The Fawn Response

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Certain Hope:
Psychotherapist Pete Walker. M.A., writes:

In my work with victims of childhood trauma (I include here those who on a regular basis were verbally and emotionally abused at the dinner table), I use psychoeducation to help them understand the ramifications of their childhood-derived Complex PTSD (see Judith Herman’s enlightening Trauma and Recovery).

That line I put in bold is what made me want to read the rest. What went on around our dinner table has always felt traumatic, but I never said that aloud, because I felt silly for making much ado about nothing. In fact, I was ready to chalk it all up to being an "HSP"... until I continued reading this article and discovered that what I'd attributed to being HSP may actually have been at least partially created, learned, and not inborn... and that a better name for it may be "post-traumatic-stress". What's in a name? Well, in this case, a better understanding of who I have been and what I can do to mend the effects of being a child of my parents.
Others here may recognize themselves in this picture, as well. I'll just post some excerpts...

Sometimes a current event can have only the vaguest resemblance to a past traumatic situation and this can be enough to trigger the psyche’s hard-wiring for a fight, flight, or freeze response. (This is followed in the article by some examples, and then...)

Many trauma victims over time develop an ability to use varying combinations of these responses depending on the nature of the triggering circumstances.

A fourth type of triggered response can be seen in many codependents.(Codependency is defined here as the inability to express rights, needs and boundaries in relationship; it is a disorder of assertiveness that causes the individual to attract and accept exploitation, abuse and/or neglect.) I have named it the fawn response...the fourth ‘f’ in the fight/flight/ freeze/fawn repertoire of instinctive responses to trauma. Fawn, according to Webster’s, means: “to act servilely; cringe and flatter”, and I believe it is this response that is at the core of many codependents’ behavior. The trauma-based codependent learns to fawn very early in life in a process that might look something like this:
as a toddler, she learns quickly that protesting abuse leads to even more frightening parental retaliation, and so she relinquishes the fight response, deleting “no” from her vocabulary and never developing the language skills of healthy assertiveness.

At this point, there are some examples of the flight and freeze scenarios, followed by:

A final scenario describes the incipient codependent toddler who largely bypasses the fight, flight and freeze responses and instead learns to fawn her way into the relative safety of becoming helpful. She may be one of the gifted children of Alice Miller’s Drama Of The Gifted Child, who discovers that a modicum of safety (safety the ultimate aim of all four of the 4F responses) can be purchased by becoming useful to the parent. Servitude, ingratiation, and forfeiture of any needs that might inconvenience and ire the parent become the most important survival strategies available. Boundaries of every kind are surrendered to mollify the parent, as the parent repudiates the Winnecottian duty of being of use to the child; the child is parentified and instead becomes as multidimensionally useful to the parent as she can: housekeeper, confidante, lover, sounding board, surrogate parent of other siblings, etc. I wonder how many of us therapists were prepared for our careers in this way.

All this loss of self begins before the child has many words, and certainly no insight. For the nascent codependent, all hints of danger soon immediately trigger servile behaviors and abdication of rights and needs. These response patterns are so deeply set in the psyche, that as adults, many codependents automatically and symbolically respond to threat like dogs, rolling over on their backs, wagging their tails, hoping for a little mercy and an occasional scrap; (Webster’s second entry for fawn: “(esp. of a dog) to behave affectionately.”) I find it particularly disturbing the way some codependents can be as unceasingly loyal as a dog to even the worst “master”.

Certain Hope:
I have had considerable success using psychoeducation about this type of cerebral “wiring” with clients of mine whose codependency began as a childhood response to parents who continuously attacked and shamed any self-interested expression on their part. I work with such clients to help them understand how their habits of automatically forfeiting boundaries, limits, rights and needs were and are triggered by a fear of being attacked for lapses in ingratiation.

Elucidation of this dynamic to clients is a necessary but not sufficient step in recovery. There are many codependents who understand their penchant for forfeiting themselves, but who seem to precipitously forget everything they know when differentiation is appropriate in their relationships. To break free of their subservience, they must turn their cognitive insights into a willingness to stay present to the fear that triggers the self-abdication of the fawn response, and in the face of that fear try on and practice an expanding repertoire of more functional responses to fear.

Real motivation for surmounting this challenge usually comes from the psychodynamic work of uncovering and recreating a detailed picture of the trauma that first frightened the client out of his instincts of self-protection and healthy self-interest. When the client remembers and feels how overpowered he was as a child, he can begin to realize that although he was truly too small and powerless to assert himself in the past, he is now in a much different, more potentially powerful situation. And while he might still momentarily feel small and helpless when he is in a flashback, he can learn to remind himself that he is in an adult body and that he now has an adult status that offers him many more resources to champion himself and to effectively protest unfair and exploitative behavior.

I usually find that this work involves a considerable amount of grieving. Typically this entails many tears about the loss and pain of being so long without healthy self-interest and self-protective skills. Grieving also tends to unlock healthy anger about a life lived with such a diminished sense of self. This anger can then be worked into recovering a healthy fight-response that is the basis of the instinct of self-protection, of balanced assertiveness, and of the courage that will be needed in the journey of creating relationships based on equality and fairness.

.... extreme emotional abandonment also can create this kind of codependency. I believe that the continuously neglected toddler experiences extreme lack of connection as traumatic, and sometimes responds to this fearful condition by overdeveloping the fawn response.

http://www.pete-walker.com/codependencyFawnResponse.htm

dandylife:
Wow!

This is pretty powerful stuff. Maybe that's what N's recognize in their favored partner - a sense of the Fawn. The perfect prey.

Scary.

Thank you so much for pointing this out. I had never heard of this before.

Dandylife

Certain Hope:
Thanks, Dandy.  Yes, I believe that this is exactly what NPD senses in his or her intended target.

This was me:

All this loss of self begins before the child has many words, and certainly no insight.
For the nascent codependent, all hints of danger soon immediately trigger servile behaviors and abdication of rights and needs.
These response patterns are so deeply set in the psyche, that as adults, many codependents automatically and symbolically respond to threat like dogs,
rolling over on their backs, wagging their tails, hoping for a little mercy and an occasional scrap; (Webster’s second entry for fawn: “(esp. of a dog) to behave affectionately.”) I find it particularly disturbing the way some codependents can be as unceasingly loyal as a dog to even the worst “master”.

And to this day, when affection is withdrawn or I'm aware that some valid limit or boundary which I've set has incurred the anger and resentment of another party, I can still sense within me that deep, abiding urge to just roll over and make it all okay again... anything, to ease the deep pain of abandonment.

Carolyn

dandylife:
Yes, I am resonating with that feeling, and it's not a comfortable one! (a-ha moment?)

I was very "servile" for 17 years as a wife, then bam! something in me rebelled - found my voice with my husband.

As a kid, I was intimidated into silence/obeying by my dad who was....an intimidator. (I basically married someone who had that same trait - intimidating me into compliance). I am so glad i finally rebelled.

There would be moments as a kid - I'd have these "breakthroughs" - where I'd scream back at my dad or refuse to call him "Dad" in response to his meanness. That felt so good.

This is all very interesting - making me think hard.....

Thanks so much, Carolyn. I'm with you totally (((((Carolyn)))))

Dandylife

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