For as long as I can remember, I’ve been heavily invested in other people’s feelings. I’ve basically become an expert at accommodating others and reading a person’s body language to see if they’ve become upset or uncomfortable with me around them. Even as a young child, I was overly concerned about not creating emotional harm to those around me, and I still struggle on the daily with the overwhelming internal pressure to please.
It’s easy to assume that I was perhaps just a precocious and sensitive child, but I’ll never fully know if this was the case. Because a huge part of my people-pleasing tendencies stemmed from enduring ongoing physical, mental, and verbal abuse at home as a child.
It’s taken over six years of therapy, a complex PTSD diagnosis, and two trips to the emergency room to realize just how deeply my trauma has been embedded inside of me. And since our childhood scars cannot always be visible enough for someone to notice or treat, I didn’t even know that people-pleasing was something I did to protect myself from past and future abuse. Because when you spend the vast majority of your time obsessing over whether everyone likes you and thinks you’re perfect, there’s not a whole lot of room left over to really investigate why you partake in those behaviors.
While my therapists and psychiatrist have helped me to understand the depths of my trauma-based mental health disorder, it wasn’t until recently that I discovered a new term that gives tangible answers to why I tend to be a people-pleaser. Thanks to Portland-based journalist and positive psychology coach Sam Dylan Finch, I now know about the “fawn response” and how it may be responsible for my zealous commitment to prioritizing others’ feelings over my own.
In an article for Healthline, the queer and transgender activist breaks down exactly what our fawn response is and how it relates to surviving abuse and trauma.
“In a nutshell, ‘fawning’ is the use of people-pleasing to diffuse conflict, feel more secure in relationships, and earn the approval of others,” Finch writes for Healthline. “It’s a maladaptive way of creating safety in our connections with others by essentially mirroring the imagined expectations and desires of other people.”
This makes so much sense to me as a childhood trauma survivor. I was taught from a young age that expressing my true feelings, opposing parental expectations, and making unintentional mistakes meant risking being on the receiving end of physical and verbal harm. I kept my authentic self on lockdown, complied whenever possible, and generally lived with a never-ending aim to please people. By doing this, I dedicated a lot of my existence to ignoring my intuition and core emotions. I also kept myself from ever fully knowing who I was when I wasn’t constantly trying to make everyone happy around me.
“It can be painful to constantly silence yourself and push your emotions away, all while working overtime to anticipate the emotions of other people,” Finch writes.
If you have a highly-activated fawn response, you may struggle to feel seen by those you love, avoid saying “no” in situations, have a disconnected and guilt-ridden relationship with your own emotions, compromise your values to appear acceptable, and even see yourself as the sole responsibility for someone else’s feelings.
If all of these unhealthy coping mechanisms sound exhausting, that’s because they are. Living with the constant worry of disappointing someone, being the exclusive cause of their suffering (whether you are or not), and battling daily with the shame of never feeling visible to those you love takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. Therapy and antidepressants have helped alleviate much of my people-pleasing tendencies, but I still consider myself very much in recovery. Since not everyone always has the kind of access I do to mental health counseling, someone with an unchecked fawn response can suffer from the unfortunate outcome of unknowingly attracting dysfunctional or traumatic relationships.
“When you are excessively concerned with pleasing others, you learn that in order to be effective at this, you have to shut down your gut instincts, your values, your emotions — because being an individual, rather than a mirror, doesn’t serve you in securing the love that you want,” Finch explains on his personal WordPress blog Let’s Queer Things Up!. “That’s why people-pleasers can become drawn to abusive relationships, and repelled from relationships that are abundantly loving. We’ve internalized the idea that love has to feel ‘earned’ in order to feel secure.”
So how can someone take action to heal if they grapple regularly with an overly driven aim to please? In addition to receiving the countless benefits of going to therapy, Finch encourages us to show up for ourselves in the most vulnerable way we can. If we have a tendency to bend to the will of others at the expense of our own mental well being, then we need to start being compassionate with ourselves and making room to take our time, space, and mental energy back—even if it means upsetting someone who’s used to us accommodating them. It may feel uncomfortable to do this at first, but it will be well worth it to ultimately end up meeting our honest selves in the process.
“Loving myself has become a complete sentence,” the writer shares in a post on Instagram. “And it started with giving myself space to be whole and giving myself space to just be a person with no expectation that I give any of what I find away to someone else. Loving myself has meant that I etch out corners in my life where I can take whatever I need, even if the only persona that thrives as a result is me. I have to believe that by holding onto my full humanity in those moments, the world IS made better. Because this world needs us to be whole. We need us to be whole.”
There is no shame in having experienced childhood trauma or taking the necessary steps to heal yourself. And there is no reason to live your life in constant fear of screwing up or hurting someone’s feelings. The truth is, we cannot be liked by everyone, people aren’t always going to agree with what we have to say, and making our needs known may initially create ripples of discomfort for those around us. So the boundaries we can cultivate by honoring ourselves first have the real potential to lead us down a path of living life on our own wholehearted terms. And the freedom that can be experienced once we learn how to let go of our fawn response far outweighs anything in our past that taught us to use it in the first place.
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