Hey, People Pleasers: You Need to Watch Out for Fawn Trauma Response

If you’re anything like us, you like to make your friends and family happy. When Aunt Sally starts ranting about politics at Thanksgiving, you rush to the kitchen to grab her favorite pumpkin pie, just to keep the peace. That’s normal. But if you’re a people pleaser, you have a much deeper need to please, which is usually a result of childhood trauma. And thanks to #TherapyTok—aka therapy videos on TikTok—we finally have more context on why people pleasers act the way they do. It’s called fawn trauma response. If you find yourself constantly going above and beyond for everyone and feeling guilty when you don’t, you need to read this.

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So, What Exactly Is The Fawn Trauma Response?

According to Psychology Today, the fawn trauma response is a type of coping mechanism some people use to avoid conflict. When growing up in an abusive environment, some people become aggressive (fight), others run away (flight), and others are unable to make a decision (freeze). Those with the fawn trauma response try to get ahead of the problem by rushing to please the abuser in order to avoid conflict. That means they agree with everything that’s being said, do things they know will get approval and set aside their personal feelings in order to avoid abuse. Eventually, this can become a normal behavioral pattern that gets carried into adulthood.

“The fawn response happens when we grew up or later on live in a high conflict environment,” explains therapist, educator and yoga teacher, Gen Angela. “So, as a coping mechanism, we try to avoid the abuse, avoid the conflict, avoid the trauma really, by developing these behaviors to appease the person we’re afraid of. You then may also find yourself doing this with not just the person you’re afraid of, but with everybody in your life.”

How Can You Recognize Fawn Trauma Response?

People with the fawn response usually exhibit the following behaviors:

  • A perpetual inability to say ‘no’ even when a request inconveniences you
  • Having a difficult time standing up for yourself
  • Repressing your own needs for the sake of making everyone around you happy
  • Feeling responsible for the reactions of other people
  • Feeling as though you don’t have your own identity
  • Constantly looking to others to see how you’re supposed to feel in a relationship or a situation
  • Constant feelings of guilt

4 Ways To Cope With Fawn Trauma Response

1. Seek therapy. Going to a therapist is the fastest way to learn about behavioral patterns that you may not be aware of. A therapist can also help you with all that anxiety and angst that comes with unlearning those old coping mechanisms you developed in childhood.

2. Set boundaries. One of the biggest issues for people with fawn trauma response is that they don’t really know how to set boundaries. And when your default is to appease everyone around you, it can be hard to set a hard line without feeling guilty. So, we suggest starting small. Someone mispronounces your name? Correct them. Your friends are pressuring you to go to happy hour? Say no. Eventually, those small wins will give you the confidence to tackle bigger issues.

3. Stop overexplaining. When you are first learning to set boundaries for yourself, the natural inclination is to apologize and overcompensate in order to make sure everyone knows you aren't blowing them off. However, in the words of author Megan LeBoutillier, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” And you don’t need to explain yourself further than that.

“Stop trying to make everyone comfortable around you,” suggests alternative therapist Lori Wheeler. “That’s not your job. You have to realize that no matter how much [you try], there are some people who are just not going to vibe with you, and that’s OK.”

4. Learn to delegate. Part of the fawn trauma response is feeling like you have to handle every task and spearhead every project in order to be a valuable employee at work. At family gatherings, you’ll also probably feel a lot of pressure to cater to everyone else’s needs (especially if this is what you’ve always done in the past and your brother is expecting you to make his favorite turkey meatballs from scratch). But when you already have a ton of stuff on your plate, taking on more can easily lead to burnout. Remember, you’re allowed to ask for help and delegate some of those tasks. It’s even OK to deliver less than you’ve promised once in a while. You’ll still be a great co-worker, friend and sister. Promise.

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Resident Hufflepuff, Beyonce historian, self-proclaimed tea sommelier

Steph is a native of Zimbabwe who is both enamored and genuinely baffled by the concept of silent letters. From 2020 to 2022, she served as Associate Editor at PureWow covering...