An exploration of the Fawn stress response

What is Fawn?

Fawn is a stress response that allows us to imitate a “safe and social” ventral vagal state, even when we are feeling threatened. It happens when it is either not possible, or it would increase danger to ourselves, to Fight or Flee (high sympathetic responses) from the perceived threat. It is also sometimes called appeasement or “people pleasing”.

Fawning it is a protective state in which our nervous system unconsciously and automatically prioritises our safety over the authenticity of our expressions. The term was first coined by Pete Walker, therapist and who experienced Complex PTSD, and has been picked up by many interested in Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory.

In this state, we may say or do things that are incongruent with our true feelings, as a survival mechanism. We might act in a way that is friendly, agreeable, even funny, even though we are feeling angry or scared (threatened). We might surrender our own needs or preferences, due to fear that expressing them might make us more unsafe.

When it isn’t safe to fight or flee, then pretending to agree with, and perhaps even flatter, the source of “threat” can be a way of achieving safety. The less threatening we appear to another (e.g. a predator), the less likely they are to attack us. They might even relax enough to allow us to escape form the situation unscathed (“Flight”).

An extreme example of Fawning can be seen when people are being held against their will, and attempting to Fight or Flee will not bring them more safety, but more likely lead to an increased risk of harm to them. This can become Stockholm Syndrome, where they begin to identify with their captor, and feel bonded with them. 

In terms of the autonomic nervous system, fawning is thought to be a state that involves both high sympathetic activation (stress) and a degree of dorsal vagal (shutdown) engagement. That means that we have lots of sympathetic energy in our bodies, which by itself would make us act bigger, louder, and more threatening. But the dorsal vagal immobilisation tones down our expression, so we act smaller, quieter, and less threatening.

(You can find my overview of all of the stress responses here A graphic to illustrate autonomic nervous system functioning)

Fawning in our day to day lives

The Fawn state – in which we unconsciously imitate a state of safety (when really we have a combination of sympathetic activation and dorsal vagal immobilisation) – can be a one that we spend a lot of time in, or one that we just “visit” in reaction to a stressful situation.

In parenting, Fawning can help us in a situation with our kids (or partner) in which we are feeling highly stressed, angry or afraid, but just need to “get through” it. Fighting wouldn’t work to bring us greater “safety”, and we can’t safely flee because we need to take care of our kids.

So we automatically put on a smile, and say kind things. We’re unconsciously pretending to feel calm and in control, but really we are right on the edge of that high sympathetic activation. So our smile doesn’t look quite natural (the expressiveness in our upper face and eyes is missing).

Our speech will be slower, quieter, and less harsh and clipped than if we were in a pure sympathetic state (Fight/Flight), but it probably won’t have the gentle rhythmic intonation (prosody) of a true calm and connected ventral vagal state (or it might have too much!).

Because of their highly tuned neuroception*, kids can often tell the difference between us Fawning and being in a truly safe calm and connected state. Older kids might even call us out on it, expressing their discomfort, and saying things like, “Don’t use that nice voice!”.

When we’re in Fawn, we might find ourselves agreeing to anything our child asks for, even though it is not in line with our values, and we don’t have a true “yes”. We’ll do anything, maybe even offer our child a bribe or “sweetener”, to help get through the stressful situation.

Or we might try to set limits with our kids, but they’ll come out shaky and tentative, rather than grounded and confident. Our child might not get a sense that we’re serious, and “push back” in an attempt to get something more solid (congruent) from us, where our words match our state.

If we‘ve been in Fight, and had an argument with our child (or partner), then Fawning might look like going to reconnect and apologise before we are really feeling calm and connected again. We unconsciously pretend that I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine.

If we’re in Fawn a lot of the time, it might look like us acting overly “nice”, at our own expense. We’ll have difficulty sensing and honouring our own boundaries (saying “no”). We’ll prioritise what we think others are wanting, instead of identifying what we want and asking for it.

*Neuroception is the unconscious perception of threat, and in relationship we pick up subtle and not so subtle cues about safety and danger (i.e. whether the other person is in a calm and connected state or not) from tone of voice, facial expression, posture and body language.

What are the impacts of Fawning?

If we spend a lot of time Fawning, putting everybody else’s feelings and needs ahead of our own in an attempt to feel safer, we can often find ourselves feeling frustrated, resentful, hopeless, exhausted, and even physically unwell. 

We might have spent so much time focussing on what we think others want to get a sense of safety (including to gain and retain others’ love), so much time subjugating our own needs, that we lose connection with what we like, want and need. We might end up feeling like we don’t really know ourselves very well, or that we don’t even have any wants or needs!

Being stuck in Fawn can make us prone to swinging into a more mobilized sympathetic stress response, such as Fight or Flight, all of a sudden and without warning. This might look like erupting with big angry feelings, or experiencing a strong urge to escape. At other times, we might swing from Fawning to a more immobilised dorsal vagal stress response, like Freeze, where we can feel lethargic, depressed, or dissociated. 

And unfortunately, when we are often Fawning, our kids can end up feeling like they don’t really know where they stand with us. They hear our words, but they can sense from our incongruent behaviour (via neuroception) that we might actually be feeling differently. So they can’t trust fully that what we say is actually how we feel/what we want. This can bring insecurity to their relationship with us.

Why do so many of us Fawn?

A lot of adults seem to have developed Fawning as a default stress response. Here are just some of the childhood experiences that could lay down a neural pathway that favours Fawning.

Perhaps big emotions, such as anger and fear, were not accepted in our family, and may have been punished or shamed. So instead, we pushed them down and became a “good girl/boy”.

We might have been given responsibility or blamed for the state of another family member, and so taken on a protective state of putting their feelings or needs before our own. 

We might have observed one or other of our parents (more often the mother, but not always) surrendering their own needs to the other parent, and had that model imprinted on us. 

It could also stem from our experiences in school, where we were likely expected to obey the rules, with little to no safe space being given for us to express our true feelings. 

If we acted out our feelings, by becoming aggressive or running away, instead of receiving understanding and support, we might more likely have been given detention, or worse.

If you’re resonating with any of this, I’m sending you lots of gentle compassion. There are things we can do to rewire our nervous system, and get “unstuck” from these stress responses.

Kids and Fawning

As kids generally have less power in their world, Fight or Flight is less likely to help them achieve safety in a stressful situation. So it is not uncommon for kids to go into a Fawning stress response.

We often see the impact of Fawning on our kids when have been away from us and then return to the connection and emotional safety of our care. 

School can be a stressful environment for many kids. It can be overstimulating and overwhelming, with many expectations and rules with which they need to comply. 

Fawning helps kids to shut down their authentic expression of stress (Fight/Flight, the sympathetic nervous system), and play the role of “good boy/girl”. 

With neurodivergent kids, who may have additional stresses at school, including social challenges, this is often called “masking”, in which kids put all their focus on “fitting in”. 

Similarly, kids might have been in the care of someone else who they don’t feel as understood, accepted or safe with as they do with us, and act like a “little angel” while they are away. 

The impact of this is that when they return home to us, where they feel an increased sense of safety, they are quite likely to go through a more pure sympathetic nervous system state.

This can look like being generally keyed up, “hyperactive”, acting out with aggression, or having a tantrum or meltdown, before they can return to a more calm and connected state. 

What can we do if we tend to Fawn a lot?

If you’ve realised that you tend to Fawn a lot, and you’re wondering what you can do to shift that pattern, here are some ideas.

  • We can bring awareness to our pattern of Fawning, and hold ourselves with gentleness and compassion
  • We can acknowledge that it isn’t our fault, it is a response of our nervous system to protect us (even if it is based on “out-dated” information)
  • In the moment, we can be silently honest with ourselves about it, “I’m Fawning. How I’m really feeling right now is …”
  • We can “feel” into the Fawning state, witnessing how it has us sensing in our body, feeling emotionally, and thinking
  • If it is safe/appropriate to do so (e.g. with a trusted partner), we can share these things with the other person in the moment, and even check out our fears with them
  • We can make it a new habit to give ourselves the time and space to explore our authentic feelings, what we like, and what we need
  • We can start by choosing one small thing each day where make ourselves a priority, doing something that we want or need for our health and wellbeing
  • When we are feeling safe, we can practice sensing into what a true “yes”, “no” and “don’t know” feel like in our body
  • If there is a particular situation in which we know we’re likely to have been Fawning (e.g. work, school), we can set aside time afterwards to regulate ourselves
  • We can learn other ways to increase a sense of safety in our nervous system, and to return to safety after we’ve been in a stress response.

*This is a compilation of a series of posts on the Fawn stress response originally posted on Facebook in October 2020.

One thought on “An exploration of the Fawn stress response

  1. Reblogged this on The Family of 5's Journey and commented:
    Really good explanation on ‘fawning’ here. Big girl spent a lot of time doing this at school. It left her overwhelmed and exhausted.
    The fact that no one ever believed us, left US overwhelmed and exhausted.

    Big girls spends a lot less time fawning now that she receives her education at home, where she feels safe to be herself.

    Like

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