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Understanding the Fawn Response to Trauma

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This blog post delves into the relatively unexplored trauma response known as fawning behavior, examining its impact on individuals’ self-perception and relationships. We aim to uncover the roots of this response, identify its signs, and offer strategies for those struggling with it to regain control of their lives. Join us as we explore this coping mechanism in depth, providing insights and guidance for overcoming it.

Understanding Trauma Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawning

The fight, flight, or freeze response is a fundamental aspect of our nervous system’s reaction to perceived danger or stressful situations. When faced with traumatic experiences or ongoing trauma, the body’s natural survival mechanisms come into play. In the face of immediate threat, the fight response prepares us to confront danger, while the flight response prompts us to flee from it. However, the freeze response is equally important and involves a temporary immobilization when escape or confrontation seems impossible.

Fawning, a distinctive form of the freeze response, often arises in individuals who have experienced complex trauma, leading them to adopt a pattern of people-pleasing. This trauma response, common in abusive relationships, sees survivors constantly trying to placate others to avoid conflict. Therapies for complex PTSD focus on aiding individuals in their recovery journey, enabling them to rediscover their true selves and achieve a sense of safety.

Therapy plays a key role in addressing the guilt linked to the fawning trauma response. Understanding the different trauma responses—fight, flight, freeze, and fawn—is essential in helping individuals recover from traumatic experiences, whether they are past events or ongoing trauma. This understanding is necessary for trauma recovery and rebalancing the nervous system.

Understanding the Fawn Response

A person in a state of trauma, feeling overwhelmed and scared

The fawn response is a coping mechanism rooted in childhood trauma. It involves adopting people-pleasing behaviors and struggling to establish personal boundaries as a means to avoid perceived danger or threats. Individuals with this response often suppress their own emotions, a behavior typically developed from experiences related to complex PTSD.

This response is a survival strategy where an individual’s needs and identity become entangled with those of the person causing them trauma. Recognizing the origins and patterns of the fawn response is crucial, as it can significantly impact the development of one’s self-identity. Understanding this response helps in identifying and addressing the long-term effects of trauma on personal behavior and relationships.

Defining the Fawn Response

The fawn response emerges as a defense mechanism in individuals who have endured considerable trauma or abuse, manifesting as an overriding urge to placate and conform to others’ wishes to avoid confrontation. This behavior is not just an avoidance strategy but a deeply entrenched survival technique, often observed in those with a history of traumatic experiences.

Various socio-cultural factors, including gender, sexuality, cultural background, and ethnicity, can influence the likelihood and expression of the fawn response. These elements can shape an individual’s perception of danger and their subsequent coping strategies, leading them to adopt this particular response as a protective measure. It’s a pattern that extends beyond mere conflict avoidance, deeply affecting an individual’s interpersonal dynamics, self-perception, and psychological well being. For mental health practitioners, acknowledging this complexity is key to providing effective care. It allows for a more holistic treatment approach that addresses not only the immediate behavioral patterns but also delves into the underlying traumatic experiences, aiding individuals in developing healthier coping mechanisms and restoring their sense of personal agency and identity.

Origins of the Fawn Response

The fawn response originates from a survival strategy often developed in childhood, particularly in environments marked by neglect or abuse. In such situations, a child learns to adapt by excessively trying to please and appease their abuser as a means of securing protection and avoiding harm. This behavior, deeply rooted in the fear and insecurity of those formative years, frequently continues into adulthood.

Adult manifestations of the fawn response can include an overemphasis on the well-being of others, particularly caregivers or authority figures, and a cautious approach in interactions to prevent re-experiencing harm. This pattern demonstrates the profound impact that early traumatic experiences can have on an individual’s development of personal boundaries and coping mechanisms.

The fawn response stands apart from the more recognized fight, flight, and freeze responses. While the latter three responses center around defense or avoidance through resistance, escape, or immobility, fawning is characterized by a strategy of seeking safety through compliance and appeasement. Understanding the origins of the fawn response reveals how deeply ingrained survival tactics from childhood can influence adult behavior and relationships. Recognizing this response allows for more effective interventions and support strategies. It paves the way for individuals to develop healthier boundaries and coping skills, and to work through the underlying trauma that fuels such responses, ultimately leading to improved mental health and well-being.

Dorsal Vagal Complex and the Freeze-Fawning Response

The dorsal vagal complex, a critical part of the autonomic nervous system, plays a significant role in our body’s response to stress and trauma. It’s important to distinguish between the freeze response and dorsal vagal shutdown. The freeze response is often a more immediate reaction to threat, involving a temporary immobilization or hypervigilance. It’s part of the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight mechanism.

On the other hand, the dorsal vagal shutdown is a parasympathetic response. When the dorsal vagal system perceives overwhelming stress or danger, it can trigger this shutdown, leading to a state of disconnection, mistrust, and a feeling of unreality. This is characterized by dissociation, where individuals feel detached from their body or emotions, and derealization, where the external world seems distant or unreal.

Recognizing Fawning Behavior

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Fawning, often intertwined with the dorsal vagal shutdown in cases of complex trauma, manifests through behaviors like over-apologizing, excessive self-blame, and self-gaslighting. These are not conscious choices but instinctual reactions to perceived threats, where the body and mind prioritize safety and self-preservation over engagement with the external environment. Fawning is like an extreme version of the freeze response. Recognizing these as survival strategies allows for a more empathetic and effective approach to healing. It involves addressing both the immediate symptoms and the deeper, underlying trauma that triggers these complex physiological and psychological reactions.

In order to better understand how fawning behavior impacts mental health and relationships, it is important for individuals to recognize the key characteristics associated with this response. These include people-pleasing tendencies, difficulty establishing boundaries as well as suppressing emotions. With an understanding of your own responses comes greater awareness that can be used in a proactive manner towards personal growth.

People-Pleasing Tendencies

Individuals with fawn responses often demonstrate people-pleasing behaviors that arise from their trauma response as a means of avoiding conflict and creating security. Examples include becoming overly agreeable, ignoring personal interests and catering to the comfort of others in an effort to gain approval or avoid confrontation. It’s important to differentiate this type of behavior from normal thoughtfulness for other’s feelings. While concern for the well being of others can be beneficial, those who use it out of fear tend to sacrifice necessary needs and boundaries causing negative consequences on mental health.

Those exhibiting fawning behavior operate under the belief that they are responsible for regulating the emotions of those around them. This sense of responsibility stems from a fear that failing to manage others’ emotions correctly could compromise their own safety. This belief system can lead them to constantly ‘walk on eggshells,’ being excessively cautious and hypervigilant in their interactions with others. This hypervigilance is a defense mechanism, intended to prevent conflict or disapproval, but it comes at a significant cost.

Emotional Suppression

The constant state of alertness and focus on others’ needs and reactions causes a disconnection from their own experiences. As a means of survival, they tune out their own emotions, needs, and desires, prioritizing the monitoring of others’ emotional states instead. This self-neglect is a protective strategy, ensuring they are always prepared to respond to and appease those around them, but it results in a loss of connection with their own inner world.

This tendency to suppress one’s true feelings to accommodate the emotions of others, leads to an internal disconnect, limiting awareness of personal emotional states and reinforcing reliance on this survival strategy. For individuals trapped in this cycle, addressing emotional suppression is a critical first step. Breaking free from these patterns allows for the adoption of healthier coping mechanisms, fostering psychological well-being rather than dependence on fawning responses.

Difficulty Setting Boundaries

Individuals exhibiting the fawn response often struggle with setting boundaries, partly because they are not fully aware of their own limits and needs. This lack of awareness, coupled with a fear of asserting themselves, stems from the deep-seated detachment from their personal experiences.

In therapeutic settings, a key focus is on helping these individuals recognize and alter this behavior pattern. An important aspect of this process is teaching them that they are not responsible for managing others’ emotions and that their safety and well-being do not depend solely on pleasing others. This realization can help reduce their hypervigilance and the constant state of alertness they live in.

Therapy aims to guide them in reconnecting with their own emotions and experiences. This reconnection involves identifying and acknowledging their feelings, needs, and desires, which they may have long ignored or suppressed. By becoming more attuned to their inner world, they can start to understand their own boundaries and the importance of asserting them.

As they learn to recognize and respect their own limits and needs, they can begin to set healthy boundaries. This process not only helps in developing a healthier relationship with themselves but also enhances their interactions with others. It fosters a sense of safety and stability, allowing them to engage with the world from a place of self-awareness and confidence rather than fear and obligation. Through this transformation, they can cultivate relationships based on mutual respect and understanding, rather than on the need to constantly appease and accommodate.

The Impact of Fawning on Mental Health

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Examining the impacts of fawning on mental health can provide a greater understanding of how it affects an individual’s life. This may include low self-esteem, codependency issues and physical or emotional distress. Taking steps to recognize this behavior are important for fostering healthy relationships while promoting good habits in terms of personal care practices which leads to improved wellbeing overall.

Codependency Issues

Codependency issues are often intertwined with the fawn response, which can develop in individuals who feel an excessive responsibility for the feelings and behaviors of others. This tendency is particularly prevalent in those who were ‘parentified’ as children. Being a ‘parentified child’ means assuming the role of a caregiver or parent in the family at a young age, often due to the absence, incapacity, or neglect of actual parents. This role reversal can lead to an undue sense of responsibility for others, persisting into adulthood.

As a result, individuals with a fawn response may heavily rely on external validation for emotional well-being, leading to codependency. They often suffer from lowered self-confidence, various psychological issues, and physical symptoms, finding it hard to establish clear boundaries in relationships.

Addressing codependent behaviors is essential in healing from the fawn response. It involves developing a stronger sense of self and forming healthier relationships that do not depend excessively on external validation.

Low Self-Esteem

When people constantly focus on meeting the demands of others, rather than their own needs and wants, it can lead to a decrease in self-worth and confidence. This kind of fawning behavior may cause individuals to become dependent upon external validation for feelings of value, leading to an inadequate sense of personal esteem. Establishing awareness between this type of behavior and low self-esteem is essential when trying to build strong internal identity characteristics that are independent from outside influence. It is critical for developing strategies which counter these influences by restoring trust in one’s unique abilities as well as recognize personal worth without requiring approval from others.

Fear of Abandonment

Individuals exhibiting the fawn response often have an underlying fear of abandonment that originates from past experiences of trauma or neglect. This fear compels them to engage in excessive people-pleasing behaviors, driven by the belief that not satisfying others could result in being abandoned or rejected. They tend to shy away from asserting their own needs or expressing differing opinions, worrying that such actions might lead to loss and rejection.

This pattern often leads to the suppression of their authentic selves, as they prioritize others’ needs over their own. In addressing this fear, therapy focuses not only on building self-esteem and a secure self-identity but also on helping individuals tolerate solitude and appreciate their autonomy. It involves teaching them to trust themselves and cultivate self-compassion, reassuring them that expressing their needs and boundaries is a healthy part of relationships. Learning to be comfortable with solitude and valuing independence helps reduce the fear of abandonment.

CBT Strategies for Overcoming the Fawn Response

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) offers several effective strategies for overcoming the fawn response. Here are some key CBT techniques:

Vagus Nerve Stimulation: Techniques such as deep breathing, humming, or singing can stimulate the vagus nerve, promoting a sense of calm and helping regulate the body’s response to stress.

Nervous System Regulation: This involves understanding and managing physiological responses to stress and learning tools for regulating the nervous system.

Mindfulness Practice: Mindfulness and meditation exercises help individuals stay grounded in the present moment. Practices like body scanning or anchoring can increase awareness of bodily sensations and emotions, reducing the automatic fawn response.

Distress Tolerance: Techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, or the ‘5-4-3-2-1’ grounding technique (noticing 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, etc.) can help manage acute stress and reduce the urge to resort to fawning.

Somatic Techniques: These involve focusing on bodily sensations and movements to release and process trauma stored in the body. Somatic experiencing, for instance, helps individuals re-negotiate and heal from traumatic events.

Cognitive Defusion: This involves distancing and detaching from unhelpful thoughts, observing them without getting caught up in them, reducing their impact and influence.

Assertiveness Training: Learning to express needs and opinions assertively, including practicing saying ‘no’ and setting boundaries.

Emotional Regulation Skills: Managing intense emotions using techniques like deep diaphragmatic breathing, emotion exposure, resourcing, and meditation.

Trauma Processing: For those with trauma-related fawn responses, techniques like exposure therapy or trauma-focused CBT can be critical.

Self-Esteem Building: Activities that foster a sense of accomplishment and self-worth can enhance self-esteem, which is often low in individuals exhibiting the fawn response.

Behavioral Experiments: Testing new behaviors in safe environments to build confidence and reduce fawning.

Developing Self-Awareness

Gaining an understanding of oneself is vital in confronting and conquering the fawn response. By acknowledging this tendency within themselves, individuals can begin to comprehend how their behavior comes about and take actionable steps toward recovering from it. Practicing self-love and granting permission for one’s personal desires/requirements provides a way forward out of a person’s perpetual people pleasing state. Paving the road towards developing better relationships with oneself.

Self awareness tactics such as journaling or delving into introspection allow people to become aware of their reactions, beliefs, and emotions so they know when they are succumbing to saying yes too often at expense of their own wellbeing – giving them power over changing these responses by setting firm boundaries and making time for taking care of themselves without hesitating.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

Establishing and observing healthy personal boundaries is a key factor in overcoming fawn responses and improving relationships. For those with this response, the task of establishing these limits may be challenging because they are used to putting others’ needs before their own as part of their trauma-induced survival strategy.

To create an effective boundary between oneself and other people, one can take small steps to get started, come ready for possible resistance from others while staying consistent in what you communicate but also compassionate about it too. Through setting safe parameters for themselves where self care is prioritized over everything else, individuals who relied on fawn behavior will experience increased levels of well being which impacts not only them but everyone around them positively as well.

Support Systems and Healing

A person feeling supported and connected, surrounded by a supportive network

Support systems and healing activities are significant in helping to deal with fawn reactions as a result of trauma. Through therapy, support groups, and self-care practices, individuals can address what is causing their fawning reaction while strengthening their sense of identity so that they may shift into living more healthily and authentically.

Seeking Professional Help

Trauma-informed therapy is essential to uncovering the source of fawn behavior and providing an atmosphere that facilitates trauma healing. Specialized therapists apply cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, and trauma-focused techniques in individual counseling settings which help cope with the behaviors associated with fawn responses. Group sessions support those who have faced similar experiences by promoting resilience building while normalizing their situation through shared understanding. The aim being learning skills for managing these types of reactions as well as any other underlying issues caused by traumas experienced priorly.

Therapy and Support Groups

For trauma survivors, participating in tailored therapeutic interventions such as CBT and psychodynamic therapy can assist in the process of recovering from fawning behavior. Taking part in group sessions that are specifically designed for those who have experienced trauma is highly beneficial to normalize experiences and gain skills necessary for managing responses like the aforementioned one. These avenues open up an opportunity to create resilience through connecting with individuals going through similar struggles and building understanding related to surviving a traumatic event or situation.

Building a Supportive Network

a person overcoming the fawn response with support.

Creating a compassionate social circle is an integral element of the healing process, as they offer understanding and recognition for individual struggles. Having reliable friends and family around plays a major role in mental health recovery due to its provision of emotional assistance, feeling connectedness, minimizing aloneness and decreasing worries or anxieties.

With supportive individuals near them, one can gain confidence within themselves while alleviating stressors which may contribute to physical/mental well-being during the recovery journey, all leading to successful progress concerning their overall mental health care plan. Having interpersonal relationships that provide comfort is essential in sustaining great psychological states thus enabling people’s success on said path of restoration.

Self-Care Practices

Making self-care a priority and establishing boundaries are key to overcoming the fawn response associated with trauma. Self-awareness journaling, regular physical exercise, relaxation techniques, proper nutrition can help alleviate PTSD symptoms while cultivating self-compassion helps individuals prioritize their own well being and restore feelings of autonomy in situations where they may have previously felt powerless. All these practices promote emotional balance so that one is not controlled by fear or traumatic memories but instead proactively works towards restoring themselves back into feeling secure.


Despite being overshadowed by other trauma responses, the fawn response still poses significant challenges to those attempting to overcome its negative effects on their mental health and interpersonal relationships. Those impacted should focus on understanding the origins of this behavior in order to promote healing with self-care practices while also having a supportive network available. Reaching an improved state may take some time, but ultimately can lead individuals towards regaining control of their emotions, thoughts and life as a whole again after facing such traumatic situations that triggered this unique response.

Our team of Bay Area therapists specialize in treating trauma, including different trauma responses, relational trauma, and complex PTSD. Our approach focuses on fostering resilience and healing through a blend of independence and mutual support. We emphasize empathy, mindfulness, and dedicated effort in our therapy programs. Our aim is to help individuals regain autonomy and develop healthier coping mechanisms, while also supporting the formation of nurturing and cooperative relationships. Our services include teletherapy, individual therapy, couples counseling, and online workshops, all tailored to assist in healing from trauma and building strong, balanced connections.

Frequently Asked Questions

Evidence-based therapy involves interventions that are scientifically proven to be effective for particular issues. In this approach, a strong partnership based on trust and collaboration is formed between you and your therapist. Within this supportive and unbiased environment, you can freely express yourself without fear of judgment. Over a series of sessions, you and your therapist will work together to address obstacles and set goals aimed at personal growth and fulfillment. This method ensures that the techniques and strategies used are not only supportive but also empirically validated to help you achieve your therapeutic goals.

The Bay Area CBT Center provides therapy services for everyone, from children to adults, and welcomes individuals, couples, and groups. We help with various concerns like anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, and behavior challenges. We value diversity and cultural differences, offering personalized and culturally sensitive care to each client.

Studies show that the bond between you and your therapist, known as the therapeutic alliance, is a key factor in treatment success. This alliance is characterized by the strength of your relationship and how well you both agree on treatment goals. Research indicates that individuals with a solid therapeutic alliance experience better treatment outcomes including greater productivity at work, more satisfying relationships, improved stress management, and decreased engagement in risky behaviors.

You can expect a 15-30 minute phone call with our care coordinator, who is extensively trained in ensuring the perfect match for you. During this conversation, our matching expert will collaborate with you to understand your therapy needs, preferences, and scheduling availability. This discussion builds upon the information you provided during sign-up and offers an opportunity for you to address any personal questions or concerns you may have about therapy or our services at The Bay Area CBT Center. Following your conversation, we’ll pair you with the therapist who best aligns with your needs, goals, and preferences.

At your matching appointment, we will match you with a therapist specifically chosen for you and schedule your first session. Depending on your availability, you can expect to meet your therapist anywhere from one day to a week after this appointment.

Our approach to therapy includes a flexible hybrid model, blending both online and face-to-face sessions. This option is perfect for clients situated close to our clinics in the Bay Area who prefer the flexibility of choosing between virtual consultations or meeting their therapist in person. Our aim with hybrid care is to ensure every client is matched with the ideal therapist and therapy environment, be it from the convenience of your own home or in one of our clinics.

At the Bay Area CBT Center, we accept PPO insurance plans that allow you to use out-of-network providers. This means if your insurance plan is a PPO and it includes mental health benefits, you could get back some or all of the money you pay for our services, depending on what your insurance company allows. When you see one of our therapists, they’ll give you a superbill. You can send this superbill to your insurance company to ask for reimbursement. If you’re not sure if your insurance covers services from providers not in their network, it’s a good idea to give them a call and check.

You may be eligible to have 60-80% of your costs covered by out-of-network benefits.

Also, if you have an FSA (Flexible Spending Account), you can usually use it to pay for individual counseling sessions. It’s wise to double-check with your FSA provider or talk to your accountant to make sure that counseling sessions are considered an allowed expense.

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