The ‘fawn’ response is an instinctual response associated with a need to avoid conflict and trauma via appeasing behaviors. For children, fawning behaviors can be an adaptive survival response to an abusive or neglectful parent. Psychotherapist and complex trauma (C-PTSD) expert Pete Walker coined the term ‘fawn’ response to describe a specific type of instinctive response resulting from childhood abuse and complex trauma:
Fawn, according to Webster’s, means: “to act servilely; cringe and flatter”, and I believe it is this response that is at the core of many codependents’ behavior. The trauma-based codependent learns to fawn very early in life in a process that might look something like this: as a toddler, she learns quickly that protesting abuse leads to even more frightening parental retaliation, and so she relinquishes the fight response, deleting “no” from her vocabulary and never developing the language skills of healthy assertiveness (Walker, 2003).
Ways to Tell You Are a ‘Fawner’
If you identify as being a ‘fawner’, you may actually be engaging in people-pleasing behaviors so as to avoid conflict as much as possible in your interactions with others. You will deny your own truth in an attempt to make those you feel dependent upon, afraid of, and/or care about comfortable.
As someone with a ‘fawning’ trauma response, you may do anything you can to ‘keep the peace’, even if that means abandoning yourself by repressing your own preferences, thoughts, and needs, which in turn deprives you of the ability to negotiate on matters important to you, whether personal or professional.
In fact, you may be so focused on tending to the wants and needs of those around you that you have lost touch with who you really are at the most basic, fundamental level, to the point where you might be feeling depleted, angry, and exhausted much of the time without ever realizing it is because of your chronic people-pleasing ways.
Why Appeasing Others Serves Nobody in the End
As you may have already discovered, engaging in subservient, ingratiating behavior that results in your feeling like a doormat isn’t really helpful to anyone, no matter how much you may like to believe it is.
By surrendering control to others and abandoning yourself, you are allowing yourself to live a lie – And lies serve no one in the end. This also will make you highly vulnerable to attracting narcissistic, abusive people who will exploit your willingness to deny your own needs in deference to their own.
A healthy adult relationship requires that the two people involved create a relational environment that is reciprocal, truthful, respectful, and interdependent. Although you may not realize it, as a ‘fawner’, you may actually be attempting to control others via your people-pleasing ways by making them dependent on you.
Ten Steps To Help You Overcome ‘Fawning’ Behaviors
Although it takes courage to practice new behaviors, people who live authentically find that the freedom they experience in being themselves makes risking conflict worth it. Below are some tried and true methods to help you stop fawning and people-pleasing behaviors so that you can live a happier, more emotionally honest and fulfilled life:
1. Recognize that you may have learned early in life that your self-worth depends on what others think of you (adult survivors of child abuse, including family scapegoating abuse, are especially likely to believe this).
2. Acknowledge that your self-worth does not belong in the hands of others – Nobody should have that much power over what you think and how you feel about yourself.
3. Decide that you will no longer play the ‘People-Pleasing Game’; it will take time, dedication, and commitment to replace the ‘fawning’ response with healthier, more assertive behaviors, but it is possibe.
4. Check in with yourself during interactions with others, especially when communicating with those that you tend to people-please the most. Focus on what feels true and right for you during these conversations, even if you are not yet ready to risk conflict by expressing a differing view, feeling, or need. Write your thoughts and feelings down in a journal after such difficult or uncomfortable interactions. Get to know yourself and become curious about what you really feel and think.
5. Determining your values, priorities, and beliefs are three of the most effective ways to build a strong foundation from which to speak your truth when communicating with others. Take time to be with yourself and even write down your priorities in life and what is most important to you. This will help you to develop your ability to agree or disagree and say “no” or “yes” (and mean it), no matter what the situation is.
6. “My decision is final”: Once you determine your values and better understand what is best and most right for you, plan on saying “My decision is final” if you anticipate that rejecting or denying a request will not be well received. Role-play with your significant other, a trusted friend, or a therapist or life coach if needed so you can get used to saying this one simple phrase. These four words will go a long way to ensure that any doors that might allow you to be manipulated by others, especially people who were able to take advantage of you in the past, are firmly closed and will save you much grief down the road.
7. Use empathic reflection when asserting yourself with others, including recognized ‘authority figures’. Here’s an example from my own life: I recently saw a doctor for a minor physical complaint. His recommended intervention was unacceptable to me for various reasons. My response was to say, “I understand why you might be recommending that, and if I were in your shoes I imagine I would too. But that route is not one I wish to go down. My decision is final.” After saying this and dialoguing a bit more, we went on to find a remedy that we both felt comfortable with, and the treatment was ultimately successful.
8. Choose your battles: If you sense or suspect that your honest expressions are going to result in a conflict that you just don’t feel ready or equipped to deal with, it’s okay to acknowledge the truth to yourself and choose not to express it. Some things matter more than others. Talk to a trusted friend, journal your thoughts and feelings, or consider seeing a licensed Psychotherapist, Counselor, or competent Life Coach to help you sort out what really matters most to you and what doesn’t. Remember, some people will not be able to hear or compassionately receive, much less respect, your truth if they find it personally or professionally inconvenient or threatening. Not everyone is looking for honest, reciprocal relationships or interactions; such people may even attempt to judge, shame, or blame you for speaking your truth – Or even try to convince you (and/or others) that your truth is a lie.
9. Don’t explain yourself in an attempt to justify your position. This is a real trap that people-pleasing types fall into repeatedly. You’re entitled to have your own thoughts, feelings, experiences, needs, and preferences, just like everybody else. The fact that some people in your life don’t agree with you or respect your truth doesn’t make them right. Trust yourself and your perceptions. Sometimes our “gut feelings’ can tell us far more about a person or a situation than anything that is being overtly presented to us.
10. Remember the power of choice: Adults who learned to fawn and people-please in childhood are often genuinely unaware that they have the ability to choose how they will conduct themselves in a relationship. If you are tired of feeling like a door-mat, then it may be time to get up off of the floor.
Cultivating Authentic Relationships and Caring for Yourself
Living in a truthful, emotionally honest manner requires courage, patience, practice, and commitment. There are many books written on people-pleasing and codependency designed to help break the people-pleasing habit; Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More: How To Stop Controlling Others And Start Caring For Yourself is the one I most often recommend to clients, along with. Susan Newman’s The Book of No: 250 Ways To Say It – And Mean It And Stop People-Pleasing Forever. Working with a trauma-informed licensed therapist or certified life coach who understands codependency and/or attending a free support group such as Al Anon that focuses on developing healthy relationships and communication can be very helpful as well.
Take Small Steps Every Day
Once you feel ready to begin risking conflict in your personal or professional interactions, consider choosing one person in your life that you can practice being completely honest with; ideally, someone you trust and feel safe with but are not always completely authentic with. Then say exactly what’s on your mind and see what happens. Think of your values, take deep breaths, and stand your ground. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that any fear encountered in being authentic in your relationships is temporary, and that the rewards of living in an emotionally honest, integral, and values-based manner make it more than worth any temporary discomfort.
A word of caution: If you believe that you are genuinely not safe in a relationship and that speaking your truth could result in a threat to your personal safety and/or jeopardize your mental and emotional well-being, I urge you to contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline to receive support, information, and guidance.
Walker, Pete. “Codependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response” Pete Walker, MA, MFT, Feb, 2003, www.pete-walker.com/codependencyFawnResponse.htm.
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