“Fight or flight” is a well-known response to stressful or dangerous encounters, but there’s another you probably haven’t heard about: fawn. What’s scary about this response is how eerily familiar it is and how easily it can lead to emotional abuse. Here are some behaviors indicative of fawning, how they can screw you over, and how to stop them in their tracks.
You use people-pleasing as a stress response. People-pleasing is a lot more complex than just being polite or agreeable. It can actually be a trauma response in the same way as fight or flight. Subconsciously, people who default to the fawn response do so as a protective mechanism. It can take the form of being overly caring, excessively complimentary, or waiting for conversational cues to determine “safe” topics of conversation.
You agree with another person’s opinions at the expense of your own. A significant sign of fawning is mirroring the emotions of the threatening person in order to avoid conflict or negative emotions. This means reflecting back that person’s opinions or emotional state to deescalate a situation, or to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand in the first place. If you find yourself ignoring your gut feelings and deprioritizing your own values for the sake of other people’s, it may be the fawn response at play.
The more emotionally invested you are, the worse your fawning becomes. The more invested you are in a relationship, the more this response might come out. If you find yourself unwilling to offer criticism for unacceptable behavior, set clear boundaries, express your own opinions, or say anything that might jeopardize the connection, it might be time to step back and assess the relationship.
You’re always giving more than you have. The fawn response often results in people overextending themselves and giving more than they’re capable of healthily offering. Do you find yourself saying yes to more things than you’re able to handle? Are you warm, encouraging, and generous at the expense of your own well-being? Are you so eager to meet the needs of the people you care about that you forget your own? Do you struggle to set or protect boundaries?
You grew up in an unstable environment. The impulse to respond to conflict with fawning may be a result of growing up in a controlling and chaotic environment. People who default to this stress response often internalize the idea that conflict can be avoided through “perfect” behavior. By acting well-behaved and catering to the needs of the threatening person, they attempt to minimize conflict and win love and attachment.
This opens the door to emotional abuse. If you’re constantly minimizing your own needs, submitting to someone else’s moods and whims, ignoring your boundaries, and deferring to another person’s opinions, emotional abuse is far more likely. If you’ve been conditioned to please others, you’re more likely to ignore your own well-being and this is a very vulnerable position to be in.
It blocks the acceptance of love. Through a lifetime of “earning” love and protecting against threats via fawning, people-pleasers are wholly unprepared for accepting love that doesn’t come with a price tag. It can be difficult to believe that you deserve love without first working for it. This often results in being drawn to abusive relationships and moving away from those that are openly loving.
People-pleasers often end up in controlling relationships. The opposite of a people-pleaser is a controller and unfortunately, the old adage of “opposites attract” is true in this case. Controllers also struggle to believe that they deserve love but instead of fawning, they attempt to control. This makes for an unhealthy pairing when pleasers and controllers get together. It ends up in an abusive power play that neither person is usually aware of.
You can break the cycle. If you’re reading this article and checking boxes, don’t worry! There’s a way out of this and it’s easier than you think. The crux of people-pleasing is the belief that you don’t deserve love unless you earn it. To break that belief, start to look for the people in your life who love you without strings attached.
Find your loving people. Make a list of the people who you consider to be “too nice” to you. These are the people that you could subconsciously be resisting because of your belief that you must earn love. They can help get you out of your people-pleasing cycle. Intentionally reach out to all those people on the list that you like and you enjoy spending time with.
Commit to building those relationships. Just by shifting your attention to the relationships you think you don’t deserve, you can rewrite a lifetime’s worth of unhealthy relationship habits. Put time and energy into prioritizing connections with those “too nice” people and most importantly, commit to believing that you can be a valuable and cherished human without needing to bend over backward to earn it.
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