Well Hello, how are you? I’m great, thank you, really well. Everything’s great! I’m fine. Or at least I'm pretending to be fine! 😄
Welcome to this week's blog about the trauma pattern of Fawn and being too darn nice (or just a little bit passive aggressive). Either watch the video or read the blog below. Enjoy!
So, I don't know about you do but the culture I was brought up in contains an element of being nice, which also encouraged having no boundaries. So, we like to constantly pretend that everything is fine, and it’s important to us to consistently be as nice as possible to other human beings, including when we don't mean it.
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So at a deeper level, in the work of complex PTSD specialist Peter Walker, Fawn is seen as the 4th trauma pattern to accompany the other survival patterns of Fight, Flight and Freeze. Now these are very necessary survival patterns, for example throughout our evolution when we are attacked it’s useful to be ready to fight. And so adrenalin and cortisol pour through our bodies, glucose moves to our muscles and we’re ready for action. Or when I'm traumatized I flee or withdraw. Or when fighting or fleeing don’t work, it can be just the right survival mechanism to freeze, or become kind of paralyzed. And so the fourth survival strategy is called Fawn. The things to look for here are constantly being nice; or constantly apologizing, even when it's not your fault. Or, lacking boundaries and lacking the ability to voice your self-protection, bit it growl, or the ability to kind of say “back off!” or even the ultimately important “NO!”
If some of these sound familiar then Fawn might be your thing, or at least a part of your story. Because here’s the thing. These survival strategies are essential, but us humans can get stuck in these patterns, always reacting to the world as if we are under attack or our survival is threatened. And then we react to the world through these stuck trauma responses. Always fighting, or always fleeing, or fawning and obsequious.
For myself and many of my clients it's a great discovery process reading the some of the trauma literature on it. On this subject please read Peter Walker’s “C-PTSD, From Surviving to Thriving”.
So, as I’ve said, in trauma typology there are four responses to threat. These are fight, flight, freeze and fawn and you could call these trauma responses. And for people who receive what they call a “good enough parenting” (and just to affirm that there's no such thing is perfect parenting, but we’re all trying our best), so for anyone but who received “good enough parenting”, they'll have a healthy balance of these four responses. But if you suffered very specific traumas it may lead you to be “stuck” in a specific dominant survival strategies from those four. And you do this to get by and survive. So you might have a subtle but deeply embedded patterns of fleeing relationships or withdrawing when hurt as a survival strategy at home, because that's what you needed to do when you were little at home.
But a healthy upbringing will allow for all four of these responses to come into play as you need them. So ideally we have balanced access to, for example, fight, which is allows for us to have solid boundaries, a healthy assertiveness, and even aggressive self-protection when necessary. Fantastic. I want to be able to say NO when I need to, with vigour, kindness but firmness!
And a healthy flight response allows you to leave a dangerous situation, disengage and retreat when necessary. this is obviously a very useful survival response to have with overtly dangerous situations, and when even emotionally dangerous events are taking place. Sometimes it’s best to back off or back away, and avoid fighting.
And a healthy freeze response allows us to stop struggling in the moment, give up, and allows us to become still (and sometimes even pain-free) in that moment. From this place we can assess danger and see what's going on from a very removed point of view, instead of being consumed by it. So a healthy freeze response can get us to recognize when fighting and fleeing is futile, or can make the situation worse.
So too with a healthy version of the Fawn response. A healthy version is that in conflict or danger we socially engage – we listen to others, we help and we compromise in difficult situations. So some healthy characteristics can include loving service, compromising, listening, fairness and peacemaking.
But the downsides unfortunately include co-dependence, obsequiousness, servitude, grovelling, and a loss of self. At worst, the fawn might be a people-pleasing doormat, or a slave with what’s called “social perfectionism”. And one of the archetypes of the fawn is the “parentised child” in other words when a child has been enlisted as an ally, friend, servant, or confidant, to the parent, and has to act like a parent with their own parent… it can lead to the fawn archetype becoming dominant in that person.
So while all of these four F's are necessary survival strategies, when they're at the level of trauma they can dominate our relationships as an attachment disorder. And they are also often complemented by an ambivalence about relationships. I want to be in one but I'm also really terrified of being in it.
And the truth is, relationships trigger the past in us, and that's why they essentially often trigger our developmental wounding. So, these four F's will express themselves in the present in our relationships. So that wounding from our past will come flooding through in a moment of… for example freezing terror, or the urge to run, or a deep level of fury and fight, and you’ll scream at your partner or you’ll be filled with the need to flatter and recruit the other person. And in C-PTSD literature when you get flooded with those emotions, it’s called an emotional flashback. In other words, that you are re-experiencing in the moment, right now, the same emotions that you had back then at the time of your original trauma. And the feelings come flooding through into your body, just as if you were right back there, and it’s completely beyond your control, it takes over and just happens.
So for fawn types, these people-pleasers essentially learn to be very sensitive to, and meet the needs, wishes and agendas of others, firstly of parents, then in relationships for the rest of their lives. In other words “for me to be safe I need to give up my needs, boundaries and preferences”. So being helpful, listening and available, and affirming the other can make me safe and possibly loved.
Fawn often involves at least one narcissistic or borderline narcissistic parent. In other words, a parent who unconsciously wants exclusive or a close relationship with the child, or an inappropriately close relationship with a child, or in some way that the child should meet their needs. So the child can become parentised and learns to take care of the needs of the parent in some shape or form. And the parent can act actually like a needy child, and may manipulate the child, and may even involve tantrums when their needs aren't met.
So the child can be turned into the parent’s bestie, confidant, house servant, or even a substitute partner, or in the worst cases, a substitute lover. And it may include being forced into parenting other children within the family too. And this child may also develop a court jester role in the family to, to keep the family member or members happy. It's a way of keeping the peace.
And really just to affirm, you may resonate with some of this, but not all. There is a spectrum of responses of this, or you may have a hybrid of these responses lurking inside.
So how do we recover from the fawn response and being inauthentically nice? Firstly, we can definitely recover from this kind of trauma but it requires some work. One of the patterns to look is if you've developed a pattern of being endlessly available to listen, but blocked from interjecting or speaking yourself. Here, we learn verbal assertiveness and learn to unblock our voices. I do a lot of work with my clients on unblocking their voices, learning to express boundaries and then developing powerful voices, as opposed to sitting there very quietly, just absorbing and being available to the other.
And developing powerful, real, authentic boundaries can be the work of a lifetime but it starts today, right now. Can you please comment on this blog? Say hi in the comments section! And of course if you don’t want to, just say NO! loudly.
And for some, just the thought of saying NO can be incredibly frightening and trigger an emotional flashback for someone who carries Fawn-style PTSD. So if you want to explore more about boundaries, I did another YouTube episode specifically about that - there'll be a link below and at the end. Go there for more specific ways of practicing your boundaries. And at a deeper level it requires consistent therapeutic work to heal and meet our trauma. For this kind of Fawn-related trauma, we need to access the hurt, and also the shut-it-down response from the original trauma. And I think this often goes for people who have freeze and fawn-related trauma is they often have shut down their their rage. The anger is in there somewhere, but it just cycles around below the surface without necessarily being expressed, and it self-poisons us, and there might be a huge amount of shame about carrying this rage in the body. Like “there’s something wrong with me”. And so, one of the most powerful things that one can do is access that fire, access the rage and really allow it to come forward because that's in fact, partly where our shutdown voice finds the power to come forward. And it’s also where our powerful, authentic boundaries come from.
And as mentioned in another episode, it can help to keep a resentment diary – so in other words noticing when there's resentment and anger hiding in the body. Resentment being one of the great signals that 1) I’m angry with someone 2) I haven’t expressed it and 3) there’s a boundary I am not expressing.
So when I'm resenting somebody else, it means that there's probably something I'm not communicating to them. In other words, something that I'm holding on to. And so when we keep a resentment diary, it helps really develop consciousness around when we're not expressing anger in the moment. And it will tell us what boundaries we really need. And I can’t emphasise this enough, if resentment is circling around your body, learn to speak your boundaries. They are essential for relationship health and feeling safe in the world. I should know, this is a huge area of learning for me, and not my strong suit!
And with boundaries it’s a great idea to start rehearsing what you would say, powerfully, by yourself! Walk around a quiet space at home and practice saying it firmly nut kindly. Practice it until it becomes natural and ultimately we hope that at some point, it'll pop out, and you'll see you'll start speaking your boundaries in the moment.
There’s a lot more to be said on the subject, I think that's it for now. And this is an introduction, so if you recognise a bit of Fawn and pleasing, then you might want to go deeper and work through this. And part of this is liberating your voice.
I hope you enjoyed this. Let me know in the comments how this landed!
Also – here are a few more videos for you to watch on related subjects: