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Whether we realize it or not, most of us are familiar with three classic responses to fear — fight, flight and freeze.
When our brains perceive a threat in our environment, we automatically go into one of these stress response modes. From an evolutionary standpoint, these responses have served us well by allowing us to respond quickly to threats and get to safety. But for folks who have lived through prolonged exposure to abuse or trauma (often referred to as complex trauma), the threat never feels like it went away, leaving many individuals “stuck” in different stress response modes.
Think of the person who seems to lash out in anger at the slightest provocation (fight). Or the perpetually anxious person who avoids interpersonal conflict by immersing herself in work or school (flight). Or the individual who constantly feels defeated by their inability to make decisions (freeze).
These are classic examples of fight, flight and freeze due to trauma, but did you know there’s actually a fourth response? It’s called “fawn” and is a term coined by Pete Walker, a C-PTSD survivor and licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in helping adults who were traumatized in childhood.
Before we get too deep into the fawn trauma response, let’s make sure we have a good grasp on the other three commonly-recognized trauma responses: fight, flight and freeze. With the help of trauma-informed treatment specialist, Patrick Walden, LICSW, we’ve defined each below.
As a note, most trauma survivors tend to lean toward one stress response. It’s important to remember no one response is “better” or “worse” than the others. If you find yourself “stuck” in one of the stress responses, and it’s affecting your quality of life, we encourage you to seek the help of a trauma-informed specialist.
Survivors who tend toward the fight response innately believe power will guarantee the security and control they lacked in childhood.
“Fight looks like self-preservation at all costs,” Walden told The Mighty, adding that this trauma response can manifest in explosive outbursts of temper, aggressive behavior, demanding perfection from others or being “unfair” in interpersonal confrontations.
He also noted that while we typically associate the fight response with men, women can also struggle with anger, though in many cases they direct their anger inward at themselves instead of toward others.
Survivors who tend toward the flight response are usually chronically busy and perfectionistic. They may believe “being perfect” is a surefire way to receive love and prevent abandonment by important people in their lives.
“Flight can look like obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior, feelings of panic or anxiety, rushing around, being a workaholic or over-worrying, [and being] unable to sit still or feel relaxed,” Walden said.
Survivors who tend toward the freeze response are often mistrustful of others and generally find comfort in solitude. The freeze response may also refer to feeling physically or mentally “frozen” as a result of trauma, which people may experience as dissociation.
“Freeze looks like spacing out or feeling unreal, isolating [yourself] from the outside world, being a couch potato … [and having] difficulty making and acting on decisions,” Walden said.
What Is the Fawn Response?
Fawning is perhaps best understood as “people-pleasing.” According to Walker, who coined the term “fawn” as it relates to trauma, people with the fawn response are so accommodating of others’ needs that they often find themselves in codependent relationships. On his website he wrote:
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.
Below we’ve listed some classic signs of fawning. These behaviors may be especially prevalent when a survivor feels triggered or fearful:
Being unable to say how you really think or feel
Caring for others to your own detriment
Always saying “yes” to requests
Struggling with low self-esteem
Feeling taken advantage of
Being very concerned about fitting in with others
Because fawn types struggle to take up space and express their needs, they are more vulnerable to emotional abuse and exploitation. In abusive circumstances (for example childhood abuse or intimate partner violence), abusers may suppress a survivor’s fight or flight responses by threatening punishment, leading to the the survivor’s reliance on the fawn or freeze response.
“When we lack the power or ability to fight or flee, which occurs commonly with complex trauma, we will freeze, ‘appease’ or dissociate,” Dr. Cathy Kezelman, AM, president of Blue Knot Foundation: National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma, told The Mighty. “The appease response, which is also known as ‘please’ or ‘fawn’ is another survival response which occurs [when] survivors read danger signals and aim to comply and minimize the confrontation in an attempt to protect themselves.”
What It’s Like to Experience Fawning
As humans, we tend to seek out relationships that feel comfortable and familiar. For fawn-type trauma survivors who are used to working hard to please in relationships, this can unfortunately mean attracting abusive relationships that feel familiar or “deserved.”
This is something mental health advocate Sam Dylan Finch wrote about on his blog, “Let’s Queer Things Up“:
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…
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.
If you are a trauma survivor and can relate to his words, you’re not alone. There is no shame in struggling with fawning. Fawning, like the other stress responses, is like self-protective armor. It has helped many trauma survivors live through abusive and sometimes dangerous circumstances.
As we mentioned above, there is no stress response that is “better” or “worse” than the others, but getting stuck in one of them can be harmful. Though fawning tends to assuage anxiety and make you feel “safer” in the moment, it can actually silence your voice and prevent you from healing or surrounding yourself with people that truly care about your well-being.
How to Find Help
The good news is it’s never too late to heal from trauma. With the help of a trauma-informed therapist (check out this helpful tool to find one), you can work to change your deeply ingrained responses to fear.
“People who have experienced complex trauma often struggle to feel safe and regulate their often strong emotions,” Kezelman told The Mighty. “Learning to find a sense of safety can be a slow and gradual process, but one which is absolutely achievable.”
One of the most important parts of your healing journey will be learning to develop and assert healthy boundaries with people in your life. (For a crash course on boundary-setting, check out our guide here). In times of stress and fear, instead of compromising your needs, a therapist can teach you self-soothing and self-care strategies, as well as grounding techniques if you struggle with dissociation.
As you begin (or continue) your healing journey, there are a few things we need you to know:
You deserve to take up space.
You are enough just as you are.
Your thoughts, feelings, opinions and boundaries matter.
To connect with The Mighty’s trauma survivor community, we encourage you to post a Thought or Question on the site with the hashtag #TraumaSurvivors. Whatever you’re facing today, you don’t have to do it alone.