When faced with a life-threatening situation, an organism generates the following trauma responses:
In certain traumatic situations, fight and flight are not the appropriate responses. Neither is freeze. These are the situations where the organism will display a fawn response.
The fawn response to trauma is when someone behaves submissively towards an aggressor, communicating:
“I’m not a threat.”
In the wild, animals have submissive displays that they use to convey they’re not dangerous to their aggressors. This deters the aggressors from aggressing. The dominant animal can move on with their life without having to worry about the submissive animal.
In humans, we also see people adopting the fawn response to traumatic situations that are hard to escape with fight or flight. Examples: hostage situations and interpersonal abuse, especially narcissistic abuse.
Effects of narcissistic abuse
Narcissistic abuse is emotional abuse that is carried out by people having narcissistic traits or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Narcissists constantly devalue, criticize, shame, and manipulate their victims.
Often, it’s not easy to fight a narcissist, given their penchant for narcissistic rage. It’s almost impossible for children of narcissistic parents to escape, given their survival needs. Someone in a romantic relationship with a narcissistic may be trauma-bonded and find it hard to leave.
So flight isn’t an option either.
Hence, victims of narcissistic abuse are likely to adopt the fawn response. Sometimes they’ll display a combination of fawn and freeze responses.
The fawn response is a great short-term strategy to ensure survival and decrease the chances that your abuser will hurt you.
Over time, though, people can get stuck with this response for life. In the long term, this response has the following detrimental effects:
1. Continuation of trauma
The fawn response is a coping mechanism for trauma. The automatic coping mechanisms that we adopt to deal with trauma freeze our trauma in time. We’re not able to step outside of the trauma to process it and heal. We keep carrying out our programming.
2. Low self-esteem
Being submissive for too long can erode your self-esteem because you’re not feeding your own identity. You don’t take the time to figure out who you want to be and what you want to do.
Fawn trauma responses
Narcissistic abuse takes the qualities that are good in humans in moderation and dials them up to make them unhealthy. Hence, as you’ll see, many characteristics of the fawn response have the word “over” in them.
It’s okay to go into the ‘fawn mode’ occasionally to deal with a difficult situation. But if you go into it so often that it’s become a part of your personality, chances are you have Complex PTSD from narcissistic abuse.
Following are the signs that show you’ve adopted fawning as a response to narcissistic abuse:
Agreeableness is a good quality when present in moderation. Spending time with an agreeable person can be pleasurable and harmonious.
Too much agreeableness, though, comes off as weak. Highly agreeable people don’t get much respect.
Over-agreeableness is a fawn trauma response to please the abuser and avoid conflict.
Fawning or submissiveness is all about compliance. The abuser carries out overt or covert aggression so that the victim complies with their wishes.
It’s okay to comply with people with whom you’re in a mutually respectful and reciprocal relationship. Abusive relationships, however, are one-sided. By overly complying with the abuser, the victim tries to ensure safety.
3. Seeking validation excessively
Again, there’s nothing wrong with seeking validation in moderation. It’s part of being human. But you can always tell there’s something deeper going on when someone gets addicted to seeking validation.
It can be a fawn response to gain the approval of your abuser.
4. Having poor boundaries
Having healthy boundaries and saying “No” is something only healthy people with a solid sense of self can do. Since victims of narcissistic abuse tend to have low self-esteem and a poor or non-existent self-image, they struggle with assertiveness.
5. Being overly helpful
Healthy individuals engage in balanced giving and receiving.
Victims of narcissistic abuse may be overly helpful and nurturing. They put the needs of others before their own. While that sounds generous and altruistic, there’s often trauma behind this extreme behavior.
Excessive giving means you’re ignoring your own needs. Eventually, that breeds resentment and damages relationships.
Many who teach assertiveness say that you should learn to say “No” and that’s it. No need to explain yourself. “No” is a complete sentence, they add.
It may be true when dealing with strangers and acquaintances. But it isn’t true for close relationships. People close to you deserve an explanation for your “No”.
But only explanation, not over-explanation.
If you constantly find yourself over-explaining or over-justifying your decisions, chances are it’s a fawn response to narcissistic abuse.
Over-apologizing is apologizing too frequently and unnecessarily. Apologies are incredibly healthy ways to repair relationships.
I was watching a clip from a movie recently where this guy said:
“Men don’t apologize!”
I could see where he was coming from. Apologizing too much can make you look weak. And men particularly don’t like to look weak.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apologize at all. Apologize when an apology is due. Anything more is a sign of fawning.
8. Being overly tolerant
Fawn response increases the list of bad behaviors that you tolerate. People see you being okay with everything and walk all over you. It may help you avoid conflict but damages your self-esteem over time.
It’s okay not to be okay with certain behaviors. Tolerate what should be tolerated. Anything more is a symptom of fawning.
9. Unnecessary guilt
Narcissistic abusers mold you into a person who serves them. They rob you of your identity or don’t let you form one. They punish you when you express your ideas, opinions, and feelings.
This “I’m bad, so I should be good” programming gets carried into the future. You feel fearful and guilty when you do certain things. More often than not, the fear and guilt is unwarranted. It’s irrational. Your narcissist is still living in your head and punishing you.
How to heal the fawn response
The first step is recognizing that certain situations bring you into the fawn mode. Understanding narcissistic abuse and linking it to your fawning is the next significant milestone. When you do that, you’re able to process your trauma and heal.
Practice reprogramming your thought patterns and changing your behaviors. It’s not going to be easy at first, but it’ll soon become second nature.
Note that there are limited ways in which you can respond to a threat. From fawning, you’ll have to switch to some other response:
Confront your abuser and ask them why they did what they did. It’s nearly impossible for narcissists to understand themselves. But if they do and they apologize, you can heal.
In most cases, the right course of action is to go no contact or use grey-rocking, i.e., disengaging emotionally from the narcissist and protecting your mental health. In extreme cases, cutting out the narcissist from your life entirely may be a viable option.