The Fawn Response

By: Michael Toohey, Psy.D. | December 9, 2022

Fight, Flight, Freeze……Fawn?

Most people are familiar with the stress responses known as fight, flight, and freeze. These are natural responses to real, or perceived physical or emotional threats. These responses help us evade and manage threats and dangers we encounter to keep us safe.

Have you heard of the fawn response? It’s less well known, yet still important to understand. The fawn response involves avoiding danger by becoming more appealing to the threat. It’s also known as “befriend and tend” or “appease and please.” For example, If I make my bully laugh, they are less likely to bully me, and the danger is diminished.

Stress responses can turn into trauma responses when our ability to cope is overwhelmed. Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that causes feelings of helplessness, a diminished sense of self, and the ability to feel a full range of emotions. Trauma is usually the root of the fawn response.

The Fawn Response & People Pleasing

If someone routinely abandons their own needs to serve others, and actively avoids conflict, criticism, or disapproval, they are fawning. This response is associated with both people-pleasing tendencies and codependency. The person who fawns seeks safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of the other person. This is an unconscious process; outside the awareness of the person who is fawning. They hold the false belief that their needs, rights, preferences, and boundaries must be sacrificed to be in a relationship.

When a person is fawning, they are afraid to say “no,” afraid to express their true feelings, and are overly concerned with the needs and emotions of others at the expense of their own needs.

You are likely fawning if you:

  • Stifle your own needs
  • Feel challenged by authentic self-expression
  • Fly under the radar
  • Have trouble saying “no”
  • Typically over-apologize
  • Hold back opinions or preferences that might seem controversial
  • Experience chronic pain or illness
  • Feel depressed
  • Have trouble with personal boundaries
  • Assume responsibility for the emotional reactions and responses of others
  • Feel compelled to fix or rescue others from their problems
  • Attempt to control other’s choices to maintain a sense of emotional safety
  • Deny your own discomfort, complaints, pain, needs, and wants
  • Change your preferences to align with others

What Isn’t Fawning?

Demonstrating selflessness, kindness, and/or compassion are not fawn responses. Relationships that are mutually beneficial do not include fawning. Making sure your own needs are met instead of solely catering to the other person’s needs is not fawning. Valuing yourself, setting boundaries and limits with others is a good indication that the fawn response is absent.

How do I Know if I’m Fawning?

First, become aware of your actions and notice your patterns. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I saying or doing this to please someone else? Is it at my own expense?
  • Do my actions right now align with my personal values?
  • Am I being authentic, or am I acting for someone else’s benefit?
  • Do I go after my personal goals and dreams? Or do I tend to follow the dreams and goals of others?
  • Am I engaging in hobbies that make me happy, even if they aren’t the same as my friends or partner?
  • Can I accept that not everyone will approve of me?
  • Am I able to make a list of my positive traits that have nothing to do with other people?

It’s not easy to recognize the fawn response. It may feel like a normal part of a relationship. Sometimes a person who is used to people-pleasing can create an identity around being likable. I often refer to this as other esteem instead of self-esteem. Other esteem is when your sense of worth comes from how others feel about you instead of how you feel about yourself. When we place a high value on other esteem, we can become dependent on others to feel good about ourselves, which is like being on an emotional rollercoaster.

Analyzing our behavior can be uncomfortable and hard, but if you recognize that you’ve been fawning, consider meeting with a professional San Diego Psychologist. You and your therapist will work together to explore the origins of fawning, identify when fawning is present, and help replace these tendencies with healthier behaviors that can lead to a more emotionally healthy life. Contact Us today to schedule an appointment with a talented member of our team. It’s time to start living a fully and happy life – and making decisions for you.



Photo by Lukas Müller on Unsplash

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