People-Pleasing Is a Trauma Response? YUP.

Madison Marcus-Paddison, LMSW on Jul 28, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

You’ve heard of the “fight,” “flight,” and “freeze” responses to stress… But have you ever heard of the “fawn” response? Simply put, “fawning” is the people-pleasing response. A lot of us wear this as a cutesy-quirky badge of honor. “Oh, you know me, always the people-pleaser, can’t ever say no!” The fawn response is SO culturally normalized, making it extra hard to recognize because those around you typically benefit from your fawn response. Often, it’s acknowledged by others as a strength and asset: “You’re so agreeable and easygoing. You’re a social chameleon!” But fawning is so much more than that.

Fawning is a trauma response that develops throughout childhood and early adulthood in response to volatile relationships — interactions with meaningful people in your life that are unpredictable, confusing, and laden with conflict that can feel intolerable. An aversive reaction or mood can trigger the fawn response to make the individual feel the need to immediately console, address, change, adapt, etc. in order to preserve the relationship or feelings of acceptance and approval.

Pete Walker, author of The 4 F’s: A Trauma Typology in Complex Trauma, notes that “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.”

Signs of the “fawn” response include:

- Consistent difficulty saying “no” even if the demand is inconvenient

- If you work as part of a team, taking on more than your share of the responsibilities

- Downplaying or minimizing your needs so as not to "burden" others

- Often saying, “Me? Oh, I’m fine. Tell me about YOU!”

- Your mind goes blank when you are asked for your opinion

- Constantly second-guessing the validity of your own thoughts, feelings, and boundaries

- Feeling like you’re “not allowed” to be angry, disappointed, resentful, disgusted, righteous, etc. (“I’m probably just overreacting.”)

- Feeling compelled to forgive before even processing your feelings

- Feeling as if you are being fake or not truly being seen in your relationships but unsure how to achieve authenticity

- Feeling responsible for other’s emotional reactions

- Walking on eggshells and rehearsing what you say to ensure the most positive outcome

- “Giving up or giving in” at the first sign of conflict

- Immediately accepting fault, no matter the circumstances

- Unnecessary and frequent apologizing (“Sorry I keep saying sorry so much!”)

- The idea of someone being disappointed in you feels insufferable

- Oversharing or over-explaining when the relationship isn’t critical (acquaintances, strangers)

- Viewing helping others or being the person who is constantly emotionally “dumped on” as the only means to connection and friendship

- Feeling like you “leave your body” or “check out” when confronted to focus on how to problem solve and appease the other person

The truth is, fawning is exhausting and robs you of your identity as well as your ability to care for yourself. You may feel like an imposter in your relationships because you feel as if “all of you” is not welcome or showing your true self could threaten the relationship. Persistently tending to the needs of everyone else contributes to burnout and social withdrawal. This is what ultimately leaves you feeling depleted and "low-key" resentful.

So what can you do about it? Chances are it’s hard for you to spot when you’re fawning. You’ve been using it to cope for a very long time. It can be helpful to reach out and connect with a therapist that can assist you in becoming more aware of your fawn response and the impact it’s having on your life. Connecting with a neutral party to support you in sitting in the discomfort of others’ aversive reactions, evaluating scenarios with a critical eye to determine if guilt is a productive or even necessary emotion, and analyzing and attending to your personal values are some steps toward healing. A therapist can also help you understand how the fawn response triggers physiological changes in your system (constantly feeling on edge) and how setting boundaries can contribute to a feeling of physical and emotional safety. A therapist can help fill your tool box with techniques and strategies that will increase your self-reliance and capacity to self-soothe so you can stop depending on others’ acceptance for comfort.

Imagine feeling more authentic, more seen, more energized, and less resentful.

It’s possible. Reach out — let’s do this.

Madison Marcus-Paddison is a Social Worker in Farmington Hills, MI.

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