People-pleasing is commonly considered to be an altruistic method of getting along with your neighbor.
But according to prominent psychologists, it’s more accurately an acute response to trauma, called “fawning.”
We’re all pretty familiar with fight or flight responses… but we don’t always think about their neglected brethren: “freeze” and “fawn.”
These are our defense structures — and “fawn” is a response characterized by codependence. Meaning you either require too much of others, or others require too much of you.
Here are some of the behavioral points common to fawning as a response to conflict, or the threat of conflict…
- Mirroring opinions
- Anticipating/appeasing needs
- Relaxing/ignoring personal boundaries
- Absorbing the wants of another party as your own
- Breaking promises to yourself in favor of external promises
There are many different ways that these can manifest, but generally speaking, the “fawner” doesn’t assert their feelings and experiences as a valid stance (like a “fighter” would), or obsessively strives for perfection to avoid conflict (like a “flighter”), or disassociates and becomes as invisible as possible (like a “freezer”).
You see, matching your “opponent’s” posture and attitude is a way to blend in and convince the source of conflict that you’re on their side, you’re not the target, you’ll help them to make it better.
It’s usually a trained reaction to trauma or abuse — to get in front of a conflict before it gets in front of you.
The Psychology of Fawning
Therapist and author Pete Walker developed his “fawning” theory as an exploration of the affability of PTSD survivors.
Not only does fawning serve to diffuse conflict, it also creates a false sense of security in relationships by using constructed commonalities as a bond. Basically, it’s the long-con.
But what it all boils down to?
This means that you’ll often find fawners in relationships with people who are:
- controlling (so that they don’t have to make decisions which could later impact them negatively)
- withholding (so that receiving affection feels “earned” and therefore less likely to evaporate)
- or in some cases abusive (so that having no boundaries seems justified, since they wouldn’t have been respected anyway)
Are you detecting the pattern?
Does This Sound Like You?
People whose trauma response is fawning tend to prefer relationships and situations that are inherently unstable because it feels comfortable, and because their required contribution is clear and familiar: soothe and supplement.
(Plus, the mental health community understands now that early developmental and childhood trauma often results in adults who would rather live in chaos – even thrive in it.)
If you suspect this might be you…
Here are a few more checkpoints. Do you…
- Go back and forth between bottling up your emotions and unleashing them onto people, usually not the people who need to hear them?
- Have a really hard time saying “no”, even when you’re completely overwhelmed?
- Second-guess yourself when you’re angry at someone and end up feeling guilty for possibly misunderstanding the situation?
- Craft your behavior based on the perceived reactions of the other person involved as though you were responsible for their behavior as well as your own?
- Bend and mold your values depending on the situation?
Those trends are an indication that you respond to conflict by fawning.
What Should You Do?
This is a personal journey, so everyone’s answer will be different.
You could seek out therapy, with a focus on self-preservation through self-worth, and not through external validation that fawning seemingly secures.
If you’d like to take matters into your own hands, you could start dismantling your “fawning” reaction by considering which people in your life illicit it the most from you.
Who do you go out of your way to please?
And who do you ignore as a result?
Noting who you ignore is helpful, because those people are often the people you actually should be spending energy on.
You see, they’re the people that you’re not afraid of — who aren’t mad when you take time for yourself, or who don’t question your feelings when you present them.
It’s likely that you’ve paid less attention to these people because their approval wasn’t conditional, and you weren’t punished for not paying attention.
Consider starting there, but if you’d like something a little bit more hands-on…
My partner-in-filmmaking, Nick Polizzi, and I, have just released our brand-new, nine-part, completely free docu-series called “Trauma.”
We started making this series long before the last year that we’ve all had…
And we’re so glad that we did, because 2020 laid bare how unprepared most of us are to handle traumatic events, and how much of our own trauma we hadn’t really dealt with.
You can click here to reserve your seat, so that when the series launches on February 11th, you’ll be all set to watch it.