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How We Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn in Difficult Conversations: Adapting A Learning Mindset

When our sense of self depends on being “right,” challenging information from opposing viewpoints is often seen as a threat. Instead of being able to listen and respond thoughtfully, we automatically react. I think these reactions can be categorized into the same categories used when neurobiologists talk about how humans respond to more visceral threats (like 🐻 and 🧛🏼!): fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

A flow-chart with straight arrows describing threat-based mindset: response to challenging information. Fight: "You are wrong! I am right!" Flight: "Let's talk about something else." Freeze: "Uh..(doesn't talk or listen/learn)." Fawn: Performative surface-level engagement

A learning mindset or “growth mindset” seeks opportunities to learn and grow, and it values in self and others the capacity to learn, reflect, respond thoughtfully, and change one’s mind when new information shifts old beliefs.

A flowchart showing learning mindset: response to challenging information. Image shows doodle lines pointing from listening to learning to doing to speaking, and back again.

I’ve seen the whole gamut of these reactions in the comment sections of my posts on white fragility and antiracism in the past two weeks (and if I’m honest, I’ve felt most of these responses pop up and need worked within myself from time to time as we press forward into this important, difficult work).

But let me say this: If you are white and conversations about white privilege elicit a threat-response, that’s evidence that something we value is being threatened – and that something is implicit, internalized white supremacy. My challenge to myself and others is this: Can we go full circle and, when threat-based responses rise, apply a learning mindset to listen to what the feeling is actually telling us about our world and ourselves?

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[Instagram comments on this post provided an interesting Question and Answer Series: ]

Whare are these categories of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn?   

Our understanding of the fight or flight response continues to expand as researchers learn more about the vagus nerve that runs through our body and controls these responses. The fight or flight response has been documented in both animals and humans for over 100 years. Initially, researchers noticed that living organisms, when confronted with a life-threatening threat, would default to either fighting back or running away.

As our understanding has developed, both biologists and human brain researchers documented a “freeze” response. In animals, the freeze response can be seen in many species. If you’ve ever seen a nature video in which a lion turns to defend its limp, freshly killed dinner, and that animal jumps up and flees while the lion is distracted, that’s an example of the “freeze” response. In humans, the freeze response might look like being frozen and unable to move when a mugger demands valuables or locking up completely during a sexual assault. Read a research study exploring the freeze response for more information.

The most recent addition to these categories is the “fawn” response. Fairly “new” in the literature, it came to be added as researchers studying trauma and fear, found that some people (often, individuals who’ve experienced previous victimization) automatically react with docile, obedient behavior.

 

Can we get rid of our fear-based response?

Fear, and the ways we respond to it, happen on a level beyond our consciousness. The neurons and nerves signaling us to fight, run, freeze, or fawn fire exponentially faster than our conscious thoughts move. That doesn’t mean we’re destined to stay with that response though.

The ways we learned to respond to threat will probably always be our knee-jerk reaction – and I think that’s not a bad thing. In so many contacts, it’s there to keep us safe. We don’t “need” that fear response when we are working through complex interpersonal and cultural issues, but it has a role to play in our life. Growth is developing the capacity to check in with ourselves when we notice our reaction taking one of these paths, self-soothe in healthy ways to help our brain know that we are safe, get curious about what we are experiencing, and coach ourselves over into a learning mindset.

Is decision paralysis a type of “freeze” response?

Possibly, but not necessarily. Everyone makes decisions a little differently and having a different decision-making process likely is not a problem unless it’s causing distress or interpersonal problems. Neurodiverse folks, in particular, may make decisions a little differently or need more resources to decide. Culturally, we want to jump to decisions quickly, but there are those among us who make decisions more slowly, deliberately, and only after reviewing more information – and I, for one, often find myself grateful for the wisdom they arrive at.

How do we make it safe to shift to a learning mindset?

I think this is the billion dollar question? I don’t profess to have an answer to this question, that’s deep with complexity and nuance, but I can answer from my own personal experience. My journey from being insular and argumentative to being someone who can respond a bit more often with curiosity than defensiveness has leaned heavily on these resources:

#1. THERAPY. Therapy can help up build a stronger sense of self that doesn’t need to be “right” to be “ok.”

#2. RELATIONSHIPS WITH “OTHER” PEOPLE.  Friendship with people I used to consider a distant “other” invited me to question my own beliefs and assumptions.

#3. EDUCATION. For me, once there was a crack in my armor and some wiggle room, education really opened my eyes. (The book “Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality” was a major eye opening experience for me, as someone emerging from the mindset I’d been taught by my ultra-conservative education.)

#4. GROWTH MINDSET FOR KIDS. Kids are more likely to thrive when they are coached to have a growth mindset-not an achievement mindset – from pre-school on up. This mindset is not only helpful for social and emotional reasons, but also to prepare kids for a workforce that rapidly transforms and constantly requires the adaptability to learn new skills.

The Fawn Response

You may have heard about the “Fawn” response before, or it may be a surprising addition to my visual on how we tend to Fight, Flight, Fawn, or Freeze in response to encountering difficult experiences in relationships and community. Because this is a new concept for many, I wanted to take a few moments to define what, exactly, the Fawn response to fear looks like and how we can work with a tendency towards fawn responses in ourselves or others.

How the Fawn Response Works

The fawn response is a term originally coined by Pete Walker, M.A., author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. According to Walker, when confronted with stress or a perceived threat, someone with a fawn response tends towards self-abandonment to keep themselves safe. Instead of running away in flight or gathering themselves up for a fight, a person who fawns will respond to threat with flattery, caretaking, or seeking connection with the very same person who they perceive as a threat. When a person has a fawn response to threat, stress, or trauma, it’s usually because in past experience they learned that caretaking or flattery were effective at reducing the impact of stress/trauma/etc.

“[the fawn] types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.”

In the fawn response, a person abandons their sense of self to meld into the greater context around them for a sense of safety (or for actual safety). For some, this is how they have been taught to exist: to abandon a piece of themselves in order to minimize the opportunity for violence or harm.

ImportantImportant The fawn response is adaptive for many people in unsafe homes, relationships, or communities, as well as many people living with marginalized identities. Although the fawn response can be harmful to healthy relationships, doing the work of healing from an automatic fawn response first requires that it be safe to not fawn in response to a threat.

The experience of many people with marginalized identities is that dominant culture requires a fawn response in order for them to be safe. In this context, a fawn response is an adaptive response to systemic, ongoing trauma that we all have a role in healing.

How to Recognize a Fawn Response:

Red Flags

The fawn response, in oneself or in others, can look like

  • “going with the flow,” whether that is the healthy thing to do or not.
  • having poor boundaries when it comes to requests from others.
  • People-pleasing to avoid disappointment, conflict, or a negative reaction.
  • “Showing up” and participating in relationships but withholding emotional investment, vulnerability, and opportunity for rejection.

An example of the fawn response:

The fawn response is a common defense for people who have experienced childhood abuse or adult domestic violence. One example of a learned fawn response might be a child who grows up in a home with a domineering and verbally aggressive parent who learns that although they can’t fight back or run away, they can avoid being the victim of the parent’s rage by becoming their parent’s confidant, entertainer, or emotional support. Similarly, a partner in a relationship with a physically abusive spouse might, if unable to leave or lacking agency to assert boundaries, might shut down and ignore their own needs, values, and boundaries in order to soothe the volatile partner.

In each of these situations, the fawn response makes it possible to survive an experience that cannot be overcome or escaped.

Who is most likely to respond with a fawn response?

Anyone can respond to stress or perceived threat through a fawn response. In fact, all responses (fight, flight, freeze, and fawn) are healthy survival instincts. When threatened, our brains automatically know that these responses are our best chance for survival.

The fawn response- as with other trauma responses- become problematic when they become so automatic that our brains respond in this way to not just life-threatening danger, but also to uncomfortable conversations and/or healthy relational conflict. If someone has a tendency to lean on a fawn response to handle everyday discomfort, it may be rooted in trauma.

Specifically, over-relying on the fawn response could be an indicator that in one’s early life, they were robbed of the opportunity for a healthy sense of self to develop. They did not learn self-care nor self-compassion, and instead learned self-protection by way of pleasing someone else.

Why the Fawn Response Often Isn’t Helpful

Sometimes, the ability to go along with the crowd actually strengthens relationships – like the willingness to sit through a romantic comedy once in a while with your partner even though you hate romantic comedies- but when we use agreeableness, avoidance, flattery, or caretaking to avoid having to “take up space” in a relationship, that manifestation of the fawn response can actually weaken relationships.

In abandoning our own needs/wants/desires instead of honoring them, we can lose our sense of self- and a healthy, attuned partner may notice our absence and response with confusion, longing, or even rejection.

Strategies to Heal a Maladaptive Fawn Response

The first step to recovering from an automatic fawn response is to recognize it’s a problem and begin noticing when your behavior of flattery, caretaking, or not-self-asserting doesn’t actually match your internal desires.

Understanding and identifying the consistent compulsion to respond in a way that pleases and eases an uncomfortable situation can help us shift our behavior.

Therapy is often very helpful for individuals dealing with an unwanted fawn response. Often, the fawning behavior is so automatic that we may not notice the behavior or recognize that it conflicts with our desires. Instead, individuals with a fawn response might just feel depressed, anxious, or aware that relationships aren’t very satisfying.

One way therapy helps is through helping us notice our internal experience and having compassionate, authentic feedback about our behavior in relationships. If we tend to fawn in relationships to avoid conflict, it probably won’t take long for that dynamic to be recreated between therapist and client.

Therapists call this working in the “here and now”– it refers to processing a dynamic that is active in the therapy session instead of the “there and then” work of rehashing previous experiences. A here and now focus in therapy can be incredibly powerful, helping us understand our behavior and, more importantly, disrupting our pattern with a new experience.

Therapy for a maladaptive fawn response can help restore a sense of self and practice of healthy self-expression, while also validating and exploring the past experiences that created the pattern of responses.

Additionally helpful, in his therapy practice with those who have an automatic fawn response, Pete Walker suggests 13 cognitive, affective, somatic and behavioral techniques to utilize that replace defense responses.

Tend & Befriend Vs. Fawn Response:

What is the tend and befriend dynamic?

Tend-and-befriend is an attachment-caregiving response to stress. Social scientists note that humans- particularly women- respond to stress by seeking social contact with others to meet essential and emotional needs. Unlike the fawn response, the Tend and Befriend dynamic is a generally adaptive (i.e. helpful) response to regulate a part of the brain known as the HPA axis. Through attachment seeking, brains can generate soothing oxytocin instead of stress-induced cortisol and adrenaline.

The “tend-and-befriend” concept studied by researchers (like UCLA’s Tend and Befriend study and Harvard’s Study of the use of Tend and Befriend behaviors as an alternative to fight or flight) normally refers to the female response to calm an offspring. However, researchers note that all humans are neurologically wired for this response and the sex-based difference may be based on socialization rather than biology.

How Fawning is Different from Tend & Befriend Response:

While both the fawn response and tend and befriend behaviors seek safety through affiliation with others, they differ in that tending and befriending is a healthy, adaptive behavior to stress that can increase wellbeing while the fawn response is a trauma response, based in cortisol and/or adrenaline, in which our own needs might be abandoned in order to lessen the impact the perceived threat or stress.

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