The Fawn defence response

When we feel stress in our bodies, our bodies react as thought we are in danger. This is where the stress response, when not based on actual physical threat, can be dangerous. It unleashes mechanisms designed to get us physically away from danger but does not give us the ability to actually get away from a danger that is not necessarily physical. Our bodies cannot distinguish a physical threat to our life from an event that causes us stress. So we react with body responses that are designed to get us away from danger. For most of us, we don’t recognise stress as causing that danger response, therefore we don’t take measures to attend to the response and allow our bodies to return to normal. The impact is harm to our bodies through not being able to complete our defensive responses properly and a lowered ability to cope with life events.

There is a lot written about the different mechanisms we have for reacting to a stressful event. The first two are the best known. Flight or fight. Less well known is the freeze response, where we just remain on the spot and are unable to do anything. A more recently identified as a defence response is the fawn response. This is where we respond to the stress by trying to please the other person.

It is the fawn response that I am talking about today.

This response has often been described as people pleasing. It is where a person changes their behaviour to not cause offence to others. People pleasing has been known about for a long time, but it is only just being accepted as a danger response.

This response involves:

Worrying about saying the wrong thing,

Worrying about annoying another person,

Worrying about not being liked by other people.

These worries often lead to a person behaving in a way that encourages others to like them. If the person feels they have said the wrong thing, they may continually talk about what they think they said wrong, or talk about the opposite of what they said, or seek contact with the other person as reassurance they will not be rejected.

If the person is worried about annoying the other person, they may also seek contact with the person and seek to say and do things they think the other person will approve of. Again, they are seeking reassurance they will not be rejected.

If the person is worried about not being liked they may again seek to behave in ways they think the other person will approve of. They may say or do things they think the other person will like. They may try to do things for the other person. They may agree with things the other person says and does, even if they are contrary to the individual’s values. It is all about needing the reassurance of not being rejected.

This response is grounded in childhood. A child needs to be accepted by its carers in order to survive. The child who is rejected by its carers and not cared for will die. This is how we are programmed and the basis of a child’s attachment to its parents. It is about survival. Human babies are dependent on their parents for survival so a child will do many things to ensure its survival.

This behaviour can be very annoying to other people and can actually lead to the person being rejected as they feared. It can also lead to the person being taken advantage of by the other person. All these responses by the other person are unpleasant and frightening for the person. This behaviour can cause a lot of fear, shame, rejection and upset for the person.

It is difficult, but not impossible, for a person to unlearn this behaviour. The first thing they need to do is to understand where the behaviour has come from and heal that. This is not an instant thing. It can take time. There are many ways a counsellor can work with someone to help them learn to not see possible rejection as a threat to the adult. As a trauma trained counsellor, I have many different approaches that I use to help my clients learn more helpful responses to life events. If you would like assistance, you can make a face to face or skype appointment with me by contacting me on 0409306608 or

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