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When Pleasing People Works Against Us: Understanding the Fawn Response

When Pleasing People Works Against Us

Many if not most of us in Oswego, Aurora, Plainfield and Naperville (IL) would like to believe we are good people – as in thoughtful, kind and compassionate toward others. We don't always put ourselves first, and we don't interfere with other people's wish to live their lives as they choose. We are willing and ready to help when we recognize someone in need.

Being good to others also is deeply rooted in our human DNA and evolution. Early on, humans may have pleased others and avoided conflicts in order to remain safe within the social group. Not being accepted in the group might have led to expulsion and therefore less personal safety.

In modern times, however, being overly agreeable – always trying to please and help someone else – can sometimes be unhealthy or unsustainable for the self. Sacrificial behavior toward others can originate from something more complex and problematic.

Signs of People-Pleasing Patterns

A person with people-pleasing tendencies has a driving urge or need to please others, even if it is at the cost of their own health or emotional well-being. Their preferences and will become secondary to that of the other person's.

The compulsion to please often is compelled by an earlier trauma that created a fear of rejection, chaos or failure. Other characteristics of the compulsion might include:

  • great discomfort with confrontation
  • anxiety over disappointing others
  • desiring something from someone
  • wanting other people's kindness returned
  • wanting to fit in
  • being easily influenced by others

Outward manifestations can be:

  • being overly friendly and helpful
  • over-apologizing
  • rarely or never disagreeing or being critical
  • appearing needy or dependent
  • having porous or blurry boundaries
  • pursuing perfectionism to be likable

Different from a person who makes conscious, compassionate choices to be cooperative and to help, a person with people-pleasing traits does so to avoid inner stress and mental anguish. They might agree to do someone's work for them even if they don't have time. They will give in to the other person's wishes rather than seek a fair compromise. Their personal boundaries are usually wide open.

In other words, they will do just about anything to keep the peace, yet this peace is superficial.

There is a reason for this.

Fawn Response as a Safety Mechanism

You've probably heard the phrase "fight or flight" before. In the face of stress or a threat, we might either engage it or escape from it. In other cases, we might just shut down and tune out – this would be our freeze response.

These reactions are built into our body's sympathetic nervous system, which we can balance by training the vagus nerve in our parasympathetic nervous system.

When we respond to pressure or conflict by pleasing or blending in with others, we are using our fawn response. As with fight, flight and freeze, we apply the fawn response as a way to protect ourselves.

Let's say we're out to dinner with people we know. One of them tells an insulting or unflattering joke about us. If it truly bothers us, rather than set boundaries with that person, we might laugh with them and perhaps poke even more fun at ourselves.

At first this might seem like social propriety or a wish to appear easy-going – confrontations can certainly be awkward. It's also possible we're deeply fearful that asserting ourselves will come across as being too soft or sensitive or even lead to being criticized by or excluded from the group. We fear backlash or abandonment.

For many who people-please, this tendency begins early in life. If a person grew up in an abusive or dysfunctional environment, they were often helpless to make a change as children. If they resisted what caused them stress, they risked or welcomed aggression. They also may not always have been able to flee or shut down ("freeze").

Understanding that emotional honesty was a punishable offense, they learned it was safer to simply play along with elders' or caregivers' behavior.

Where the fawn response may serve survival during childhood, it can deeply hinder and complicate adulthood. We can remain in cycles that undercut our happiness and mental health and even steal our sense of identity.

Silencing ourselves and seeking approval become organic measures for avoiding the discomfort of relationship distress. Along the way, we slide further into burnout and lost self-esteem.

Fawn Response and Life Patterns

As we carry our fawn response further into our lives in Oswego, Aurora, Plainfield or Naperville, it can steer us into repeated situations such as the following.

Codependent primary relationships. Because we have a deep need to meet others' needs and keep the peace, we attract those who want or need to be maintained. This can include people with narcissistic traits and those who seek to control and manipulate others. The "taking" partner can never be satisfied – no amount of sacrifice is ever enough. This often creates greater guilt, shame and self-anger for the "giver."

Emotional dependence on others. The fawn response can point us in directions beyond choices of significant other. We might be gravely afraid to be alone and so seek any company we can find, including people we might not like or whose behavior we find to be harmful. We might also look for validation from every person we meet, including strangers.

Misdirected anger. Because our pain is buried within us, we might release it when it does not involve people of importance to us. We might cry and argue at the customer-service counter or suddenly erupt at someone we don't know.

Declining mental health. The repeated fawn response is a common cause of depression, anxiety and problems with physical health.

Saying Farewell to the Fawn & Reclaiming the Self

At Empowered Life Therapy, we find that in dealing with conflict or stress, close to one-third of the individuals we support may apply the fawn response as compared with fight, flight or freeze.

On the surface, this might appear to make sense, as the fawn response is the most pro-social and pleasant coping mechanism even though it does more harm than good. People-pleasers are often well-liked as well as successful at their jobs because they can blend into work environments.

Those who rely on the fawn response may also tend to be more self-aware in wondering if something might be wrong. A frequent fight response might not prompt reflection and a common flight response may direct a person away from dealing with an issue entirely.

Being aware of fawning behavior is the vital first step to adjustment and healing. Positive and healthy growth can begin with:

recognizing our people-pleasing actions. Are we agreeing with or doing something just to avoid conflict or make someone happy, even if we don’t feel right about it?

not apologizing so much. One apology is often enough. We should also identify if we’ve actually done something that warrants an apology.

setting our boundaries. What values do we expect others and ourselves to observe? It might be respect, patience, honesty or healthy give-and-take exchanges. The more we assertively define and communicate what matters to our peace, the less inclined we’ll be to let those lines be crossed. Boundaries are rightfully ours to establish.

strengthening our mental muscles in saying no. This can be a tough one, but if we push across the line when saying no matters to our mental and even physical health, we will find it easier to say yes when we really mean it. It is okay to disappoint or be disapproved by someone if the reward is preserving our mental health.

respectfully enforcing boundaries. If someone continues to violate or ignore our communicated boundaries, we must follow through on the consequences specified. This can mean suspending contact with someone or even ending the relationship.

Beyond practicing self-advocacy, you can seek additional support if you believe it will benefit your progress. Empowered Life Therapy provides therapies and safe spaces for addressing and adapting to wherever a person might find themselves in their life journey.

With the will of the heart and an eye on the future, you can achieve the forgiveness that frees you from the past, as well as the self-love and -acceptance that let you be your true self as you enjoy healthy and fulfilling relationships.

Individual Therapy: Contact Us Today

Empowered Life Therapy believes in living as the authentic self in emotional safety and strength. If you would like to further discuss how therapy can contribute to your quality of life, we welcome you. Simply contact us at (630) 842-6585 or to discuss our therapeutic support for individuals from Oswego, Aurora, Plainfield and Naperville (IL).

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We're a no-judgment zone, so feel free to come to us with any questions or concerns.