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People Pleasing, Trauma And The Fawn Response

unhappy couple sitting on the sofa with woman experiencing the fawn response

Individuals who have lived in and through trauma develop very specific types of coping mechanisms. Those that have experienced physical, verbal, and emotional trauma in their early years tend to develop a range of responses to situations that have a resemblance to the trauma they experienced in their childhood. Many people have experienced some type of trauma in their lives that can effect their coping mechanisms in interpersonal relationships. 

Most people have heard of the typical responses to traumatic situations, and these were traditionally categorized as fight or flight responses. In other words, when faced with a trigger for the trauma, the individual either becomes extremely defensive, aggressive, and protective of self as a coping strategy. Or they did their best to get away from the problem, using the flight or escape coping strategy. 

Researchers also identified a third response, the freeze response. In this response pattern, the individual freezes mentally, almost pretending the issue is not there by engaging in unrelated thoughts and focus. They are unable to make a decision to fight or flee as they are simply frozen and unable to acknowledge the trauma or take action. 

It is not uncommon for people to use all three types of responses based on the kind of trauma and trigger. For example, a person may use flight to get away from crowds, they may become verbally aggressive if feel they are being personally attacked, and may also simply avoid having to address an issue if they feel overwhelmed. 

It is also important to realize that the threats that trigger these responses may be real, as in the case of a large crowd or speaking in public, or they can be otherwise “normal” and safe situations that are perceived by an individual to be threatening. People with traumatic childhoods or background are hypervigilant to changes in tone or specific environmental triggers that bear a resemblance to trauma from the past. 

What People Pleasers Need To Know About the Fawn Response

The Fourth Response

Pete Walker, M.A, MFT has identified another response pattern, which he describes as the fawn response. This response is similar to “people pleasing,” which is a common pattern of behavior for traumatized children. While this may be effective in a dysfunctional family to avoid abuse of any type, it also contributes to the risk of developing an inability to articulate needs and to give in to the demands of others as the individual becomes an adult. 

The giving in and the pleasing becomes the coping mechanism, similar to the “walking on eggshells” response that is common in families of alcoholics and drug abusers. Children learn that to avoid the emotional, verbal, and often physical abuse, they automatically do what the abusive or addicted parent requires, setting a pattern for life. 

Signs of the Fawn Response

Making a choice to end an argument by telling the other person they are right, or doing what someone else wants to avoid disagreement, can be examples of healthy ways of dealing with stressful situations. Being empathic to others is another healthy response, but fawn response goes well beyond the healthy state of dealing with a situation to the point of an individual remaining in a physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive relationship to keep the abuser happy. Another important feature is that the individual can land up comprising their own needs and values in a situation simply to avoid conflict. 

Common indicators of a fawn response:

  •     Doing whatever it takes to keep everyone around you happy
  •     Putting others first in all situations
  •     Difficulty in seeing your importance in a relationship
  •     Inability to say no or internal pressure to always say yes
  •     Lack of boundaries in relationships
  •     Fear of being abandoned if you ask for specific things in a relationship
  •     Continually attempting to “read” and accommodate the other person’s needs
  •     Doing whatever it takes to avoid a conflict
  •     Focus on always being a good fit with those around you
  •     Lack of self-esteem and self-worth

The fawn response, like all types of coping mechanisms, can be changed over time with awareness, commitment and if needs be, therapy. In co-dependent types of relationships these tendencies can slip in and people pleasing, although it relieves the tension at the moment, is not a solution for a healthy and lasting relationship. 

Pay attention to these traits in your relationships – learning to draw boundaries and stand in your own corner offers the possibility of personal development and happy relationships. There is always the chance of hope and growth in ourselves, our lives and the relationships we engage in. Being aware is the first step to change, so step out on the journey to caring and loving yourself, and start shifting from fawn to fierce!   

Sherry Gaba helps singles navigate the dating process to find the love of their lives. Take her quiz to find out if you’re a love addict, sign up for a 30-minute strategy session, or learn more about how to get over a break-up.

For more information visit or sign up today for Sherry’s online group coaching program. Buy her books Love Smacked: How to Break the Cycle of Relationship Addiction and Codependency to find Everlasting Love or Infinite Recovery 

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