What is the Fawn Response?
The Fawn response is a trauma response that is characterized by self-abandonment in relationships and overly-focusing on the needs of others. The Fawn Response is chronic, compulsive people-pleasing, which most often begins in childhood as a result of relational trauma.
Understanding Relational Trauma
Relational trauma is trauma that happens in relationships. Most childhood trauma is relational trauma. Many wounds we carry into adulthood have their roots in the relationships we had as children with those closest to us, with our caregivers and other family members.
Some relational trauma is obvious—being screamed at or hit, for instance. Other forms, like emotional neglect, are not so obvious. Let’s look at some of the less obvious ways one may experience relational trauma in childhood:
- Emotional parentification, or role reversal
- Emotional neglect by parents who do not possess the maturity required to meet their children’s emotional needs; having Emotionally Immature Parents
- Rejection, shaming
- Perceived indifference or apathy on the part of the caregiver toward the child
- Withdrawal of approval or affection as a form of punishment
- A chronically distracted caregiver (mind is always somewhere else)
- Parents who are stressed out and are therefore unable to be present
- Parents who lack the ability to emotionally regulate and therefore rely on their child to assist them in regulating their emotions
Relational Trauma Can Happen in Loving Homes
There is a widespread misconception that childhood trauma only happens in families where parents are overtly and intentionally abusive. This is not the case. In fact, the transmission of intergenerational trauma often comes through subtle relational patterns that are unintentional and outside of the adult’s conscious awareness. These are often patterns that are thoroughly embedded into the familial culture and are seen as normal and benign by the adults—forms of passive aggression, for instance, such as slamming doors when angry, or giving the “silent treatment” as a form of punishment.
These patterns in the family system are a result of emotional immaturity passed down through generations, a result of outdated parenting which promoted and normalized practices we now know are harmful and traumatic to children and cause long-term negative impacts on development.
Emotionally Immature Parents do not view their behavior as problematic, because it’s the only thing they know. What we have modeled for us as children will remain “normal” until we discover otherwise. This discovery process requires conscious effort and reflection upon our childhood experiences. Because therapy was stigmatized for past generations, most of our parents never did this work, and therefore continued to pass down their unprocessed trauma to us.
The Fawn Response: Relationships as Threat
When we are stuck in the Fawn Response, somewhere along the way—often starting very young—our nervous system received the message that relationships were threatening. Imagine if your brain reacted to eye contact in the same way it would react to being cornered by a hungry lion? This is what happens when we have experienced early relational trauma: our brain codes relationships, relating to other human beings, as a potential threat to our survival.
When we’ve experienced early relational trauma, connecting with other people—something that is utterly fundamental to being human and necessary for our emotional well being and physical survival—automatically triggers a trauma response in our brain. If that trauma response is the Fawn Response, as soon as someone so much as even looks our way, the access to our centered, grounded self—our authenticity—goes straight out the window, and we start pleasing and appeasing.
Stuck in the Fawn Response
When our nervous system is stuck in the Fawn Response, we’ve learned that the way to form and maintain relationships is through self-abandonment. Our body believes that in order to maintain harmony and safety we have to shift our focus away from our own internal experience, our own needs and desires, in order to focus on the other.
- You feel scared to express your feelings/wants/needs.
- You feel scared to take up space.
- You feel more comfortable focusing on other people.
- You are more comfortable giving than receiving.
- Parts of you believe that you need to stay small, and as long as you don't take up space, have needs, or inconvenience anyone, you will be safe and people will want to be around you.
- Parts of you believe that being liked is the most important thing, and that if someone doesn’t like you then there is something wrong with you. You will go to great lengths to make sure everyone likes you.
- You “turn it on” in social situations, and feel exhausted afterward. You wish you could just be yourself when you are around other people.
- When someone approaches you, you automatically smile and go out of your way to make sure the person feels at ease and is comfortable, even if this is not authentic to how you are feeling on the inside.
- You ignore your own wants/needs/opinions in order to not inconvenience others, or make anyone uncomfortable or upset.
- You feel disconnected from your own sense of self and identity.
- You are a social chameleon—you automatically read what other people want from you and give them that, even if it’s not authentic.
- You have a difficult time accessing your authentic self when you are in the presence of other people, and maybe even when you are alone.
- You find yourself unconsciously and automatically scanning the environment for clues about how you are “supposed” to be, or act.
- You feel lonely, like no one really knows you. You also feel too scared to let anyone really know you.
- You are good at mimicking interpersonal connection, but it's most often an act and feels fake to some degree. Being truly authentic and vulnerable feels like something you don’t know how to do.
Turning Off the Fawn Response
Just like all trauma responses, we don’t have control over when our brain registers a threat and sends us into the Fawn Response. Trauma responses are automatic, unconscious and happen very quickly, and for good reason—it’s our brain’s way of keeping us alive and allowing us to register and respond to potential threats quickly.
Ways to Start Healing the Fawn Response:
- Practice body awareness.
Get curious about how it feels to be in the Fawn Response. One of the best ways to begin observing this is by paying close attention to the differences between the way you feel in your body when you are alone and the way you feel in your body when you are socializing with other people and are in people-pleasing mode.
Does the pitch or tone of your voice change? Maybe when in the Fawn Response your voice goes up a couple octaves and comes from the throat, instead of lower down in the diaphragm. Do you notice a difference in how the energy feels in your body? Perhaps you feel ungrounded, like you are floating. Do you find yourself automatically smiling, even when that’s not authentic to how you are feeling in the moment?
- Pay attention to when your brain sends you into the Fawn Response.
What relational circumstances does your body register as a threat? Do you go into people-pleasing every time you are around another person, regardless of who they are or the external circumstances? Only around specific people? Around your mom? Around your friends? Around your boyfriend? Whenever you meet new people or have to interact with strangers?
Also pay attention to who you feel safe to be yourself around. When we feel safe, we don’t go into a Fawn Response. When we feel safe we have access to our authenticity and can tolerate the vulnerability of spontaneous self expression. Is there anyone your body feels safe with? Who can you be truly authentic with? What feeling in your body lets you know you are feeling safe? What does relational safety feel like in your body?
Become an expert at reading your internal felt-sense. Become an expert at knowing when you are grounded and when your body has been thrown into the Fawn Response.
- Ground into your body.
Whenever you notice you are in a moment of compulsive people-pleasing, practice grounding exercises that bring your energy down into your body. Practice feeling your feet on the ground. Use your five senses to orient yourself to your surroundings. Name it: “I am in the Fawn Response,” or “I am Fawning, I’m going to come back into my center now. What is my truth right now? How am I truly feeling? What is authentic?”
- Practice getting in touch with yourself.
When we are chronically stuck in the Fawn Response we become numb to our own needs, and focus exclusively on how others respond to us. Asking the following questions can bring us back to ourselves: Who am I? What do I want? What do I need? Is this really true for me? Journaling about these questions can be helpful too.
Self-parenting, creating an earned secure attachment with ourselves, is how we heal and rewire our nervous system when we are chronically stuck in the Fawn Response. This reparenting happens through giving ourselves the unconditional loving-kindness that we needed to receive when we were children; telling ourselves things like, “It’s OK for people to disapprove of you. You’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, that’s OK. I still love you. You are worthy of love. I will not leave you. It’s OK to be yourself.” Read more about healing your inner child and the reparenting process in my past blog posts.
Gratitude for the Fawn Response
For those who struggle with the Fawn Response, pleasing and appeasing others was a skill you learned as a child in order to cope with less-than-ideal relational circumstances that made you feel less-than-safe. Practicing gratitude for the coping strategies we developed when we were young, instead of beating ourselves up for them and trying to get them to go away, is one way to practice self-compassion and begin rewiring our brain. “Thank you people-pleasing for helping me avoid hurtful situations in the past. I am older now and no longer need to rely so heavily on you any more. I am ready to take more risks in my relationships now, and can take care of my feelings if someone rejects me.”
Living chronically in the Fawn Response is exhausting and lonely, but healing is possible. As we heal our internal sense of safety and learn that our worth as a person is not connected to receiving approval from others, with time we can handle more of the vulnerability and risk inherent in authentic relationships, and rely on people-pleasing strategies less and less.
Meet the Author
Ready to heal your relationship with yourself?
Maggie is a therapist based out of Lawrence, Kansas who specializes in therapy for highly sensitive adults, therapy for self-esteem, therapy for anxiety, therapy for childhood trauma, and grief and bereavement counseling.
Maggie is passionate about helping people overcome shame and the fear of being their true selves. Breaking the cycles of people-pleasing and self-abandonment is possible; you don't have to suffer alone. Maggie offers online therapy throughout the state of Kansas.
Reach out today to schedule your free 15 minute phone consultation!
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