The Survival Strategy of Fawning

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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When I started therapy at eighteen, I was on my own, desperate to make ends meet while fulfilling academic requirements at a city university. My childhood history was bleak and life skills were lacking. Naturally, I was self-destructive in a variety of ways. I knew I was mentally ill, albeit I didn’t think I was schizophrenic like my mother.

I couldn’t define my father’s disorder back then. I now know he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I could certainly relate to some of his traits, but that wasn’t it. It was complex trauma that plagued me, however, that term coined by Dr. Judith Herman wouldn’t be recognized for another fourteen years.

It was pretty much during the onset of treatment that I shared with my therapist an episode with a group of girls in the bedroom of a ‘friend’ who I knew from the building we lived in. I was about ten when it happened. Although the memory was murky, the substance and humiliation were clear. They knew my home life was fucked up, that I was weird and troubled, and so, they took the opportunity to tear me down.

I recall sitting in the bed surrounded by these mean girls who pretended to like me. One by one, they ridiculed me and ripped me to shreds. Through my dissociation and discomfort, I laughed along with them.

When I recounted that memory in therapy, I couldn’t stop crying for days. In fact, I had what is referred to as an abreaction, a profound cathartic release of trapped emotions. My therapist increased our meetings to twice a week.

My response to the collective cruelty perpetrated by those young girls was to fawn.

Like fight, flight and freeze, fawning is an instinctive response to trauma. Fawning is designed to establish safety and agency by being obsequious and obedient.

Trauma therapist and author Pete Walker explains, “For the nascent codependent, all hints of danger immediately trigger servile behaviors and abdication of rights and needs.”

When abuse is systemic, the real self goes underground and a false self emerges in the service of survival. Essentially devoid of a solid sense of identity, I learned to appeal to others humanity or lack thereof, by groveling, making myself small and over-functioning.

Even when I was sexually assaulted at fifteen, I cajoled my rapist to ‘please not hurt me too badly.’ My ability to assuage, pacify, and subordinate myself to accommodate the needs of others was deeply imprinted.

Although fawning is not gender-specific, women are more acculturated than men to defer to the needs of others. It is also our biological inheritance to nurture. The lines between caring for others and fawning are often blurred for us. We are rewarded for pandering and pleasing even when it’s detrimental to ourselves. The ethos of the feminine ideal upholds fawning as a commendable trait.

Although fawning is not gender-specific, women are more acculturated than men to defer to the needs of others.

In a chaotic, unsafe home environment where misogyny flourished, I adopted a hyper-feminine stereotype of who I believed I should be. This involved being passive, malleable, thin and self-effacing. It was also very important to be desirable, and even though I had a voracious curiosity to learn I succumbed to taking some modeling jobs for awhile.

Being on display fit the mold, but it didn’t suit me. It made me uncomfortable, so I eventually acquired a job at a horticultural company and then worked in the public sector of mental health.

The greatest challenge was resisting the gravitational pull towards narcissistic people who typically pursue ‘fawns’ to exploit. Breaking this pattern was the most difficult for me, as my attachment template was so deeply entrenched in a power- submissive dynamic.

The brainwashing that ensued in my family of origin coupled with cultural prescriptions that encourage fawning in women, set me up to muddle the boundaries between flirtatious seduction and objectification.

It can all get very confusing when a woman tells herself she is simply adapting to mores that encourage her to be sexually enticing while rebuffing cues signifying danger. Unfortunately, this source of confusion begets disastrous results.

While fawning set me up for sexual exploitation, it also helped me survive it. For many of us, the fawn response is coupled with a denial of assault. Many victims of assault are confused about how they truly feel as they are groomed to be overly accommodating and flattering of others, especially powerful men.

We convince ourselves that we consented even though we felt violated and froze when coerced and overpowered. This, too, is a locus of control as it holds at bay enormous feelings of helplessness and terror.

Overall, it was like a horrendous game of ping pong vacillating between who I had to be to survive and what I believed I had to measure up to as a woman, and who I intrinsically was.

Even in college, I felt muzzled, timid and reluctant to share my ideas in classroom discussions. When professors claimed I had talent and encouraged me to pursue grad school I shrugged off the praise and lowballed my abilities. Weak self-confidence and fawning go together.

Nevertheless, a deep inviolate part of me yearned to unapologetically realize my potentials and reveal who I am.

The task of the fawner is to exhume her true self. Thankfully the fighter in me plodded on. Reclaiming my authentic self and my power required me to dismantle the codependent pattern of forfeiting my basic right to receive. I also had to learn how to exercise self-regard and self-care.

There were a few critical breaking points for me, but mostly it was a cumulative effect as opposed to one acute event that changed this pattern. The primary influences accompanying years of extensive psychotherapy, that freed me from fawning were:

  • Sisterhood / Fostering solidarity through consciousness-raising, feminist endeavors and Goddess traditions fostered deep respect and appreciation for feminine power and assisted with healing wounds of internalized misogyny.
  • Travel / Feeding my wanderlust awakened excitement and passion and with that a sense of renewal and wonder. It affirmed my capacity for self-sufficiency and resourcefulness.
  • Martial Arts / Accessing instinctual aggression on a physical level can bring about a life-changing paradigm shift. It helped me transition from protecting myself through acquiescing to protecting myself with active force. Energetically this grounded me and nourished a self-possessed mindful connection to my personal power.
  • Career / Fulfilling my intellectual and vocational ambitions enhanced my self-esteem and sense of purpose. It also offered me a conduit and a platform to pass on what I had learned. This solidified my sense of agency.
  • Creativity / I created a therapeutic theater event designed to inspire and encourage healing for at-risk underserved women and girls plagued by histories of childhood trauma, neglect, and abuse. Through this process, I joined other women in publicly voicing through creative expression, what was silenced.

All of this taught me that the journey of life is the proving ground for exercising the principle of faith in the face of challenges and adversities.

When I put faith in responding to the cry for liberation festering within the people-pleasing fawner I discovered the gift of the emphatic “NO’. Asserting my right to unabashedly reject that which held me back led me to say “YES” to all that nourished my being.

These efforts to heal the wounds of the fawner galvanized the call towards individuation and fulfilled my birthright for self-actualization.

Marge Piercy beautifully expresses the plight of the fawner in her poem The Woman in the Ordinary.

The woman in the ordinary pudgy downcast girl is crouching with eyes and muscles clenched. Round and pebble smooth she effaces herself under ripples of conversation and debate.The woman in the block of ivory soap has massive thighs that neigh, great breasts that blare and strong arms that trumpet. The woman of the golden fleece laughs uproariously from the belly inside the girl who imitates a Christmas card virgin with glued hands, who fishes for herself in other’s eyes, who stoops and creeps to make herself smaller. In her bottled up is a woman peppery as curry, a yam of a woman of butter and brass, compounded of acid and sweet like a pineapple, like a hand grenade set to explode, like goldenrod ready to bloom.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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