I know Fight or Flight, But What is A “Fawn” Trauma Response?

lady alone at a table looking down

There’s a lot more information about trauma out there on social media now, which is great because it elevates collective awareness around trauma and how it impacts our daily lives. 

You’ve probably heard of flight or flight as responses to trauma triggers, but you may not have heard so much about what the “fawn” response is, and we want to shed some light on that here.

So, what is a trauma response?

“A trauma response is the reflexive use of over-adaptive coping mechanisms in the real or perceived presence of a trauma event…” (mindbodygreen.com | mbghealth | Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn: Examining The 4 Trauma Responses; Julie Nguyen, Kristina Hallett, September 11, 2021)

If you experience something that your body feels is unsafe your brain will activate a response to keep you safe. It’s like an alarm is set off when the trauma occurs and then you are triggered to silence the alarm.   

Sometimes the experience may not be life threatening or a really big event, like a death or war,  smaller events can also be linked to trauma.  These events, though smaller, can still be overwhelming and cause stress. There is a range of what trauma can look like and it doesn’t have to be huge to impact you in a significant way.  

“Trauma affects you differently depending on whether you have experienced it once, repeatedly, or over the course of time.” (University of Maryland Medical System | Trauma Response: Understanding How Trauma Affects Everyone Differently)  

The four types of trauma responses are: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn.  You have probably heard of the first three; fight is when you take action in some way to address the trauma, flight is when you avoid or run away from the problem and/or others, freeze is when you can’t do anything, almost like a play dead response…but what about that last one, fawn?  Let’s take a look at what the fawn response is.

What does a fawn response look like?

Most of us want others to like us and be happy.  But if you are always going over and beyond to appease people and ignore your own needs then you could be exhibiting a fawn response.  

“Fawning is a trauma response where a person develops people-pleasing behaviors to avoid conflict and to establish a sense of safety.” (charliehealth.com | Is Fawning a Trauma Response? What You Need to Know | Charlie Health Editorial Team)

Some patterns associated with people who exhibit this trauma response include being overly agreeable, afraid to say no and being disconnected from their own needs due to always prioritizing the needs of others.  The trauma they have experienced has led them to believe that they have to go with the flow in order to stay safe; they cannot say no because that will lead to a place or circumstance that is unsafe for them.  (Peters, Jen | @jenpeters_soulguide_healer)

This is common in trauma survivors as they will try to please their abusers so that they hopefully can avoid more abuse.  It can also be present for people in toxic or high-conflict relationships because they want to keep peace and not have to deal with conflict; they would rather just do whatever they can to make the other person happy.

The fawn response is a coping mechanism that you may feel is essential for survival or your only chance at living in peace. Unfortunately, fawning can lead to losing yourself.  If you are constantly tending to the needs of others and putting them and their well-being first; you start to abandon yourself, which will eventually diminish your self-worth along with other challenges that impact your life.  

How to start working with a fawn response

Once you realize that a fawn response is what you are dealing with, it’s helpful to take steps to start to get to know your boundaries. Don’t judge yourself, instead acknowledge that your trauma response was your way of coping and surviving. (Amjad, Amna | @sonder.therapy)  There are some helpful posts on boundaries here  and here.

It’s a process and you can start by assessing your personal values so you can determine what is important to you and the people you want in your life.

You will also have to learn to be comfortable with other people not liking you or not always being happy with you. Again, this is a process. Therapy is a helpful tool because you have the support from a trained professional to help you identify and hold the boundaries

This includes tolerating and/or communicating through the discomfort that comes with other people’s responses.  Remember, that is a trauma trigger: other people’s responses to what you imagine or what they actually don’t like.  So your mind will send up the flares saying that something is definitely wrong as you go through the process of healing the fawn response.  It takes practice and may require professional support.  Doing this practice and getting support has the potential to rebalance your relationships, break generational patterns and lead to tremendously improved health on so many levels.

 “Feelings are meant to be felt, and if we keep attempting to extinguish our own emotions, we are actively fighting and denying what makes us human.” (healthline.com |People-Pleaser? Here Are 5 Ways to Unlearn Your ‘Fawn’ Response; Sam Dylan Finch)

Keep in mind, we are human beings raised by human beings, we’re going to have some adverse experiences. The point of understanding trauma and our natural responses is to not villainize the people who raised you; they did the best they could with the knowledge, resources and capabilities they had. 

Therapy can help you recognize the beliefs that have shaped you and what has led to your trauma response and develop new coping strategies that are healthy and effective.   If that is something you feel you need help with, contact us, we are here to help.

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