Fight, Flight, Freeze… Fawn?: Responding to Danger by Becoming a People Pleaser

a sign that's broken that says "yes"
Image by Anthony Clearn / CC BY

Many long-time readers of the blog know that I identify as a recovering people pleaser. It’s been a long road to recovery, bolstered by an excellent support system and a round of assertiveness therapy several years back.

Growing up under the thumb of a difficult mercurial parent, I learned early on how to anticipate her needs and accommodate them, no matter how ridiculous they were or how inconvenient it would be to me. The other choices available to me were less desirable: Being punished either physically or emotionally, or having things I wanted withheld (privileges sometimes sure, but other times even basics like food could be in jeopardy).

So I learned how to read her ever-changing moods and essentially plan around the emotional weather. Making sacrifices in the process like someone striving to appease an angry god.

No matter how hard I tried to keep the peace, things were still rocky, and I spent my adolescence living at the houses of friends and other relatives. This was a difficult time as my mother told everyone I was a bad kid, and even I believed her, not realizing then that it was unfair to expect a child to be the adult in a relationship.

The people who provided me with places to sleep noted with surprise that I caused little trouble in spite of this reputation.

But it was rough going. And being a kid who was moved around a lot and had to provide for myself (thankfully, I made money playing gigs as a jazz musician) beyond rent (which I often paid for by doing chores for people and trying not to make trouble), was far from an ideal situation.

I sustained a number of minor and major traumas from the ages of 12 to 19 as I struggled to basically raise myself (and did a poor job, since I was still a child).

I sorta knew that having to accommodate other people, first my mother and later other people who could kick me out at any minute if I caused problems, had resulted in people-pleasing behavior. But it wasn’t until recently that I connected my difficult childhood to a behavior I have struggled hard to kick.

And that behavior is called “fawning.”

Fawning, Responding to Danger by Becoming a People Pleaser

Fawning is the fourth response to danger, one that’s far less known than the first three: Fight, flight, or freeze.

As Pete Walker writes:

Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. They often begin life like the precocious children described in Alice Miler’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child, who learn that a modicum of safety and attachment can be gained by becoming the helpful and compliant servants of their parents. They are usually the children of at least one narcissistic parent who uses contempt to press them into service, scaring and shaming them out of developing a healthy sense of self: an egoic locus of self-protection, self-care and self-compassion.

Interestingly, Walker goes on to talk about the role of assertiveness therapy and learning appropriate boundaries in addressing this behavior. I say interesting because this is precisely how I treated this behavior without even targeting it. I was instead focused on other unhelpful behaviors and outcomes from them with my therapist and while addressing those managed to address this as well.

Still, I found this a very interesting and enlightening read.

Special thanks to the reader who brought this to my attention.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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