For as long as I can remember, I’ve been heavily invested in other people’s feelings. I’ve basically become an expert at accommodating others and reading a person’s body language to see if they’ve become upset or uncomfortable with me around them. Even as a young child, I was overly concerned about not creating emotional harm to those around me, and I still struggle on the daily with the overwhelming internal pressure to please.
It’s easy to assume that I was perhaps just a precocious and sensitive child, but I’ll never fully know if this was the case. Because a huge part of my people-pleasing tendencies stemmed from enduring ongoing physical, mental, and verbal abuse at home as a child.
It’s taken over six years of therapy, a complex PTSD diagnosis, and two trips to the emergency room to realize just how deeply my trauma has been embedded inside of me. And since our childhood scars cannot always be visible enough for someone to notice or treat, I didn’t even know that people-pleasing was something I did to protect myself from past and future abuse. Because when you spend the vast majority of your time obsessing over whether everyone likes you and thinks you’re perfect, there’s not a whole lot of room left over to really investigate why you partake in those behaviors.
While my therapists and psychiatrist have helped me to understand the depths of my trauma-based mental health disorder, it wasn’t until recently that I discovered a new term that gives tangible answers to why I tend to be a people-pleaser. Thanks to Portland-based journalist and positive psychology coach Sam Dylan Finch, I now know about the “fawn response” and how it may be responsible for my zealous commitment to prioritizing others’ feelings over my own.
View this post on Instagram
This is my “right now” photo. It’s one that I wasn’t prepared for, because I’d only ever seen before and afters of thin people in recovery who stayed thin. And that’s exactly the problem: People of all sizes have eating disorders… and people recover INTO bodies of all sizes. Eating disorders don’t have a singular look, and yes, even for thin people, recovery doesn’t have a specific look, either. 〰️ Today, my belly hangs over with nowhere to hide. Even when I’m standing up straight, even if I pose a particular way, even if I hike up my pants and try to angle myself just so. This is my body in recovery — the body I never saw in “after” photos, the body no one showed me, the body that I never saw a thin person recovering into. 〰️ Because what kind of a success story would that be, in a fatphobic society that doesn’t want to believe that a chubby body like mine could be the healthiest one? What kind of a success story would that be, in a diet culture that can’t reckon with the fact that I’d rather shop in the plus-size section for life than return to the illness that made me thin in the first place? 〰️ Even in ED recovery communities, fatphobia and diet culture still prevail. Too often, we sweep fat bodies, chubby bodies under the rug, as if to reassure thin people with EDs, “No, really! You’re safe, you won’t get fat like THEM, we promise!” As if recovery is only truly acceptable for thin people, while folks in larger bodies should stay sick, or do thin people a favor and stay hidden as not to “scare” them out of recovery. 〰️ This is my body, which unlike what I was led to believe by certain influencers, continues to change, continues to get bigger, continues to take up more space. And part of MY recovery is embracing that fact. Because a bigger body means a fuller life. 〰️ Recovery isn’t meant to be conditional on how we emerge on the other side, so there is no real recovery without dismantling fatphobia. And it’s not just your recovery that depends on it. More importantly, ED recovery will only remain accessible to thin people who remain thin if we insist on throwing everyone else under the bus, pretending that the rest of us don’t get sick or don’t exist.
In an article for Healthline, the queer and transgender activist breaks down exactly what our fawn response is and how it relates to surviving abuse and trauma.
“In a nutshell, ‘fawning’ is the use of people-pleasing to diffuse conflict, feel more secure in relationships, and earn the approval of others,” Finch writes for Healthline. “It’s a maladaptive way of creating safety in our connections with others by essentially mirroring the imagined expectations and desires of other people.”
View this post on Instagram
Fawning happens when we use people-pleasing to create a sense of security for ourselves. It is a survival strategy that says if we make everyone around us happy, we will be okay. It makes so much sense — which is why in order to untangle it, we have to meet it with self-compassion first. 〰️ And then? We have to get honest. We have to get honest because the people we love didn’t ask us to protect them, to thwart or prevent their genuine emotional reactions, or to steer away from conflict instead of approaching it. We miss hundreds of growth opportunities every time we avoid the discomfort of radical emotional honesty and replace it with emotional avoidance. 〰️ Brutal honesty is rarely as brutal as we think it will be. But even if we misstep or hurt someone’s feelings? We have to trust that we are capable of repairing things. Honesty can be liberating, healing, challenging but transformative. Start with one person, and commit to saying how you really feel — even if it means backing up and saying, “Actually, that wasn’t the full truth. What I’m really feeling is…” “I was afraid to tell you this, but what I should’ve said was…” 〰️ Embrace emotional honesty. It will be terrifying at first, but you’ll be amazed with how much your life changes. Your true friends will dazzle you. Your real growth will inspire new courage. And whatever you lose in the process? It was never really yours. You’re meant for better and for more. Release the survival strategies that no longer serve you. Step into your power and healing. You’ve got this. 💗
This makes so much sense to me as a childhood trauma survivor. I was taught from a young age that expressing my true feelings, opposing parental expectations, and making unintentional mistakes meant risking being on the receiving end of physical and verbal harm. I kept my authentic self on lockdown, complied whenever possible, and generally lived with a never-ending aim to please people. By doing this, I dedicated a lot of my existence to ignoring my intuition and core emotions. I also kept myself from ever fully knowing who I was when I wasn’t constantly trying to make everyone happy around me.
“It can be painful to constantly silence yourself and push your emotions away, all while working overtime to anticipate the emotions of other people,” Finch writes.
If you have a highly-activated fawn response, you may struggle to feel seen by those you love, avoid saying “no” in situations, have a disconnected and guilt-ridden relationship with your own emotions, compromise your values to appear acceptable, and even see yourself as the sole responsibility for someone else’s feelings.
If all of these unhealthy coping mechanisms sound exhausting, that’s because they are. Living with the constant worry of disappointing someone, being the exclusive cause of their suffering (whether you are or not), and battling daily with the shame of never feeling visible to those you love takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. Therapy and antidepressants have helped alleviate much of my people-pleasing tendencies, but I still consider myself very much in recovery. Since not everyone always has the kind of access I do to mental health counseling, someone with an unchecked fawn response can suffer from the unfortunate outcome of unknowingly attracting dysfunctional or traumatic relationships.
“When you are excessively concerned with pleasing others, you learn that in order to be effective at this, you have to shut down your gut instincts, your values, your emotions — because being an individual, rather than a mirror, doesn’t serve you in securing the love that you want,” Finch explains on his personal WordPress blog Let’s Queer Things Up!. “That’s why people-pleasers can become drawn to abusive relationships, and repelled from relationships that are abundantly loving. We’ve internalized the idea that love has to feel ‘earned’ in order to feel secure.”
View this post on Instagram
So many of us have been told, in one way or another, that we had to compartmentalize who we are. That to show up and be accepted, we needed to fragment, and shed away the precious parts of ourselves in order to belong. 〰️ As transgender, as queer, as someone living with mental health conditions, I have spent a lifetime contorting myself into what I believed was the perfect pretzel, without realizing that my own spirit was diminished each time I tried. It took me 28 years to finally refuse and to radically invite my whole self back into my life. 〰️ Showing up for ourselves is difficult work. We’re told to put our oxygen masks on… just so we can put someone else’s on. We’re told not to pour from an empty cup… but then we’re told to start pouring the moment that it’s full. The only way I knew how to have “value” was to measure myself by how much of myself I gave away. It’s easy to do when society already asks you to show up in pieces. 〰️ Loving myself has become a complete sentence. For myself. And it started with giving myself space to be whole, and giving myself space to just be a person with no expectation that I give any of what I find away to someone else. 〰️ Loving myself has meant that I etch out corners in my life where I can take whatever I need, even if the only person that thrives as a result is me. I have to believe that by holding onto my full humanity in those moments, the world IS made better. Because this world needs us to be whole. We need us to be whole. Without compromising, without compartmentalizing. Come back to your body. Come home to your heart.
So how can someone take action to heal if they grapple regularly with an overly driven aim to please? In addition to receiving the countless benefits of going to therapy, Finch encourages us to show up for ourselves in the most vulnerable way we can. If we have a tendency to bend to the will of others at the expense of our own mental well being, then we need to start being compassionate with ourselves and making room to take our time, space, and mental energy back—even if it means upsetting someone who’s used to us accommodating them. It may feel uncomfortable to do this at first, but it will be well worth it to ultimately end up meeting our honest selves in the process.
“Loving myself has become a complete sentence,” the writer shares in a post on Instagram. “And it started with giving myself space to be whole and giving myself space to just be a person with no expectation that I give any of what I find away to someone else. Loving myself has meant that I etch out corners in my life where I can take whatever I need, even if the only persona that thrives as a result is me. I have to believe that by holding onto my full humanity in those moments, the world IS made better. Because this world needs us to be whole. We need us to be whole.”
There is no shame in having experienced childhood trauma or taking the necessary steps to heal yourself. And there is no reason to live your life in constant fear of screwing up or hurting someone’s feelings. The truth is, we cannot be liked by everyone, people aren’t always going to agree with what we have to say, and making our needs known may initially create ripples of discomfort for those around us. So the boundaries we can cultivate by honoring ourselves first have the real potential to lead us down a path of living life on our own wholehearted terms. And the freedom that can be experienced once we learn how to let go of our fawn response far outweighs anything in our past that taught us to use it in the first place.