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People Pleasing and the Fawn Response

People pleasing is one way – a powerful way – in which we learned to keep ourselves safe in the world.

People pleasing requires you to put your own needs, desires, feelings, and preferences in the background. It requires you to suppress them or deny that they even exist.

People pleasing is about making sure everyone around you – or whoever you’re interacting with – is happy and pleased with you.

In many ways, people pleasing is a childlike response or state of being. Through your behavior, you’re essentially pleading with the other person or people to like you, to be happy with you, to not get mad, to not be disappointed. Almost like they’re your parents and you are their child, totally at their mercy. You can see how this would place you in an uneven power position with this person (or people), as you make them more important and powerful than you. And, in turn, you make yourself less important or inferior.

By making others more important than you, and making their needs and desires and preferences more valid than yours, you’re basically abandoning yourself.

People pleasing and self-abandonment go hand in hand. You can’t be a people-pleaser “effectively” unless you betray yourself and what you need and feel.

People Pleasing, Self-Abandonment, and Anger

In my experience, this form of self-abandonment can begin to create a strong charge of anger and resentment underneath the surface.

You might look like you’re pleasant and sweet and accommodating on the surface – smiling, saying YES to everything and everyone, putting your needs aside – but internally a more turbulent process is unfolding. The longer you swallow your feelings and opinions, the more the pressure builds up inside.

Internally, you can’t continue to abandon yourself without suffering the consequences.

Those consequences might include burning out, hitting a wall, becoming depressed, getting physically ill, losing a sense of meaning and purpose in your life, or getting completely out of touch with what YOU want.

And they might also include this growing feeling of anger or resentment – not only with other people, but even more strongly with yourself.

In my personal life, I’ve been dealing with this kind of anger lately. Anger with myself and how I’ve responded to certain situations and people in the past.

This is the anger that my inner wild woman is carrying, which I had suppressed for many years to continue being a people-pleaser and to avoid getting “in trouble.”

I also tried to suppress this anger, to hold it at bay, by eating sugar, binge-watching shows, being hyper-productive at work, and using other forms of checking out to keep my true feelings buried out of sight.

Many times in the past, I’ve wanted to respond to people and situations with a clear NO. But some part of me – the wounded, traumatized part – felt that if I said no, the other person’s wrath or disappointment or disapproval would kill me. Literally.

So I continued resorting to the fawn response to try to keep myself safe.

The Fawn Response: Placate & Appease

Our nervous systems typically respond to stress – or what we perceive as danger/threats – in four major ways: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

This last one is perhaps the most important for us people-pleasers (though fawn & freeze often go together – you might freeze first and then revert into fawning to avoid the perceived danger).

To fawn means to placate and to appease. It means to “keep sweet” no matter what, even if you strongly disagree with something or someone.

We first learn to fawn, I believe, in our relationships with our primary caregivers while we are still infants. Traditionally, fawning is about trying to appease a person who is both a caregiver (someone who provides love and comfort and care, or even distorted versions of these things) and the source of a threat (someone we feel is more powerful than us, and who perhaps has even harmed us in the past).

In the process of fawning, you completely erase yourself. You hide your feelings, thoughts, and especially your dislike of something or someone to avoid potential retaliation, punishment, or harm.

But, of course, the alternative – actually speaking your mind, sharing your feelings honestly, enforcing a boundary, or saying what you don’t like – feels extremely scary and dangerous. Not just on a conscious level, but on a very primal, instinctual, reptilian brain kind of level.

Coming out of Fawn & Becoming a People Displeaser

So, coming out of fawn has to be done as a gradual, gentle process. It won’t be a linear process, and you might always have the tendency to fawn as your primary stress response. This is ok. The important thing is to become more mindful of when, how, and why you fawn and develop more space within yourself to consciously respond to life.

I suggest thinking about your own relationship to the fawn response itself. Explore questions like:

  • How have you used the fawn response in the past to keep yourself safe?
  • Can you notice moments, situations, or people that trigger your fawn response?
  • How do you feel after you’ve responded to something or someone by fawning?

And to release people-pleasing tendencies, another set of journaling or reflective questions could include:

  • Why do I people please? Can I remember when I first started engaging in this behavior?
  • What part of me is drained by people pleasing?
  • What part of me seeks safety by people pleasing?
  • In what area of my life can I start practicing saying NO?
  • When’s the last time I wanted to say NO but said YES out of fear or to avoid disappointing others?
  • How would it feel to talk openly about my dislikes and preferences?
  • How can I release fear and guilt as I stop people pleasing?

I recently read a book titled The Courage to be Disliked. I love this title because it does take courage to be disliked – or, at least, to not constantly try to please and appease everyone.

It takes courage to be yourself and to say what you don’t like, what you won’t put up with, what doesn’t work for you. Especially if you learned growing up that it wasn’t safe to speak these things.

So, here’s my challenge to you: seek to become a people displeaser. This doesn’t mean you’ll go out of your way to displease or disappoint others. (Though, if you want to do that, be my guest!) But it does mean that you’ll give yourself the space, and the possibility, of displeasing or disappointing them. It means that you’ll make it safe in your life to disappoint others.

If you’re truly living and being authentic to who you are, without abandoning yourself at every turn, you will eventually disappoint someone. Let’s just make that a statement of fact, and the reality from now on. You will disappoint someone at some point.

Trying to please everyone at all times is similar to being a perfectionist, trying to do everything perfectly at all times. Both are futile and, even worse, soul-draining goals.

You’re human. And, by its very nature, being human means being imperfect. At times, even messy. It means sometimes disagreeing with others, having conflicting desires, needing to enforce a boundary, or doing something that someone in your life might not like.

It takes courage to live authentically, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Revealing your authentic self to the world and fully expressing it is a gradual unfolding.

Becoming a people displeaser – or at least being willing to displease others – is part of that process. You can shed your people-pleasing skin and put your own desires, needs, and preferences front and center. They matter, and you matter. Your feelings are valid and worthy of expression.

Here’s to having the courage to be yourself and to follow your inner compass first – before seeking to please anyone else.

With lots of love,

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4 thoughts on “People Pleasing and the Fawn Response”

  1. That courage to be disliked is a biggie. I had a realization lately that I need to be okay with 1). being misunderstood and 2). triggering people. Neither of those are my job to control. Thanks for your courage and example of living authentically and speaking your truth!

    1. Josephine Hardman

      It is SUCH a biggie. Wow! Being misunderstood and potentially triggering others — I feel physical discomfort just reading that haha. So I know there is powerful liberation to be found in giving ourselves permission to experience those things. And that we will not die in the process! Thank you for reading, my friend.

  2. I am going to be buying that book! And, it reminds me of something that Clarissa Pinkola Estes once said (and I’m paraphrasing here). Only half of people are going to like you, so you might as well be yourself….and if everyone is agreeing with you all of the time, you’re not doing it right. (that last one has helped me get over some ego-sabotaging situations) Bless that woman!!

    1. Josephine Hardman

      This is so great, Kathryn! I love the reminder that if everyone likes us and we’re not EVER disappointing anyone, we’re not really living. We’re only living halfway, in a tightly controlled and measured way to avoid the discomfort of being disliked. Being willing to experience that discomfort is a game-changer and so liberating. And p.s. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a badass!

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