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Understanding the Fawn Nervous System Response

You may ask yourself in an iteration of this question...

How am I so successful in all areas of my life on paper, but when I'm alone with myself, I constantly fear the possibility of the rug being pulled out from under me? Why do I feel the need to perform, act cute/nice when I'm around other people?

Such questions often plague those with a chronic people-pleasing behavior. A deeper understanding of this phenomenon can be gleaned from the study of our neurobiological wiring and the evolution of our nervous system.

A Dive into Our Brain's Evolutionary Layers

Our brain's development over millions of years can be viewed in three primary layers:

  1. The Reptilian Brain (brain stem) - This primal part of our brain is responsible for our survival instincts.

  2. The Limbic Brain - It houses our emotions and memories, with the amygdala playing a significant role in processing our responses to emotional stimuli.

  3. The Neocortex, especially the prefrontal cortex - This is the thinking, "rational" part of our brain, associated with higher-order thinking, planning, and social interaction.

Charles Darwin, the pioneering naturalist and biologist, often emphasized the role of fear in the survival of species. The 'fear response' is an innate reaction to threats, ensuring the continuation of species.

After Darwin, the realm of naturalism and neuroscience was enriched by numerous thinkers. Two notable female naturalists, Dr. Candace Pert and Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, made profound contributions. Dr. Candace Pert, a neuroscientist and pharmacologist, made groundbreaking discoveries about the role of peptides in the brain, suggesting that our emotions reside in our body and brain, interconnected through these molecules.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, shared a unique perspective on the brain through her personal experience of suffering a stroke. Her insights on the hemispheric functions of the brain and the interconnectedness of our nervous system have reshaped how many perceive brain functionality and human consciousness.

A Modern Take on Left and Right Hemispheres

Recent neuroscientific findings have debunked the oversimplified notion that the left hemisphere is purely logical and the right is purely creative. Instead, both hemispheres engage in virtually all cognitive tasks, although they process information differently.

From a psycho-spiritual perspective, these hemispheres are often likened to the masculine and feminine energies. The left, associated with linear thinking and action, aligns with "masculine" attributes of logic and assertiveness. Meanwhile, the right, linked to holistic processing and intuition, resonates with "feminine" qualities of nurturance and empathy. This balance underscores the interconnected dance of duality within the human psyche.

We must remember that the interpretation of masculine and feminine energies in psycho-spiritual contexts varies across cultures and disciplines.

Understanding the Fawn Response

Along with the fight, flight, and freeze responses, there is the 'fawn' response, a reaction characterized by people-pleasing or appeasing behaviors to mitigate threats. This behavior is an adaptive strategy to protect oneself. To understand it better, we can delve into the works of renowned researchers and therapists.

Pat Ogden, a pioneer in somatic psychology, suggests that traumas or adverse experiences can cause individuals to rely heavily on one specific survival strategy, even when it's not the most appropriate or healthy choice. For some, this chronic reliance manifests as a perpetual fawn response.

Deb Dana, a clinician and lecturer focusing on the Polyvagal Theory, elaborates on the intricacies of our nervous system's responses to threats. She speaks of the ventral vagal complex, associated with social engagement and connection. In essence, the fawn response is an overactivation of this system, where the person feels an overpowering need to connect, appease, or please as a way of ensuring safety.

The Role of Bioenergetic Body Psychotherapy

Wilhelm Reich, a bioenergetic body psychotherapist, believed that our bodily expressions are deeply interconnected with our psychological states. According to Reich, chronic people-pleasers often have body postures and patterns of holding tension that reflect their appeasing tendencies. These physical manifestations are not just symptoms but also reinforcing factors of the fawn response.

Unmasking the Fear Behind People-Pleasing

But what's behind this chronic appeasing behavior? At its core, it's a deeply ingrained fear—a fear that has its roots in early experiences and the very wiring of our brains.

When the limbic brain, particularly the amygdala, perceives a threat, it can override the prefrontal cortex's rational thought processes. As a result, instead of taking a balanced view of situations, individuals might feel overwhelmed by the perceived need to appease or please, even in non-threatening contexts.

The fears manifested by questions like "What if the rug is pulled out from under me?" often translate into tangible worries in our everyday lives. For instance, are you constantly afraid of losing your job, even when there's no apparent reason to feel this way? Or perhaps there's a looming anxiety over potentially losing the lifestyle you've painstakingly built, even when all seems stable. These persistent fears are not merely reflections of the present, but deeply rooted in our evolutionary need for safety and security.

However, it's crucial to recognize that sometimes our contemporary fears are also shaped by the environment and the role models we've had. Have you grown up around or closely observed individuals in your life who have often displayed behaviors of defeat? Such individuals may view life through a lens of perpetual pessimism, often projecting a sense of hopelessness or even contempt for life's challenges. Their behaviors and outlook, consciously or subconsciously, can influence our own perceptions and internal narratives.

When the fear response, shaped both by evolutionary instincts and our personal histories, is continually triggered in non-threatening situations, it can cultivate a persistent inner-critical dialogue. This inner voice might relentlessly question our worth, abilities, and even our right to happiness or success. Understanding the origins of this inner critic—whether it stems from our primal instincts for safety or from learned behaviors—can be the first step towards addressing and soothing it.

Addressing the Inner Critic

So, to the question: How can I stop the inner-critic dialogue of, 'I'm so annoying. Is this really the true me? How can I express myself without feeling like I'm 'fawning' or performing?

Awareness is the First Step: Recognizing the fawn response and understanding its neurobiological and psychological roots can be liberating. It's not "just you"—it's a deep-rooted evolutionary mechanism at play. External stimuli in your environment is always at play.

Mindfulness and Self-compassion: Practice grounding exercises and mindfulness to remain present and not get overwhelmed by external stimuli. Self-compassion exercises can help counter the inner critic.

Seek Therapy: Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT) stands at the forefront of therapeutic approaches that integrate the body-mind connection. Clinicians such as Christine Caldwell, Corinna Brown, and Trudi Schoop have all emphasized the transformative power of DMT in facilitating self-expression, healing and address trauma at its roots.

Engage in Body Psychotherapy: As Reich emphasized, our bodily patterns often mirror our psychological states. Engaging in bioenergetic exercises or therapies can help release trapped tension and modify postures that reinforce people-pleasing tendencies.

Strengthen the Prefrontal Cortex: Engage in activities that boost the rational, decision-making part of the brain, like meditation, problem-solving tasks, creative writing, or even certain brain-training games found on the phone, separately from social media which could reinforce negative people-pleasing and fawning responses in the brain.

In summary, the fawn response or people-pleasing behavior is a complex interplay of our evolutionary history, neurobiology, personal experiences, and bodily patterns. By understanding its roots and proactively addressing it, one can navigate life with a greater connected sense of authenticity and freedom.

Be sure to leave a comment if this blog post resonated with you.

In health,



Dana, D. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. W.W. Norton & Company.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Taylor, J. B. (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. Penguin Group.

Brown, C. (2007). Dance as a healing art: The body-mind connection. Dance and Movement Publications.

Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. W.W. Norton & Company.

Caldwell, C. (2005). Movement for life: A guide to dance/movement therapy. Dance Therapy Press.

Pert, C. B. (1999). Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. Scribner.

Schoop, T., & Mitchell, R. L. (1974). Won't you join the dance?: A dancer's essay into the treatment of psychosis. National Press Books.

Reich, W. (1972). Character analysis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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