5 Ways I’m Unlearning My ‘Fawn’ Response

After writing about the trauma response known as “fawning,” I got so many messages and emails from readers asking me the same exact question: How do I stop?

I had to really sit with this question for a while. Because, to be honest, I’m still very much in that process myself.

Just to review, fawning refers to a trauma response in which a person reverts to people-pleasing to diffuse conflict and reestablish a sense of safety.

It was first coined by Pete Walker, who wrote about this mechanism pretty brilliantly in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving To Thriving.

“Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.”

–Pete Walker, The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex Trauma

Walker says that this ultimately results in the death of the individual self. When we compulsively mirror what others expect and want from us, we detach from our own sense of identity, our needs and desires… even our own bodies.

It makes sense that we would want to reclaim our lives from this defense mechanism that ultimately diminishes us.

And? It’s also important to remember that healing from any kind of trauma is a lifelong process, and an individual one at that.

When it comes to our coping mechanisms, we’re essentially asking our brains to be comfortable giving up something that kept us safe! This can be a really destabilizing process, which is why it’s one we should embark on thoughtfully.

I’m always happy to share what I’ve learned, with the caveat that everyone’s healing journey will be a unique one. But if you’re stuck and unsure of how to push back against your fawning tendencies, I hope that this will give you a little more direction.

1. I put together a trauma-informed support system.

Trauma rarely happens in a vacuum — it usually happens in relationship with others. This means that much of the healing work also takes place in safe, supportive relationships.

I have a talk therapist, a psychiatrist, and a body work practitioner who all specialize in working with clients who have PTSD. However, not everyone has the means to access this kind of support.

You might instead seek out a spiritual mentor or community, find a local support group, or find a safe partner or loved one to explore “co-counseling” with. I’ve also found the self-care app Shine to be a great resource for affirmations, community, and self-education through this process.

Wherever you find it, safe connection — especially “in-person” — is a key piece of the puzzle when we’re healing from relational trauma.

2. I’ve practiced sitting with the anger and disappointment of others.

My default setting is to assume that, when others are angry or disappointed in me, I must have done something wrong… and it’s my job to fix it.

This is when my fawning mechanism would kick in — I’d immediately take at face value someone else’s perception of me, not slowing down to question if they were projecting something onto me that simply wasn’t accurate or truthful.

When someone is narrating my experience or who they think I am, I’ve learned to slow down, take a deep breath, and simply notice what’s happening.

That often means sitting with someone who is angry or upset with me, and not rushing to appease them. (In a cultural climate in which public call-outs can unravel in a single hour, this can be especially hard to do — but extremely important.)

Sometimes that means asking more questions before I start apologizing. Sometimes it means walking away from a conversation to give myself the spaciousness I need to get in touch with my own feelings, and to reflect on whether or not the information or the source seems trustworthy. I might even reach out to others that I trust to get their read on the situation.

And if it doesn’t hold water? Well, as the kids say, some folks will just have to stay mad.

When people are in pain, they can become deeply invested in the stories they tell themselves — but what they’ve projected onto you or your experience isn’t your responsibility.

Not everything people say about you is true, even if it’s coming from someone you respect, and even if they’re really, really confident when they say it.

Learning to let that go, even if it means that there are people who just don’t like me for whatever reason, has helped me immensely.

3. I’ve gotten in touch with my personal values.

Years ago, if you were to ask me what my personal values were, I would’ve started talking about the ideologies that I aligned with.

And while I still care about social justice and feminism… I’ve learned the hard way that people can speak the same language, but still practice very different values, even if they espouse the same beliefs.

More recently, though, I’ve gotten much clearer on my values — and it’s helped me to get in touch with who I really am and who I can trust.

For me, this means holding the humanity of others at all times. It means speaking from the heart and honoring my authentic voice. And it means both owning my shit and holding the line when someone isn’t working on theirs.

My beliefs might dictate what I would like the world to be like, but my values determine how I show up in the world as it is, both for myself and others.

This allows me to check in with myself when conflict arises, so I can determine if I’m aligned with my values, and if the people I’m in relationship with are meeting me there, too.

Am I deeply respecting the humanity of the person in front of me (and am I seen and held in my humanity, too)? Am I speaking from the heart? Am I being authentic — or am I giving apologies that I don’t mean or appeasing somebody else for the sake of it? Am I taking responsibility for how I’m showing up, while not burdening myself with shit that isn’t mine to hold?

Before I revert to fawning, I try to get grounded and ask myself if I’m moving from a place of self-honor rather than self-betrayal, and if the person I’m engaging with is capable of meeting me there in the moment.

This has helped me focus less on making others happy, and instead shift towards respecting and honoring myself… and feeling secure when I make the decision to walk away.

4. I’ve started paying close attention to how people communicate their needs.

This one is important. I’m someone who is hardwired to try to meet the needs of the people I care about, without really interrogating how they’re choosing to express those needs to me.

Boundaries, requests, and expectations are all very different from each other — and they can tell us a lot about how someone is relating to us.

A boundary is naming what we can or cannot do for other people (i.e., “I’m not going to be able to talk to you if you call me while you’re drunk”), while a request is asking someone do something for us (“Could you please stop calling me while you’re intoxicated?”).

But an expectation or demand is different in that it’s an attempt to dictate someone else’s behavior (“I don’t want you drinking when you go out with your friends”). That’s a red flag that I’m working hard to notice and distance myself from.

Like I talked about in a previous article about controllers and people-pleasers, it’s so important to be protective over our autonomy — sometimes what people name as a “boundary” is actually just an attempt to control our behavior.

Knowing the difference has helped me decide when I can and can’t honor what someone is asking of me, and to be wary of people who frame their needs as expectations that remove my ability to choose.

5. I’ve given myself full permission to feel and name my feelings.

I spent a lot of time emotionally numb without even realizing it. I always assumed that being emotionally numb meant that I couldn’t feel anything — and as someone who felt very emotional, that didn’t feel true to me at all.

It wasn’t until I was in eating disorder treatment that a clinician explained to me that emotional numbness isn’t the absence of emotion — it’s the inability to precisely identify, relate to, make meaning of, and move through the emotions that we have.

In other words, we’re desensitized to our full range of emotions and what they’re telling us. In my case, up until that point, I was convinced I only had three emotions: Depressed, stressed, or good.

I believe that a lot of people who fawn have had to shut down their emotional realities to some extent — because we learn that the only emotions that matter for our survival are the emotions of those around us.

I spent many years grappling with an eating disorder and addiction, in a misguided attempt to keep myself dissociated and numb. I became a workaholic and obsessively dedicated to helping others. My whole life revolved around making others happy.

By the time I entered treatment, my therapist remarked that I was so concerned about everyone else, I’d forgotten how to care about myself. And she was right — I moved through my life having internalized the idea that I didn’t matter at all.

A big part of my healing has been getting back in touch with my emotions, needs, desires, and personal boundaries — and learning to name them.

This has meant releasing old coping mechanisms that allowed me to “numb out.” And I’ve also had to practice naming not just what I think in any given moment, but giving a voice to what I feel, whether it seems rational or not.

I’ve had to radically and unconditionally validate my emotional experiences, approaching them with curiosity and care rather than criticism.

And then? I share those feelings with others, even if that leads to uncomfortable conversations or awkward moments. Feelings are meant to be felt, and if we keep attempting to extinguish our own emotions, we are actively fighting and denying what makes us human.

And that’s ultimately what fawning does to us — it denies us the right to be full, authentic, messy human beings.

I also want to name that a fear of abandonment in this process is completely valid.

In this article, I’m naming a lot of really difficult work.

Exploring your trauma history, sitting with the discomfort of other people’s emotions, taking ownership of your personal values, becoming more discerning around what others ask of us, releasing old coping tools, and feeling our feelings — all of that is incredibly challenging and transformative stuff.

And yes, it can definitely place a strain on the existing relationships in your life.

For people who benefited from our passivity and eagerness to please, we might encounter a lot of resistance when we start asserting ourselves and owning how we feel.

We might even find that relationships that once felt safe now feel completely incompatible with our needs and desires. This is normal and totally okay.

Many trauma survivors find themselves in a scarcity mindset. A scarcity of resources, a scarcity of support, a scarcity of love — all of this impacts what we’re willing to tolerate in our relationships in order to feel “safe.”

And because fawning means we’re almost always depriving ourselves, this scarcity can feel even more terrifying. As we accept ourselves as emotional beings with needs and desires, letting people walk away or choosing to sever ties can be very distressing at times.

But I’d like to gently push back on this scarcity mindset, and remind you that while it is challenging work, there is an abundance of people and love on this planet.

Self-respect and healthy boundaries are more likely to attract the kinds of reliable support and unconditional care you need and deserve — even if the process of building on these skills can feel lonely and even terrifying at times.

So as you begin to unpack and unlearn your people-pleasing, remember that it’s okay to be afraid.

This process involves untangling one of our very first “security blankets” as small and helpless people — and yes, that means that we will, at some points, feel small and helpless as we reorient towards ourselves and the world.

But I can promise you that the work is undoubtedly worth the struggle.

I truly believe that when we approach the world with a sense of inherent worth and honor — and a commitment to our own healing and growth — we begin to uncover the kinds of love and safety that we’ve wanted for ourselves all along, both within us and in our relationships.

I won’t claim to know much about this wild and scary world (I’m just one person doing his best to hang on), but I’ll tell you what I do know — or at least, what I believe to be true.

Everyone — every single one of us — deserves to show up as their authentic selves, and to be met with love, honor, and protection.

And the incredible thing about healing from trauma is that this is a gift we can learn to give ourselves, little by little, a day at a time.

I believe in you. I believe in us.

You’ve got this. 🍓

signature

Hey, before you go…
This blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Even a dollar a month helps sustain this labor of love, and gets resources like these out into the world. Thanks for your support.

Photo by AllGo – An App For Plus Size People on Unsplash

17 thoughts on “5 Ways I’m Unlearning My ‘Fawn’ Response

  1. I can relate so much to what you’ve shared. I keep learning and relearning the difference between values and beliefs. Like you, so often I look for people with shared beliefs and assume we must hold the same standards for how we want to treat each other, only to realize there is a discrepancy in how much each of us is willing to “own our shit.” Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Sam, I loved this article. I’m 50 and still fawn ALL THE TIME. This is so helpful!
    I noticed that you had been gone, and was concerned – I’m glad to see you’re feeling better. Best wishes for continued health and healing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Have only recently found your site and the amount of things you say that I associate with is amazing! So just want to give u a heartfelt ‘Thank you” You’re a lovely person for allowing other people to share your learning experiences and the fear that sometimes accompanies them. You really are an all round good Egg and its a real privilege reading what you have to say. X

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What a gift for me..struggling to find my way in a thicket of caregiving. Your powerful insights and clarifications help simplify the immense struggle of self discovery too many of us are immersed in. That you validate the emotional, spiritual aspects of how unsettling it is to seek and stand for authenticity is very comforting. From my heart to yours, I wish you continued strength and many blessings 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What you wrote Sam is so beautifully succinct and I absorbed in trying it so deeply into my mind and soul because I relate to your journey on this subject in the need for far too long to utilize it (fawning) as a tool for survival. I am beyond grateful for YOU And your open & real authenticity and as by your willingness to go ‘there’ thus others are allowed to take that journey also. Who influenced me greatly early last year finding you on Twitter and you spoke about fawning and Pete walker and I of course immediately got the book… however this a so very well laid out explanation you just wrote of …pointed & perfect!!!! Bless you❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Sam, you kind of feel like a friend because this past year every time I need to look into something well, there you are writing about it! Laying it out with heart and making sense too. I only just learnt about betrayal trauma and c-PTSD and the 4Fs this year and realised they apply to me. Hadn’t got to the bit in Pete Walker’s book yet where he goes into fawning in greater depth so was surprised to relate so much to what you wrote. Thought freezing was more my thing – and sometimes it is. Love the compassion and political awareness in how you write. Sorry I can’t afford to Patreon you. I love that in your writing you don’t assume everyone has resources. I’m just grateful I lived to see the birth of the Internet as before that I’d never have had access to recovery materials. All the best to you in your healing journey.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can’t even tell you what this comment means to me!

      I really love sharing where I’m at in my own process, and to know that it’s helpful to folks that otherwise wouldn’t be able to access it is *exactly* why I keep writing. While I’d love for every single person to have access to quality mental health care, it’s just not a reality in the world as it currently is… but there are therapists like Pete Walker writing books, and bloggers like myself trying to translate it and leave a trail of bread crumbs along the way for whoever might need them. 🙂

      Also, Pete later on talks about a freeze-fawn subtype… which is my type and I imagine yours, too. Solidarity to you from a fellow freeze-fawner!

      (And don’t even worry about Patreon! I donate almost all of the proceeds to other mental health platforms, because it’s more important to me that other diverse perspectives can be supported in this work. I have a full-time job anyway! It’s really just a vehicle for giving back to the community.)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Sam! I’ve started to really look into codependent dynamics in my relationships. Codependency is defined in different ways by various people, but it sounds like there’s a lot of overlap with it and how you’ve described the fawning response in your articles. Have you (or maybe Pete Walker even mentions it in his books) looked into how fawning and codependency compare/contrast at all?

    Like

  8. I came here from where I found your piece on Healthline just to say thank you for writing it. This whole lockdown situation in the US has given me waaaay too much time to sit in my own head, and your words really helped me calm down when I was panicking about never being able to change this about myself.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s