From an evolutionary standpoint, we all have an inherent automatic stress response when our brains perceive danger in our environment. These stress responses serve us well by allowing us to quickly sum up the dangerous situations and respond to them in a way that will ensure our survival and get us to safety.
When a potential threat is encountered (such as coming across a snake), our brains automatically respond in an appropriate stress mode of either “fight-flight or freeze” mode. Our bodies react the same way when we are confronted with a traumatic event.
When a person is exposed to prolonged trauma or abuse, it may result in a person experiencing high emotional and/or physical distress levels. They may find themselves trying to make sense of the event. They might be quick to anger at the slightest provocation (fight), or they might immerse themselves in work to avoid interpersonal conflict (flight), or they will feel defeated by their inability to make decisions (freeze).
We are aware of the three typical trauma-stress responses, but are you aware of the fourth?
“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 Peter Walker a C-PTSD survivor and therapist who coined this fourth response.
Like the other stress responses, fawning is another survival response that occurs when a person tries and please another person to avoid conflict. This response develops typically in childhood, where a parent or a significant authority figure is the abuser. Children go into a fawn-like reaction to avoid the abuse, which may be verbal, physical, or sexual, by being a pleaser. They will appease the abuser by agreeing to all their demands or answering what they want to hear. They will ignore their own needs, feelings, or desires and do anything to prevent the abuse. Fawning can become a behavioural pattern that individuals carry into their adult relationships, both professional and interpersonal. Fawning is not just dependant on childhood trauma but can occur at any time in your life, such as being in a relationship with a narcissist.
Our trauma-stress responses are learned early on in our childhood. All four responses have a healthy and unhealthy way of showing up. Understanding how you react in a stressful or traumatic situation will help you change your behavioural patterns and choose the correct response in all situations.
The fight response is all about self-preservation. A healthy fight response is when you set boundaries, are assertive, dare to speak up, or protect yourself against verbal or physical abuse.
The unhealthy expression of the fight response usually occurs when a person bursts out in anger, speaks in a demeaning way to others, has controlling behaviour, narcissistic tendencies, and displays acts of bullying. Many times, especially with women, the anger is turned inward toward themselves, and they are angry for no apparent reason.
The healthy expression of the fight-response is leaving a toxic relationship, disengaging from harmful conversations or social interactions, or removing yourself from dangerous situations.
The unhealthy trauma-stress response of the flight mode is seen in people who have obsessive or compulsive tendencies. “Perfectionism” is another unhealthy expression as they believe that people will not reject them when they “do” everything right. Workaholics and people who constantly have to keep busy or people experiencing panic attacks or live in constant fear also use the unhealthy expression of the flight response.
A healthy freeze response is when a person is fully present in the moment, practices self-awareness, and is mindful of people around them. They do not react negatively when confronted but take the time to reflect and respond in a healthy way.
The unhealthy way that the flight response is expressed is when people become so overwhelmed by fear that they cannot move. Another example is when a child becomes very quiet to avoid the wrath of an abusive parent. People who have difficulty making decisions, who feel constantly dissociated from the world, or who finds comfort in solitude are also expressing the flight response in an unhealthy way. “Zoning out” or “brain fog” are other feelings experienced by people who use the unhealthy flight response.
Fawning is an unfamiliar stress response, and it is primarily related to people-pleasing. The healthy expression of the fawn-response is a person who can show compassion for others, knows how to compromise, actively listen to others, and seeks fairness in all situations.
The unhealthy way of expressing the fawn response is where people are too accommodating of other’s needs that they often find themselves in co-dependent relationships.
Here are few other classic signs of fawning:
- People-pleasing and always saying “yes” to requests
- Being unable to say how you really think and feel
- Struggling with low self-esteem and self-worth
- Avoiding conflict by appeasing other people
- Feelings of being taken advantage of and lack of boundaries
- Ignoring your own feelings, needs, believes, desires, opinions, or truths and accept those of people around you
- Flattering others in an exaggerated fashion
- Always apologising for everything
- Feelings of self-anger and guilt all the time
- Codependent relationships or staying in violent relationships
Individuals with the fawn response pattern can be targeted by narcissists who have the desire to control and manipulate people around them. The fawn response will create a dangerous cycle. The narcissist will demand more and more of the individual. They will experience greater feelings of anger, guilt, and self-reproach for giving their emotional and physical all to their partner.
There isn’t a” more suitable” or “unsuitable” trauma stress response than the others, but resorting to your default response can be harmful. A prolonged exhibition of one type of response might make you feel “safe’ at the moment, but it can damage your ongoing relationships with people and yourself. It is never too late to find help if you experienced trauma or if you are stuck in expressing your stress in an unhealthy way.
Learning to respond to stress in a healthy way can help you in many areas of your life, including work, family, and relationships. You don’t always have to feel like a victim of your circumstances; you can make the change. Get help today.
Should you require help in learning better coping mechanisms, please feel free to contact me.
Debbie Hartmann, Life, Relationship and Teen Coach @ My Kinda Life Coaching