If you were confronted by a wild animal in the woods, it’s likely that your nervous system would trigger one of three responses to protect you from danger: fight, flight, or freeze.
Fight or flight occur when the sympathetic nervous system engages, flooding the body with hormones to create an active response that prompts us to stay and fight or run away.
The freeze response is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, typically the system responsible for “rest and digest.” In the freeze response, the parasympathetic nervous system “over-responds,” temporarily paralyzing our bodies so we can’t move.
When it comes to fear responses, the “fight/flight/freeze” responses tend to get most of the attention.
These aren’t the only ways we respond to perceived danger.
A common, but lesser-discussed, response is fawning.
What is Fawning
Fawning is a common response to complex trauma and adverse childhood experiences that often gets overlooked because it can present as a “good trait.”
In essence, “fawning” is the use of people-pleasing to diffuse conflict, feel more secure in relationships, and earn the approval of others.
On the surface, it might appear that a person who is fawning is cooperative, complimentary, respectful, deferential. They go out of their way to do things for others, they offer unsolicited compliments, they’re always happy to accommodate others’ needs.
The distinction between being a “nice person” and fawning lie in the subtleties beneath the behavior and what is motivating it.
Fawning is maladaptive version of being cooperative and caring. It’s a way of creating safety in our connections with others by meeting their perceived expectations and desires.
At the extreme, it’s a way to ingratiate ourselves with an abuser or captor as a means of survival.
The Origins of Fawning
Whereas fight, flight, or freeze tend to occur in response to discrete events, fawning is a behavior that evolves over time. It is typically associated with repeated trauma that happens over a longer period of time.
It’s a common maladaptive behavior to adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse or childhood neglect.
What Fawning Can Look Like
Fawning shows up in a variety of ways. Here are some examples:
- Over-complimenting people, or other forms of trying to ingratiate yourself with people as a way to curry favor.
- Extreme people-pleasing, especially at the expense of your own wants and needs.
- Unnecessary deference to others — especially those in authority or perceived positions of power or status.
- Being hyper-aware of what others think.
- Difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries.
- Other behaviors designed to appease others in an attempt to avoid conflict, criticism, or disapproval.
How to Spot Fawning
How do you know if you tend to the fawning response?
The first step is to become aware of the emotions and motivations driving your behavior.
Are you doing something nice for others with a hope or expectation that they will care for you in return?
Do you feel like you are “walking on eggshells” around certain people?
Are you offering compliments as a way to ingratiate yourself or foster peace?
Are you acting out of fear of conflict or criticism?
Do you overextend yourself because you don’t want to disappoint people?
Only you have the answers to these questions.
Once you’re aware of your fawning behavior you can start to do the inner work necessary to change your maladaptive responses to more healthy responses.