The fawn response is the fourth ‘F’ out of the survival responses fight, flight, and freeze. This survival response is less known and has remained hidden and unrecognised as being a result of childhood trauma. The concept of fawning was first identified by Pete Walker a psychotherapist who discusses fawning in his book ‘Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving’. As a way of surviving childhood trauma fawns learn to appease the ‘wishes, needs and demands of others’ to remain safe in relationships. As a child any form of self-expression is often squashed, and the child begins to fall into peacemaker or helper roles within the family dynamics. Fawns learn the only path to safety in relationships is to forfeit their own sense of self, wellbeing needs and boundaries. This is a dangerous survival response as what once kept you safe in childhood could potentially leave you vulnerable to exploitive, controlling, or abusive relationships in adulthood.
How does fawning develop?
An overdeveloped fawn survival response comes from not being able to have free and healthy self-expression as a child. In most cases people will have at least one narcissistic parent/caregiver. The child may have been the victim of abuse and the only way to survive was to be helpful, go under the radar by being obedient, or be the emotional caretaker of the adult. Some fawns learnt to be the entertainer to appease their parents and keep them happy, therefore becoming responsible for the parent’s emotions. Usually, any self-interested expression of the child was repeatedly attacked and shamed by the abusive parent. Life as a child often revolved around the parent’s needs, and the child’s normal healthy development of self-protective behaviors was de-activated.
What does fawning look like?
Fawning can look like excessive people-pleasing, and putting the needs of others before your own. To avoid conflict, negative emotions, or feeling like they are being re-traumatized, fawns only show parts of their true selves, often mirroring opinions, views, or emotions to match those around them. Fawns fear that self-expression may damage their relationships with others. Fawns present to others the most harmonious elements of themselves and hide their true feelings, wants, and needs. They can be warm and encouraging of others and often say yes in an effort to make those around them happy and comfortable when in fact, they ought to say no. Fawns only reveal the parts of themselves that they feel safe to show to others. Fawns may find it easier to be their true selves with some people than with certain others.
By not being able to truly express themselves and continually suppressing their own emotions, fawns can hold stress in the body. Continually being in the fawning survival mode can also lead to burnout from running around after other people and when fawns ignore their own wellbeing needs. Symptoms may start to show up physically with headaches, migraines, digestive problems, and inflammatory issues.
Dangers of fawning
There are many beautiful qualities about people who fawn – they are highly empathetic, compassionate, giving, and they care a lot about others. The danger lies in their relentless self-sacrificing, especially when it comes from a place of self-betrayal and escaping fear, rather than honor themselves. The price of connection, attachment, and intimacy is not supposed to lead to abandoning your own self.
Fawns are at risk of falling into toxic relationships. Their codependent tendencies leave them vulnerable to narcissist/empath dynamics where they are exposed to more abuse from controlling partners, friendships, or a continuation of the relationship they experienced with their parent/parents in childhood.
That’s why it is so important for people who fawn to gain a strong sense of who they are, their own wants, needs, and values, rather than being at the mercy of other peoples’ desires. Fawns need to be protective of themselves, and to choose carefully who they give their energy to. It is important for fawns to have an understanding of their own wants, needs, and desires, and to learn healthy self-expression and the freedom to be themselves.
What can we do about it?
Fawning is a learnt response that was developed in childhood. The good news is that we can unlearn this response and use it wisely with whom we choose to. It’s important to learn to conserve our energy, kindness and compassion and share it with those we want to not because we feel we have to. The more awareness we can develop around our fawn response the more we can master our actions, thoughts and feelings. Protecting ourselves, showing ourselves love and kindness and giving ourselves permission live freely and unapologetically is key to living a fiercer life.