In earlier posts of this Trauma Response Series, I discussed common ways that we respond to trauma. The first three are fight, flight, and freeze (visit those posts below to learn more). But therapists have recently identified a fourth response. It’s called appeasing or fawning.
This term can be compared to animal behavior in the wild. When an animal “fawns,” it’s showing submission.
Think of a wolf pack. Sometimes a less dominant wolf does something to offend the alpha, like jumping in first to feed. The alpha typically responds with snarling, growling, and maybe even an attack. The less dominant animal will roll on its back, feet in the air, intentionally making itself look submissive to avoid injury. It will also hunch down to look smaller.
When we’ve experienced trauma, we usually want to do as much as possible to avoid going through it again. So we may engage in emotional appeasement or fawning to accomplish this. How does this response look in everyday life?
Many people who’ve been traumatized are quick to adopt appeasement behaviors. We usually do this without even realizing it. At the top of the list is people-pleasing.
The driving force behind people-pleasing is to avoid doing anything to offend someone or cause them to criticize us. Deep down, we ache for approval and acceptance. Trauma has left gaping emotional holes in us. We may try to fill these holes by striving to make everyone like us.
When you appease others to avoid trauma, it frequently looks like always being the first to volunteer to help out with projects at work or school. Maybe you always say “yes” to the neighbor’s frequent requests to watch her kids, even though you would never dream of asking her to return the favor. The variations are countless.
After all, if we keep people from being angry with us, we don’t have to experience the trauma of verbal abuse or abandonment. The anxiety we dread can be avoided by making sure everything is smooth and harmonious. We want to avoid conflict, so we appease others to avoid dreaded trauma.
2. Hiding Our Emotions
People who rely on the appeasement method of avoiding trauma are very good at hiding emotions. We don’t want to risk hurting someone’s feelings by admitting that we don’t like their favorite restaurant. Even when everyone else at the table is opening up about going to therapy and using antidepressants, we are afraid to admit to the same thing.
If a friend is habitually late for outings, we never show our anger. If a co-worker steals an idea and receives praise for it, we don’t speak up. You get the idea.
Just as with people-pleasing, the ultimate goal of hiding emotions is to avoid conflict. We don’t want to make anyone angry at us. Conflict creates anxiety and stirs up feelings we don’t want to experience again.
3. Losing Touch With Ourselves
Unfortunately, appeasement or fawning can become so much a part of us that we completely lose touch with who we are. We don’t know what we genuinely feel about something. We don’t know what we think or what our real preferences are. When asked for our honest opinion, we may find it impossible to form any words.
And just as much as we are out of touch with our own emotional lives, appeasement also prevents us from creating truly meaningful relationships with others. Making other people happy does not amount to making friends. In our attempts to protect ourselves, we build a wall that is too high.
But you don’t have to continue living like this, continually trying to appease others to avoid trauma. It is entirely possible to uncover these layers of behaviors and replace them with ones that allow for a full life. Therapy can provide a way to process trauma and stop hiding. Please call my office or visit my page about Trauma and PSTD if you’re ready to take this step.