6 Signs Your Relationship Problems Are Actually Caused By The 'Fawn' Trauma Response

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couple against grey wall, looking serious

Do you find yourself continually appeasing others to keep the peace, while ignoring your own needs or abandoning yourself?

'Fawning' is a survival response derived from pleasing or pacifying attachment figures to avoid conflict.

When we feel under threat, the autonomic nervous system detects the danger and activates the fight, flight, freeze, or fawning response in order to feel safe.

If you felt unsafe or afraid to express yourself growing up then you can learn how to protect yourself by adopting survival behaviors (fawning) as a way to avoid the threat of a fear-provoking situation.  

You can learn to comply or submit in order to placate a parent who easily flies off the handle. 

When you are scared to express how you feel, it can feel safer to ignore your feelings and switch off from yourself, in order to focus on the needs of others to keep yourself safe.

How do you know if you're responding from a traumatized place?

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Here are signs that you are using a fawn response.

1. Not setting limits or boundaries, and avoiding saying no.

You can avoid setting boundaries, putting limits on unwanted behavior from others, or saying no, to avoid conflict.

You can put up with the behavior you don't like, just to keep the peace, and end up tolerating things that do not serve you.

2. Pleasing others.

We can end up appeasing others to avoid conflict.

As a survival coping mechanism, you might have learned to please a parent to avoid conflict and therefore it becomes an automatic response to anticipate the needs of others and focus on meeting the needs of other people to feel safe.

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3. Anticipating the reaction of others.

You can anticipate the reaction of others and respond in ways to alleviate your anxiety.

If we experienced an unpredictable parent or threatening environment growing up, it trains the amygdala to anticipate the threat, even when it's not there. 

So, we react to threats that might not exist, becoming hypervigilant that something bad will happen or expecting our partner will get angry if we do not go along with them, or do something wrong. So, we pre-empt their reaction and respond in a way to avoid the perceived threat.

4. Walking on eggshells, or being scared to express yourself.

 It can feel scary to express how we feel if we fear upsetting our partner. If we fear a reaction we don’t want we can avoid communicating altogether, or tell our partner what they want to hear.  

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5. Taking responsibility for your partner’s emotions.

When we are used to taking care of our parent’s emotions to manage their behavior, we can feel responsible for how our partner feels. We can end up focusing on placating their anger to manage their reaction and calm the situation.

6. Taking the blame for things that are not your fault.

We can end up feeling responsible for things that go wrong, by taking the blame for things that are not our fault, so we get out of the firing line. We can be overly apologetic to avoid getting in trouble.

If you internalized that there was ‘something wrong with you’ for upsetting your caregivers, you can think that you are a burden or problem, by developing false beliefs that protected you in order to get out of harm's way.

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Here’s how to recover from the ‘fawn’ response and stop reacting to trauma.

Our underlying core beliefs can keep us stuck in these survival responses until we overcome them in therapy, and learn to awaken our real self that has been kept at bay for safe-keeping. 

We can end up reliving the fear of not feeling safe in relationships if we don't disrupt the trauma response and respond in ways that calm the nervous system.

When you are aware of your emotional triggers, you can anchor yourself to calm the threat arousal center, so you can bring the pre-frontal cortex online, to respond in the present and not react to the past. This way you can feel safe, so you don’t lose yourself, in the context of a safe relationship. Meanwhile, you can determine what is an actual threat or not.

Once you get in touch with yourself, you will transform from surviving to thriving, as you mobilize your ‘self’ to act according to your own needs, set appropriate limits, and establish healthy boundaries, so you can live in alignment with who you are.

In this way, you can respond in ways that build a healthier relationship with yourself and others.

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Nancy Carbone is an author and trauma therapist. She helps people with overcoming relational trauma.