People pleasing and trauma may not immediately seem to be connected, but for many, they are. We can respond to traumatic events in a lot of different ways, and if the techniques we use to manage them are successful, at least in the short term, they can become patterns.
There are four primary ways to confront trauma. These are sometimes called the 4Fs: fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
It isn’t always clear what causes people to choose a response to a dangerous situation instinctively. Undoubtedly, basic personality traits and pre-trauma history play a role. The nature of the event may also affect the response.
If it seems likely that you can overcome the threat with force, the fight response may be activated. If overcoming with force doesn’t seem likely, your brain may instruct your body to flee. When neither response is possible, the most logical recourse is to freeze, in an attempt to hide or deflect attention, much like a possum plays dead when frightened.
Understanding People Pleasing and Trauma
There’s also a fourth option: to fawn. What is the fawn response? One practitioner describes it like this. “Fawning is a strategy we unconsciously learn to get ourselves out of trouble, as a result of interacting with a difficult person who’s likely a toxic personality type. It’s bending over backward to please someone, not to be nice or considerate, but rather as a response rooted in trauma. It’s over-niceness that stems from us learning that it’s the only way we could survive an ordeal.”
The fawn response may emerge in childhood, when a parent or another authority figure is causing trauma, often through abuse. Attempting to please the abuser is a logical way to try to stay safe. It becomes a pattern used not only to deal with abusive events as they occur but also to avoid future episodes. People using the fawn response ignore their own feelings in order to keep others happy.
The fawn response, like other survival instincts, serves a very important purpose. Still, if it becomes an ongoing pattern of behavior, it can cause its own set of problems.
Fawn response issues include the following:
- You’re so accustomed to downplaying your own needs and emotions that you have trouble even identifying them. As a result, you don’t address them until they’ve become very problematic.
- Because you don’t acknowledge your needs, others don’t see them, either, and you struggle to feel understood.
- You become emotionally and physically exhausted from trying to be everything to everyone.
- Guilty feelings for things that are out of your control or not your responsibility in the lives of others.
- You become vulnerable to further harm. People pleasing and trauma can be connected in both directions. A Psychology Today article notes that those using the fawn response may become targets of controlling, manipulative, or narcissistic people, which can lead to higher levels of distress. Therapy may be needed to break the cycle.
Breaking the Fawn Response Cycle
Mental health treatments for trauma and patterns related to the fawn response are likely to be multifaceted. One expert notes that the recovery process is likely to involve understanding the pattern, grieving and dealing with anger. You may also want to deal with the trauma directly, through EMDR or another trauma-focused therapy.
It’s also important to develop a support system of healthy relationships. These people can help you feel safe and secure, and provide you with a sense of belonging. This can be especially important if you didn’t have a supportive family growing up.
There are also some practical things you can do to help break the fawn response cycle. First, it’s important to get enough sleep and exercise and to eat a healthy diet. This will help your body and mind to function at their best. It’s also important to find a way to relax and de-stress. This might involve yoga, meditation, or simply spending time in nature.
Finally, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. There are many people who have been through similar experiences, and there is help available. You deserve to live a life that is free from fear and anxiety, and you can get there with the right support.
No matter what response you needed to use to deal with your trauma, it served you well at the time, and there’s a reason you reacted as you did. Maybe it’s no longer serving you, though, and it’s time to make some changes. We’d be honored to help you on your journey. Call us today at 1.844.675.1022.