Flight, Freeze, Fight, Fawn
Most people are familiar with the three stress responses being fight, flight, and freeze. When an experience or our environment is perceived as emotionally or physically unsafe these responses kick in automatically to keep us safe. Stress responses can develop into trauma responses when an individuals’ capacity to cope is overwhelmed. Along with the three trauma responses listed above, there is a fourth known as fawn, commonly known as “please and appease”.
The fawn response is a defense structure that stems from complex and relational trauma meaning that this trauma occurred various times starting in childhood and more than likely has continued into adulthood. A child begins to learn how to cope by consistently abandoning their own needs and in some cases, sense of identity, to take care of the emotional needs of their caregiver. Peter Walker, a licensed psychotherapist, writes in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving that a fawn response includes an individual pleasing or appeasing a person who is a source of threat and a care provider. In adulthood, an unhealed fawn response can include patterns of co-dependency and people pleasing, an individual may continue to abandon their own emotions and needs in order to sustain relationships. Physically, fawning may also involve disconnecting from physical body sensations, feeling like your body is “numb” or completely “cutting it off” from your needs. Examples of fawning may include feeling afraid to say “no” or set boundaries, being overly concerned with the emotions and needs of others, over-apologizing, assuming responsibility for the emotional responses or reactions of others, “saving” or “fixing” others, and denying your own pain, wants, or needs, or having relationships that do not feel mutually beneficial.
Healing the Fawn Response
Increase awareness and insight of potential patterns of fawning, this is not easy and may feel like a normal part of a relationship. To increase awareness of potential patterns, start by asking yourself: does this relationship align with my personal values? Do my actions align with my personal morals and values? Am I acting or saying something in a way for another person? Is that at my own expense? What do I notice and what does it feel like when someone disapproves of me? Can I accept that? As stated before, sometimes individuals abandon their own identity and form an identity around being likeable. This can serve us in several ways, though people with this identity may feel like their value or self-worth is based on how others view or value them instead of how they feel about themselves.
Additionally, speak to your experience and to your truth. Journaling can be an effective practice for identifying and processing your emotions and experiences. This can be especially healing because as children those who fawn were not able to express their own emotional needs. As an adult, give yourself permission to try and do so. Some journaling prompts can include “When x happened, I felt….”, “When you hurt me, I felt….”, “What I wish I had said to you then is….”, “My strengths include…” “What I was most terrified of then was…”
In addition, noticing those body sensations or any physical changes when a situation feels unsafe. Seeking out professional support to help heal physical reactions and the potential of underlying trauma is encouraged. A therapist who specializes in complex trauma utilizing modalities such as somatic experiencing, EMDR, or IFS is encouraged!
- Author: Carolyn Rhoades
- Resources: Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker
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