Fight or Flight? Maybe you Fawn – and here’s it stops you from being your best

Bending over backwards to please someone isn’t just about being nice or considerate. It can be rooted in trauma.

Importantly, we often think of trauma as associated with nearly losing our lives, or watching someone in that situation. And so we think that only these people and veterans deserve to use the word ‘trauma’. What we’ve discovered is, these are Big-T traumas; and that everyday situations, including those that are supposed to bring us better times such as promotions and moving house, can also create trauma symptoms. That’s what we call Small-T traumas.

At its very core, 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.

Fight, flight, freeze

Picture yourself coming into contact with a sabre-tooth tiger.

Your 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.

The fight or flight response is one most of us know. Our brains cannot detect the difference between walking down a dark alleyway hearing footsteps behind us, and thinking we’re walking down a dark alleyway hearing footsteps behind us.

Both scenarios kick us into fight or flight mode.

Your body switches on a whole cascade of mechanisms. For starters, your muscles tense, and your heart rate accelerates to deliver oxygen and nutrients to them faster. Your breathing accelerates to increase oxygenation.

And then there’s the third F– freeze– where we play dead, so the enemy will leave us alone. You hear this when victims of sexual assault say they don’t remember a thing, because our bodies shut down to help us cope with the situation.

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 plays out via us losing awareness in certain difficult situations, or via phobias, panic attacks and other obsessive-compulsive behaviours like losing ourselves in hours of gaming that allow us to ‘disappear’.

What is the fawn response?

We’ve talked about the problem with being ‘too nice’ and overgiving.

Evolutionary biologist Nikos Tinbergen states that to understand any behaviour, we not only have to know how it works, we can go another level deeper to understand why this behaviour is adaptive in a given situation.

Whilst it’s possible that over-niceness can be the result of certain value systems such as “give until it hurts” or “be obedient”, they can also stem from us learning that it’s the only way we could survive an ordeal.

Coined by therapist Pete Walker as the fourth F, he explains that fawning happens when a child “learn(s) 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”.

However, I must emphasise that not everything stems from childhood.

Something that happens along your timeline can change you forever.

Put simply, we are run by an unconscious belief system– what social psychologist Ronnie Januff-Bulman calls our assumptive world. 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 behaviours to protect ourselves.

Walker writes 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 fawning as a trauma response

1. You’re always apologising for everything— Whether 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 you’re at fault, reinforcing the self-blame, guilt and shame.

2. You can’t say how you really think or feel— Whilst 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.

3. You always end off the chat thread, and are overly enthusiastic— Too many emojis and question marks, because you need to be that rahrah! cheerleader or you’re afraid of accidentally offending someone. You’re the one who ends off 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.

4. 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. Whilst 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.

5. 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. You’re delicious bait for toxic personality types, and that can stop.

1. 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 treaded upon. And anyone who repeatedly violates your boundaries is doing that on purpose.

2. 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– we’re dealing with someone with great power at work, or we don’t want to wake the children up. I’m not saying “roll over and appease all the time”. 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.

3. 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, practise writing and running scripts with someone you trust, so you’re confident about what to say.

4. Know yourself— 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 does an experience make you feel. This isn’t about being dramatic, start with simple experiences like “This hot tea feels soothing”, “I feel joy when I listen to this song”, and sharpen your emotional vocabulary with this Feelings Wheel. Locate an experience within your body— where do you feel it, what colour would you give it, and what name would you give it. This way, you know how your thoughts, feelings and physicality are linked.

5. Trust yourself— Whatever you are experiencing, stop judging it. Take these as facts, just as you wouldn’t get upset by a good-looking person sitting in a café or a row of dustbins lining the street. Allow your intuition to speak— we all know when something doesn’t feel quite right, except we then silence our gut by over-rationalising. And, take small risks in decision-making; perhaps, it’s choosing a new dish or a place to go to. The worst that would happen is that you wouldn’t enjoy it totally, but you’d have something to laugh about. And you know what you don’t like.

6. Embrace your strengths and quirks— People who fawn downplay themselves. Your personality is what makes you shine; we’re not saying go overboard with your quirks. 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?” and “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. And, practise expressing a side of you 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.

7. Say things other than ‘sorry’— “Thank you for waiting”. “Excuse me”. These are things you can say; this way, when you actually have to apologise, 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 apologise. If no, move on.

8. 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 instead, how you (truly) admire that, and ask them how that came to be.

9. Work on the trauma— Contrary to a lot of what you may read, trauma isn’t something you’ll have to manage for the rest of your life— that’s not living. You don’t just get to kill your demons, you can also make them work for you. 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 that ‘then is not now’, so trauma stops replaying in your body and mind in the present moment.

Because here’s the thing, if you update the OS of your phone all the time, then it’s time you update the OS of you.