The Centre for Healing Blog


Fawning (Please/Appease)

autonomic nervous system childhood trauma fawn response people pleaser trauma trauma trigger traumarecovery Mar 04, 2024
embodied processing, integration, understanding, trauma healing, awareness, trauma-informed


I continue to recognize this survival pattern, noticing more subtle ways it is still functioning in my life. I also see it is very common in many people. (everyone to some degree).

At the nervous system level, fawning is a blend of the freeze (dorsal activation) and the fight/flight (sympathetic activation) survival response. In fawning, both these nervous system circuits are at a mild level of activation. Because they are mild and often chronic in fawning, it can go unrecognized - it feels normal. In mild activation it can appear - from the outside - like I'm calm and present and cooperative because of the aspect of trying to please others. This is how I experience it, and what I hear from others in their experience.

It's useful to remember that fawning originates as an intelligent nervous system reflex reaction to perceived threats when no other option is available to find safety. It’s not a consciously chosen response or behavior. It usually comes into play very early in our childhood in adverse home life where inadequate support or even abusive situations were ongoing, either mildly or severely. We can even inherit family generational and cultural patterns of fawning.


The freeze is mild so it's not a complete dissociation, I call it a 'soft freeze'. It disconnects me from my inner experience: my feelings, needs and self-knowing. Instead, I'm focused on the environment and especially the people I'm with. The fight/flight, sympathetic nervous system activation is also mild and feels like a subtle anxious energy where I vigilantly focus on others' - what they are feeling and wanting, so that I can accommodate them, so I can then feel safe and accepted. That activation of the sympathetic nervous system when it is fear-based, keeps me in an anxious state looking for threat. Because it's a 'soft' freeze and a mild chronic sympathetic (anxious) activation, it is hard to recognize especially if it's a lifelong pattern and I'm used to it.

Fawning can also look like being in the ventral nervous system mode - (in ventral we have a range of emotions but not overwhelmed, we’re relaxed/energized, present, engaged socially, connected within). With fawning I am focused in the present, interested in others (but through a fear-lens, vigilantly watching for danger), appear to be kind, calm and cooperative (but motivated by fear to please and appease). You can see how fawning can appear like we’re in ventral and socially engaged.

The tricky thing is we ARE some of these positive qualities but they get tied to or hijacked by fear and the unconscious survival patterns and beliefs. NONE OF THIS IS intentional.




If fawning is subtle, normal feeling and disguised as ventral, how do we recognize when we're fawning? These are some ways we can start to identify when the fawning reflex is engaged:

💥 When we are disconnected from how we feel in our body, our emotions, our needs and our boundaries, while we are relating with others.

💥 When we say "yes" to someone, and then later realize or sense that is not what we really want. But we weren’t in touch with it at the time.

💥 It feels like it's not OK to change our minds, or take time making a decision before we respond to someone.

💥 We don't know what our boundaries are or when we do know, we can't speak and assert them.

💥 We may feel confused, we might feel conflicting 'yes' AND 'no' or unsure, but respond anyway.

💥 We notice we are operating on automatic in how we respond to others.

How can we compassionately and effectively work with fawning?

The first step is awareness. Before speaking your truth or setting new boundaries, we need to FEEL our truth in our body and heart. We need to explore and discern the fawning reflex, how it feels as distinct from our authentic feelings and truth.

Once we begin to recognize the fawning pattern and how unsatisfying it is, we might immediately want to change it, to stop behaving and performing to please others, and instead to speak up etc. We start to see that we are saying 'yes' when we don't want to, and we think we need to change that behavior right away. We focus on trying to change the performing aspect of fawning in our relationships before we've connected to how it feels within, before we've explored the roots of it.

The key to deeply transforming this pattern is to start exploring the freeze/disconnection from within - as we experience it in our body, heart, beliefs and behaviors. Go into the body first, feel our 'no', our 'yes', our confusion, our fears, our boundaries and get intimately familiar with how they feel in our gut, posture, bones, our heart and whole being. We can continue further by somatically inquiring into the roots and origins of this pattern as we do with EP.

Fawning can take some time and practice to unravel. We don't want to suddenly expect to start saying our truth or setting boundaries with others when we've had years of not even being aware of them. It's unrealistic and unkind to oneself to expect a leap like that. When we do start speaking our truth and setting boundaries, it will likely bring up all sorts of emotions, fears, sadness and anger. We've likely had years when we weren't supported by others to do that, we were praised and rewarded for submersing our own needs to please others, over and over. We may have developed an identity of being "nice, cooperative, diplomatic, helpful, kind" etc. This process needs whatever time it takes. We can relax into the adventure and get support. This is what Embodied Processing is for.

As we do this - processing, dismantling and completing the nervous system activations, - we connect with our truth and clarify our boundaries. The outward performing and people pleasing behaviors naturally and easily drop away and are replaced with clear communication and connection from our authentic depths. (Again – this takes time and practice and probably lots of messiness along the way).


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Let’s not pathologize fawning. I believe there is ‘gold’ in even our dysfunctional behaviors. But it takes some work to access it. Being stuck in the fawning pattern is not satisfying. It can cause suffering when it’s no longer an effective response to current situations and has a whole range of problematic consequences in our lives.

Yet there is a deep gift in this pattern that we can set free. After exploring, and processing the origins of fawning the gift may be revealed. The ability to temporarily set aside our needs and preferences in order to meet the needs of others, or collaborate and contribute to the tribe - this can be a precious capacity and offering.

The distinction here is that it is a conscious choice and a temporary setting aside of one’s personal needs, for the good of the whole or another person. The unconscious ‘freeze’ aspect is replaced with a conscious choosing to set aside my need or preference. The ‘please others’ behavior is replaced with a conscious gifting. A super important difference is that we are still in touch with our own needs and limits. We don’t cross our own boundaries but we notice where we can be flexible. This contributes to connecting in the relational field we share with others.


- Written by Angela MacLeod (Embodied Processing Senior Practitioner)

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