TRAUMA has become a buzzword seemingly tossed around as it trends current psychopathology. This is because since the 90’s we’ve been able to complete more in-depth research around neuropsychology and the ways in which both our brains and bodies respond to traumatic events. Trauma responses have historically been categorized between “Fight” or “Flight.” However, in recent years the “Freeze” response was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In a freeze response, people report a sense of paralysis as their bodies become numb and detached. I often hear survivors describe it as though they have left their body and gone somewhere else. In an attempt to self-preserve, we cope by using a form of dissociation.
Peter Walker is a licensed Marriage and Family Psychotherapist who works with children and families addressing Complex Trauma (C-PTSD). In his clinical work, he coined a fourth trauma response called “Fawn.” Often found in individuals with codependent tendencies, the “Fawn” response is an external behavioral response to internal stimulus acted out relationally. Essentially, these individuals navigate the harm they experience in neglectful and abusive dynamics by further enmeshing themselves with the very person who threatens their safety.
What is Fawning?
Fawning is a maladaptive coping behavior fostered out of the need to avoid punishment, conflict, or trauma. Walker found that children who grew up in dysfunctional homes engaged in fawning behavior to cope with abusive or neglectful parents. Children who adopt this trauma-based response are often conditioned by primary caregivers to deny their thoughts, feelings, and needs. Through verbal and non-verbal messaging, they learn their voice doesn’t matter. Children attempt to honor the feelings, opinions, and needs of those around them while their own selves remain silenced. In addition, they learn that their self-worth depends on the acceptance and pleasure of others. Learning early to stifle their true self-expression and natural impulses results in a dependency on others to feel accepted, valued, and loved.
What Might Fawning Look Like?
Some common behaviors include complying, conforming, over-apologizing, peace-keeping, people-pleasing, and conflict-avoidance. There is often a hyper vigilance toward the emotions of others while denying one’s own thoughts, needs, and feelings. People with this trauma response may have an inability to say “no” and experience a blurring of their boundaries. They lack self-esteem apart from the acceptance and approval of others. They commonly have trouble exhibiting affection and lack emotional safety. In essence, they are often unable to securely attach to others.
As I’ve learned more about trauma, I can identify my typical response is to first “freeze.” When I am emotionally activated, the whole world slows down. I become hyper-aware of every movement around me and within myself. I am calculated and sensitive to what is about to come out of my mouth, micro-fixated on what is coming at me – delicate with a potential response. After my initial freeze response, my learned fawning response comes into play: I try to understand the other person so I can do what they want (appease or take responsibility); I become compliant and conform to what I think will please the other person. I become anxiously apologetic, taking on the emotions of the person in front of me. My sense of value has often been derived from the acceptance of others. I adapt to their affect, using others’ emotional states as a barometer for myself and the situation. I’ve learned how to be liked by meeting the needs of others – by making others feel seen, heard, and tended to. Nowhere in this dynamic have I allowed for my own needs, desires, and feelings to be honored, seen, or heard. In this, I have also been conditioned to earn love and acceptance – something I now know is not to be earned.
Several months ago I was sitting in my own therapy session sorting through a personal dilemma. I was questioning my values and life goals, and struggling with making an active choice to move forward in a relationship that seemed to bring me further from what I have always said I wanted; a family. I struggled with whether I could be with someone who didn’t want or care about the same things as me. Whether I even cared about those things as much as I told myself I did. My therapist asked me, “What do you want?” I paused, letting that question sit with me as I waited for the answer to bubble up from the inside. There was nothing but a blank, hollow, empty silence. “I don’t know what I want,” I told my therapist. I added in a whining plea, “Can’t you just tell me what I want? Isn’t this why I am paying you?” He kindly laughed while putting it back on me. I know it’s my own work to do, but it seems so much easier for me to go with what others tell me I want. I’ve been so used to doing what everyone else wants that I haven’t developed my own desires out of my own sense of self. It’s jarring to have to sit alone with this question and be given the chance to respond to it – to come to terms with the fact that much of what I think I’ve wanted, I’ve learned I was supposed to want or that I should want it simply because I am better at it than most of the people around me. Or that being a woman defaults me to specifically wanting not only to be unseen but to also fill a role that caters primarily to living in a selfless space of motherhood.
The concept of “Fawning” helps track how my past bleeds into my current ways of existing in relationships (specifically where I’ve lacked boundaries, self-respect, and have maintained a victim role). Nonetheless, it’s frustrating having lived thirty-six years of my life unable to say what I actually want when it comes to my future. I want to do the hard thing of asking for what I want. But I need to first know what it is that I want. In the meantime, I am noticing myself pressured to apologize or trying to deeply understand the other person at the expense of silencing myself. I’m making attempts to interrupt that conditioned way of existing in the world. I am working toward speaking up; asking for what I want and saying “no” without a flood of guilt. The antidote to trauma is compassion and empathy, both of which I am nurturing a slow, budding relationship.
Walker, P. (2021). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving: a guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma. Azure Coyote Publishing.
Walker, P. (n.d.) Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Psychotherapy.net. Retrieved April 3, 2022 from https://www.psychotherapy.net/article/complex-ptsd-walker-book