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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An open letter to anyone else he’s hurt.

Seven years.

It’s taken me seven years to understand that what happened wasn’t my fault. To admit to myself that this person I trusted was never who he appeared to be. To look at that time in my life and see it for what it truly was: traumatic.

It’s been seven years, but when I see someone on the street that looks like him, it still feels like it was yesterday. My stomach drops. My vision blurs. My entire body tenses. And for a split second, I feel just as small and powerless as I did all those years ago.

I’m thousands of miles away from him but I forget that, sometimes.

I’m living my domestic life with a spouse, two cats, and the sweet little downtown flat. Sometimes I repeat the address like a mantra, just to remind myself of where I am. I keep a map of San Francisco in my kitchen. I collect tattoos to irrevocably mark the passage of time, a reminder that my body is my own, now more than ever.

But sometimes, he is the fear that still exists in the in-betweens spaces.

When someone walks too quickly toward me, when there’s a loud noise I’m not expecting, or when someone touches me and the word “no” is on the tip of my tongue, but I’ve forgotten how to say it — he still lives there, quietly.

It’s a word I didn’t learn how to say until long after he was already gone, when the acronym “PTSD” was passed down to me like a generational hand-me-down that I never asked for, when a psychologist gently said to me, “Sam, that was abuse.”

Seven years.

It took me seven years to finally feel angry. In hindsight, I’m astonished that I was ever kind (“it’s called a trauma bond,” they say). But when the rage finally kicked in, it was a fiery force, a beautiful blaze to behold. It was the perfectly scrawled signature at the bottom of my body’s manifesto — I am mine.

I imagined the smoke billowing out, an ominous warning that could be seen all those miles away: never again will any man’s entitlement grant him access to any part of me.

I am the surface of the sun and my rage turns predators into ash.

I smother every lie beneath my heel as it falls from his mouth. The pedestal I built him is nothing more than dust now, a pitiful reminder of what it felt like when he came toppling down, when I told him, “I don’t need you.”

Seven years.

Pain is an extraordinary teacher. It comes in waves, but as it passes over me, the darkness is replaced with clarity.

I’ve found the courage to dive underneath, even in the face of something so remarkably vast. I’ve learned to appreciate my breath, and to trust the buoyancy and resilience of my body.

And I know now the compass of my own heart. I come back to the surface each and every time — like a magnet that’s unquestioningly pulled to survival, to life — no matter how far I drift or sink.

No narcissist’s hunger (I imagine it as a mosquito drawn to ruby red blood) has ever taken away that instinct, however quiet it became.

I still have the inner wisdom that moves me when I am fixed in place.

It was once the raft that carried me back to myself; it is now the fleet that I call on, with every ounce of dignity, earnestness, and vulnerability, all at my command. What he took from me, I replaced with unwavering loyalty to everything I am and will become. He cut me at the stem, but my roots were always strong.

Seven years.

I still bloomed.

The path has been messy, but beautifully wild, and I love it all the more for that. To be whole and hurting, I think, is better than being a shell or a vessel or a hungry ghost.

He was a void that we mistook for depth, depth which he sold us as romance — but in truth, his soul was hollowed out long before he found us.

Ego has an appetite, and his will never be full, no matter how many ways he rewrites the story and casts the play. The truth about control and manipulation is that, so long as you need it, your power can never come from within.

That’s why he will never have what we have, whether he knows it or not.

We can cultivate our own power. We can tend to the garden within ourselves, basking in the light of our own courage.

Pain is a teacher, and persistence is our secret wisdom that we cultivate each day that we choose to live. With time, I’ve found new ways of growing, new ways of loving. While I’m not grateful for the violation that brought me here, I cherish the resilience that has unfolded in its place.

When I see our pain replaced with collective possibility, I am in awe of us and everything we can be.

And when the darkness washes over me again, I’ll look to this light to bring me back.

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A Psychiatrist Endangered My Life and I Was Afraid to Speak Out

A sad stock photo until Jessica's illustration is finished.

A very sad stock photo until Jessica’s illustration is finished.

Folks who have never struggled with their mental health seem to think of psychiatry as a quick and easy fix. Pop some happy pills and ta-daaaa! Your struggles will magically dissolve.

What these folks fail to understand (other than, like, how psychiatric medications actually work) is that, for many of us who are in the midst of mental illness or crisis, sometimes a psychiatrist’s office can be the most dangerous place for us to be.

When I was 18 years old, my therapist told me it was time to start thinking about medication to manage my bipolar disorder. I was suicidal, experiencing severe dissociation, and was dangerously depressed. I had experienced bipolar symptoms for most of my life, and we knew that medication to help regulate moods could be a game changer.

I went to a clinic that my insurance covered, and saw the first psychiatrist that I could. I knew the situation was urgent, and I was fortunate enough to find an opening sooner rather than later. I filled out the necessary forms, came in for my appointment, and waited for what I assumed was going to be the first miraculous step in my recovery and healing.

When we think about mental health professionals, we hope and even assume that they will be compassionate, encouraging, and at the very least, competent. But the woman that I met at this clinic was none of these things.

Her first question for me was to ask why I was depressed. When I told her I didn’t know, and that I had been depressed on and off for a long time, she didn’t believe me. She accused me of exaggerating my symptoms, telling me that I was “just a teenager” and that I couldn’t possibly be as depressed as I claimed to be.

She tried to shame me for seeing a psychiatrist. She said to me, “You know, I have children, and they’re around your age. I’d be pretty skeptical if they decided to seek out pills to solve their problems.”

Not once in our appointment did she ask if I was suicidal (I was). She didn’t ask about my history with self-harm (long and complicated). She seemed completely uninterested in my past, and instead, spent a lot of time asking about where my parents were, and why I would see a psychiatrist if I was “getting good grades in school.”

When I handed her a list of symptoms that my therapist had helped me to write, she looked at me and said, “Did you just read a psychology book recently and decide you were sick?”

I wish I could say that this was the worst thing that she did. But it only went downhill from there.

After she could see that I wasn’t leaving without some kind of help, she sighed, rolled her eyes, and asked me, “What pills do you want?”

I was completely baffled. What pills do I want? Wasn’t it her job to prescribe a medication that made sense based on my experiences? Wasn’t it her job to make an educated decision on how to manage my symptoms?

“I don’t know. My aunt takes Prozac,” I said quietly. “Should I be taking Prozac?”

“If it worked for her, maybe it’ll help you,” she told me, completely apathetic.

She wrote me the prescription and told me to leave.

This psychiatrist had confirmed that I did, indeed, have bipolar disorder. There was no confusion there. And yet she prescribed me an antidepressant without telling me that antidepressants can increase the risk of mania or rapid cycling in folks who have bipolar. Most psychiatrists will prescribe them with a mood stabilizer rather than prescribing an antidepressant alone because of this risk.

(Of course, I learned all of this from my next psychiatrist who, upon learning that I had taken Prozac by itself, looked at me and said, “I don’t understand why any trained psychiatrist would’ve done this.”)

Instead of prescribing a medication that took into account my diagnoses of anxiety and bipolar, she let me choose my own medication – as if I had gone to medical school and had a background that made me at all qualified to prescribe meds to myself.

Let me say that again: A so-called medical professional let a teenager prescribe their own drugs.

I was so very young, and in no way equipped to deal with the very serious disorder I was diagnosed with. I came to her for help – in arguably the most vulnerable place a person can be – and I was shamed for it, invalidated, re-traumatized, and worst of all, prescribed a medication that endangered me.

I trusted her, and she failed me.

And yes, of course, I began rapid cycling. I experienced volatile mood swings, vivid suicidal ideation, mania like I’d never seen before, complete breaks from reality. I scared everyone around me, including my parents, who at that point didn’t have much knowledge about bipolar and thus often missed the red flags with my episodes.

It was pretty exceptional stuff if my parents were taking note.

At my mother’s urging, I called the psychiatrist. I assumed that, perhaps, it was an honest mistake. But to my complete shock, despite several urgent voicemails, she did not call me back.

Not only did she endanger me with the wrong medicine, but when I called her in crisis, she made no attempt to help me.

My gut said that this psychiatrist had no right to invalidate my pain or shame me for asking for help. My gut said that asking a patient to choose their own pills was not how psychiatry was supposed to work. And my gut said that she had given me the wrong medicine, and that she should be held accountable for irresponsibly ignoring all of my calls.

But I was a teenager, and I was afraid. She was well-respected at this clinic – one of the best, I was told. It was my first time ever seeing a psychiatrist, and I thought that maybe this was just how psychiatry worked. Maybe it really was just quick and abrasive. Maybe I was being too sensitive.

Looking back, I deeply regret not making noise for the very clear wrongs that happened here. While I am in no way to blame for what happened, I fear for all the patients that came after me, especially the younger ones who are in many ways the easiest targets for this kind of abuse because we are placing our trust in adults that we are told are there to help us.

The sad part about it is that these psychiatric horror stories are not at all rare. We often come into these offices very vulnerable, even afraid, and are expected to somehow advocate for ourselves. We are asking for help, which is the most difficult thing in the fucking world to do, and when a professional preys on that vulnerability, it can be disastrous.

I share my story not to scare folks who are considering psychiatric interventions or discourage them from seeking help. Because as terrible as this was for me, and as long as it took to get past it, psychiatry as a whole has still helped me immensely. I’ve had the great privilege of having doctors that I can honestly say are my heroes, who modeled the kind of compassionate and competent care that we all deserve.

But people need to know that psychiatry is not infallible. That doctors and psychiatrists, too, are not infallible. In fact, in my experience as an advocate, I can tell you that abuse, intimidation, shaming, and endangerment by so-called professionals is not exceptional. In fact, tragically, it’s all too common.

Folks who are seeking out a psychiatrist need to know that they are entitled to the best possible care. If something feels wrong, if the experience was traumatic, or if there is an issue of trust, you are not obligated to continue seeing this person. I’ll repeat that: You are not obligated to stay. You’re not even obligated to be “nice” or polite, especially if you feel unsafe.

You can leave at any time, or call them out if you feel like you’re in a position to do that. You can seek out local mental health organizations if you feel you might have been the victim of abuse, and of course, any feedback you can give the clinic, even if it’s anonymous, is vital.

Well-intentioned loved ones who push us to seek out psychiatrists need to understand that this is not an easy bake oven, where you hand us over to a psychiatrist and we emerge on the other side perfectly composed and healed.

If you are invested in our well-being, I would encourage you to keep an open line of communication with us. Ask us about our psychiatrist. Don’t pry about the details of what we shared, but do ask us questions about the experience as a whole. “Did you feel safe? Did you feel validated? Did anything feel off or wrong? Do they seem trustworthy?”

Those questions can actually be life-saving.

While it’s clear that reform is needed to address the lack of quality psychiatric care and the dire inaccessibility of that care, it is crucial that we advocate for our loved ones to ensure that they are receiving treatment that does not hinder their healing, but rather, facilitates it.

I walked away from my first visit with a psychiatrist feeling like an imposter. Maybe I was a liar. Maybe I was wrong to ask for help. Maybe I was selfish. I walked away confused, more fearful than ever, and convinced that nothing could get better.

This should go without saying: No one should walk away from a medical professional feeling ashamed, afraid, and traumatized.

It took me years before I could write about this experience, but it’s my hope that sharing this story can give insight into the kinds of struggles we face not only as folks with mental illnesses, but as people trying to navigate a failing system.

I am not the first person to encounter abuse in the office of a psychiatrist, and I will certainly not be the last.

So when you gently suggest to a friend that they “just see a psychiatrist” as if it’s a walk in the park, let me remind you that it’s more like a bath with piranhas, or slathering on some honey and slow dancing with a bear.

You should probably, you know, adjust your sympathy accordingly.

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