Decoding the Fawn Response and Escaping the People Pleasing Trap
Learning about the fawn response was a light bulb moment for me as I recognised myself in its descriptions, providing an understanding of my people-pleasing tendencies and avoidance of conflict.
We discuss how the fawn response, a nervous system reaction triggered by feelings of threat or unsafety, drives individuals to prioritize others’ needs while avoiding conflict.
We uncover the link between the fawn response and unhealed trauma, as well as the detrimental effects it can have on our success and fulfillment.
Overwhelming empathy and a strong aversion to conflict often characterize those with a fawn response.
We also explore the intersection of people-pleasing behaviors with gender and societal conditioning.
We identify common signs of people-pleasing, such as difficulty saying no, constant approval-seeking, and self-neglect.
By recognizing and addressing these behaviors, we can get ourselves unstuck and on a an empowered path of personal growth and self-fulfillment.
Join us as we unravel the complexities of the fawn response and its connection to people-pleasing, providing insights and strategies for positive change.
Full Episode Transcript
Hello. Welcome to the podcast. This week we are talking about the fawn response, people pleasing how these are blocking your success and your happiness and what you can do to overcome them. It is very common for many, many women to have people pleasing behaviors. But it wasn’t until more recent years when I started to learn about the fawn response and when a colleague told me about it and I did a little bit of reading about it, I recognized myself in the fawn response.
So let’s take a look at what that is first, and then we’ll look at people pleasing and we’ll look at how they intersect, but also how they’re different. So the fawn response refers to a response within our nervous system where we are feeling threatened or unsafe, where we go into behaviors that are about pleasing, appeasing, trying to keep others around us happy and avoiding conflict.
So we know about the fight response and the flight response. We know about the freeze response in our nervous system. And then of course we have the fawn response as well. So the fawn response is an adaptation of behavior coming from something that’s going on in the nervous system where we are trying to please others, and it is linked to trauma and it can be helpful in some situations. It’s used to protect us to look after us. But what happens, of course, when the trauma hasn’t been integrated or healed within us, it’s sitting there in a, maybe a frozen state within our body.
Then we are going to fall into the fawn response quite often or very often, and then, It becomes behaviorally, it becomes something that we can’t shake off and that we’re doing a lot of the time, and somebody who has a fawn response and acts through those behaviors. They can on the surface, be really good to be around because they’re looking after you.
They’re making sure you are happy. They’re making sure everyone in the family is happy because that was the adaptive behavior to try and keep conflict settled within their family of origin, for example. However, we have to think about what is the cost for that person that is, Exhibiting the fawn response that is behaving in that way.
There’s a massive cost to yourself as a person. And for me, it was definitely something that I had to unwind. And unlayer, when I was healing from Crohn’s disease, there was a lot of internalized freeze, fight, flight, all of it. And. fawn response and through the fawn response, what that meant was I wasn’t able to look after myself as I needed to.
I wasn’t able to say no. I was consistently trying to please people around me, and it’s not like we just fall into one category, either freeze or fawn or flight or fight. No, we have aspects of that showing up within us. But on the podcast today, I want to talk more about what the fawn response is because it’s really helpful to understand it because as soon as you have awareness, you can see when you are going into it and with awareness, you can then start to change behaviors.
So here’s some key things to look out for in terms of the fawn response, excessive people pleasing, and we’re gonna talk some more about people pleasing behavior, but with a fawn response your nervous system. Is running that fawn response and it is linked with early life trauma.
And they could be big traumas, they could be smaller traumas. Excessive people pleasing means there’s a strong desire to please others and gain their approval. I remember when I was very young, I must have been third or fourth form at high school and a teacher sort of pointed out to me what I would look at now is a fawn response, and he pointed it out in a way that was not very kind and was not very supportive.
But it was raw and honest, and he was right that I was always seeking other people’s approval. But at that time, at that very young age, I didn’t have the skills to understand it from a lens of compassion for myself for the first thing. And secondly, I didn’t have the skills to know how to change my self-worth and my self-esteem, cuz that was what I was trying to bolster up by doing things right and getting approval, getting verbal approval from people.
I didn’t know how to go about it in a, in a more healthy, productive way. And so whilst he pointed it out to me, it was hurtful. And that’s okay. That’s not his responsibility as the teacher. However, it was also not that productive because it didn’t show me what I could do differently at all. I received it as was a criticism, and that is another piece of the fawn response is that we might be very easily triggered into feelings of neglect, abandonment.
And rejection. Another characteristic of the fawn response is overwhelming empathy. So people who fawn we have this heightened sense of empathy and can really easily tune into the needs and the emotions of others.
You can read faces really easily. You can read a room really easily. Sound familiar? Healers out there. Does that sound familiar? Yeah, same for me. It was a really heightened skill for me, and that’s useful on its own. However, what happens is that we make that information mean. You know, whatever’s going on in the room around us, with the people around us mean that we either need to change ourselves or need to work really hard to change the environment around us and long term
that is not healthy behavior because we are neglecting our own wellbeing in that case. When a fawn response is present, we may have difficulty setting boundaries. We can have a hard time saying no, or asserting ourselves, fearing that, you know, doing that will lead to rejection or abandonment, which is so, so painful.
You’re getting the picture now, right? There’s also another characteristic. And that is avoidance of conflict. So fawn response people, we will avoid conflict and confrontation as much as possible and will automatically and unconsciously suppress our own feelings and opinions to maintain peace. And so we don’t trigger negative consequences or reactions from people around us.
and the final characteristic around the fawn response is that we might exhibit self neglect in terms of always, always putting others ahead of ourselves and perhaps having difficulty recognizing our own worth and our own value, and. That can show up if you are a practitioner or a business owner that can show up in overthinking your pricing on.
Having a pricing structure that is way too low for the financials of your business because you are so worried about your clients and customers capacity to pay. You are not valuing your worth enough. You are not wanting people to reject and abandon you. And these are all running subconsciously.
It’s really common to have this response and the other responses when you’ve experienced trauma in your life. And so in terms of trauma, that’s one of the hidden aspects of when things aren’t flowing as I want them to in my business, or my pricing is difficult in my business, or perhaps my career isn’t going the way I want it to go.
Then when we look at those deeper beliefs and the responses in our nervous system that have come from trauma, And we start to unwind that with someone who knows how to do that and what the connections are. We can get free really, really quickly. Let’s move on to people pleasing. So people pleasing is more about behaviors and the there for self-protection and as an attempt to adapt to our surroundings.
Now, the fawn response is a response in the nervous system in the brain. That leads to behaviors, and that often does include people pleasing behaviors as a coping mechanism. People pleasing in and of itself is not always involved with a trauma response. However, the fawn response is. So people pleasing and the fawn response are in the same field. But the fawn response is more about our nervous system response, and people pleasing is more about behavior and the things that we do, and it can stem from the fawn response, but it also can stem from our gender and societal conditioning as well, which we’ll go into some more.
So my friends, how do I know if I’m people pleasing? So here’s some common behaviors and remembering with these lists, you’ll have some experience of this and some not so think about it as a spectrum. How far along the spectrum am I with this particular behavior?
And if you can recognize yourself in all of them, then. It would be a good idea to look at, well actually how am I people pleasing in my life? Is this really serving me? Is this something that’s limiting my success as well as my happiness and my self-fulfillment? So first on the list is you will have difficulty saying no.
You’re gonna find it challenging to say no to requests or favors, even when it inconveniences you or goes against your own needs, Number two, there’s going to be a constant seeking of approval. So your self-worth will be heavily dependent on receiving praise or validation from others.
You’ll be seeking it out there in the world and your work, and most of the time this will be fairly unconscious. It will just be something that we do and it might elicit praise and validation from other people. The long-term problem with that is, is that we lose a sense of who we actually are at the core of our being.
And what our needs are and how we express ourselves because we get so ingrained with making ourselves fit what other people’s expectations are that we lose contact with ourselves. And this happens from a very, very young age as young girls and growing into womanhood until we’re, you know, young adult woman.
We don’t even know we are doing this. And this is the gift of midlife because it shakes up our psyche and it shakes up our conditioning, and we can actually shine a light on these behaviors and really see them for what they are. And it’s not about blaming our parents or the people around us. This really is just the, the soup, the surrounding that we grow up in.
But what I love about coming into midlife is you get to choose again. Who you want to be and how you want to show up in the world. And next on the list of how do I know if I’m people pleasing or I’m, I’m engaging in people pleasing behaviors, is that you will be ignoring your own desires. That you will prioritize what others want and expect from you, and you’ll disregard your own preferences or your own aspirations.
Next, you might overextend yourself. You’ll go above and beyond to help others. Often taking on more responsibilities than you can handle, and then you will suffer the stress and burnout from that over the long period of time. But man, no man, are you gonna get some praise along the way?
You are such an amazing, helpful, loving, caring person. We can all recognize that praise, right? And like I said, there’s a spectrum along here, right? Am I, how far along this am I, you will likely suppress your own emotions and opinions, so you’ll downplay your own feelings and thoughts and fit into what others are saying.
And behind that, there’ll be, you know, avoiding conflict, avoiding criticism. You might neglect self-care in terms of that, you will be so busy looking after other people that you won’t be putting yourself first on a regular basis, and you will have a constant need for harmony. You’ll prioritize maintaining harmony and avoiding conflict in relationships, even if it’s at the expense of your own authenticity and needs.
And that’s a big one when we are in intimate relationships because once we are through the eros stage, when we are so, you know, magically head over heels in love with someone and you come into the everyday being in relationships, so there’s a deeper kind of love there, but the early days, the early year of that eros phase is over, it’s complete then if we’re.
Falling into those patterns of people pleasing, which for many of us, that was how it was modeled to us to grow a successful relationship. Right? Please, the other party, take care of them. Look after them. Keep the peace. You can only keep that up for a certain length of time. It won’t last forever.
Eventually your inner wild girl is gonna rebel, or you’re gonna start to feel resentful. You’re going to start to feel sarcastic. You’re gonna start to withdraw from your partner. If any of those are happening, it’s really good idea to look at, have I been people pleasing in this relationship, and do we need to take a look at these?
Do I need to take a look at these automatic behaviors because are they making me more tired, more resentful, more withdrawn? Then I really want to be, to be able to show up and feel close to my partner. And another key characteristic of people pleasing is that you will have difficulty setting boundaries.
Similar to saying no, but you’ll be unclear around your own boundaries. And that can lead to saying yes when you don’t really want to agreeing to something when mm, you are not sure about it. And then later on. Feeling really stuck between what that person wants and what that person needs and your own wants and needs, and not being able to please them.
But you’re certainly not pleasing yourself and that creates a lot of stress in our nervous system. And you will of course end up feeling more resentful and drained because, if we are out there pleasing everyone else, we’re keeping the harmony. We’re making sure they’re all fed and nourished
in a metaphorical sense. Who are we not looking after? Well, we’re not looking after ourselves. And there is that piece where we come into midlife, where we’ve got that hormonal change so that. That tending and and nurturing aspect of our hormones is, is lowering. And so we’ve got more self-interest, but I will say it’s more self-interest in a really healthy way arising during perimenopause, during midlife.
And we can start to use that change that’s happening in our body and in our nervous system to actually create change in, in our behaviors. Do you recognize yourself in this? I recognize myself in here, but I also think about, well, here I am now, but where was I? Or how was I 10 years ago, 15 years ago?
How much have I grown since then? How much more do I put my stake in the ground and claim what is mine for me in terms of my own nourishment and my own needs now? Than I did 10 years ago. So I’m not saying any of this. For us to then start blaming ourselves and also labeling ourselves like, you know, I’m talking about people pleasing and the fawn response, and that’s really helpful, but I don’t want you to now label yourself with, oh, I’m a people pleaser.
What’s more useful is to think about, oh, did that behavior come out of people pleasing? Was that behavior aimed at people pleasing, even if it was unconscious? Cause it, most of it is unconscious. Or am I, why am I feeling resentful in this moment? Let me backtrack. Did I do something previously or agree to something or say something that was in the realm of people pleasing that actually a much more authentic part of me right now is feeling really pissed off about it and resentful.
It can be really helpful to unpack these behaviors, and it can also be a really great thread of awareness and understanding. Un, if I am feeling drained, if I am feeling exhausted or resentful or withdrawn from that person. Let me look at. Where have I been people pleasing or where has there been a fawn response activated in me?
Because there’ll also be a part of you that down the track over time finds it too stressful and starts to withdraw, starts to feel resentful. So it’s good to listen to those and to look at them through that lens of people pleasing in the fawn response. So how is. People pleasing, blocking my success and happiness.
Here are some ways that it might be. So there’ll be a lack of assertiveness. There’ll be a neglect of your personal goals, your personal drives and intentions, or you might have those goals and intentions, but everybody else’s stuff comes first.
And as a parent, I really understand that. And there, you know, this is stages of life and when my children were young, their needs really did come first when they’re very young. Their needs did come first, but if I’m still behaving in that way when they’re 15 and 22, then I’ve got a problem and I’m probably gonna feel really fatigued and burned out as well because I’ve continued to put their needs at the forefront of my priorities.
People pleasing is also blocking your success because there’ll be a limitation on your capacity to make bold decisions. So it might be, you might find it hard to make decisions, and if you kind of dig down a little bit, you might be able to identify where a part of you is wanting to please someone else.
And then there’s your own needs and your own desires that you’re wanting to please, and you’re feeling quite stuck in the middle. And so when we feel stuck in our decision making, first of all, sometimes we don’t have connection with our feelings, so we don’t understand what’s going on underneath the surface.
But there can also be. The need for other people’s approval, validation, putting their needs first, and that’s gonna make decision making based on our own authentic, will murky. Unclear and really difficult. And of course people pleasing is blocking your success because you’re gonna start burning out.
You’re gonna start feeling really tired. We can’t consistently keep giving to others all the time without giving back to ourselves without some form of exhaustion or burnout. There will be strain in your relationships. Cause the thing with people pleasing is there will come a time and a stage in your life where.
Maybe you’ve done it so long in your relationship, but you, but whether we know it or not to people, please, we must suppress an aspect of ourselves. We must suppress our suppress, our own needs, and our psyche will only put up with that for so long, without pushing us, without throwing up symptoms, without showing us that we’ve been people pleasing Too much.
So there’ll be a strain in your relationships because somehow your behavior doesn’t come from a deeply authentic place, or your behavior might be nice and pleasing to the other person, but there may well be either a simmering resentment or a withdrawal or an expectation that I’ve done that for that person.
You won’t be saying it, of course, but I’ve done that for that person. Now, why are they not returning the good things to me? Why are they not reciprocating? Why are they not doing things for me? But none of this is spoken. So you have this simmering resentment building and straining your relationships. And of course we’ll have self-doubt and low self-esteem will show up because a lot of our.
Self-worth has been based on approval and validation from outside of ourselves and when. We’ve got that pattern engaged, then we don’t have as much inherent self-worth and self-esteem as we need to boldly and courageously go after our dreams. And so it will seem like, it will feel like I have my dreams there.
Why are they not getting any closer? Why am I procrastinating? Why am I not moving towards them? If that’s happening for you, then looking at people pleasing can be really helpful. And of course there’ll be feeling, there’ll be a feeling of a, a lack of personal fulfillment if we’re doing a lot of people pleasing.
And I mean, it’s pretty obvious why that happens, right? It’s because we are not paying attention to ourselves. We’re not giving ourselves that loving attention and nourishment that we give everyone else. Okay, so how do we overcome the fawn response and people pleasing?
Here’s where we can begin. So I think it’s really important to recognize that the fawn response comes from trauma. So we need to attend to the trauma in whatever way you attend to the trauma, whether that’s through deep. Helpful talk, therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, working with me with some brain perspective, changing tools, whatever it is somehow working through and with the trauma that you’ve experienced in your life.
And when we work through the trauma, we’ll notice that the fawn response will start to lift, start to change naturally. And when that happens, then we can get a lot more conscious and spacious with our people pleasing behaviors and start to change those as well, which is really cool.
Very important in this, you know, how do we ease the fawn responsible self-compassion is so, so important. We’re not doing any of this to. Be a dick to ourselves, right? We’re doing this because it’s a response that’s coming from the nervous system that has been linked to some, for some of us really significant traumas.
So be kind to yourself once you recognize it. That’s beautiful. That’s such a good thing. But be really kind to yourself that this is happening. Don’t be giving yourself a hard time that you are noticing the fawn response, oh, I shouldn’t be doing that, and then making yourself bad for that, which you know, I get it.
We do it. I’ve done it as well. This is just me saying, Hey, give yourself some space and some compassion. In another way to ease the fawn responses. You can engage some some grounding exercises, some deep breathing exercises, some physical activities, some mindful.
Ness based exercises. You know, mindful walking is really good walking in nature, going into the sea. Cause what we are wanting to do is to help the nervous system come back into regulation. And very often when we have freeze or fawn response, in my experience anyway, we might be actually quite good at meditating, but the meditation will be, Disembodied, we’ll be kind of leaving the building energetically leaving the body and that feels good.
Or you might notice you fall asleep a lot. That feels nice and feels good, but there are more. Direct ways to calm and settle the nervous system that engage the body, engage the breath. You can use some supportive self-talk to slow things down and because if you, if you just try and change the fawn response in terms of changing your behavior.
That’s not as helpful if we go underneath and learn how to calm and settle. The nervous system. And then from that place, the behavior changes much more easily. And self-expression is amazing. So we can be journaling, doing art, talking with people that you trust about your feelings, your thoughts about boundaries, learning to express your needs and your feelings with someone that can hold space for you and be that neutral witness not giving you advice.
And some strategies to overcome people pleasing.
You start with small steps. Start by saying no more no to request that don’t align with you if you really have trouble saying no in the moment. It can be helpful to have like a default one liner that you have in your back pocket where if somebody asks you a request or a favor to do something for them, notice what happens in your body.
I will always feel a bit of a clench or a twist in my internal self, and I was so good at overriding that. I would notice it and skip from that to the next beat to saying yes straight away. And in the moment that feels good, right? Cuz I’ve got that person’s approval. They’re happy, they’re pleased with me being able to help them.
But always, always, it would play out down the track. Something would go awry because in my nervous system, there was a no. But I just wasn’t able to express it in that moment. So have a one liner in your back pocket where you say, I’ll need to get back to you on that. I’ll have a think about it and I’ll get back to you.
Get the words really clear and have it there. And practice with that for a few weeks, two to four weeks, where every time you’re asked to do something, you notice that. Slight shift inside yourself where it’s not a hell yes. You know, there’s something going on there, and even if you don’t notice it, pull that one liner out.
Oh, I’ll have to think about that. I’ll get back to you. What that does is it gives you some space to think about what do you actually want to do without having that other person there and no, you know, no shade on them. They’ve just been there being a person. But if you have the people pleasing tendencies and behaviors, Your go-to default answer is gonna be, yeah, sure, I can do that.
I can help you with that. So you wanna build a capacity to say no and if that’s difficult initially you have that one liner in your back pocket where it’s, oh, hey, I’ll just, I’ll need to think about that. I’ll get back to you. Whatever it is for you. Self-awareness is really key. As I said, you can ve start to notice in your body where there’s a no in your body, but your mouth is saying yes, and that’s okay.
Noticing it. Is key. Notice it first and down the track you. You start to change your behaviors until you notice that shift in your body, that tension, that twisting, and that becomes a sign to either say no to the request or to say, I need to think about it. I will get back to you. For those of us that are chronic people pleasers, that’s a really helpful strategy.
And you can start small with your boundaries, right? Start small with saying no and build it up over time and. Really importantly, we need to learn how to tolerate the feelings of guilt and discomfort that arise as we start to change our people pleasing behavior. Because when you start saying no to this request or to that person, or you start changing things up in your family and, and you have an expectation now that other members of the family do take on more of their own self-care.
Because that’s appropriate for them. We need to learn to tolerate the guilt and the discomfort that comes initially when we do that. It’s nothing to worry about and it’s not information that we need to act upon. It’s simply information from our nervous system that is saying,
you always used to do it this way, where you would please everyone and on the surface that would be good. And now you’re changing it. That feels difficult. That feels scary. Cuz what if they get upset? What if they don’t like me anymore? What if they’re not pleased with me? That’s what our brain starts to tell us, right?
So we need to learn to tolerate that discomfort because the long-term payoffs are so great. So I hope that’s helped to identify both the fawn response and people pleasing and helped to identify the negative. Long-term consequences of automatically falling into people pleasing.
And the last piece I wanna say about this is we are so conditioned as young girls and then as young women to people please. That it is no wonder that we are not unwinding this and not becoming aware of this until we’re in our forties and fifties. And if you are younger and listening to this amazing.
So great. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on. I knew that I needed to be more assertive. I knew that I was really empathic, to my own detriment sometimes, but I didn’t realize that a lot of that was not only caused by early life trauma, which many of us have, but was caused by
just living in our society and our culture as a female and the expectations that come with that, the expectations of the role of female leads to unconscious people pleasing. I think it’s really important for us as women to unpack that and look at our automatic responses, automatic behaviors, our people pleasing behaviors, and recognize where it’s been conditioned into us.
Where it’s conditioned into us as female and decide what we wanna keep and what we wanna throw out. And my friend, if you were in perimenopause, This is the prime time to do it because your hormones are helping you to make that change, to be more assertive, to say no when your body says no. To put your own needs first so that you can fill up first.
And from that more full place, much more nourished place, you can support those around you. You can give to your community, you can give to your loved ones if you would like to. I hope that that has been so helpful, my friends. Let me know if you recognize yourself in terms of what I’ve been talking about.
The fawn response and people pleasing how they’re the same and how they differ. This is a big conversation that will not end here. These lenses through which we can look at our life have got so much to teach us, and if we are feeling stuck in our lives, if we’re feeling resentful or that things aren’t working the way we want them to, these are really good areas to look into and start to identify where we want to make some changes.
Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. If you enjoyed this episodes, share it with your friend. Stick it on your socials. Tag me in it. I love, love hearing from women who listen to this podcast and love hearing you know how it’s helping you show up in your life in a different way, or just how you’re feeling, you know, heard and understood and supported in your life.
Okay, my friend, go so well. I’ll talk to you next week.