We have all heard of the commonly discussed trauma responses fight or flight.
Freeze is yet another reaction we experience when our brain tells us we are in danger.
But fawn doesn’t get as much coverage. It’s a less-commonly discussed response to trauma. Still, how many of us practice this coping mechanism with regularity?
How many of us choose this option as the desired approach to try to stay safe?
Fawning is when we give in; fawning is when we acquiesce.
It especially comes into view within the context of abuse. Our abusers, whether they be parents, spouses, life partners, friends, bosses, or coworkers, for instance, are the saber-tooth tigers our primal brain and nervous system feel endangered by.
The fawning response reminds me of a childhood experience, one with an actual fawn.
When I was eight years old, my dad brought home a fawn from behind our grove. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. For wildlife experts strongly assert that when a fawn is resting by itself in its environment, the young creature is simply waiting for the return of its mother.
And that was the case here.
My dad didn’t understand that; he just saw an opportunity to take a baby deer as a pet. In his mind, he was “rescuing” the fawn.
This seems to be a common theme when it comes to fawning; whether it is the toxic person or us—the targets of abuse and dysfunctional patterns—there appears to be an agreement on one concept: being rescued is the goal. The abuser may assert that they know “what’s best.” Therefore, a Machiavellian “ends justify the means” takes over, deciding that the abuser needs to have control over the other person, no matter what that entails.
And, for the person who is abused, fawning often results because they believe that being overpowered and controlled is “for the best.” The abused often agrees with their oppressor, while simultaneously being afraid of their oppressor.
The fawning response exists because we want to stay safe, and we believe that only by giving in, surrendering, and acquiescing, we will able to remain that way.
However, what is often a more accurate reflection of our lives is much like that of a little fawn: we don’t need to be rescued by the dysfunctional person who harms us. Sometimes, we just need to be left alone in the grove, with all parties minding their own business.
A common challenge for those of us fawning types is that we don’t believe in our abilities to take care of ourselves; we fear what will happen if we are alone. We often seek help outside of ourselves. We feel ashamed for being our individual selves, for having dissenting opinions and thoughts, for looking or presenting ourselves differently from “the norm.”
We question, “Is that good enough? Will you accept me now? Will you take care of me?”
Somehow, we believe there is something fundamentally wrong with us, as individuals, so much so, we need to accept, beg for, tolerate, chase, bleat a screaming bleat, and modify ourselves for someone else.
We believe we need to adjust ourselves for others instead of having a mutual give-and-take component in our relationships. We decide that receiving love, commitment, approval, and safety are solely dependent upon us, not them.
This is a dangerous trap.
Many of us have been stunted developmentally because of it. Many of us feel like dependent infants, like my young Bambi, as if that is the best and the most we could hope for out of life.
It is not.
Whether or not you feel like a helpless, spindly fawn, it doesn’t change the reality that we are not entirely the sum total of what we feel, even as stunted as that experience may be. We are more than this.
As you read these words, they are not being read by a clueless, helpless child. You are an adult right here, right now, regardless of how proficient you are at “adulting.” You survived your war zones. You survived the instances when you were left for dead: emotionally, physically, mentally, sexually, spiritually. You made it through them all to read these words now.
Give yourself some credit for that!
As the days rolled by with Bambi, my family and I did what we could to take care of the little thing. The small critter slept in my room; we bottle-fed her cow’s milk. I snuggled with her spotted self. We kept her warm with blankets.
I wasn’t a mother deer, but I tried to create a reasonable facsimile. We were all coping, doing what we could to keep the fawn alive. No, it wasn’t the perfection of nature sustaining this wild animal, but it was something, right?
Because my family was in uncharted territory, housing a wild animal, even though she was a baby animal, my mother sought advice from a game warden of a wildlife refuge. Not surprisingly, he told her we could not keep the fawn; we needed to turn the creature over to people who knew how to take care of a fragile, wild fawn.
And that’s exactly what we did.
I didn’t want to let Bambi go. I wanted the fawn to continue being “my pet.” I was eight years old; I didn’t understand we were out of our depths here. I didn’t understand that Bambi would grow up with long, powerful legs that could kick me into a new galaxy. I didn’t understand that keeping this adorable fawn was not for her best interest; it was also cruel.
There was a hard truth I needed to face: we could not give Bambi exactly what she needed for a happy and healthy life.
Years later, I applied my experiences with the baby deer toward the healing of my own abuse experiences.
As painful as it was handing over that baby deer when I was a child, releasing my fawning behavior as an adult was more complicated.
After all, I had Bambi for only one week. I had my fawning behavior for a lifetime.
Here are a few things that have helped me in my recovery from abuse:
Accept that fawning is a real thing.
The old saying goes, “Knowledge is power,” or, more specifically, “The application of knowledge is power.” Whatever the case may be, possessing the knowledge that fawning behavior is a legitimate coping strategy many of us have had to use in our lives can give credence to our experiences. Being in war zones, such as we were, we needed to survive them.
We may not have been as skilled at fighting or fleeing; maybe we didn’t try to freeze and blend into our surroundings.
But we learned that appeasing could take the heat off from us, at least temporarily. Fawning could save us some pain, terror, and conflict. As the targets of abusive situations, we didn’t have the language to know what we were doing. But we were doing it, nonetheless.
And that needs to be acknowledged and respected within us. We survived. Within the extreme conditions that these dysfunctional situations often bring, that is, indeed, high praise.
So, start giving yourself some praise for surviving.
You did it! That’s powerful.
“I am safe.”
Equally powerful for me was the realization that I am safe. For those of us who have been abused, it is not such a no-brainer.
Many of us have been in danger. Many of us have lived that way since childhood. Some of us, as adults, have found ourselves in unsafe situations and relationships.
Once, I needed to fawn in every situation because every situation had threat built within it. But, once I left that situation, I was now faced with a reality that not everyone was coming to get me. A shocker to my system. It prompted me to say to myself, “I am safe.” And it prompted me to believe it, which I did, gradually, more and more.
Getting safe help is a large component of a safe reality. Support groups, therapy, and seeking trusted people who are not familiar, toxic, loved ones is key. Discovering what that looks like for you is the first step.
And, yes, it is scary. But safety is worth it.
You deserve to be safe.
In tandem with the knowledge that “I am safe,” I also realized I deserved safety.
Many of us have been told and have believed the lie that we deserved harsh treatment in life. We believed we were created just to be tortured, abused, neglected, and in danger. It’s all about the low self-esteem that was forced upon us in childhood.
Anyone can tear down another person at any time. And it’s all inexcusable to do that.
Each human being is sacred and worthy of dignity, respect, and love. Each person has the right and the need to be safe.
That includes you; that includes me.
There is no preferential treatment here.
All means all.
Limits, boundaries, and no.
Once we have embraced our value—our right to be safe, loved, and treated well in life—once we are working on our self-esteem issues, what follows next is what that looks like for each one of us. That means we must decide what limits, boundaries, and the word “no” means to and for us.
For me personally, those limits, boundaries, and the word “no” were “anti-fawn” and completely unacceptable to enforce. Yet, enforce is exactly what I needed to do.
Where I once just automatically cooperated and surrendered, I now asked more questions, discerned each situation, and opened myself to, yes, conflict and uncomfortable moments with people.
Yes, these moments are uncomfortable. There’s no way around that fact. But that discomfort is not the end of the world. It’s no big secret that people would much rather hear “yes” than “no.” But the truth of a circumstance must always win out.
If it is not authentically a request or a situation that I feel good about, or feel “a yes” about, I have every right and responsibility to honor that reality for myself.
Even if that displeases others.
I have learned that, while “yes” is easier conflict-wise, “no” is ultimately more satisfying to each of us as individuals. We may have to fight harder with saying the more unpopular “no,” enforcing limits and boundaries, but, more than likely, we will sleep better at night for it.
It comes with time.
Not a fun fact concerning fawning: none of this is instant. It takes time within an imperfect setting.
Bambi, hopefully, led a full, happy, and healthy life at that wildlife refuge. But, I will never know for sure. Even if that were the case, this fawn would not experience a perfect life.
“…Time and chance happen to us all.” ~ Ecclesiastes 9:11
Even a little deer, I suppose.
Over time, I have learned I need to increase my patience with myself. Because of abusive dynamics, I was subjected to the hurrying pressure of doing things perfectly, constantly. There were no acknowledgments of human limits, and certainly, no tolerance of imperfection. It took me escaping my childhood to realize how imperfect life is, by design. And no one is to blame for that.
It is what it is.
Bambi gave me multiple lessons in that span of seven days; she taught me the power within something that appears to be powerless. Perhaps, that may be a fitting way to describe the coping strategy of fawning. On the surface, engaging in this behavior may look weak, pathetic, and as helpless and fragile as a young fawn.
But, looks can be deceiving.
Nature has a way of fighting for survival. Each one of Bambi’s spots and bleats is an example of nature’s survival mode. Now, translate that to our mercenary choices to do whatever it takes to stay safely alive. “Giving in” is not simply that; it goes deeper and stronger. It is how we stay alive; it is how we fight.
And I believe that needs to be recognized and respected.