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June 2014

FAWN: THE THREAT RESPONSE BEYOND FIGHT, FLIGHT, AND FREEZE

By Carl Shubs, Ph.D.

 

Popular culture has long recognized three typical patterns of response to experienced or perceived threat: fight, flight, and freeze. Each of them is fairly self-explanatory. In response to threat or actual attack (physical or emotional), the fight response is, "ll fight back!" The flight response is, "I'll run away" The freeze response is, "I'll become rigid and freeze, like the phrase "frozen in terror," or "I'll shut down and play dead," which is where the saying "playing possum" comes from. They are all forms of anti-predator adaptation.

None of these is a more effective self-defense approach than the others. They may also be coupled with one another, as when the gazelle's first reaction is to run away but he'll kick out and use his horns to fight back when the lion catches him. Each of these responses is also characteristic among people who feel attacked in interpersonal relationships. We all tend to have our own personal, though unconscious, typical style of this defense triad.

There is a fourth method that has long been recognized, but it is well captured in Pete Walker's description of "the fawn response," which he describes as "the fourth "f" the fight/flight/ freeze/fawn repertoire of instinctive responses to trauma. "(1) This term comes from the use of the word meaning "to try to gain favor by acting servilely; cringe and flatter [or] to show affection in a solicitous or exaggerated way (http://www.yourdictionary.com/fawn) and "to exhibit affection or attempt to please [or] to seek favor or attention by flattery and obsequious behavior." (http://www.thefreedictionary.com).

He particularly addresses this defense as being a central factor in codependency, where the dependent one will do whatever their depended-upon person needs them to do, or to be, in order for the dependent one to have his or her own basic needs met. This typically takes the form of the dependent child learning to be "a good little boy (or girl)," in one manner or another.

While Walker anchors the fawn response in codependency, I find it important to recognize that response within a broader perspective as being present in all of us and coming from the very basic dependency that we all have as infants. We are born dependent on others for physical and emotional nurturance, safety, and security. Yet, none of us is perfect, none of has perfect parents, and we all live in an imperfect world. We all have met with the inabilities of our parents and parent figures to meet those basic needs of ours, to varying degrees. When that has happened, we strive to adapt as best we can in an effort to have our depended-upon other take care of us in the ways we need to be taken care of at that time. We assimilate when possible and accommodate when necessary.

The fawn response, in my view, refers to the early and both consciously and unconsciously learned rules of survival in infancy and early childhood. Those imperatives concern who we can be, who we can't be, and what we can and cannot do if we are to be in relationship with significant others. The rules also address such questions as, "Who do I need you to be, and who do you need me to be, if we are to be in relationship with each other?" These accommodations have sometimes been referred to as the false self, but the view through the lens of the fawn response lends particular understandings to what that means, especially as it is distinct from fight, flight, or freeze.

These learned rules of selfhood and attachment shed light on how we go about finding love attachments as adults. They also help to enlighten what happens when problems arise and what enables some of those relationships to survive challenges whereas other relationships break up. As I work with patients, both individually and with couples, I find that looking closely at current difficulties through the lens of the lessons of attachment, assimilation, and accommodation is a powerful tool to help people understand where and how they may be stuck in their current situation. It is also invaluable in helping people to assess where and how they can change things to make their life better.

These and other issues concerning self, attachment, trauma, and reality are the focus of my upcoming book, Traumatic Experiences of Normal Development. It provides a framework for more clearly understanding how our lives have been shaped and perpetuated by those early experiences, how they continue to affect us as adults, and how we can use that information to transform our lives.
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(1) Codependency, Trauma, and the Fawn Response. The East Bay Therapist, Jan/Feb 2003, http://www.pete-walker.com/codependencyFawnResponse.htm, p. 1.

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Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D., is a psychologist in independent practice in Beverly Hills. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. You can contact Dr. Shubs at (310) 772-0520 or DrShubs@DrCarlShubs.com. His website is www.DrCarlShubs.com.

2014 Copyright by Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.

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