Difficulty saying ‘no,’ fear of saying what you really feel, and denying your own needs — these are all signs of the fawn response.

Have you ever been overly concerned with the needs and emotions of others instead of your own? This may be a trauma response known as fawning.

You’ve probably heard of other trauma responses such as fight, flight, and freeze. These can occur when faced with a situation that feels emotionally or physically dangerous. The fawn response to trauma is lesser-known but may be common, too.

The fawn response is “a response to a threat by becoming more appealing to the threat,” wrote licensed psychotherapist Pete Walker, MA, a marriage family therapist who is credited with coining the term fawning, in his book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.”

Fawning refers to consistently abandoning your own needs to serve others to avoid conflict, criticism, or disapproval. Fawning is also called the “please and appease” response and is associated with people-pleasing and codependency.

“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,” writes Walker.

Research from 2020 found that trauma can impact personality traits such as agreeableness, emotionality, and neuroticism — all qualities that influence how we relate to others and our relationships.

Why do people go into the fawn response?

The aforementioned study, published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, also found a relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how someone handles stress.

In the context of a possibly dysfunctional bond with a spouse or parent, an attempt to manage stress might, on a baseline level, result in adapting your personality to cater to your loved one, often at the expense of yourself.

Trauma is often at the root of the fawn response.

Research from 1999 found that codependency may develop when a child grows up in a shame-based environment and when they had to take on some parental roles, known as parentification.

Examples of fawning might look like:

  • pursuing a certain career primarily to please your parents
  • not speaking up about your restaurant preferences when choosing where to go for dinner
  • missing work so that you can look after your partner’s needs
  • giving compliments to an abuser to appease them, though this is at your own expense

The fawn response is not to be confused with demonstrating selflessness, kindness, or compassion. Fawning-like behavior is complex, and while linked with trauma, it can also be influenced by several factors, including gender, sexuality, culture, and race.

The fawn response is most commonly associated with childhood trauma and complex trauma — types of trauma that arise from repeat events, such as abuse or childhood neglect — rather than single-event trauma, such as an accident.

Fawning is particularly linked with relational trauma or trauma that occurred in the context of a relationship, such as your relationship with a parent or caregiver.

Some signs of fawning include:

  • stifling your own needs
  • finding authentic self-expression challenging
  • flying under the radar
  • having trouble saying “no”
  • over-apologizing
  • holding back opinions or preferences that might seem controversial
  • experiencing chronic pain or illness
  • having depression, which can be linked with trauma
  • trouble with personal boundaries
  • assuming responsibility for the emotional reactions and responses of others
  • fixing or rescuing people from their problems
  • attempting to control other’s choices to maintain a sense of emotional safety
  • denying your own discomfort, complaints, pain, needs, and wants
  • changing your preferences to align with others

Children displaying a fawn response may display intense worry about a caregiver’s well-being or spend significant amounts of time looking after a caregiver’s emotional needs. They may also be being overly careful about how they interact with caregivers.

Recovery from trauma responses such as fawning is possible.

By becoming aware of your patterns and educating yourself about your behavior, you can find freedom regarding people-pleasing and codependent behaviors. Here are some suggestions:

Become aware of your actions

Noticing your patterns of fawning is a valuable step toward overcoming them. When you suspect you’re fawning, try asking yourself:

  • Am I saying/doing this to please someone else? And is it at my own expense?
  • Do my actions right now align with my personal values?
  • Am I being authentic, or am I taking actions for someone else’s benefit?

When you notice that you’re falling into a pattern of people-pleasing, try gently nudging yourself to think about what your authentic words/actions would be.

Validate your experiences and feelings

People experiencing the fawn response to trauma may have grown up having their feelings invalidated by their caregivers. To help reverse this experience and reprogram your thoughts, it can help to know how to validate your thoughts and experiences.

Here are some examples of validating yourself:

  • “Despite what my harsh critics say, I know I do valuable work.”
  • “I’m going to be patient with myself as I grow and heal.”
  • “What happened to me was really hard. I acknowledge the challenges I face.”
  • “I’m being brave by trying something new.”

Build healthy relationships

When you’re in fawn mode, your relationships might be one-sided. If you’ve been catering to others’ needs, your own needs might not be met.

Building satisfying, mutually fulfilling relationships can take time. The benefits of social support include the ability to help manage stress and facilitate healing from conditions such as PTSD, according to a 2008 paper.

Showing up differently in relationships might require setting boundaries or limiting contact with people who don’t meet your needs.

Value yourself

People who engage in pleasing behaviors may have built an identity around being likable. It can therefore be freeing to build self-worth outside of others’ approval. Some ways to do that might include:

  • going after your personal goals and dreams
  • engaging in hobbies that make you happy, even if they aren’t your friends’ or partners’ favorite things
  • accepting that not everyone will approve of you
  • making a list of your positive traits that have nothing to do with other people

When you’re used to prioritizing other people, it’s a brave step to prioritize yourself. You can be proud of your commitment to this slow shift in reprogramming your responses to past trauma, such as tendencies to fawn or please others.

Analyzing your behavior can be uncomfortable and hard. It’s essential to honor and acknowledge your willingness to examine yourself and your trauma history in pursuit of a more emotionally healthy life.