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The Fawn Response Is a Method of Survival, but It Can Be Harmful to Your Mental Health

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The fight-flight-freeze response to stress feels almost intuitive. It’s easy to understand why, in the face of danger, your body might have the urge to protect itself (by fighting back or running away) or shut down entirely (freezing). The fawn response, on the other hand, seems less sensical, until you learn more about it. This lesser-known trauma response refers to a tendency some people have to caretake another person in response to conflict or stress. Experts say that just like the other stress responses, the fawn response develops as a form of self-protection — but in the long run, it can be both exhausting and harmful.

As with the freeze response, the fawn response effectively allows a person to shut down. “The fawn response refers to people-pleasing or caretaking of another person to the degree that an individual disconnects from their own emotions, sensations, and needs,” says licensed clinical psychologist Arielle Schwartz, PhD. “In many cases, individuals who engage in a fawning response will then turn their negative feelings toward themselves.” As a result, “their unexpressed anger fuels self-criticism, self-loathing, or self-harming behaviors,” she says. In adulthood, this tendency can evolve into depression or even physical symptoms of pain and illness.

Fawning Starts at an Early Age

“The process of appeasing another person often begins in childhood,” Dr. Schwartz says. It may be triggered by emotional neglect growing up, she explains. If a parent is dealing with an untreated mental illness or unresolved trauma, for instance, their child might end up in the position of acting like a parent, learning people-pleasing and caretaker skills at an early age. As a kid, fawning might seem like the best or only option, because fighting or fleeing from a parent is not possible, she says.

In some cases, a fawn response is triggered by physical, emotional, or sexual abuse and is a method of survival. For example, a child might try to dissuade an abuser or attacker by caring for the assailant’s emotional or physical needs.

People don’t always default to the same stress response every time they’re faced with a threat or conflict — you might use all of the reactions at some point, depending on the situation. But people can fall into patterns, and over time, repeated fawning teaches you to bypass your own needs — and in some cases, lose a sense of identity for the sake of attending to the needs of others, Dr. Schwartz says. “While learned in childhood, these learned relational patterns often continue into adulthood,” she says.

Signs That You or Someone You Know Is Fawning

  • Excessive caretaking and disconnection from your own emotions, physical body, or needs.
  • Difficulty saying no to others.
  • Subtle resentment and guilt toward yourself.
  • Feelings of suppressed anger.

How to Stop Yourself From Fawning

Start by recognizing if and when you tend to rely on the fawn response to stress. To do this, tap into your sense of self-awareness. Try to be more mindful of your patterns and the signs listed above. “Knowing if you have a tendency towards a fawn response is a key to creating new relational patterns,” Dr. Schwartz says. Then, focus on exhibiting more self-compassion. Recognize that the behavior is likely “a learned coping mechanism” that helped you survive your environment or home situation as a kid. “With self-compassion, you can focus on identifying your underlying needs and emotions. Often, therapy is beneficial to assist with this process,” Dr. Schwartz says.

She also emphasizes setting aside time for self-care and reminding yourself — out loud, if necessary, via an encouraging mantra — that you are not selfish for taking care of yourself. If you’re not sure what to say, try one of these phrases: “I deserve to have needs” or “I am important,” Dr. Schwartz says. Then, prioritize boundary setting. A great way to figure out what your new limits are is through journaling. This practice can help you “discover your own voice, your needs, and your emotions,” Dr. Schwartz says.

During this process, go easy on yourself. Behavioral patterns and habits aren’t easy to change, and it will take time to even recognize when you are fawning — and more time to begin to shift your behavior in the moment. The good thing is, you don’t have to implement all of these changes on your own. A therapist can help you more easily tackle your trauma response.

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