In Defense of The Fawn Response

What the Somatic and Trauma Fields are Missing

Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash

In the somatic, trauma and nervous system regulation field, practitioners are taught that fight, flight and freeze are the three fundamental, hardwired human stress responses. Fight and flight are sympathetic and movement-oriented, self-protective motor programs designed to do things and get us places. Parasympathetic freeze causes stillness, hiding, waiting, disappearing, contracting, dissociating and collapsing.

A UCLA study by Taylor, et al, published in 2000 by the American Psychological Association, argues for an additional stress response, called “tend-and-befriend.” The authors “propose this theory as a biobehavioral alternative to the fight-or-flight response…which has dominated stress research of the past 5 decades and has been disproportionately based on studies of males.” In reference to tend-and-befriend, the APA dictionary of psychology states, “Neuroendocrinal evidence from research on both human and nonhuman animals suggests an underlying physiological mechanism mediated by oxytocin and moderated by female sex hormones and opioid peptide mechanisms.”

In this study, tend-and-befriend behaviors include “caring for offspring under stressful circumstances, joining social groups to reduce vulnerability, and contributing to the development of social groupings, especially those involving female networks, for the exchange of resources and responsibilities.” In these ways, female social groups maintain relationships in which individuals come to each other’s aid in defense against largely male aggressors, forming alliances that protect the vulnerable. Taylor, et al write, “…Female responses to stress are also characterized by affiliation with social groups because group living provides special benefits for females.” (Note: I do not believe that these behaviors and their biological or social causes are limited to women or a gender binary.)

I suggest that the behaviors listed above are the tend-and-befriend “ideal” in the context of group living, which is our evolutionary heritage. Joining together to protect against aggressive conduct is something that happens in a group. This poses the questions, “What happens to humans who are so socially isolated (as in industrialized society and the nuclear family) that strong social networks are often not a functioning aspect of the culture? Or in contexts where dominant groups inflict systemic violence on marginalized groups? What happens, in these contexts, when women and other groups experience, and have historically experienced, dangerous retaliation in answer to their own self-protective aggression? What is the intergenerational somatic response that reflects this reality of dominance hierarchy?” We find subtle and overt dominance hierarchies in our relationships, cultures, and nations. While we have proper language and a working understanding of protection against interpersonal aggression through aggression (the fight response), we are only now considering self-protection based on affiliation and social engagement.

Where inequality, interpersonal violence and social isolation are rampant, we have had to adapt. Those who would tend-and-befriend laterally to their peers in a way that provides protection must, in socially isolated, hierarchical cultures, tend-and-befriend upward. Without strong group affiliation to guard against violence and inequality, certain members of dominance hierarchies are positioned/adapt to direct their own relational skills toward the aggressor and those of higher status. I suggest that the tend-and-befriend response studied by Taylor, et al is equivalent, in isolated and more abusive or neglectful circumstances, to a stress response coined by Pete Walker, MFT in Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving:

“A fawn response is triggered when a person responds to threat by trying to be pleasing or helpful in order to appease and forestall an attacker.” Walker explains his choice of the term fawn: “I chose the name fawn for the fourth ‘F’ in the fight/flight/freeze/fawn typology, because according to Webster, it means: ‘to act servilely; to cringe and flatter.’ I believe it is this response that is at the core of many codependents’ behavior.”

I believe that these two terms, tend-and-befriend and the fawn response, refer in essence to the same thing, manifesting differently in different contexts. Both are affiliative and relational; both are based in stressful conditions that deal with threat and dominance. The description above and the chapters that Walker dedicates to “fawn” have resonated so deeply with so many that the term has now fully entered the trauma and healing lexicon. The idea, however, that there is a fourth human stress response has also provoked strong hesitancy and dismissal.

In the years following the publication of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, the concept of fawn has caught fire, in a grassroots way. Recommendation of the book has traveled through online peer and professional groups alike, and there are now a number of articles and blog posts on the subject online. The attachment psychology field offers any number of resources on anxious attachment and codependency (the psychological-relational aspects of fawn) but there is a vacuum where representation and exploration of appeasement should be in popular somatic curriculum.

Fawning behavior in culturally normalized conditions is hard to identify by design, as an expression of compliance and status quo maintenance. The collective recognizes it only through widespread cultural change that supports the emergence of other ways of being. There are prominent leaders in the field who say that fawning belongs under the umbrella of the freeze response, which I will address below, but there is also a cultural movement based in the realization that the fight/flight/freeze model fails to affirm the full range of human experience. Those who personally relate to the fawn response may still be served by models that address fight, flight and freeze (along with all the tools and maps provided by a given modality), but the limitations of doing so will remain unknown unless we actually listen and look.

In a cultural moment when white and male authorities on somatic and trauma-centered theory are asking themselves “just how much” to address issues of oppression and cultural trauma, the fawn response offers a missing piece for addressing the somatics of power — influence, energy, choice — in a body. As culturally conditioned fawning is more common in women and marginalized groups, it is no wonder that now is the time we are collectively speaking to an experience that in many cases has operated within the cultural scope of normal. My intention is to clarify why I believe the fawn response is distinct, and to respond to arguments I’ve heard from those who are averse to adding fawn to the fight/flight/freeze model of human stress.

One of the responses I have heard to fawn as a “fourth F” is that fawning is not a stress response but a “complex coping behavior.” While not untrue, this statement is clearly incomplete, as it doesn’t offer any physiological or subjective explanation. Of course, all stress responses are behavioral and physiological.

I have heard that fawning is “too developmentally specific” (to have its own letter). That is, a fawn-type is one of any number of personality types. Fawning, however, is ordinary not only because so many suffer a developmental scenario that fosters it, but because it is a natural constituent of the cultural conditions we have experienced for millenia. Taylor, et al write, “The tend-and-befriend pattern may be maintained not only by sex-linked neuroendocrine responses to stress but by social and cultural roles as well.”

There is the notion that fawn is “a functional form of freeze,” or a reflex developed as part of the cascade of effects of the freeze response. The fawn response is often combined with some amount of freeze, but I do not believe that its basis is in freeze or that it should be thought of as a “subtype” of freeze. When sympathetic arousal exceeds system capacity or a sympathetic response is clearly insufficient to protect against a threat, the freeze response comes online to dampen or modulate intensity, causing immobility and dissociation. Fawning, however, is mobile and happens in a range of contexts that involve little to no freeze or fear. I have fawned cheerfully and reflexively on countless occasions toward teachers and mentors, with little awareness that something “not quite right” was happening. I have fawned while pushing through a tremendous freeze response as my intimate partner blew up with rage. I have fawned knowingly (with awareness) toward employers and law enforcement. Whether I am fawning contentedly, fawning transactionally or fawning through fear and perceived necessity, the mechanism is distinct: appease, make it better, “show up great,” leverage the relationship for safety and resources.

Just like other stress responses, fawn may be mixed with freeze or alternate with freeze-dominant states in the context of varying levels of intensity and overwhelm. If I am generally overwhelmed, or the contexts in which I fawn are threatening enough, I will be freezy and fawny, and there will be double the energy required to “do” my self-protection. Someone who fawns may also opt to socially withdraw in order to enjoy the “down time” the freeze response provides in lieu of mustering their sympathetic response. If I am navigating situations that have lower stakes, that benefit me significantly, or I have been groomed to believe that fawning is normal, I may be under the threshold of overwhelm, and my de facto self-protection of fawning will operate just fine (whether it’s considered adaptive or not). You may fawn with wide, fearful eyes, with adoring eyes, or coolly. You may fawn without any awareness at all, or with clear strategic intention. I recently read a quote attributed to an international leader in the field (it was not properly cited so I will not include his name here) that claimed that fawning is “not an intentional behavior that we can recruit.” This made me think of the countless examples of strategic fawning that, if this individual had tried, could have been brought to mind in a matter of seconds: women fawning toward male employers in order to be recognized, Black Americans positioned to fawn toward whites and law enforcement in any number of potentially lethal situations, anyone of a lower class fawning toward the wealthy to gain proximity, etc.

Some may think of fawning in simple terms, as a kind of “rolling over” or cowering. This description leaves out the very active (you could say, sympathetic) components: following explicit or implied orders and expectations, rushing to make it better, managing, taking care, doing what needs to be done, serving, meddling, ruminating, cleaning up messes, smoothing things over, and calming things down. These movements take place on top of the inhibitory control of other responses that may want to happen but are not allowed (disappointment, anger, rage, disgust, resentment, grief, contempt, amusement, surprise, righteousness, the impulse to leave or turn away, etc.).

I can understand how the tendency of the fawner to metaphorically “leave their body” in order to track the behavior of other bodies could be seen as a form of general dissociation from body or identity, but this effect is similar to the way that someone with a conditioned fight or flight response might “leave their body” to engage in a projected battle, obsessively exercise or do other compulsive behaviors. To say that fawn is an effect of the freeze response is to suggest that it is inherently dissociative or based in immobility, which dismisses its actual function in the real world. The function of fawning, or tend-and-befriend, is to disarm threat through social engagement, not to generally dissociate or freeze. In a fawn context, this can be done in dire circumstances through ingratiation, in professional situations through flattery, in negotiation through tact and diplomacy, etc. Each context has its own “tone” or level of self-abnegation (from high to low, from a lot to none). People who are positioned to fawn through their relationships with narcissistic types (parental or otherwise) or due to their cultural role do so for good reason. When fawning is based in contexts of the past and acts as a conditioned trauma response, it is nevertheless helpful to normalize its adaptive function. As we know, healing comes from an acknowledgement of what is, and what has been.

There may also be some who believe that there is reason to separate stress responses and their somatic impacts in categories of “relational” and “nonrelational.” Somatic Experiencing Practitioners, for instance, work with inhibited self-protective motor programs that arise from various types of trauma, and humans are a fundamentally social species that exist in social context without exception. This brings to mind the classic Peter Levine quote, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” This attitude challenges the notion that the enduring traumatic impacts of even a single event occur in a relational vacuum, or that the stress responses we perform in highly threatening situations aren’t, to a significant extent, socially conditioned. Whether your quashed self-protective motor programs were caused by a car accident or the denial of your needs by caregivers, somatic approaches address issues of systemic energy flow, containment and inhibition.

As a conditioned trauma response, fawners do well at taking others’ perspectives. To be habitually fixated on the motivations and states of others, though, is debilitating, as the fawner deeply decenters their own experience and needs. This decentering is the somatic disenfranchisement of the right to assertion. In this way we can understand the fawn and fight responses on their own relational spectrum.

Paraphrasing Walker, this spectrum includes the toxic fight response on one end and the toxic fawn response on the other. On the fight end, there is habitual, comfortable and undue speaking, assertion of needs, dominance, flexing of authority, aggression, defensiveness, etc. On the fawn end, there is acquiescence, ingratiation, wallflowering, social anxiety, withholding and a sense that one’s personal needs and preferences are the lowest priority, or are impossibilities. Someone who fawns may be unaware of their own desires, needs and values; this may be covered with a facade of acceptance or even enthusiasm for how things are. Fawners may also elicit more contact with people who play into these behaviors despite not actually wanting to be involved with them, as it feels safer to stay close and “keep tabs on” these relationships.

In the center of this spectrum is mutuality and respect for self and other. This is behaved through an easy and equal back and forth between speaking and listening, leading and following, helping and being helped–a relationship in which everyone has equal value, not in theory but in practice.

Practitioners may also be interested to know that Walker describes the freeze and flight responses on a spectrum of self-relating, pointing to the flexibility between activity and rest: doing and being, effort and letting go, sympathetic and parasympathetic.

Through empowerment and post-traumatic growth, a differentiated fawner has particular capacity to hold space, attune, deeply listen, receive feedback, and practice diplomacy, mediation and facilitation. These qualities are balanced with self-trust, practice in dissent and honest defense, and a reappropriation of the pleasures of ferocity and solidarity. Through the last two especially, the fawner is equipped to join forces with others in the same predicament — the original function of tend-and-befriend.

Flexing and empowering the fight response in a gradual, non-cathartic way is key, as is practicing nonviolent communication skills that support the development of healthy boundaries in safe-enough relationships. This process may show up in somatic work through movement impulses and inhibition throughout the body (head, neck, shoulders, jaw, face, elbows, fists, hips, knees, feet, etc.). The chronic fawner can work toward noticing and receiving small amounts of pleasure from positive feedback when it comes, in such a way that genuine social engagement may eventually be deeply enjoyed. The inverse of the fear of getting in trouble or “being bad” is being seen by oneself, and by others, in one’s innocence or basic goodness.

The fawn response, like other stress responses, is the behaved expression of a person’s state. In this sense, it can feel “helpless” to the degree that one perceives no option but to fawn. It can also be a deal with the devil, preserving toxic relationships for their proximity to resources, a sense of identity or ideological leadership — all things that stabilize the nervous system regardless of wholesomeness or impact on others. When people who fawn upward toward authority become aware of the behavior and over time stop doing so, tremendous internal and external resources become available and may be directed elsewhere — for instance, healing, creativity, education and justice-oriented work. Many who exist in conditions that elicit their fawning are painfully aware of the delicate balance their behavior maintains. This maintenance can include a great deal of emotional labor. As the fight response beefs up, it becomes an accessible choice to opt out of fawning, thereby disrupting that balance and inevitably affecting those who require “propping up” by fawn types. On the other hand, fawn types may be unaware of the mutuality and support available to them in the relationships they already have, or through new connections that would naturally require time and tending. Learning to disclose their truth over time opens possibilities of genuine support and care by those who long for the same.

The existing scientific research on fight, flight and freeze is based in large part on the study of male rats. With this in mind, the idea that our theories of stress and the nervous system are “complete” is clearly presumptuous. The dismissal of tend-and-befriend or fawn has the effect of deflecting time and attention from the subject, and intentionally or not, diminishing the concerns of the great numbers of those who are realizing how insidiously fawning impacts their lives. The observable nature of fawning as a conditioned stress response, plus the evidence for tend-and-befriend as a distinct biobehavioral function in humans and non-human mammals, suggests that “fawn awareness” in our work, and even inclusion of available theory in popular curriculum, isn’t a whole lot to ask. At the very least we can pause to listen to those who are able to report from personal experience. The fawn response, given cultural conditions, reflects various dominance hierarchies in humans. I have witnessed the reflexive presumption that fawn is not another “f” in the fight/flight/freeze theory of human stress, which is unfortunate but unsurprising, as it is always difficult for those who unconsciously benefit from the status quo to acknowledge hierarchies that are transparent to them. As fawners unite, I expect more time and attention will be rightfully claimed by the subject in our healing communities.

Lastly, there are clinical implications to “fawn awareness.” The ability to navigate stressful conditions through social engagement and appeasement can be affirmed as a skill. What a white supremacist, patriarchal culture may respond to as weakness or distasteful submission, we can understand as the diverse resilience of those who both presently and intergenerationally deal with dehumanization and dispossesion of agency. Research links affiliation and caretaking under stress to relatively higher oxytocin, making tend-and-befriend an issue of particular importance for women and femmes. Recognizing, normalizing and affirming both the deeply harmful and the intrinsically positive aspects of fawn in a therapeutic context provides the respect and safety necessary for collaboration in service to post-traumatic growth. Without this lens, the focus that a fawn type may have on other people, on their own perceived weakness, or on seeking validation may result in practitioners fixating on these negative aspects or problematizing the client. To become awake to this fourth response is to become awake to the normalcy of appeasement-aggression dynamics in general. This wakefulness develops a keener ability to recognize the deep and subtle ways these dynamics play out in ourselves, our work and our communities.

Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, Coach in trauma-safe mindfulness, Organic Intelligence. Feminism, healing, creativity.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store