The holidays are a time of joy for many people. They can also be a time when trauma tends to resurface or becomes more apparent. Memories, past experiences, and role-related expectations can result in feelings of grief, despair, inadequacy, shame, guilt, and more.
Most people are aware of the manifestations of trauma in relation to the fight, flight, and freeze responses, but trauma can manifest in other ways too. One of the less commonly discussed responses to trauma, and I think one that can especially increase around the holidays when people are around their families, is the fawn response. The fawn response is commonly associated with C-PTSD.
The fawn response involves immediately shifting into a state of people pleasing as a means of avoiding conflict and is initially developed in childhood, whereby a parent or other adult is abusive or coercive in some manner. When parents or caregivers are controlling, emotionally withholding, or are otherwise abusive, they fail to assist their children in healthily coping. In certain cases, children may become hyper-aware of the adult’s behavior and they feel obligated to appeal to their emotional needs. As such, children are preemptive in their attempts to appease their abuser by telling them what they think they want to hear, being agreeable, or disconnecting from their own needs, desires, sensations, or emotions in order to prevent abuse. It’s a survival mechanism, intended to help keep them under the radar.
Over time, these behaviors become routine and people often carry these behavioral patterns into their adult lives. This can result in co-dependence, somatic symptoms, depression, anxiety, self-harm, self-criticism, and self-loathing, etc.
The fawn response goes beyond someone simply being nice, agreeable, or collaborative. People who fawn have a tendency to deny their own boundaries and preferences to make others happy, as they have an unconscious belief that maintaining secure relationships is reliant upon compliance and if others are happy, they will have a greater level of safety.
Since the fawn response is typically developed in childhood, recognizing its occurrence can be difficult and it may just seem as though it’s an inherent part of someone’s being.
That said, some indicators of fawning include a consistent inability to say ‘no’ even when inconvenienced, constantly trying to please others by stifling one’s own needs, difficulty standing up for oneself, feeling a lack of identity, and feeling responsible for the actions of others. People who experience a fawn response also often feel guilt and anger towards themselves, find it difficult to pinpoint their feelings, ignore their own thoughts and beliefs in favor of the thoughts and beliefs of others, feel threatened or uncomfortable when asked their opinion, and consistently look to others to see how to feel or act in a situation or relationship. Additionally, people who fawn often lack boundaries and are taken advantage of in relationships, keep taking on tasks even when already overwhelmed, and have an instinct to appease someone who is angry at the first indication of conflict.
If you’re unsure if the fawn response is a typical default for you, it may be beneficial to pause and consider how you feel when conflict arises in your relationships and how you typically approach it. If you’re someone who tends to avoid conflict at all costs, give too much in relationships without getting much in return, consistently put your needs aside for the benefit of others, feel responsible for making everyone else happy, and feel everyone else’s emotions while often having difficulty deciphering your own, then it’s possible that the fawn response is how you’ve learned to cope.
People demonstrating the fawn response pattern have a tendency to be targeted by those who like to control or manipulate others. This can result in a vicious cycle of the manipulative individual increasing their demands and the person who fawns to feel mounting levels of guilt, anger, and self-loathing for giving in to those demands.
There are various ways that people who experience fawning may learn to cope. It can be helpful for some to seek therapy to better understand their behavioral patterns and how to unlearn them. The healing process may also involve recognizing when you’re engaging in co-dependent or people-pleasing behaviors and acknowledging that while you may have once needed certain behaviors to survive, the present can be different from the past, with time and self-compassion.
It can also be important for people to practice listening to their bodies and reconnecting to their needs, sensations, and emotions. Physical practices, such as journaling, movement, or other creative processes may help with this. Setting boundaries for yourself (even for the smallest things), trying to stop over-explaining and apologizing for everything to make others comfortable, and learning to delegate tasks that are too much for you when your plate is already full can all be vital parts of moving forward.