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The Trauma Response of 'Fawning' (aka 'People-Pleasing') - Part One


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.

Fawning as Maladaptive Survival Response

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).

How to Tell If You’re a ‘Fawner’

'Fawners’ are typically individuals who were raised in a dysfunctional or abusive family system and were ‘trained’ by their primary caregivers to repress and deny their feelings, thoughts, and needs. Such children learn early on in life that their true self-expressions and natural impulses are not acceptable to those they depend on for survival and that their self-worth must be extracted from those around them in a never-ending quest to feel ‘okay’, accepted, valued, and loved.

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.

Why Appeasing Others Serves Nobody in the End

As you may have already discovered, engaging in subservient, ingratiating behavior that results in your feeling like a doormat isn’t helpful to anyone, no matter how much you may like to believe it is. By surrendering to the will of others and abandoning yourself, you are allowing yourself to live a lie – and lies serve no one in the end. This will also make you highly vulnerable to attracting narcissistic, abusive people who will exploit your willingness to deny your own needs in deference to their own.

A healthy adult relationship requires that the two people involved create a relational environment that is reciprocal, truthful, respectful, and interdependent. Although you may not even realize it, as a ‘fawner’, you may be attempting to control others by appeasing them to make them dependent on you.

In my next article, I'll share ten steps for overcoming 'fawning' behaviors that have worked well for my psychotherapy and trauma-recovery clients.

Have you struggled to overcome 'fawning' behaviors as a result of childhood trauma? Please feel free to leave a comment - What you share here may help others!

[The above is an excerpt from Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role]


Walker, Pete. “Codependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response” Pete Walker, MA, MFT, Feb, 2003,

©2020 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved

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