Understanding Fawning: A Response to Trauma and Its Implications

Health, March 05, 2024

Fawning is a complex trauma response that serves as a survival mechanism for individuals in high-stress environments. While it may provide short-term relief from conflict, it can lead to long-term difficulties in personal development and relationship building.

In the realm of psychological responses to stress and trauma, much attention has been given to the classic 'fight or flight' reactions that humans and other animals exhibit. Less commonly discussed but equally important is the 'fawn' response, a type of behavior that can occur in response to perceived danger or trauma. Fawning is a complex and often misunderstood coping mechanism that can have significant implications for an individual's mental health and interpersonal relationships.

What is Fawning?

Fawning can be described as a behavior that arises from the need to avoid conflict, violence, or rejection by appeasing and pleasing others. It is a response often rooted in past experiences of trauma where the person has learned that the safest way to navigate through threatening situations is to be compliant and menial. This response is thought to be another aspect of the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses to trauma as described by Stephen Porges who talks about the Polyvagal nervous system. It is not just in 'stress' or 'rest' mode - it's more complex with a 'threat sensor' network.


Characteristics of Fawning

Individuals who exhibit fawning behaviors tend to prioritise others' needs over their own, display excessive agreeableness, and often have difficulty asserting their boundaries. This can manifest in various ways, including:
- People-pleasing tendencies
- Difficulty saying 'no'
- Apologising excessively even when not at fault
- Mimicking others to fit in or be accepted
- Over-extending oneself to help others

- Avoiding confrontation at all costs


The Psychology Behind Fawning

The fawn response can be traced back to early life experiences where an individual might have felt powerless or unsafe. In many cases, people who fawn have histories of living in environments with high levels of conflict or with caregivers who were emotionally unpredictable, distant, or abusive. In such settings, individuals learn to adopt behaviors that minimise the risk of harm or abandonment by being agreeable and accommodating.


The Impact of Fawning on Relationships

While fawning can be an effective short-term strategy for avoiding conflict, it can have detrimental long-term effects on a person's relationships and self-esteem. This behavior pattern can lead to a lack of genuine connection with others, as the fawning individual may suppress their true feelings and desires to maintain peace. Furthermore, people who fawn often attract relationships with individuals who take advantage of their compliance and willingness to please, which can perpetuate cycles of abuse and neglect.


Fawning and Mental Health

Fawning is not merely a social inconvenience; it can be a significant mental health concern. This behavior can contribute to the development of anxiety, depression, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Individuals who fawn may struggle with a sense of identity, as their actions are often not in alignment with their own needs and values. Over time, the continual suppression of one's own needs can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout.


Overcoming Fawning Behaviors

The process of overcoming fawning behaviors often involves therapy and self-reflective practices aimed at building self-awareness and self-esteem. Therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can be particularly helpful for individuals working to change their response patterns.

Key strategies in overcoming fawning include:
- Setting healthy boundaries
- Practicing assertive communication
- Developing self-compassion
- Reconnecting with one's own needs and desires
- Learning to tolerate discomfort in asserting oneself
- Building a support system of trusted individuals

- Engaging in self-care practices

Interventions like mindfulness and grounding techniques can also empower individuals to remain present and less overwhelmed in situations that might trigger a fawn response. By cultivating a stronger sense of self and learning to validate one's own experiences, it becomes easier to resist the urge to default to people-pleasing behaviors.


Fawning is a complex trauma response that serves as a survival mechanism for individuals in high-stress environments. While it may provide short-term relief from conflict, it can lead to long-term difficulties in personal development and relationship building. Recognising fawning behaviors is the first step towards healing and establishing a more authentic way of interacting with the world. With appropriate support and self-work, individuals can learn to break the cycle of fawning and move toward a life that honors their needs, strengthens their relationships, and improves their overall mental health.

As awareness of the fawn response grows, it is important for medical practitioners, therapists, educators, and the general public to understand its origins and implications. By creating safe spaces for people to explore and address their trauma responses, our health system can foster resilience and empowerment among those who have been conditioned to fawn. Through compassion, education, and therapeutic intervention, individuals can reclaim their agency and live lives free from the constraints of their past trauma.


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