Learn / Fawning as a Trauma Response: Understanding Its Effects and Coping Strategies
Fawning as a trauma response is the 4th theorized response to trauma and complex PTSD (c-PTSD). As defined1, “Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others” and, “fawn types avoid emotional investment and potential disappointment by barely showing themselves.”
Fawns intrinsically believe they’ll need to forfeit their desires, boundaries, and rights1 to earn a relationship with someone. Childhood trauma/c-PTSD often causes the fawning response2, though later-life traumas can too. Psychoeducation and therapy can help fawns, and treatment providers, understand and overcome this response.
Fawning was recognized fairly recently as a trauma response, adding to the better-known Fight, Flight, and Freeze responses. Fawns often grow up in an abusive home environment3 or with narcissistic parents. Fawns adapt to trauma by adhering to others’ needs. The usual narrative goes:
“If I just do what they want, am always useful, exceed their expectations, and never cause conflict, I’ll be okay.”
While that tactic may have worked when they needed it to, fawning also puts many “fawns” in the paths of narcissists, abusers, and manipulative people. Since they feel unable or scared to say no, a fawn may fall victim to these domineering personalities.
You could also react to trauma with fight, flight, or freeze responses3.
Fawning, in contrast, has few or no physical signs. The person fawning may seem completely fine, not triggered at all. They might think they’re fine, too. But that emotional disconnect can become another way to deal with past and ongoing trauma.
Children may adapt to emotional, physical, or sexual abuse by submitting to their abuser and aiming to please4. As children, fawns also ignore their own needs, feelings, and boundaries to appease people of authority—usually their parents. This pattern often continues into adulthood.
For example, a hungry child may hold their tongue for fear their mother will lash out if they communicate their hunger. Or, a child may push down the anger of being ignored by their parents for fear of being ridiculed. Staying quiet and outwardly unbothered then becomes the safest course of action.
To the fawn, fawning is their only means of staying safe. They consistently sacrifice their needs and boundaries for safety, which can lead them to believe the two can’t intertwine. That belief can lead to codependency in adulthood2 and a personality change. For example, a headstrong child may grow into a demure, people-pleasing adult.
Instead of having a secure attachment style5, a fawn will likely gravitate towards fearful-avoidant styles. These styles describe someone who has a negative model of self and others. A fawn may crave intimate relationships but feel too afraid of pain and ridicule to maintain or initiate relationships.
Pandering and people-pleasing can prevent fawns from forming secure, mutually beneficial friendships. Others who value the fawn’s thoughts and opinions may struggle to connect with someone who “mindlessly” agrees to their every whim. In contrast, a narcissistic person would enjoy a fawn’s ongoing agreeability.
Childhood trauma is one of the forms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (c-PTSD). Someone with c-PTSD will have distorted beliefs2 about themself: that they’re worthless, unimportant, small, and unworthy. So, they may fawn as an outward show of their unimportance compared to the importance of their abuser—hoping this juxtaposition will spare them harm.
A fawn may continue this long enough that it becomes part of who they are.
Even if you’re no longer fawning as a trauma response, it can become part of your adult personality. Fawning can make you feel unheard, used, and unimportant. You may also feel confused since you don’t have a reason to fawn or want to stand your ground, but it keeps happening anyway.
Chronic fawning could dissolve your boundaries, identity, and self-esteem over time. You may feel only as important as you can be to someone else. Or, you may find yourself caught up with emotional abusers who exploit your people-pleasing. Neither has a positive effect on your model of self.
Fawning can also disconnect you from genuinely good people who want to satisfy your needs and make you feel seen. Someone who desires a mutual friendship or romantic relationship may feel confused by a fawn’s behavior. This could then rob you of healthy relationships throughout your life. But it doesn’t need to stay that way.
Therapy can help you process your trauma and recognize the effects of your fawning response. You may decide on rehab for trauma, outpatient treatment, or sessions with a trauma-informed therapist. Discuss your options with your doctor or therapist to find the best fit for you.
Your therapist may use a combination of therapies, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to address your trauma.
EMDR therapists have you briefly recall your trauma while you track an object6 (like a pen) back and forth with your eyes. Some therapists use touch. Tracking the object desensitizes you to the strong emotions brought up by retelling your trauma. This can help you process the event without such painful emotions attached to it.
CBT works by identifying and adjusting the potentially distorted thoughts7 leading to your behaviors. Using CBT, your therapist can help you identify the thoughts and emotions causing you to fawn. Then, you’ll work on adjusting your behaviors with the truth of your thoughts revealed.
ACT helps you accept painful emotions and traumas8 as an inevitable part of life and respond with flexibility and adaptability—rather than suppression. Using ACT, your therapist can help you find more productive ways to adapt to trauma by committing to the pursuit of your values and desires. For example, you may accept your fear of saying no to someone but commit to setting the boundaries that would protect your valued energy, well-being, and time.
In therapy, you can also learn coping strategies to recognize fawning and protect yourself from its effects.
First, you can learn to recognize fawning. Keep these questions in mind as you determine what is/isn’t a fawning response:
How you answer those questions can queue you into your tendency to fawn. If you recognize your behaviors as fawning, you can fill a toolbox with coping strategies on your own or with your therapist. Here’s a few examples of responses to use when you feel tempted to fawn:
They may feel scripted at first, but keep practicing responses like these to get better at expressing your genuine desires and opinions.
As part of AAA (Acknowledge your feelings, Acknowledge what you want to happen next, Action), you first need to acknowledge your tendency to fawn. With the help of a therapist, you can delve into what caused this response. If it’s a way to garner acceptance from others, you may discuss why you desperately need their acceptance and how you can feel just as validated and accepted without people-pleasing.
Then, you can take responsibility for your emotions. You can do this by journaling your emotions and how you express them in the moment. Once you take responsibility for those emotions, you can move into problem-solving.
You and your therapist can think of practical ways to address and respond to the emotions causing you to fawn, like journaling, writing out new responses, and brainstorming what you could say/do to feel safe and validated. Together, you can also learn how to validate yourself and grow your self-acceptance without needing the approval of others.
You can attend support groups for trauma online and in person. The c-PTSD Foundation, for example, offers online support on their website. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a tool for locating mental health support groups in your area. You can also search for the support groups in your area via an internet search or by contacting a mental health institute in your community.
Or, if you want to deepen your knowledge and introspection, you can read these books about trauma and the fawning response:
You can browse Amazon, your local library, and other online bookstores for more books on trauma and the fawning response.
You can advocate for yourself or someone else by learning more about the fawning response. Education can pave the way for greater understanding in both yourself and someone with limited background knowledge on trauma (and how people respond to it).
Continued awareness for fawning and other trauma responses also promotes trauma-informed care throughout different treatment settings. Your understanding of this trauma response can help others–and yourself–feel understood, valued, and validated.
Pete Walker, M.A. Psychotherapy. http://pete-walker.com/fourFs_TraumaTypologyComplexPTSD.htm. Accessed 9 Aug. 2023
The Association between a Psychotherapist’s Theoretical Orientation and Perception of Complex Trauma and Repressed Anger in the Fawn Response - ProQuest. https://www.proquest.com/openview/83faad71347dae7bba4d3b130d083e88/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y. Accessed 9 Aug. 2023.
Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn: How We Respond to Threats. 3 Nov. 2022, https://www.simplypsychology.org/fight-flight-freeze-fawn.html.
Rejection Trauma and the Freeze/Fawn Response | CPTSDfoundation.Org. https://cptsdfoundation.org/2022/02/21/rejection-trauma-and-the-freeze-fawn-response/. Accessed 9 Aug. 2023.
Attachment Styles and Their Role in Adult Relationships. 3 Nov. 2022, https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment-styles.html.
“About EMDR Therapy.” EMDR International Association, https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/. Accessed 9 Aug. 2023.
“What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?” Https://Www.Apa.Org, https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral. Accessed 9 Aug. 2023.
Dindo, Lilian, et al. “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: A Transdiagnostic Behavioral Intervention for Mental Health and Medical Conditions.” Neurotherapeutics, vol. 14, no. 3, July 2017, pp. 546–53. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-017-0521-3.
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