Fawning: The New F Word You Need to Know About

people pleasing, fawning
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How to recognize fawning behavior in yourself and how to stop it.

As the saying goes, death and taxes are life’s only guarantees. Guarantees sound quite comforting in times of great uncertainty but unfortunately this old adage forgot one, stress. If you have a life, you will be guaranteed stress. Your nervous system is paramount for your survival; Interpret your rapidly changing world and react in a way that has the best odds of keeping you alive.

Although stress permeates absolutely every part of our lives, we don’t get training on how to navigate stress effectively. Most people model how to ignore, avoid, or ward off stress. Society offers an infinite number of maladaptive ways of escaping stress to no avail. Stress is unescapable because it originates inside of us. There is an interplay between our reflexes and our reactions. You swerve to miss a child running on the road. You pull your hand away from something hot. Whatever the trigger is, your reaction speed matters. The faster you react, the safer you are.

This is why so many people feel such a deep sense of urgency about everything when they are stressed. Stress tells us that everything needs max attention, immediately. Unfortunately, most of the things we are stressing about are not life and death, but our nervous system doesn’t know that.

‘Fight or Flight’ are commonly known stress reactions, but there are actually two others, freezing and fawning. Freezing is a stunned response. Instead of escaping or preparing to have a scuffle, you do nothing. You just stand or sit there.

The fawning response happens when someone is triggered and they acquiesce. Like a helpless fawn, when threatened, the person becomes soft, gentle, kind, or accommodating. They exhibit any behaviour needed to ward off the enemy by showing that they are not a worthy opponent. Fawning can take many forms. It could be staying stuck in toxic relationships, to taking on more work, to inviting unwanted relatives to a family gathering simply to keep the peace.

The Fawning Response Unpacked

Psychotherapist and trauma expert, Pete Walker, introduced the term fawning and explained it is when people seek safety by appeasing the needs and wishes of others in a self-sacrificing way. It is often associated as a trauma response, but people can fawn without necessarily having experienced trauma. It is important to note that this is automatic. All stress reactions happen to us. We don’t get to pick which stress reaction to experience. Your physiology, biology, and the oldest parts of your brain take over. Your body and mind, without giving your higher-order thinking time to process, are making decisions on your behalf. With fawning, the evolutionary part of your brain, the one that knows how to survive, reads the situation and reacts by placating and appeasing. You placate because that is your best option for survival at that moment.

When you are fawning, you are erasing yourself. You push aside your own needs, feelings, and thoughts. The reptilian part of your brain cannot even consider speaking up, setting boundaries, or being honest in that moment. Also, even if the more advanced parts of your brain start to engage, you wouldn’t say anything anyway. That would be self-damaging. On some level, you might be aware of your needs and feelings, but it is extremely scary to express them, so you become monotropic. You focus only on the other person.

If fawning is a new concept for you, I would invite you to take some time to explore how fawning may show up in your life and the important role it has played in your successes. Remember that fawning is an automatic response. You are not flawed or broken. There is no place for judgment or shame here.

A colleague recently shared with me that they were leaving their job. They were having the HR meeting the next day. The exit plan was ready! We planned a call to debrief, unpack, or cry – whatever they needed. With deep frustration, that not only did they not resign, they accepted a promotion! This strong, fierce, proud scholar, who studies this very area fawned.

We cannot control the stress reaction we are going to experience but we can make decisions about how to respond to the reaction. Learning to work with your stress reactions takes insight, work, and a heck of a lot of practice. And sometimes, nature still wins. That’s okay. Your fawning response has kept you safe up to this point. Practice makes better.

Here are some researched informed practices that help with fawning.

Create spaciousness:

Make a rule for yourself not to respond to anything in the moment. Try saying, “I will look into that’, or “I will get back to you by EOD’. This allows enough time for you to shift from a stress reaction to thoughtful consideration. You can even put a post-it note on your computer or your phone to remind you!

Recognize the ’Disease to Please’ factor:

Having someone upset or disappointed with you creates discomfort. Be compassionate with yourself and recognize how this behavior creates a false sense of safety. Realistically you cannot please everyone, and if you are trying to, you are already not meeting your own needs.

Value Alignment:

Knowing who you are and who you are not, is critical. Are you betraying yourself in making this decision? Know and hold your boundaries. Your boundaries are your life-enhancing systems, protect them.

Embrace All of It:

Feelings are fickle friends. We welcome the good things and go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the bad ones. Learning how to sit with all your emotions is a needed skill.

Awareness Building and Actioning:

  • See It: Notice the feeling or behaviour
  • Place It: Where is this likely coming from?
  • Name It: ‘I am fawning. I am trying to stay safe, but I can choose another way to respond’
  • Action It: Do something about it. Let it go. Move on. Try again.

Fawning is an effective defense mechanism that has served many of us well in our lifetime. And it is totally reasonable to want to reclaim how we react in stressful situations moving forward. Knowing about fawning is an excellent start. Practicing self-compassion is needed. Thankfully, despite it feeling like everything is coming at us all at once, the reality is we can only react to one thing at a time. If you don’t like how you are showing up, choose again.

We Want to Hear From You

Do you catch yourself utilizing these people-pleasing behaviors often?

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