The response you probably didn’t even know existed.
Today we are going to talk about an often-overlooked trauma response that is near and dear to my heart: the Please / Appease response and how it can show up in religious and political climates. Most people are familiar with the Fight and the Flight responses, and some also are aware of the Freeze response (which can look like dissociation, inability to make decisions, numbing out). However, there is an extremely common fourth response, formally known as the “Fawn” response but which I think will resonate more with people if we use the terms please/appease.
What is trauma?
Let’s talk about trauma for a minute. If an animal is in the wild and has their life threatened by a predator, the above responses are very useful as life-saving devices. The animal might fight back, run away, or fall down and play dead. If someone is trying to escape from dangerous predators, we want these responses to exist. The animal responds as needed, hopefully (for them) preserves their life, and move on with their day. Researchers talk about how if the body is able to move through the “stress cycle,” then we are far less likely to experience trauma, and animals seem to naturally use their bodies in such a way to discharge the energy they need to after stressful incidents.
The problem occurs with us humans when we experience a threatening situation, are unable to respond as we need to, and our brains and nervous systems get stuck. Since we’re highly evolved humans, our “threatening” situations no longer look like bears and lions, but our nervous system didn’t really learn to tell the difference. Especially when we are repeatedly exposed to threatening, scary situations while experiencing a sense of powerlessness to respond, we often develop trauma (called complex trauma for prolonged, repeated exposures). Our brains then learn to react to even non-dangerous stimuli as if they were dangerous, simply because they remind us of situations that used to put us in danger.
Back to the fawn, or please/appease response. This looks like people-pleasing, codependency, going along with what others want, putting aside one’s own needs, avoiding conflict. Many people who exhibit this behavior probably aren’t even aware it’s a trauma response. They might just think it’s an innate aspect of their personality, or they might be puzzled at their inability to stand up for themselves but brush it off as not a big deal, or not even realize things could be any different.
To cover the scope of the fawn response in one blog post would be a monumental task, so I would like to focus on two contexts. One, and the topic of my upcoming book, is the area of religious trauma. The second, as promised in a previous post, is people’s reactions to the chaos of 2020 (and 2016-2020…).
How religion can create trauma
Because religious trauma can often cause a please/appease response, I will start here. (Many thanks to the Phil Drysdale podcast interview with Brian Peck of the Religious Trauma Institute to get my brain going on this). Religious trauma can often occur in what is called high-demand, high-control religion. As you might guess, those are religions that both demand a lot of the adherents and attempt to control much of their behavior. Often adherents are threatened with punishment of hell if they don’t obey the right way (hi evangelicalism), or being outcast from the church, the community, even one’s own family if they don’t follow the rules. They might also literally be financially extorted, sexually abused, or endure other abuses that occur when power-hungry leaders are not kept in check. (Look at my book review for further thoughts on cult-like churches and trauma).
See how that context can easily line up with a trauma response? People experience a lack of control, they experience a sense of threat (hell, loss of community) or actual threat, and this often occurs over a very extended time. (Caveat: not everyone is traumatized by the system! I write for those who found it traumatizing).
The fawn response in high-control religion
An extraordinarily common response to get by while in the system is the please/appease response. Pleasers learn to get by through putting aside their own needs, thoughts, and opinions. They quickly learned to defer to what others want and lose contact with their own desires. They played the “good girl” (or boy), the helpful one, the obedient one. The system told us this was what we had to do for us to be acceptable. Good Christians learn to be pleasing to the people who hold power – or are thrown under the bus when they are not pleasing.
Then, one day, we decided to leave the system (at least that is probably the case if you enjoy reading my blog). A please/appease response combined with leaving a high-control church is a very difficult situation. Pleasers hate to make people mad; sometimes so much that they won’t do the thing that needs to be done. High-control churches hate it when people leave, because it casts doubt on the system they have put all their metaphorical eggs into. They will try lots of tricks to manipulate the person to stay, including the usual suspects of guilt and fear and threats of punishment (“you’re going to lose your salvation!” “If you believe that you’re going to be expelled from the church!”).
Let’s recognize the courage it takes for a pleaser / appeaser to leave a system even though it’s going to make some people very, very mad. Their nervous system will register that anger as danger, and it will be so tempting to fall into old habits. But somehow, they do it anyway! Three cheers for the appeasers! I think it takes a combo of realizing the “outside” is safe (a pull) and getting really sick and tired of being in the system (a push). My book explores my personal process, which took years to finally commit to leaving.
But of course, threatening situations still occur, and the appeasers often still have a nervous system that registers conflict or standing up for one’s beliefs as danger. Enter topic 2! The please / appease response in the era of Trump and Covid.
The fawn response in high-tension socio-political climates
Again, if you enjoy my blog, you probably find Trump to be a very unsavory character. I’m also going to guess you don’t live in a bubble of anti-Trump land and were going to come across some awkward conversations at some point about the ex-president. Then, all of a sudden, Covid hit, which since it was politicized, made our private political beliefs feel very public. (Side note: obviously there’s not a 1-to-1 correlation of Trump supporters and anti-Covid protections, but you experienced this past year too, so you know how it felt). Were you wearing a mask? Did you believe in Covid at all? Were you socially distancing? What happened when the people around you answered “no” to those questions?
Us appeasers felt we were suddenly dealing with interpersonal stress every time we opened our doors, donned a face covering, or hopped on social media! I can only speak for myself, but throughout last year I felt triggered all the time and I struggled to understand why. Then add in racial justice protests, plus living in a town that dismisses Black Lives Matter, and my nervous system felt like a total mess most of the year! (I talk about this in another post: here is the promised follow-up!) I wanted so badly to stand up for what I believed, but my nervous system still registered conflict as dangerous. In addition, there was often a strong correlation between my old religious beliefs and the political / science beliefs I was bumping into all the time, so I wonder if my feelings from my old religion were really lighting my nervous system on fire.
Moving towards healing
I have found that being able to recognize the Fawn, or Please / Appease response as an actual method of coping with trauma immensely helpful for me. I can realize that when I’m sliding into people-pleasing or ignoring my own needs or desperately trying to avoid conflict, maybe I’m doing that because I’ve mistakenly identified a non-threatening situation as threatening. Or you know what? Maybe the situation is a little threatening, but I’m learning I have the strength and resilience to meet it head on. It takes time and patience (and years of therapy, lol) to emerge from please / appease: but recognizing what’s happening is the first step.
Thanks to this article for helping me wrap my brain around the fawn response.