When a person feels at risk or in danger, they will experience a stress response. For years, this response was summed up with two words: fight or flight. Over time, more and more people identified “freeze” as a third type of reaction. Based on their names, all three stress responses are pretty simple to understand. But did you know there’s another possible reaction?

The fawn response is a survival skill that typically involves behaviors like appeasement and avoidance. In a nutshell, if you feel threatened by someone, the fawn response can turn you into a people pleaser. Within the context of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), this can be a major factor.

What’s Wrong with People Pleasing?

Man Arranging His Black Necktie
Being kind is one of our most precious callings as a human. The world can never have enough people who care and help. However, motivation matters. If your altruism springs from a place of fear, you might be in fawn response.

For example, a trauma survivor may comply and agree with the people around them solely to feel safe. Hence, it’s vital that you get some help in discerning the reasons why you behave as you do.

What Does the Fawn Response Look and Feel Like?

  • Uncertainty: You compromise your own opinions so often that you lose touch with your true feelings.
  • Numbness: The guilt and confusion caused by playing the role of peacemaker makes it feel easier to dissociate than to feel your emotions.
  • Being misunderstood: Since your ideas and behaviors can change from situation to situation, you have no sense of anyone actually knowing who you are.
  • Resentment: After showing care for others in the hope it would result in them caring for you, it can be a bitter moment to realize that quid pro quo is not happening.
  • Surprise: All the above adds up to an increased likelihood of emotional outbursts that surprise everyone — including you.

So, how does the fawn response factor into one’s recovery from C-PTSD?

Understanding How the Fawn Response Is a Key Component of Complex PTSD Recovery

There is a primary difference between PTSD and C-PTSD. Generally speaking, PTSD is caused by enduring or witnessing a singular traumatic event. However, complex trauma results from ongoing, chronic experiences like abuse, neglect, kidnapping, war, trafficking, and more.

In other words, the fawn response is more likely to occur with C-PTSD because the situation calls for a “long-term” plan. If you’re living in a home with domestic violence or substance abuse, you will probably create some kind of coping mechanism to survive. Therefore, if you’re looking for fight, flight, or freeze as identifiers of being traumatized, you’d be better served to familiarize yourself with the connection with C-PTSD and the fawn response.

Without realizing it, survivors of complex trauma can be trapped in a cycle of bypassing their own needs in an urgent attempt to feel a little less insecure. If the patterns of complex trauma occur during childhood, it can shape a person’s attachment style in massive ways.

Translation: C-PTSD recovery very much requires that you and your therapist identify the presence of the fawn response.

There are also some personal, self-help steps a survivor can take, such as:

  • Learn to Say No: A huge part of managing a people-pleasing tendency is to get comfortable saying no when you mean no.
  • Learn to Say Yes: At the same time, say yes to daily self-care and self-compassion.
  • Stay Present: A mindfulness practice is an excellent way to remain present with your emotions and actions.

I’d love to talk more with you about C-PTSD, the fawn response, and all related topics. Let’s connect soon.