Sam Dylan Finch+ Your Authors @samdylanfinch Words on mental health & being human. 🌦 Writer. Optimist. Gentle soul. 🍓 Editor @Healthline, Columnist @Greatist 🌿 Jun. 22, 2019 7 min read + Your Authors

My therapist said something really incredible to me recently about the "fawning" trauma response and how it shows up for me, and I want to share that insight, because it sort of blew my mind.

If the original thread resonated with you, maybe this will be helpful, too?


If you're not sure what I mean by "fawning," I have an entire post about it if you'd like to learn more! In short, it's a response to trauma, not unlike fight, flight, and freeze. It's essentially "people-pleasing" as a coping mechanism. 

The other day when I was crossing the street, someone deliberately tried to run me over because I was in drag (I perform as a drag queen sometimes!). I'm totally fine, but obviously I brought it up in therapy, because I wanted to unpack how I reacted to it.

I started to say to my therapist, "I'm worried that I'm misunderstanding what happened, you know? Like maybe he didn't mean to hit the gas, or maybe instead of tr*nny, he actually said 'sorry' as he drove by, or—"

My therapist looked at me and said, "You're fawning."

In my mind, my attempt to rationalize what happened didn't strike me as fawning. So I asked him to explain.

He said, "You can try to be as accommodating, empathetic, and understanding as possible, and it won't change the fact that he tried to harm you, and wanted to."

So this was me after that comment: 🤯

This was my therapist:

It really got me thinking about the times that, even though I logically knew I was being harmed, I went out of my way to rationalize that person's behavior — like if I could be empathetic and kind enough, and emphasize how much I understood, that person would stop harming me.

It obviously has the opposite effect, because to someone who is engaging in harmful behavior, that can be received as implicit permission. But in my mind, if I was empathetic and understanding and patient, that person would WANT to change the harmful behavior.

I think this comes up in sexual relationships, too. If we're less likely to vocalize when we feel our boundaries are being pushed, it makes us vulnerable to really exploitative and violent behavior — especially if we're rationalizing it and gaslighting ourselves.

And maybe there's some element of projection, too. If we're people-pleasing, it can be hard to understand people who aren't engaging in that. "Surely they wouldn't deliberately harm me, how could someone do that?" It becomes very difficult to understand.

I used to take some amount of pride in being the person who was always understanding, always patient, always letting people "have their process." And it made me feel uncomfortable when people apologized to me, too, because that felt like I'd failed in making them feel good.

And when that "no, really, I get it!" mechanism becomes part of what we feel is an asset that we bring to our relationships... we start to over-identify with it, I think.

That also led to me being the kind of person who thought, "If they didn't MEAN to hurt me, why would I be upset?" It was always about preserving their happiness, rather than holding space for the fact that I am allowed to feel hurt, even if that makes the other person uneasy.

A big part of my process now is to give myself permission to say, "That really hurt me." And to shut down this voice in my head that immediately tries to explain away the behavior of others, because I see my feelings of hurt as "threatening" a relationship I have with a person.

What ultimately happens for me is that it bleeds over into every aspect of my life. Someone tries to literally kill me, and my instinct is to explain away their behavior. I get a massage, and I'm too afraid to tell someone they're being too rough, because "they didn't mean to."

It's so, so toxic to view being harmed as jeopardizing someone else's happiness, but when someone else is harmed, it requires changing something about myself. It means that the problem always resides with me, even when I'm the victim.

The fawning response ultimately means that I'm looking for what *I* did wrong — what I misunderstood or how I could've shown up — because I've learned that adapting to what other people want from me is how I create this false sense of safety. But that's just it, it's false.

It also means that the onus to "fix" any kind of conflict also rests with me — even when I'M the one that was hurt, I have to do the legwork of deciphering why or just suppressing my feelings. And that is a huge burden to take on. 😞

Taking on the blame compulsively and rationalizing harm can FEEL protective, because if it's our fault or a matter of empathizing, we can fix it! But sometimes we have to sit with the helplessness of being hurt in ways we can't fix.

I think it's a good reminder, when thinking about "strawberry people" and what relationships we prioritize, to pay attention to which people are more than happy to allow us to blame ourselves and explain away their harm, and which ones are saying to us "you apologize too much!"

Anyway, I wanted to share this, because my therapist was totally spot on. We aren't responsible for making sense of why someone has harmed us. Our responsibility is in healing from it, whether the other person takes responsibility for their part in it or not.

My therapist said part of trauma recovery, for me, has been re-centering myself. That is, putting myself, my heart, my healing back at the center of my life. Checking in with myself and making sure I've planted myself firmly where the most growth and support can happen for me.

I think that's hard for people-pleasers to do, because our trauma response is to de-center ourselves in an almost-dissociative way. We have to reject ourselves and center other people constantly. Undoing that takes so much time but it's worth it. 💕🍓

So I'm committed to naming when I'm hurting — without qualifying, rationalizing, gaslighting. I'm just owning what I feel, and giving myself permission to feel it, because I deserve to have that space. That space is what connects us to our own humanity, you know?

If you're denying yourself the space to feel hurt, but also making abundant room for other people to show up in whatever way they decide to (even if it's harmful), it's almost like you objectify yourself — thinking of ourselves in terms of usefulness instead of being human.

It's so disempowering, too, because then your sense of "safety" depends on how well you can conform to someone else's needs and desires, instead of honoring your own.

So here and now, I just want to offer some validation if this rings true for you. And I want to remind you that you can create safety for yourself. It starts with honoring your emotional experiences without judgment, and placing yourself back at the center of your own life.

Therapy is awesome for this. Learning about how to define your own boundaries is also an important step. There's an awesome @Healthline article about this: 

And if you journal, practice giving YOURSELF the benefit of the doubt. Spend less time trying to explain away someone else's intentions or behaviors — interrupt it when you notice it — and instead, give yourself the space and compassion you work so hard to give other people.

I also learned from @thefuckitdiet to do something called a "brain dump," where I set a timer for 20 minutes and I write out everything I'm feeling without judging it. It could be a good exercise in this case to go back & highlight where you blamed yourself, to practice noticing.

There's a Yoko Ono quote that I love and that I'm trying to live by these days: "My religion is to trust myself."

That's the practice, for me. Trust and honor myself. Keep coming back to that. Re-centering, again and again. 💕

We've got this. ✨

You can follow @samdylanfinch.


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