People-pleasing can be a result of trauma. It’s called ‘fawning’ — here’s how to recognize it.

When I recently wrote a Twitter thread about my people-pleasing tendencies, I didn’t at all expect for it to go viral. Yet that’s exactly what happened.

As I shared my experiences with trauma and people-pleasing, I was hit with an avalanche of emotion. So many of you could relate to this phenomenon known as “fawning,” and it became immediately clear that we needed this resource to exist outside of Twitter.

So let’s keep the conversation going. I’m going to share both the original thread, as well as building on it. Let’s talk about the link between people-pleasers and emotional abuse.

Confession: I am a people-pleaser.

It took me a long time to realize this, though. Because I’m opinionated! And I speak my mind! I’m an “open book” about a lot of what I’ve been through. Clearly I don’t care what people think… right?

But in the last year, I’ve come to understand that people-pleasing is a lot more complex than that. We all curate our lives to some extent. And for people-pleasers, the ways in which we do that “curating” piece often stems from a place of fear.

Most people know about fight, flight, and freeze — but another trauma response, “fawn,” is at the core of what people-pleasing is actually about.

To avoid conflict, negative emotions, and re-traumatization, people who “fawn” when triggered will go out of their way to mirror someone’s opinions and appease them in order to deescalate situations or potential issues.

For me, this meant that the more invested I was in an emotional connection, the less likely I was to criticize that person, vocalize when my boundaries were crossed, express unhappiness with their behavior, or share anything that I felt might damage that relationship.

This could come across as being excessively nice and complimentary, overly-concerned with another person’s happiness, and waiting for cues in conversation to determine if something was “safe” to share or disclose.

You could say that people-pleasers are sort of ’emotional chameleons,’ trying to blend in in order to feel safe.

We try to embody whatever articulation of ourselves feels the least threatening to the person that we’re trying to be close to.

This can show up in a number of ways. People-pleasers are often really warm, encouraging, and generous people. They tend to overextend themselves and say “yes” to everything and everyone, eager to make those they care about happy and comfortable.

This tendency usually stems from childhood. They often grow up in very controlling and chaotic environments, and internalized the idea that if they were perfectly good or well-behaved, they could minimize conflict and secure love and attachment.

When you have this tendency to defer, make yourself subordinate, try to become smaller, ignore your boundaries and intuition, and minimize your own needs… you are profoundly vulnerable to emotional abuse.

This vulnerability to abuse is often a continuation of the familiar, chaotic dynamic from earlier in life.

When you are excessively concerned with pleasing others, you learn that in order to be effective at this, you have to shut down your gut instincts, your values, your emotions — because being an individual, rather than a mirror, doesn’t serve you in securing the love that you want.

That’s why people-pleasers can become drawn to abusive relationships, and repelled from relationships that are abundantly loving. We’ve internalized the idea that love has to feel “earned” in order to feel secure.

In other words? If love is given too freely or easily, it doesn’t feel safe.

This means people-pleasers can be drawn to relationships that are controlling (they feel safest when they defer to others), emotionally-withholding (they are driven by the need to “secure” affection, and feel elated when they do), and even abusive (their lack of boundaries is exploited).

Another part of being vulnerable to abuse is that people-pleasers are so easily gaslit, because when they are inclined to suppress their own instincts, values, and beliefs, they’re infinitely more likely to defer to an abuser’s version of events or narrative.

This also means that “fawn” types often go through cycles of restricting emotionally (I can’t be “too much” for others) and then purging emotionally (“unloading” onto a trusted person) because the expectation to be perfect and to repress gets to be too much.

I think this is why so many of us have eating disorders, too. The ways in which we restrict and purge emotionally can be reflected in the relationships we have to food. It’s driven by this internal battle of being “too much” and “not enough.” It’s fundamentally the same fear of simply being.

It’s important to understand that fawning isn’t intended to manipulate others.

It’s not exactly dishonest, either. Every single person presents a version of themselves to others. This merely describes how trauma informs that presentation on an often unconscious level.

The “fawn” response is driven by fear, not a hidden agenda. The “fawn” type is less about manipulation, because it’s not being used to overpower someone. Instead, it’s an excessive relinquishing of personal power, driven by fear and a desire for validation.

For example, someone who runs personal errands for their boss — despite it not being part of their job description — is not manipulating their boss into liking them. (It won’t work anyway.) Their boss, testing those thin boundaries, is exploiting their need for approval.

In more intimate relationships, this can show up as “fawn” types gravitating towards hot/cold dynamics, where affection and love are offered unpredictably.

This is where the emotional abuse piece comes into play. I wrote about this dynamic previously in my controller/pleaser article.

You have someone who is controlling, who feels safest in relationships where they call the shots, and feels loved when someone is actively seeking out their approval.

Enter: The “fawn” type.

An abuser will offer validation and love to keep the fawn type tethered. They’re usually the sort of person that feels distant, so the affection they offer to the fawn type comes across as special or unique.

But they’ll withdraw that affection before things feel stable, to ensure that the pleaser will continue going out of their way to “fawn” and secure that affection again. An abuser in this scenario feels safest when someone is actively pursuing them, so they get to replicate this sense of control and security over and over again… each time they withdraw their affection.

In the process, the fawn type is repeatedly giving over their power and autonomy so the abuse can continue. All the controller needs to do is rotate between withdrawing affection and, at the right moment, offer it abundantly.

I know this dynamic better than anyone, really, because it’s come up in my life repeatedly.

I’m sharing this because, holy shit, my friends, the number of traumatic relationships I’ve thrown myself into — professionally, personally, romantically — to get stuck in this cycle, with my self-esteem pulverized, has made my heart so heavy.

It took stepping away from a friendship that had so thoroughly gaslit and demolished me — while plummeting into the deep depths of anorexia — before I realized that chasing controlling, emotionally unavailable, even abusive people was crushing my spirit.

I sought out the most emotionally inaccessible people, and I threw myself into the pursuit, somehow believing that if I could secure the love and affection of the most unattainable person, it would indisputably prove my worthiness.

It’s a painful cycle. But for me, simply being aware of it was the first step towards healing.

If you’re reading this and saying, “Holy shit… it me. Oh god. What do I do?” Don’t panic. I’ve got you.

For starters, I’m going to ask you something: Which of your friends do you cancel on?

Personal experience: I had this tendency to bail on friends, partners, acquaintances, whoever, that were the most generous, warm, and emotionally-available.

I avoided those relationships where love was free and easy. Because it didn’t feel “earned,” so I didn’t feel “worthy.”

Which isn’t to say that everyone with this trauma response does this, but humans often seek out the familiar. Which means many of us tend to avoid what feels unsafe. For people-pleasers, we’re so used to working endlessly hard in relationships — it’s disorienting when we aren’t asked to.

I made a google doc (no, I seriously did) where I listed out people who were “way too nice to me.” And then I asked myself, do I like this person? Do I enjoy their company? If I did, I sent them a text message and told them I wanted to commit to spending more time with them.

I was completely honest about my process with those folks, too. I said, “Listen, I get really scared when people are nice to me. You’ve always been SO nice to me, and I get afraid of disappointing you. But I want to change that, because I just enjoy your company so very much.”

In my phone contacts, I put emojis by their names. I put strawberries next to people who were super loving. I put seedling emojis by folks who taught me things that made me think/grow. So when I saw a text from them, it reminded me that I should prioritize that message. 🌱🍓

And?

My life completely changed… in every imaginable way.

My ‘strawberry people’ went from being sort of friendly to becoming chosen family that I can’t imagine my life without.

With the help of some amazing therapy (trauma-informed therapy, if you can access it, is a game-changer), I grew to love myself so much — because that love was being modeled for me in a healthy way.

I’ve struggled with addiction and eating disorders, because I’ve taken this out on my body as much as I have my mind. When you have an overwhelming sense of being “too much” and “not enough” all at once, it’s not surprising when you try to numb every emotion and shrink yourself down.

And my strawberry people (who are now all in a group text together!) have been there every step of my recovery. I reached a year in my sobriety this last month. And I’m finally medically stable after being severely malnourished from anorexia nervosa.

Choosing love — unconditional love of self, and being loved unconditionally by others — literally saved my life.

It all began just by affirming, “I am enough, here and now, and I deserve love that doesn’t hurt.”

It’s not an easy process by any means, but I can’t begin to tell you how much happier I am as a result.

If this all sounds familiar, I do have some recommendations on next steps — because this blog post is really just the tip of the iceberg.

I genuinely believe that every single person should be reading Pete Walker’s book about complex trauma. It’s called “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma,” and it’s absolutely incredible.

So much of what I know about complex trauma and fawning is from the groundwork that Pete laid out in that book. I have a few of his other books as well, and he’s uniquely positioned as both a trauma-informed clinician and as a survivor of complex trauma.

I also have a few blog posts around complex trauma that I think are really useful in this conversation…

People-pleasers can be drawn to toxic relationships. It’s important to know why: This one breaks down the pleaser/controller abuse dynamic, in case that cycle sounds familiar.

Am I traumatized enough for a Complex PTSD diagnosis? A lot of people who are knew to complex trauma wonder if they’ve “suffered enough” to describe their experiences as trauma. I get it! And I’m here to unpack that question for you.

10 ways to reach out when you’re struggling with your mental health. If you’re struggling and not sure how to connect with your “strawberry people,” I have an entire resource about it.

If your goal in therapy is to ‘be happy,’ here’s why you might want to rethink that. People-pleasers also tend to be perfectionists in the ways they approach recovery. This article I wrote can help with goal-setting as you start to untangle trauma stuff!

I also do a bit of blogging about recovery, especially as it relates to disordered eating, over on Instagram and Twitter.

Most of all though, I just want to validate the hell out of you.

I understand the very difficult cycle that we find ourselves in when we’re consumed by this idea that we need to be “exactly enough,” and that, if we measure it out correctly, we’ll never hurt or be hurt again.

But relationships involve putting ourselves in harm’s way sometimes. What they shouldn’t involve, though, is self-harm — and ultimately, that’s what “fawning” does. We’re harming ourselves. We’re making ourselves smaller, we’re self-silencing, and we’re punishing ourselves.

You are allowed to have all the feelings. You are allowed to take up all the space. You’re allowed to be everything that you are and then some.

The right people — your people — will love you even more when they see how expansive your life becomes when you give yourself that space.

It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process! But I want you to know that it’s a process you can begin at any time.

It’s never too late to give yourself permission to be, to show up more authentically, and to find those who will celebrate you for it. I promise you that. 🍓

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Photo by Kylli Kittus on Unsplash.

61 thoughts on “People-pleasing can be a result of trauma. It’s called ‘fawning’ — here’s how to recognize it.

    1. This is a very profound article that in my opinion should be published in every place possible. I am 65 years old and when I was in seminary in my early 20s I had the excrutiating experience of being confronted about “needing people to like me.” It was true, rising up from my alcoholic family, but from being a lesbian in the church at a time in history that meant I could lose everything. Anyway, I relate to the article in so, so many ways. I think we need to still do some work on how we describe “being people pleasers” and “fawning” so that we can be proud of the traumas we have survived. I will keep thinking about this, and, thank you so, so much!

      Liked by 3 people

    2. OMG! You’ve just articulated what I’ve been going through all my adult life. Brilliant work and thank you for passing on.

      Like

  1. I’m not ready to say a lot…..just want you to know that your post changed my life. At age 48…I’m finally going to go to therapy and get the help I need. Thank you from the bottom of my people pleasing heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for articulating THIS experience. Thank you so much for the VALIDATION. So many articles add an element of blame and ownership, which we’ve experienced an excessive amount of already.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article. The “defensive cascade” includes freeze, flight, fight, friend and flop and is usually sequential when under threat/pressure or feeling unsafe. “Friend” explains a lot when it comes to school kids siding with the bully or in more extreme cases “Stockholm Syndrome”. It is interesting that you’ve taken this coping mechanism into your everyday life and fantastic that you recognize it. More power to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post hit me like a mack truck. Holy shit. I was in the middle of writing my husband an “I think we need to separate” email (because I am incapable of confronting him) when I read your post. It explains so, so much that I could not articulate- and I have always considered myself emotionally intelligent and highly introspective! You have given me such a HUGE aha moment! Thank you!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Just an added thought: Depending on the abuse people pleasing is a learned helplessness. It is also very similar to Stockholm syndrome compliance turning admiration of abuser. Denial of the abuse also makes love abusive and abuse loving. I grew up with a mom in denial of the abuse. She tried very hard to have my children removed because I didn’t “control” them. They grew up scared to be removed, craving this external control for safety. Control was the abuse I refused to demonstrate. I taught by natural and logical consequences as my dad taught me. I’ve watched many a melt downs with my mom unable to control other people including myself. My kids always complied and she was right ….I was the liar and bad mom. This created people pleasing in authoritative relationships and craving control in personal for each of them.

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  6. It’s taken me literal *decades* to realize and understand that any relationship where I feel I have to work to earn the other person’s love and respect is one that is not going to be enjoyable or healthy for me. Some people thrive on “tough love,” but I am not one of them, and it’s articles like this that have helped me to understand that that’s 100% okay, that I am allowed to say “Hey, this is hurting me, please back off,” and distance myself from people who don’t respect those boundaries.

    In short, thank you for articulating all of this so clearly.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Extraordinary, amazing article. I’ve been working on my childhood trauma for over 30 years and never thought of this in this way. Thank you very much!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. *sigh* now a lot of things make so much more sense! thank you, Sam! seems I needed this, and it’s been long over due. thank you and I hope and pray I will let this take seed and change my life for the better. *hugs*

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you so much! I’m 19 and my whole life I have always felt this way, especially the “too much” and “never enough” do to childhood experience. This article made me feel less alone. So again thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  10. This blog is extremely insightful that I’m passing it onto others that I know. They ‘may’ be able to recognize themselves to begin their journey of healing. Thank you very much indeed for sharing your wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great article. I really like your approach to using emojis and google spreadsheets. The spreadsheet seems like a great way to clear your headspace and think rationally about what is happening.
    I recently read a book that goes through a lot of these behaviors and attempts to explain as well as give exercises to overcome or maintain the people-pleasing behavior. It called “No More Mr. Nice Guy”.

    Like

  12. Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s really resonating with me. You’ve articulated what I’ve been trying to articulate to my therapist as the ‘quality’ aobut me that I want to improve.

    This is 100% my experience, and I’ve spent so long hating myself for being ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’.

    Thank you so much for articulating what I (and my therapist!) could not! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wonderful stuff. I will add that in my own experience, being a part of Al-Anon has been HUGE in gently moving me toward exactly what you are describing – accepting myself and learning to accept love from others rather than run. It’s a pattern we describe in shares so often at our meetings. So the right recovery group might be helpful as well, particularly if one can’t afford therapy! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Oh jeeze. The hard hits.
    A friend linked me this, because we talk a lot about mental health, you know the deal. This really resonated with some aspects of myself. I’ve not-so-recently started and maintained attendance at a Codependents Anonymous meeting in the area I live, because I’ve struggled so much with this sort of thing. So much of what you describe here sounds like codependency, and my own experiences of how codependency has manifested in my relationships with basically EVERYONE. This might be of some interest to you (if you havent come across it already): http://coda.org/index.cfm/meeting-materials1/patterns-and-characteristics-2011/
    Having a group of people who I can talk openly about my struggles and successes in recovery means a lot. Even if 12step isn’t the recovery tool you need I wanted to share, for you and your other readers!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thank you for this post. I recognised a lot of things I do. Getting my head around this stuff at the moment, and this feels like part of the puzzle.

    Like

  16. This hit really hard for me- I feel like a shapeshifter sometimes in the way I act around people, how I’ll be so focused on them during a conversation to figure out who I need to be in that moment to stay agreeable enough and pleasant enough and good enough, yknow? I’m printing this and bringing it to my therapy appointment tomorrow because I think it’s really good language for me and I can’t wait to share it. Thanks so much for your work!

    Like

  17. Thank you Sam for sharing your post. This is life-changing information for me. I’ve been on the road of unconditional love for myself and aware of my “fawning” in this last year; although I didn’t know that’s what it was called until now. More information and little tools like the emoji’s on your contact list are perfect reminders! The gas-lighting makes perfect sense now!
    Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Like

  18. Attempting not to cry in my office right now. The description of being enough/not being too much…I don’t even have the words…

    Like

  19. I think I do this in relationships, but I think my partner does, too! What happens when both people in a relationship are fawners? We both have been abused in the past, and we each vowed never to be with controlling partners again. Then we met each other. We are both passive, both afraid to express needs or to be “too much”, both afraid of conflict. How do we support each other in breaking free from this unhealthy (and frustrating!) dynamic?

    Like

  20. Ah, you embody so much of what I went through in my childhood to adult life here. I’m recovering as well. I’d like to say I’m cured but I tend to avoid that language since I think we’re always learning, or getting better at life.

    My partner helped me. I think one of the main things in our relationship is that she allowed me space to be angry. It was weird at first, I felt SO guilty at being angry at her, even when my anger was justified, but she allowed me that time and space to vent. It’s been very, very healing.

    Also, one thing that may be of help is that to never truly get rid of your people pleasing tendencies. One thing I’ve REALLY learned is that people pleasing done right can soothe even the savagest of beasts! It’s like everything though. There’s a balance to everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Thank you so much for this article. It is so healing to learn about stuff like this and realize this is one less thing I need to feel shame about because now I see why I do it and know there is something I can do about it. I love the strawberry and seedling idea. Thank you thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I am this. Dr Sarno calls this having a ‘goodist’ personality. The stress / emotion of subconsciously holding back manifests itself in other ways in your body, sometimes in back pain. I suggest the book “Mind Body Connection by Sarno. Its helped me so much. Its not a fun or easy read though. Thank you for this article!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. I learned about tapping (eft). in nick ortners book manifesting your greatest self,theres a chapter called the freeze response,which describes the primitive brain,when you cant outrun,or fight a enemy it freezes.its a survival technique (especially if your young). its no shame.

    Like

  24. This article resonated with me so much that I had to get the book you recommended, “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving”. This book is incredible, and one of the most helpful tools I have yet to come across in my five years of recovery! It took three of those years just to finally come to terms with having CPTSD and not just PTSD from another incident later in life. Thank you so much for your help on my own journey. ❤️❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  25. You have been my “ ligthhouse” on this subject…and somehow the light has started to shine into the cracks of my Amor…so wise words ❤️..

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Wow! This gave me goose bumps! I don’t shy away from conflict, not afraid to stand up myself and avoid people who disrespect me, though I like to rescue people who appear damaged. Like the narcistic type. This is a real eye opener, I am aware of the cycle but once in, I seem to be drawn back in and can’t get out of the spider web because now, after reading this. It makes me feel safe! Thank you Pete and bless you for helping others through your unfortunate experiences. I will definitely look into getting some books from you, God bless you always.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Crying by the end because I felt like you snuck into my head, looked at all the broken things, and then wrote this about me. I’ve never seen anything that felt so accurate about the state of my Self.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. You ripped my soul and heart open when I read this post. It was as if you could see into the depth of who I am and put it into words. I’m damaged, broken, feel deserving of not being loveable, liked, cared for, ugly, embarrassed to be active in life. Yes, I am a survivor with a long road of recovery I front of me. Thank you for opening up and Shari g with us and referring us to read the book if we wanted to check it out. I now am following you and FB and am touched by all the articles you post. Thank you for being a light.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Thank you for putting this into words. I’ve recently started allowing anger into my life and this was a good reminder to not shrink my experiences in order to make someone else comfortable + set firmer boundaries.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Oh my god!!!
    Some situations and experiences from the past make so much sense now!!!
    I ve been hitting a very rough patch lately with some old trauma coming back to my face like a volcano and during some introspections i ve realized i was a people pleaser but didn t realise the extend of it, the roots and wawzer!!!
    It def hits home!
    Thank you so much for sharing this!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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