Fawning: The Fourth Trauma Response After Fight, Flight, Freeze
Picture yourself coming into contact with a saber-tooth tiger.
Your brain's limbic system—the primitive part of your brain wired for survival—flips into fight-or-flight mode. Maybe you're strong and have weapons, so you fight. Or maybe there's no way you'll survive that, so you run away. You might even freeze to see what the tiger is planning to do, just in case it doesn't become interested in you and simply walks away.
But beyond the fight-flight-freeze options, there's a fourth trauma response that we seldom acknowledge: fawning.
Fight, flight, freeze, fawn
The fight-flight-freeze-fawn responses are known as stress responses or trauma responses. These are ways the body automatically reacts to stress and danger, controlled by your brain's autonomic nervous system, part of the limbic system. Depending on our upbringing, we can sometimes learn to rely too heavily on one of these responses—this is where the trauma portion comes into play.
For example, with freezing, we play dead so the enemy will leave us alone. You hear this when sexual assault survivors say they don't remember a thing; our bodies shut down to help us cope with the situation, believing the way to minimize harm is to lie still and wait for it to pass. But because trauma isn't just about the past but rather how it replays in the present moment in our body, freezing after the traumatic event can also happen via losing awareness in certain difficult situations or via phobias, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors like losing ourselves in hours of gaming that allow us to "disappear."
Put simply, we are run by an unconscious belief system—what social psychologist Ronnie Januff-Bulman calls our assumptive world1. Most of us believe that good things happen to us, the future is good, and the world is a benevolent place. However, a traumatic incident can shatter our assumptive world, leading us to tell ourselves different stories. Because the world is a dangerous place and bad things happen to us, we display a different set of behaviors to protect ourselves.
What is fawning?
Fawning is a strategy we unconsciously learn to get ourselves out of trouble, as a result of interacting with a difficult person who's likely a toxic personality type. It's bending over backward to please someone, not to be nice or considerate but rather as a response rooted in trauma. It's over-niceness that stems from us learning that it's the only way we could survive an ordeal.
"Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others," writes Pete Walker, the therapist who coined the concept of fawning as the fourth F. "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."
He explains that fawning happens when a child "learns that a modicum of safety and attachment can be gained by becoming the helpful and compliant servants of their parents. They are usually the children of at least one narcissistic parent who uses contempt to press them into service, scaring and shaming them out of developing a healthy sense of self."
Importantly, it's not only childhood experiences that can create this trauma response. Something that happens anywhere along your timeline can change you forever.
Signs of fawning as a trauma response
You're always apologizing for everything
Whether or not it's your fault, you take too much responsibility. You blame yourself, and you needlessly say sorry all the time. When that happens, you're training your brain to think you're at fault, reinforcing the self-blame, guilt, and shame.
You can't say how you really think or feel
While it's normal to say "I'm good!" even if your day's been crappy as a response to the cashier, it's hard for people who fawn to express what's really going on to close ones. This might be because you don't know how you're feeling, you're overthinking things, you're overly considerate about how that might make the other party feel at your expense, or you simply don't know how to articulate it.
You always end the chat thread and are overly enthusiastic
Too many emoji and question marks because you need to be that rah-rah! cheerleader or you're afraid of accidentally offending someone. You're the one who ends every chat thread, and you will respond to everyone because you don't want to seem rude, even if it's often unnecessary or the other party is making you uncomfortable.
Everyone's needs matter (way) more
Even if someone repeatedly hurts you, you always see it from their perspective. It's a toxic cocktail of having too much empathy, avoiding conflict, and people-pleasing. While it's one thing to understand why people do the things they do, it's another to forget your own needs, saying yes when you mean no. Worse still, to thrust the burden upon your shoulders to make them feel better or rescue them. As a result, you can suffer from empathy burnout, trauma from abuse, and feel taken advantage of.
Flattering others, in an exaggerated fashion
In a word, fawning makes us obsequious. We look for all sorts of ridiculous ways to praise someone, never mind if the compliments are vague and empty, in a way that brings to mind courtiers and eunuchs within ancient court systems.
How to stop fawning
The problem with fawning is that we're cast into the role of Echo—the nymph in Greek mythology—and she inevitably attracts Narcissus. As an echoist, you're delicious bait for toxic personality types.
Here's how to stop:
You have the right to have boundaries, no matter what you were taught
First up, know that boundaries are the "Hell no's" in your life—the things that you absolutely do not tolerate. Be clear about what they are. Some of us know them, but we don't believe we have permission to have them. Here's where we have to rewrite the script. All of us have the right to have boundaries that must be enforced should they get tread upon. And anyone who repeatedly violates your boundaries is doing that on purpose.
Stop lying to yourself that you aren't fawning
Human Nature 101: We lie to ourselves all the time. We can trick ourselves by saying the cost of not avoiding trouble is too high, or we're dealing with someone with great power at work, or we don't want to wake the children up. Yes, there are times it's not worth engaging, especially if it's a short-term cost/benefit thing or the relationship/interaction is one you can exit easily. But let's remove the blinkers.
You can have boundaries and still be graceful
We tell ourselves we're too well-mannered to create trouble. Again, standing up for ourselves isn't about being pugnacious; there are many ways to do it respectfully. If uncertain, practice writing and running scripts with someone you trust, so you're confident about what to say.
We fawn because we don't quite know ourselves—who we are, what we want, and what we stand for. And so it's easier to go along with the needs and wishes of someone else. In this case, get aware of your feelings and how an experience makes you feel.
Start with simple experiences like, "This hot tea feels soothing" or "I feel joy when I listen to this song." Start to sharpen your emotional vocabulary with a feelings wheel. Locate an experience within your body—where do you feel it, what color would you give it, and what name would you give it? This way, you know how your thoughts, feelings, and physicality are linked.
Embrace your strengths and quirks
People who fawn downplay themselves. Your personality is what makes you shine. Chances are, you're so aware of social rules and situations, you won't push too many limits. Ask your closest friends:
- Tell me three things you like most about me?
- What's one thing I'm great at?
- How would you introduce me to a stranger?
It will feel out-of-character, so you can preface it with "I've been challenged to develop myself personally and professionally, so I have a few questions I'd love for you to answer." Allow yourself to be surprised.
Practice expressing a side of you that you keep under wraps. If you have a secret talent or hobby, share it with people who care or who are similar. Or post it on social media, because the world needs to be inspired by you.
Say things other than "sorry"
"Thank you for waiting." "Excuse me." These are things you can say instead of "sorry." This way, when you actually have to apologize, you're truly sincere. Not sure? You can flowchart with the questions, Have I hurt someone? or Have I been rude or disrespectful? If the answer is yes, you should probably apologize. If no, move on.
Praise only when appropriate
The most sincere compliments are specific, appropriate, and delightfully unexpected. Instead of blanket words like "You're so lovely" or "Amazing!" that don't mean anything, praise only when the situation calls for it and say exactly what's great about the person. Also, go beyond the obvious. Perhaps someone's a great accountant so they're awesome at math and detail; if they happen to have excellent taste in music, talk about that, how you (truly) admire that, and ask them how that came to be.
Work on the trauma
Trauma isn't something you'll have to manage for the rest of your life. Partner with a trained professional to treat both the roots and symptoms of your trauma. That way, you learn to reset your limbic system, and you update the timekeeper in your brain to understand that then is not now. This way, trauma stops replaying in your body and mind in the present moment.
You update the OS of your phone all the time. It's time you update the OS of you.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.