Has anyone ever told you you were “too nice for your own good”? Do you often feel like being too much of a people pleaser has a negative impact on your life? While it’s easy to beat ourselves up for the way we let people treat us, psychologists have actually discovered that being this way — having a “fawn response,” as they call it — is one of the ways we adapt to perceived threats and internalize our trauma.
To be more specific, it was therapist Pete Walker who first studied and wrote about this phenomenon in his book, “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.” Walker, who specializes in cases of C-PTSD, defines “fawning” as a maladaptive way of creating safety in our interpersonal relationships by essentially mirroring the imagined expectations, needs, and desires of others.
This happens when our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated due to some perceived threat in our environments. Our bodies will then go into either fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. And when someone experiences something traumatic early on in their life, it can keep them stuck in one of these four modes. So basically, fawning is a maladaptive response to extreme psychosocial stress (Walker, 2018).
With that said, here are 7 tell-tale signs according to experts that your problem with being “too nice” just might actually be fawning, a manifestation of your trauma:
1. You don’t feel “seen.”
If you’re someone who’s prone to fawning, you’re probably the go-to person for a lot of people whenever they need a favor or want some help with something. This is because, according to self-help expert Phoebe Priebe, “When we fawn, we disregard our own wants and needs and decide in that moment that the one thing that’s important is giving the other person what they want and need.” And by being too much of a giver, you end up struggling to feel “seen” by others for who you are as a person and not just what you can do for them.
2. Your values become compromised.
One of the reasons why fawning as a trauma response can impact us so negatively is because it erodes our sense of self. According to an article by The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab, people fawn to avoid conflict and trauma by over appeasing people, but this can lead them to compromise their values a lot of the time. People who are like this often find it difficult to stand up for themselves and what they believe in and instead validate behaviors, attitudes, or views that they don’t even agree with.
3. You feel responsible for other people’s reactions.
Another important point brought up by The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab in the article mentioned earlier was the “fawning types” tend to feel a misplaced sense of guilt and responsibility over other people’s feelings and reactions. In fact, they’re usually more invested in the happiness, comfort, and validation of other people than they are in their own. This can manifest as strong feelings of guilt, self-blame, and self-loathing over the negative reactions of others towards things that aren’t even their fault or in their control.
4. You’re terrified of making decisions for others.
Similar to our earlier point, fawning as a trauma response can make us terrified of choosing things for other people. Even something as inconsequential as where to eat dinner or recommending a show to someone can leave us reeling from intense dread and panic, wondering “Oh no, what if they hate it?!” Why? Well, according to an article by Psychology Today, this is because your constant need to please others and always looking to them for how you should feel makes you doubt or disregard your own feelings and experiences (Gab & Perina, 2020).
5. You feel guilty about getting angry.
According to the mental health experts at Khiron Trauma Clinics, people who tend to fawn as a trauma response commonly experience deep feelings of anger and guilt towards themselves because of it. This anger, however, is displaced because they don’t allow themselves to get angry at others for taking advantage of them or disrespecting their boundaries. Every time they even try to speak up about it, they feel immensely guilty and instead end up enabling and excusing the bad behaviors and mistreatment of others.
6. You over-apologize.
Much like our earlier point, fawning as a trauma response often results in a lack of personal boundaries, low self-esteem, and loss of personal agency and autonomy. And the most common manifestation of all of these? Over-apologizing. This is because fawning often stems from rejection trauma, so in order to avoid being rejected by others, we learn to take the blame for everything and just apologize to keep the peace (Davis, 2022).
7. You don’t know how to say no.
Last but certainly not the least, not knowing how to say no to people is arguably the most telling sign of all that being “too nice” isn’t your problem — it’s your trauma response, fawning! And according to an article from Psych Central, “fawn types” are almost always stretched too thin. They’re so eager to please other people that they say yes to everything no matter how inconvenient or tiresome. The worst part, however, is that they overwork themselves not because they just genuinely have so much love, energy, and patience to give, but because they fear that the moment they say no, others will immediately turn on them (Ryder & Gepp, 2022).
So, do you relate to any of the things we’ve mentioned here? Did learning about all these signs make you realize you might be fawning as a result of some unresolved trauma?
While we might think that fawning and people-pleasing is the ideal way of building relationships with others, these connections will ultimately be draining, inauthentic, and unfulfilling for us because it doesn’t allow for us to have our own sense of identity or validate our own feelings and experiences. So if you are seriously struggling with recovery from trauma, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental healthcare professional today and seek help.
And to quote self-help guru Phoebe Priebe, “Being a nice person means making your own wants and needs but also listening to what other people want and need and finding a middle ground. This is exercising kind communication, unlike fawning which is never asserting our own wants and needs…Kindness is not equivalent to being a doormat, erasing your sense of self, or never speaking up for yourself.”
- Walker, P. (2018). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Tantor Audio.
- Priebe, H. (29 Sep 2022). “Are You ‘Too Nice’ Or Are You Fawning?” [Video] YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOQAmHuadLA
- The Dawn Wellness Center & Rehab (2022). “Trauma and the Fawning Response: The Dark Side of People-Pleasing.” Retrieved from https://thedawnrehab.com/blog/trauma-and-the-fawning-response/
- Gaba, S., & Perina, K. (2020). “Understanding Fight, Flight, Freeze and the Fawn Response.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/addiction-and-recovery/202008/understanding-fight-flight-freeze-and-the-fawn-response#:~:text=Flight%20includes%20running%20or%20fleeing,person%20to%20avoid%20any%20conflict
- Khiron Trauma Clinics (2021). “The Subtle Effects of Trauma: People Pleasing.” Retrieved from https://khironclinics.com/blog/people-pleasing/
- Davis, S. (2022). “Rejection Trauma and the Freeze/Fawn Response.” C-PTSD Foundation. Retrieved from https://cptsdfoundation.org/2022/02/21/rejection-trauma-and-the-freeze-fawn-response/
- Ryder, G., & Gepp, K. (2022). “The Fawn Response: How Trauma Can Lead to People-Pleasing.” Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/health/fawn-response