“Am I coming from a place of self-honor or self-betrayal?”
After writing about the trauma response known as “fawning,” I got so many messages and emails from readers asking me the same exact question: “How do I stop?“
I had to really sit with this question for a while. Because, to be honest, I’m still very much in that process myself.
Just to review, fawning refers to a trauma response in which a person reverts to people-pleasing to diffuse conflict and reestablish a sense of safety.
It was first coined by Pete Walker, who wrote about this mechanism pretty brilliantly in his book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.”
“Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.”
–Pete Walker, “The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex Trauma“
Walker says that this ultimately results in the death of the individual self. When we compulsively mirror what others expect and want from us, we detach from our own sense of identity, our needs, and desires… even our own bodies.
It makes sense that we would want to reclaim our lives from this defense mechanism that ultimately diminishes us.
And? It’s also important to remember that healing from any kind of trauma is a lifelong process, and an individual one at that.
When it comes to our coping mechanisms, we’re essentially asking our brains to be comfortable giving up something that kept us safe! This can be a really destabilizing process, which is why it’s one we should embark on thoughtfully.
I’m always happy to share what I’ve learned, with the caveat that everyone’s healing journey will be a unique one. But if you’re stuck and unsure of how to push back against your fawning tendencies, I hope this will give you a little more direction.
Trauma rarely happens in a vacuum — it usually happens in relationship with others. This means that much of the healing work also takes place in safe, supportive relationships.
I have a talk therapist, a psychiatrist, and a bodywork practitioner who all specialize in working with clients who have PTSD. However, not everyone has the means to access this kind of support.
You might instead seek out a spiritual mentor or community, find a local support group, or find a safe partner or loved one to explore co-counseling with. I’ve also found the self-care app Shine to be a great resource for affirmations, community, and self-education through this process.
Wherever you find it, safe connection — especially in-person — is a key piece of the puzzle when we’re healing from relational trauma.
My default setting is to assume that, when others are angry or disappointed in me, I must have done something wrong… and it’s my job to fix it.
This is when my fawning mechanism would kick in — I’d immediately take at face value someone else’s perception of me, not slowing down to question if they were projecting something onto me that simply wasn’t accurate or truthful.
When someone is narrating my experience or who they think I am, I’ve learned to slow down, take a deep breath, and simply notice what’s happening.
That often means sitting with someone who is angry or upset with me, and not rushing to appease them. (In a cultural climate in which public callouts can unravel in a single hour, this can be especially hard to do — but extremely important.)
Sometimes that means asking more questions before I start apologizing. Sometimes it means walking away from a conversation to give myself the space I need to get in touch with my own feelings, and to reflect on whether or not the information or the source seems trustworthy. I might even reach out to others that I trust to get their read on the situation.
And if it doesn’t hold water? Well, as the kids say, some folks will just have to stay mad.
When people are in pain, they can become deeply invested in the stories they tell themselves — but what they’ve projected onto you or your experience isn’t your responsibility.
Not everything people say about you is true, even if it’s coming from someone you respect, and even if they’re really, really confident when they say it.
Learning to let that go, even if it means that there are people who just don’t like me for whatever reason, has helped me immensely.
Years ago, if you were to ask me what my personal values were, I would’ve started talking about the ideologies that I aligned with.
And while I still care about social justice and feminism… I’ve learned the hard way that people can speak the same language, but still practice very different values, even if they espouse the same beliefs.
More recently, though, I’ve gotten much clearer on my values — and it’s helped me to get in touch with who I really am and who I can trust.
For me, this means holding the humanity of others at all times. It means speaking from the heart and honoring my authentic voice. And it means both owning my sh*t and holding the line when someone isn’t working on theirs.
My beliefs might dictate what I would like the world to be like, but my values determine how I show up in the world as it is, both for myself and others.
This allows me to check in with myself when conflict arises, so I can determine if I’m aligned with my values, and if the people I’m in a relationship with are meeting me there, too.
Am I fawning right now?
Some questions to ask yourself during a conflict:
- Does the stance I’m taking and my reaction to this person feel aligned with my values?
- Am I deeply respecting the humanity of the person in front of me (while being seen and held in my humanity)?
- Am I speaking from the heart?
- Am I being authentic — or am I giving apologies that I don’t mean or appeasing somebody else for the sake of it?
- Am I taking responsibility for how I’m showing up while not burdening myself with what isn’t mine to hold?
- Am I looking to quickly exit this conversation to avoid discomfort, or move toward a common ground that supports us both, even if I have to endure some discomfort along the way?
Before I revert to fawning, I try to get grounded and ask myself if I’m moving from a place of self-honor rather than self-betrayal, and if the person I’m engaging with is capable of meeting me there in the moment.
This has helped me focus less on making others happy, and instead shift toward respecting and honoring myself… and feeling secure when I make the decision to walk away.
This one is important. I’m someone who is hardwired to try to meet the needs of the people I care about, without really interrogating how they’re choosing to express those needs to me.
Boundaries, requests, and expectations are all very different from each other — and they can tell us a lot about how someone is relating to us.
A boundary is naming what we can or cannot do for other people (i.e., “I’m not going to be able to talk to you if you call me while you’re drunk”), while a request is asking someone do something for us (“Could you please stop calling me while you’re intoxicated?”).
But an expectation or demand is different in that it’s an attempt to dictate someone else’s behavior (“I don’t want you drinking when you go out with your friends”). That’s a red flag that I’m working hard to notice and distance myself from.
Like I talked about in a previous article about controllers and people-pleasers, it’s so important to be protective over our autonomy — sometimes what people name as a “boundary” is actually just an attempt to control our behavior.
Knowing the difference has helped me decide when I can and can’t honor what someone is asking of me, and to be wary of people who frame their needs as expectations that remove my ability to choose.
I spent a lot of time emotionally numb without even realizing it. I always assumed that being emotionally numb meant that I couldn’t feel anything — and as someone who felt very emotional, that didn’t feel true to me at all.
It wasn’t until I was in eating disorder treatment that a clinician explained to me that emotional numbness isn’t the absence of emotion — it’s the inability to precisely identify, relate to, make meaning of, and move through the emotions that we have.
In other words, we’re desensitized to our full range of emotions and what they’re telling us. In my case, up until that point, I was convinced I only had three emotions: depressed, stressed, or good.
I believe that a lot of people who fawn have had to shut down their emotional realities to some extent — because we learn that the only emotions that matter for our survival are the emotions of those around us.
I spent many years grappling with an eating disorder and addiction, in a misguided attempt to keep myself dissociated and numb. I became a workaholic and obsessively dedicated to helping others. My whole life revolved around making others happy.
By the time I entered treatment, my therapist remarked that I was so concerned about everyone else, I’d forgotten how to care about myself. And she was right — I moved through my life having internalized the idea that I didn’t matter at all.
A big part of my healing has been getting back in touch with my emotions, needs, desires, and personal boundaries — and learning to name them.
This has meant releasing old coping mechanisms that allowed me to “numb out.” And I’ve also had to practice naming not just what I think in any given moment, but giving a voice to what I feel, whether it seems rational or not.
I’ve had to radically and unconditionally validate my emotional experiences, approaching them with curiosity and care rather than criticism.
And then? I share those feelings with others, even if that leads to uncomfortable conversations or awkward moments. Feelings are meant to be felt, and if we keep attempting to extinguish our own emotions, we are actively fighting and denying what makes us human.
And that’s ultimately what fawning does to us — it denies us the right to be full, authentic, messy human beings.
I also want to name that a fear of abandonment in this process is completely valid.
In this article, I’m naming a lot of really difficult work.
Exploring your trauma history, sitting with the discomfort of other people’s emotions, taking ownership of your personal values, becoming more discerning around what others ask of us, releasing old coping tools, and feeling our feelings — all of that is incredibly challenging and transformative stuff.
And yes, it can definitely place a strain on the existing relationships in your life.
For people who benefited from our passivity and eagerness to please, we might encounter a lot of resistance when we start asserting ourselves and owning how we feel.
We might even find that relationships that once felt safe now feel completely incompatible with our needs and desires. This is normal and totally OK.
Many trauma survivors find themselves in a scarcity mindset. A scarcity of resources, a scarcity of support, a scarcity of love — all of this impacts what we’re willing to tolerate in our relationships in order to feel “safe.”
And because fawning means we’re almost always depriving ourselves, this scarcity can feel even more terrifying. As we accept ourselves as emotional beings with needs and desires, letting people walk away or choosing to sever ties can be very distressing at times.
But I’d like to gently push back on this scarcity mindset, and remind you that while it is challenging work, there is an abundance of people and love on this planet.
Self-respect and healthy boundaries are more likely to attract the kinds of reliable support and unconditional care you need and deserve — even if the process of building on these skills can feel lonely and even terrifying at times.
So as you begin to unpack and unlearn your people-pleasing, remember that it’s OK to be afraid.
This process involves untangling one of our very first “security blankets” as small and helpless people — and yes, that means that we will, at some points, feel small and helpless as we reorient toward ourselves and the world.
But I can promise you that the work is undoubtedly worth the struggle.
I truly believe that when we approach the world with a sense of inherent worth and honor — and a commitment to our own healing and growth — we begin to uncover the kinds of love and safety that we’ve wanted for ourselves all along, both within us and in our relationships.
I won’t claim to know much about this wild and scary world (I’m just one person doing his best to hang on), but I’ll tell you what I do know — or at least, what I believe to be true.
Everyone — every single one of us — deserves to show up as their authentic selves, and to be met with love, honor, and protection.
And the incredible thing about healing from trauma is that this is a gift we can learn to give ourselves, little by little, a day at a time.
I believe in you. I believe in us.
You’ve got this.
This article originally appeared here and was reposted with permission.
Sam Dylan Finch is an editor, writer, and media strategist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s the lead editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline. You can say hello on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.