Flight Fight Freeze Fawn

By Eric Dorsa

There is much to be said about our body's ability to handle stress, notably psychological stress. It wasn't until years into my recovery from my eating disorder that I understood what trauma was. I had heard the term several times throughout my treatment process and in therapy but never considered what it meant or its presence in my life. I was in a mode of survival that didn't allow me to digest everything in real-time.

Although I was surviving, my body, brain, and spirit were still interacting with a world that seemed so much bigger than me. I believed the trauma was bigger than me. I couldn't identify I was living in a constant state of trauma response for a long time because I didn't respond in the traditional sense of fight, flight, or freeze. There is a fourth trauma response that is not talked about as frequently. This response is called "fawn," and when it came to the trauma I experienced, this is the response that I defaulted to.

Fawn is precisely what it implies—fawning for an abuser or placing our needs and our sense of self and worth in the hands of another. Fawn can even be a response to religious trauma, which I also experienced in my early life. I resorted to fawn throughout my childhood trauma--this looked like appeasing my abuser to avoid repeated trauma and diffuse any conflict or perceived conflict. My fawn response also included suppressing my fears and needs and even agreeing with what I perceived to be my abusers' point of view. This coping mechanism led to complex feelings in adulthood around my identity, needs, and understanding of safety.

Even in adulthood, fawn continued to be my way of dealing with perceived conflicts, whether real or imaginary.

Growing up in an emotional and physically abusive home, I thought I was to blame for what was happening to me. I believed I needed to meet the needs of my abusers and become what they needed me to be for the abuse to stop. Today I can recognize this pattern throughout my abuse. There was nothing wrong with me being a child with needs and wants for those needs to be met by my parents. Fawning and people-pleasing became a way for me to survive impossible circumstances. I know today that I am a work in progress and that having wants and needs, especially a need for safety in my relationships, is both healthy and necessary. Fawning is a part of how I have learned to navigate a world with inevitable conflict, and it hasn't been a response I've been able to steer away from overnight.

Fawning can look like not having boundaries or being afraid to set boundaries, always having to be the bigger person when someone crosses a boundary or feeling guilty for needing something from someone. It can also show up as conflict avoidance, neglecting healthy relationships to appease unhealthy ones, being in relationships with someone who is not emotionally available or being in relationships with people who have unrealistic expectations of you. Other indicators you're in fawn mode are fears of abandonment, being hyper-focused on "fixing things," and other traits in line with people-pleasing and perfectionism.

With the help of mental health treatment and my recovery community, I have understood trauma more clearly, learned how it affects me, and how I can live a life worth living even if I am triggered and in a trauma response. I have grown out of shame and into curiosity, realizing I don't need a cure for my trauma as much as I need to embrace my healing journey.

Today when I'm triggered and feel pulled towards fawn, I remind myself first to check the facts. I ground myself the best I can at the moment and look at the situation from both sides. I ask if it is true that I can be upset and forgiving at the same time. If anger is present (also a trigger), I ask myself what boundaries were crossed. In other words, what is okay and not okay about this situation. Lastly, I ask for support in standing up for myself without having to stand against another. I continue to ask for help when I feel the pressure to perform or fix things to have worth or earn safety. I am not perfect, but I am willing to keep moving forward, and life gets continuously more wonderful.

Written by

Eric Dorsa

Eric Dorsa is an LGBTQ advocate, actor, comedian, and drag queen currently living in Chicago, Illinois. As an advocate for the LGBTQ community, Eric travels around the country sharing their…