and boundaries.” It isn’t difficult to see how those caught up in the fawn response often become codependent with others and are open to victimization from those who are abusive and narcissistic.


Fawning causes the child to grow up a doormat; they become codependent and lose their sense of identity in caring for their caregivers. These adults never allow themselves to think they can pursue activities that please themselves, only their partners.


Several warning signs say you are fawning.


  • You cannot say no
  • Your values are fluid in intimate interactions
  • You have guilt and anger together
  • You blank out emotionally
  • Your emotions erupt unexpectedly and in unusual ways
  • You feel responsible for the reactions of others
  • You feel like no one knows or cares to know you


Fawning causes adults to exhibit the unenviable habit of losing themselves in responses to their partners and friends. Survivors who fawn are tough to know because they are too into people-pleasing. Many relationships between a fawner and their loved one break up because those who fawn believe they are unlovable and have a deep-seated fear of rejection.


Healing the Fawn Response



One may think that because they fawn, people who have survived complex trauma are losers or live in abject poverty. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although there is a percentage of people who fawn who fulfill those roles, many fawners are successful in school and the career they choose.


However, there is a price to pay for a successful fawner as they are externally focused (worrying about their body image or money), are emotionally exhausted, and over-perform to prove they are worthy. Fawners are also hypervigilant, constantly worrying, experiencing mistrust, and not feeling safe.


Below is a list of things you can do if you find you fit the fawner scenario.


Notice your fawning. The first step in correcting any problem is knowing the problem exists. Any hidden enemy is much more dangerous and unpredictable than you recognize.


Engage in re-parenting through inner child work. Become for yourself the parent you deserved when you were growing up. Learn to listen to your inner child and give them the love, dignity, and respect they always needed. End the self-talk that says you are unsafe by using grounding techniques to bring you back to the present and remind yourself you are safe now.


Practice prioritizing your needs and putting yourself first. At first, this step may sound selfish, especially since you are a people-pleaser. However, you cannot be a good spouse or parent if you do not take good care of yourself. Take that bath or stay home and rest when you are tired. That is good self-care.


Make friends with your fawning. It is critical to know your fawning habits rather than push them away. Make a list of how your fawning has aided you in your life and open communications with the part of yourself that has used this unique coping mechanism.


Remind yourself that you are not responsible for the emotions and happiness of other adults. It is critical to establish healthy boundaries and learn to say no when it is needed and appropriate. People are responsible for their actions and behaviors; no matter what they do or how much you fawn, you cannot change someone else, so do not try.


It will take practice and patience with yourself to overcome a lifetime of fawning; however, you can do it. Some people will find the problem too big and need professional help when dealing with fawning behavior. They must heed their insight and contact a mental health professional.


Remember, you didn’t learn to fawn overnight; it took years of maltreatment to form the fawning behavior you exhibit today. It may take more than just a few visits to a therapist to overcome fawning.


Ending Our Time Together


The fawn response is a natural response to someone who is abusing you. It also occurs in the animal kingdom when a dog that its owner chronically harms keeps coming back licking the owner’s hand.


Fawning behavior is nothing to be ashamed of, and this article was not meant to insinuate such. In your history, when you were a helpless child, it was all you had to defend yourself and get your needs met.


Even though it will be a struggle, learning a new way of thinking and being, you can do it even if it means seeing a therapist. The fawn response can become a problem in therapy because you may wish to gain the therapist’s approval. An excellent mental health professional recognizes this behavior and will point it out to you when you do it.


You are worthy and worthwhile just because you are alive and deserve all the best. Never forget that.


“When we have grown up with a fawn response, we have learned to stop listening to our inner knowing. You can have your own views, feelings, and thoughts even if they don’t align with those around you.” Author Unknown




Grief and Anger






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