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Susana Spiegel

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Kirsten Andersen

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Last Update on May 29, 2024

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Before diving directly into everything you need to know about ‘fawning,’ let us take a moment to explain how this term identifies as a trauma response. Much like the well-known term you’ve surely heard before: ” Fight, Flight, and Freeze.” Now, we introduce another word to this already catchy phrase, and that word is ‘fawn.’

The 4 F's of Trauma Response

Now that we have given a little background on what family the term ‘fawn’ belongs to, we will break down what each word represents in the phrase “Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn.”

  • Fight: When you confront a threat or stressor head-on
  • Flight: When you, without hesitation, run away from a threat or stressor
  • Freeze: When you completely shut down when facing a potential threat or stressor, completely unable to move or speak.
  • Fawn: When you comfort the threat or stressor by prioritizing their needs over your own

As you see, unlike the others, this response may be overlooked when looking for hints of possible trauma. Fawning is a trauma response that involves pleasing others and prioritizing their needs over your own to avoid conflict and feel a sense of safety. If this sounds relatable, then you are probably a person who engages in fawning trauma response.

This means that when faced with a potential threat or stressor, you may likely find yourself constantly apologizing, agreeing with others even when you don’t want to, or going out of your way to help others at the expense of your well-being. Understanding fawning and its roots is important for both those who experience it and those who support it.1

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What is Fawning?

Fawning is a term coined by Pete Walker, a psychotherapist and expert in complex trauma. It describes a specific type of people-pleasing behavior that stems from childhood trauma. When children grow up in an environment where their emotional needs are consistently unmet or ignored, they may develop a fawning trauma response as a way to cope with the stress and anxiety of their situation.

Causes of Fawning

Fawning often comes from early childhood experiences where emotional needs were unmet or ignored. If, when you were a child, you grew up in environments where your feelings were invalidated or where you faced abuse or neglect, you may develop fawning as a coping mechanism.

It can also develop in circumstances of abusive, controlling, or manipulative relationships, where you, at times, may have felt the need to calm your counterpart to avoid conflict or punishment. Fawning is often associated with complex PTSD (C-PTSD) and other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression; this comes as a learned response when faced with chronic stress and trauma.2

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How Fawning Impacts Your Life and Relationships

The impact that fawning can have on your life can cause significant short-term and long-term effects on your mental health, which can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and difficulty forming healthy relationships. This can result from constantly putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own. Doing so could make you feel burnt out and frustrated, and you may even feel like you’ve lost touch with who you are. It can affect your personal and professional relationships, making it challenging to set clear boundaries and stand up for what you need.3

You may also find yourself stuck in a pattern of people-pleasing and neglecting your own wants and desires, which can attract people who may take advantage of your willingness to always say yes. At the core, fawning often arises from low self-esteem and a shaky sense of self-worth. Leaving you to believe that your value comes from how much you can do for others rather than simply being yourself.

Long-term effects of fawning include chronic stress, anxiety, and depression due to the constant need to please others and suppress personal needs. Over time, this can erode self-esteem and lead to identity issues, as individuals may lose touch with their own desires and values.
Fawning can significantly impact personal relationships by creating imbalances. Individuals who fawn often prioritize others’ needs over their own, leading to codependency and difficulty establishing healthy boundaries. This can result in feeling overwhelmed, resentful, or unfulfilled in relationships.
In professional settings, fawning can hinder career growth by causing individuals to avoid conflict, struggle assertively, and have difficulty advocating for themselves. This can lead to being overlooked for promotions, taking on too much work, and experiencing burnout due to an inability to set boundaries.

To stop the fawning trauma response, start by increasing self-awareness and recognizing when you’re engaging in fawning behaviors. Practice setting boundaries and expressing your needs assertively. Seeking support from a trauma-informed therapist can be beneficial, as they can guide you through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which help develop healthier coping mechanisms.

The Invisible Struggle: Recognizing Fawning in Yourself and Others

Signs and Symptoms of Fawning

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of fawning is important for addressing this trauma response. If you recognize these signs in yourself or someone you care about, approach them with concern, compassion, and understanding. Fawning is a learned survival mechanism, and it can take time and support to unlearn these patterns.

Below are some examples of common indicators.
Constantly seeking approval and validation from others can indicate a fawning response. This behavior stems from a deep-seated need to feel accepted and secure in relationships.

Rewriting Your Story: Strategies for Healing and Empowerment

Breaking Free from the Chains of Fawning

You must develop a deeper understanding of yourself and practice self-reflection to heal from fawning. You can do this by practicing mindfulness, journaling, or exercising to improve self-care. You could also seek therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or trauma-informed therapy; these approaches can help you recognize and change negative thought patterns and behaviors contributing to fawning. Learning to set boundaries and be assertive is also beneficial because it allows you to prioritize your needs and communicate them clearly.

If you’re supporting someone who fawns, it’s important to validate their feelings and experiences, actively listen to create a safe space for them to express themselves, encourage them to speak up for themselves and advocate for their needs, model healthy boundaries and self-care in your own life, and encourage them to seek professional help when needed, such as therapy or support groups.

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A Message of Hope for Those Struggling with Fawning

Understanding fawning as a trauma response is an essential step in breaking free from patterns of people-pleasing and self-abandonment. By developing greater self-awareness, setting healthy boundaries, and seeking support, you can acquire a stronger sense of self and build more fulfilling relationships. Remember that healing is not linear, and setbacks are a normal part of the journey. Be kind to yourself, surround yourself with supportive people, and trust in your resilience.

Remember that you deserve to take up space, to have your needs met, and to be treated with respect and compassion. With patience, self-compassion, and the right resources, you can transform your relationship with yourself and others and lead a more empowered, authentic life. You have the strength within you to break free from the chains of fawning and reclaim your life.

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Author & Reviewers

susana spiegel recovery writer and SEO expert
RECOVERY WRITER & ADVOCATE

Susana is a recovery writer and advocate with over 8 years in addiction recovery. She is passionate about sharing accurate and helpful information about mental health, addiction, and recovery. She holds a Bachelor’s in Christian Studies from Grand Canyon University and has over 7 years of working in the addiction field. 

lionel estrada lisac clinical director
CLINICAL DIRECTOR & REVIEWER

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s Scottsdale treatment facilities. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges; he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues.

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