FAWNING versus PEOPLE PLEASING, is there a difference?
Indeed, a nuanced divergence is rooted mainly in their origins and motivations, although the two can often appear similar.
A fawn response, a term introduced by therapist Pete Walker, is one of the four primary trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. This fawn response serves as an “appeasement” strategy designed to diffuse conflict, mollify potential aggressors, and avert further harm. It is predominantly seen in individuals who have suffered chronic abuse or trauma, especially in childhood.
Fawning can express itself through behaviors such as excessive flattery, people-pleasing, or reflecting another person’s desires to prevent conflict or potential harm. It is an adaptive survival mechanism embedded into the nervous system in reaction to persistent threats.
Conversely, people-pleasing can be regarded as a behavioral pattern where an individual excessively accommodates others, often at the expense of their own needs or desires. A profound need for acceptance or conflict avoidance drives it. While it can also evolve as a coping mechanism in response to stressful circumstances, it is not exclusively linked to traumatic experiences. Yet, in my realm of energy healing, the interpretation of ‘persistent threats’ is paramount. Can the brain or nervous system discern between threats? I have also developed a concept I call COVERT TRAUMA, which pertains to individuals who have sensed dysfunction from their earliest days.
To simplify, all fawning encompasses people-pleasing, but not all people-pleasing is a product of a fawn response. People-pleasing might be a result of various factors, such as upbringing, societal expectations, or personality traits, even in the absence of conventional trauma or abuse that might provoke a fawn response.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial to note that these boundaries can blur, and individual experiences greatly vary.
Last September, after a day working with a new supplier at their headquarters, I met their spouse and was invited to sample some homebrew in their home bar. It was my first encounter with this individual, and within minutes, they asked me to expose my breasts, then began discussing their preferred method of self-defense—knives over guns. At that moment, the distinction between people-pleasing and a fawn response became startlingly clear. What felt like an eternity was likely less than three minutes before I recognized what was happening and hastily retreated. An incident involving an extended family member 26 years ago reignited my nervous system response, even though the circumstances were not identical. The sensation in my body as this recent incident was panning out took me straight back to the one that happened in 1997, to the point I felt like I was back there in that moment, and my brain was screaming at me ‘DANGER DANGER DANGER’. With the wisdom of what panned out last time, and with healing my people-pleasing behaviours, I was able to take different actions to take control of situation forced on me by an opportunistic predator. Last time I defaulted to someone I thought I could trust, but that didn’t pan out very well, this time, I knew I could trust myself and my values system to lead the way.
So, in understanding fawning versus people pleasing, it’s a case of knowing that people may simultaneously exhibit both behaviors or may not neatly fit into one category or the other, but it’s the ‘threat’ and the response that is key, not the label.