Understanding our fawning trauma response

Without being able to really articulate it, I understood very young I was fawning.

I did it the small way, being a people pleaser: putting my needs last, to the point of not really being aware of them. Being an absolute pro in responding to the needs of others. Sometimes, they did not even have to ask: I anticipated what they wanted.

In my family of origin, I did fawn in bigger ways when faced with actual danger. In this context, fawning means that confronted with a violent person, we resort to appeasing and trying to please, rather than, say, fight or flight.

I hated fawning. I hated myself for doing it. I felt so much shame around fawning. For me it meant I somehow consented to what happened: I did not oppose it enough. I played nice.

I felt I should have been fearless and fight hard, or flee fast. I should not have use the freeze response, much less fawning. Of course, I do understand now there was nothing else I could do as a small kid in an abusive family.

Still, I hated my vulnerability.

Carrying on fawning

Once an adult, I started using the flight response – and boy did I use it, and did it work to protect me. To my dismay though, I was still fawning even in circumstances that did not appear rationally dangerous.

I felt even more ashamed : I despised my reaction and it made no sense. It still happens to me from time to time in front of powerful men. And I still feel very uneasy when it happens.

What we need to understand about fawning

We don’t choose to fawn.

As Pete Walker explains so well, there are 4 basic trauma response: fight, flight, freeze, fawn. Our choice between these responses is a matter of split seconds, and is totally unconscious. There is absolutely no informed decision making here.

We can not choose to not fawn. What we can do is catch ourselves doing it and consciously changing course. Sometimes it takes seconds, sometimes months.

We do not lack courage, we’re not stupid, we are not cowards: faced with the same circumstances, everyone would fawn. The only difference between us and cool, confident, assertive people is what happened to us – and not to them. That’s all.

Fawning is an adequate response

Usually, when our primitive reflexes choose fawning, it is the best course of action to keep us alive. When we are small, weaker, or dependent, fighting or fleeing are not viable options. As a child, confronting my father or fleeing would not have been a good idea. And most probably, it was not a viable option for you as well.

You don’t agree ?

Consider this story then: in the North of France a few years ago, a father was prosecuted because he was abusing his daughter. She had become an adult, had a child from him and told everyone including judges that she was happy to be in this relationship. In front of her apparent willingness to live with her father, charges were dropped.

Fast forward a couple of years. She tried to leave him, and he killed her.

This woman did not want to be in this relationship. She was fawning to stay alive. And it was the adequate thing to do, because when she stopped, she died.

Sexual violence is not about sex, much less about love. It’s about violence. we don’t know what an abuser is capable of, and most of us don’t want to take the chance.

What about later then ?

It’s difficult for us to accept ourselves when we are fawning later in life, outside of a dangerous situation. We can still feel the temptation to fawn confronted with someone’s anger, for example.

We would prefer to be able to assert our boundaries, stay calm and stand our ground. But we can’t.

Remember then that the present situation is a trigger: it may not be dangerous in itself, but it touches the wounded part of us who is stuck in the past trauma. The moment we have been triggered, we are operating from that small, vulnerable, endangered place. And the fawning response comes naturally, without our conscious say in it.

What should we do when triggered into fawning ?

  • Blame is not an option: unless they have done something inappropriate or abusive, it is not other peoples’s job to avoid our triggers. They are entitled to their anger, for example. It is our responsibility to manage our triggers, and to learn to heal our trauma.
  • Shame is not an option either : like a victim of a car accident, we are responsible for healing ourselves, but we are not responsible for what happened to us nor for our injuries. Our trauma responses are our injuries. We didn’t choose them, and still don’t choose them.
  • What we can do is take advantage of the triggering situation and our fawning response. They bring our emotional history to the surface and allows unique growth opportunities. If we can, it’s better to approach our inner life with curiosity and compassion rather than shame when it happens.

For further information around fawning, here are two episodes of the Trauma rewired podcast that I found useful :

Take care.

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