Fawning is taking care of others by suppressing my own emotions, needs, or identity. It’s something I’ve done since I was a very small child, and it’s something that I observe people doing around me almost every day. Fawning is a trauma response, and it’s also an expected social behavior in western cultures. We are conditioned to perform *prosocial behaviors in almost every social setting regardless of our internal state.

Fawn: The Trauma Response That Is Easiest to Miss — Trauma Geek
When You Can’t Say “NO!” – Fawn Response (Peopling)

Fawn & the Polyvagal Framework

In terms of polyvagal theory, when we neurocept (subconsciously perceive) a certain level of danger, the fawn response is one of the possible trauma responses that our body uses for survival purposes.

The fawn response involves both Fight/Flight and Freeze activation at the same time. This is like pushing the gas pedal on a car while the emergency brake is engaged – and why fawning as a habitual long-term protective strategy causes major health problems. 

The Fight/Flight (sympathetic) system provides the power or fuel for movement and micro-movements that meet the needs of others. The Freeze (dorsal vagus) circuit causes dissociation and disconnection to suppress any expression that does not meet others needs and to protect our psyche from the loss of autonomy involved in the survival performance.

Fawn: The Trauma Response That Is Easiest to Miss — Trauma Geek

Fawn vs Tend-And-Befriend

Unlike fawning, tend-and-befriend is a function of the Safe state (ventral vagus social engagement) in response to neuroception of danger. Tend-and-befriend is not a draining stress response, and I typically don’t need any recovery time after it. 

I’m writing about tend-and-befriend briefly here because it is easy to confuse the two stress responses. Both fawn and tend-and-befriend involve a social response to a threat. In tend-and-befriend responses, we use socialization and connection to face a threat together, to come alongside people and support them as we face shared danger or to ask them to help us cope with something. In the fawn response, people are the danger, and disconnection from ourselves is what allows us to seem social.

Fawn: The Trauma Response That Is Easiest to Miss — Trauma Geek

Mis-Reading Fawn Responses & Neurodivergent Safe States

Autistic people and other neurodivergent people are greatly impacted by biased cultural assumptions about what Safe states look like and what trauma responses look like. Our fawn responses are often misread as Safe states, and our Safe states are often misread as trauma responses. This leads to ineffective and potentially traumatizing “care” that is aimed at “healing” our supposed trauma responses so that we will appear to be in a Safe state more often.

Now I understand, for many neurodivergent people, increasing our access to the Safe state will do the opposite. When we are fawning less, we show less stereotypical social behaviors. Fawning less frequently may not be safe in certain environments or situations and should not universally be held up as a goal for treatment.

As I seek to bridge a positive neurodiversity paradigm with Porges, it feels more and more important to me to distinguish between the fawn trauma response and the Safe social engagement state for myself and for other self-healers and for professionals.

Fawn: The Trauma Response That Is Easiest to Miss — Trauma Geek

Recognizing C-PTSD-Based Fawn Responses

The ‘fawn’ response is an instinctual response associated with a need to avoid conflict and trauma via appeasing behaviors. For children, fawning behaviors can be a maladaptive survival or coping response which developed as a means of coping with a non-nurturing or abusive parent.

Psychotherapist and complex trauma (C-PTSD) expert Pete Walker coined the term ‘fawn’ response to describe a specific type of instinctive response resulting from childhood abuse and complex trauma. In his discussion on ‘fawning’, Walker asserts that trauma-based codependency is learned very early in life when a child gives up protesting abuse to avoid parental retaliation, thereby relinquishing the ability to say “no” and behave assertively. This also results in the repression of the trauma-associated ‘fight’ response (2003).

If you identify as being highly sensitive, intuitive, or an ‘empath’, you may tend to avoid conflict as much as possible and will deny your truth in an attempt to make those you feel dependent upon or care about comfortable.

Although you might easily stand up for others, you may find it difficult, even impossible, to stand up for yourself when being maltreated by others – including in regard to your family. You may instead seek to ‘appease’ those who treat you badly as a means of avoiding conflict, or even deny the sad truth of your situation altogether. But in reality, ‘fawning’ and maladaptive coping behaviors serve no one in the end.

Recognizing the C-PTSD-Based Fawn Response | PACEsConnection

If you’re a ‘fawner’, (also referred to at times as ‘people-pleaser’ or ‘codependent’), you likely seek validation from others that you are acceptable and worthy of being liked or loved. You can be so ‘other’ focused and ‘enmeshed’ that you may have no idea what you actually feel, think, want, or need.

If you identify as being a ‘fawner’, you may be engaging in people-pleasing behaviors to avoid conflict as much as possible in your interactions with others. You will deny your truth in an attempt to make those you feel dependent upon, afraid of, or care about comfortable.

As someone with a ‘fawning’ trauma response, you may do anything you can to ‘keep the peace’, even if that means abandoning yourself by repressing your preferences, thoughts, and needs, which in turn deprives you of the ability to negotiate on matters important to you, whether personal or professional.

You may be so focused on tending to the wants and needs of those around you that you have lost touch with who you are at the most basic level, to the point where you might be feeling depleted, angry, and exhausted much of the time without ever realizing it is because of your chronic, people-pleasing ways. Because you did not experience yourself as lovable by your primary caregivers when young, you may be intent on care-taking and helping others to prove that you are valuable.

C-PTSD-Based Fawn Response

Further reading,