The three primary responses to trauma are fight, flight and freeze, but there is a fourth type of trauma response known as fawning. This response reflects as an immediate need of an individual to please another person in order to avoid a conflicting situation. Fawning is not necessarily minimising for people instead, it can prove to be beneficial in cases which require conflict resolution. It can help one to calm themselves as we all other people, de-escalate a potentially harmful situation and come to a common ground. The mind and body do what they need to do to minimize the threat. It only becomes a trauma response when the person uses this strategy pervasively in all situations. It also involves the feeling of constant fear of being punished, abused, abandoned or neglected (physically or emotionally).
In a social setting, people who have a fawning response that is preferred by many. It is because they are attentive listeners, open to helping anyone and provide more support than ask, for it which translates in them putting their needs last. They are kind, respectful and prefer focusing on others; thus, becoming a valuable asset to the community. They seldom communicate their wishes, desires or needs and continue to help others even when it burdens them. As a leader, these people try to do as much for the community by pleasing several people. Naturally, such a path taken cannot ensure the satisfaction of every individual, which makes the person in question uneasy due to their inability to please everyone.
In close and intimate relationships, partners of these people may never understand who their loved one is. It is because a person who fawns always adapts themselves to the needs of the other. Such a person also has no boundaries for themselves and may end up completely neglecting their needs for other people by never saying no. All this makes the person codependent and a frivolous apologiser. Such people thus become more susceptible to being taken for granted or re-traumatized. These people also more often than not find themselves attached to people who thrive on fawning and manipulate them. Since the fawning response makes it difficult for people to set boundaries and say no, they endure the abuse without protest. Even in situations where they remain exploited, they soothe and please the exploiter to lessen the ill-treatment.
Where does it come from?
Any individual who gets stuck with the trauma response usually finds themselves surrounded by people who abuse, neglect, reject or abandon them. All humans have an innate need to feel safe while being cared for and loved. Along with this need, humans also have an intrinsic motivation to avoid or minimise harm, threat or danger. When other responses of fight, flight or freeze don’t work, and the abuser continues to punish the person; many individuals in such cases resort to fawning wherein they submit and do as they are told to avoid further conflict and maltreatment. When this happens to a person as a child, they get “parentified”.
This means as a child, the person is expected to act like an adult. Through role reversal either pose as a parent to their own caregiver or take responsibility for one of their own siblings. Through this process (where the child starts to fawn and the parent is the abuser), the one who gets exploited becomes useful to the punisher as a help, as a surrogate parent, as a confidant, as a caretaker or lover. The child attempts to appease the abuser through pleasing and agreeing while answering to their needs in a way which is expected. This slowly makes one push their own needs and wants on the backseat to keep the abuser satisfied. When this happens, the driving force of the person becomes the fulfilment of the exploiter, even at the expense of their own boundaries. The “good child” then grows up to be an individual who ignores their own values, needs and conforms to others expectations.
There are some common signs that these individuals show in relationships (Gaba, 2020):
These people feel like they lack an identity or have none.
They look to others to determine how they feel about a situation.
They have difficulty in identifying their feelings even when alone.
They have a constant need to please everyone they come in contact with
There is an immediate response of appeasement at the sight of conflict.
They ignore the beliefs and values set for themselves and absorb that of others. Thus, they also feel threatened in situations where they have to present their own opinions.
They experience dominant feelings of self-anger and guilt.
They find it difficult to set boundaries and saying no; hence may be taken advantage of
An exciting example of fawning is Stockholm syndrome, wherein a hostage or victim creates an emotional and psychological bond with their abuser. The victim starts to sympathise with their captive and develops some positive feelings towards them. This can happen over several days, months or years of captivity, mostly because the situation is emotionally charged, and the victims rely heavily on their captors for survival. Fawning on the captor through admiration and respect helps them to ensure that they are not killed or hurt badly in some way. In many cases, this can also involve seducing the captor, which can morph into real feelings of love. These feelings may cement more when the captor shows some random acts of kindness like providing a glass of water or blanket. Even under a threatening situation where captors are the perpetrators, they confuse the sensibilities of the captives by showing some kindness.
The captives even start to believe that they have common goals as their captor and may refuse to cooperate with authorities like policemen. This syndrome came into existence when two men took four people as a hostage for six days during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. The captives later refused to testify against the robbers and started raising money in the defence for them. It is essential to understand that it is not the fault of the victim here, and the manipulator has more power in the relationship. They know how to tap on the fear of the victims while developing a sense of guilt in them when not serving the captor. The abuser keeps a balance between the hurt and kindness they show towards the abused to maximise on the responsibility in case the captive thinks of leaving (Maurand, 2017). A recent depiction of this syndrome has been seen on “Money Heist” where one of the prisoners, a pregnant lady, develops feelings towards one of her captors. Her feelings intensify for the captor to an extent where she stops identifying herself as a victim and helps the robbers on their endeavour. She becomes a part of the robbers’ team and flees with them.
Some other common examples of fawning are a child taking care of their substance dependant parent and appeasing them to avoid abuse. A person who seeks approval of that one particular friend who takes advantage of their generosity. A spouse defending the one who physically abuses them. A child feeling grateful towards their trafficker for saving them from their homes Violating boundaries of self to make someone else feel safe, especially in romantic relationships.
Fawning in traumatic situations may lead to healthy, genuine feelings from the side of the victim. However, it can also be used as a tactic to fend off and minimise hurt as a conscious decision. An Oscar-nominated movie “Room” narrated a story of a woman who was kidnapped and abused by a man. She gave birth to a boy inside the very room she was held captive in. This child never knew a world existed outside and made his own world inside the room. When the kidnapper would provide some resources like food or clothing to the mother and child, the woman would appreciate him. There were instances where the kidnapper would try to dominate the child during the child’s tantrum episodes. This is when the mother would step in fawn the kidnapper, which helped them to escape the wrath of the abuser. Fawning thus proved to be helpful.
While as a trauma response fawning can be very self-destructive, however, in a more cultural setting, it can be warm and inviting. Lucknow situated in Uttar Pradesh has a famous saying “Pehle Aap” which is similar to the English expression “after you”. This is an indication of appeasement, treating the other person with respect and priority. This does not necessarily indicate the neglect of one person while giving precedence to the other. Hence, it may be essential to recognise the source of appeasement and call oneself out when it’s motivated by a fear rooted in trauma.
Gaba, S. (2020). Understanding Fight, Flight, Freeze and the Fawn Response | Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/addiction-and-recovery/202008/understanding-fight-flight-freeze-and-the-fawn-response
Maurand, T. (2017). The Original Trauma Bond. https://medium.com/@Innerverse/the-original-trauma-bond-898166078f03
Nina. (2018). Trauma Responses: The Fawn Type and the Codependent Defense. https://deviantdaeva.wordpress.com/2018/06/06/trauma-responses-the-fawn-type-and-the-codependent-defense/