In the face of danger or stress, our bodies instinctively react in various ways, commonly known as the fight-or-flight stress response.

However, another lesser-known aspect of this stress response is the fawn response. The fawn response involves appeasing others to avoid conflict or gain acceptance, often at the expense of one’s own needs and boundaries.

It’s an intricate survival mechanism deeply ingrained in our psyche, with roots in early childhood experiences.

In this article, I’ll discuss people-pleasing and its relationship to the fawn response in more detail and provide strategies for overcoming it.

To watch the extended YouTube version of this article, click here.

Flight, Fight, Freeze… and Fawn

Traditionally, the stress response has been simplified into three main reactions: fight, flight, and freeze.

When faced with a threat, we might choose to confront it head-on (fight), flee from the situation (flight), or become immobilised and unable to act (freeze). However, researchers have recognised a fourth component: the fawn response.

The fawn response, also known as the “appease” response, involves seeking to please or appease others to avoid conflict or gain approval.

Rather than assertively confronting a threat (fight), avoiding it (flight), or becoming paralysed by fear (freeze), you may exhibit the fawn response, engaging in excessive people-pleasing behaviours to maintain harmony or ensure psychological safety.

Understanding the Development of the Fawn Response

Several factors contribute to the development of the fawn response:

Early Childhood Experiences

Children raised in environments where their emotional needs are consistently dismissed, invalidated, or met with hostility may learn to prioritise the needs of others over their own as a coping mechanism.

They may internalise the belief that their worthiness depends on their ability to please others.

They may also develop people-pleasing tendencies as a way of supporting a chaotic parent or by watching and unconsciously absorbing people-pleasing behaviours of a parent or caregiver.

Attachment Styles

Attachment theory suggests that early interactions with caregivers shape our attachment styles, influencing how we perceive relationships and regulate emotions.

Children with insecure (anxious) attachment styles, characterised by a lack of trust and emotional responsiveness from caregivers, may develop a heightened sensitivity to interpersonal dynamics and a tendency to prioritise others’ needs to maintain a sense of connection.

There are four attachment styles:

  1. Anxious (also referred to as Preoccupied)

  2. Avoidant (also referred to as Dismissive)

  3. Disorganised (also referred to as Fearful-Avoidant)

  4. Secure

People with an anxious attachment style often adopt people-pleasing tendencies.  

Social Conditioning

Societal norms and cultural expectations also play a significant role in shaping people-pleasing behaviours.

From a young age, individuals are socialised to prioritise harmony, conformity, and cooperation in social interactions. 

Messages promoting self-sacrifice and putting others’ needs before one’s own are pervasive in many cultures, reinforcing the tendency to engage in people-pleasing behaviours.

Of course, people-pleasing can be adopted by both genders. However, social conditioning typically affects females, especially in patriarchal cultures.

The Impact of the Fawn Response

While the fawn response may initially serve as a protective mechanism, enabling individuals to navigate challenging social situations and maintain relationships, it can have detrimental effects on mental and emotional well-being over time:

Boundary Violations

People who habitually prioritise others’ needs may struggle to assert their own boundaries, which can lead to feelings of resentment, burnout, and overwhelm.

They may find themselves constantly overextending themselves to accommodate others, neglecting their own needs in the process.

Low Self-Worth

Chronic people-pleasing can erode your sense of self-worth and identity, and you may become disconnected from your authentic desires and values.

The constant quest for external validation reinforces the belief that your worthiness is contingent upon meeting others’ expectations, perpetuating a cycle of approval-seeking behaviour.

Difficulty Saying ‘No’

Individuals with a strong fawn response may find it challenging to assert their needs or say no to requests, fearing rejection or abandonment.

This reluctance to set boundaries can lead to feelings of powerlessness and resentment as they struggle to prioritise their own well-being.

Overcoming the Fawn Response

Breaking free from the grip of the fawn response requires a conscious effort to cultivate self-awareness, self-compassion, and assertiveness:


Reflect on past experiences and patterns of behaviour to gain insight into the roots of your people-pleasing tendencies.

If you’re a regular follower of my content, you’ll know I’m a great believer in the power of journaling. Journaling your experiences, thoughts, and behaviours can help you see triggers and patterns.

Write about your people-pleasing experiences so that you can recognise the triggers and patterns and choose to do something differently going forward. Awareness is everything. You can’t change what you aren’t aware of.

In the extended YouTube version of this article, I discuss a 6-step process with journal prompts to help you identify and overcome your people-pleasing tendencies.

Setting Boundaries

Practice asserting your boundaries and saying no to requests that conflict with your values or overwhelm your capacity.

Communicate your needs clearly and assertively, recognising that setting boundaries is an act of self-care, not selfishness.

Setting boundaries can be challenging for some of us, so I do have a video on boundary setting in the workplace. Click here to watch.

It’s important to point out that:

The people who have the most to lose by you setting boundaries will be the ones who are the most upset when you do.


Be kind to yourself as you navigate unlearning deeply ingrained behaviour patterns. Practice self-compassion and cultivate a sense of worthiness independent of external validation.

The best tool I’ve found for managing people pleasing is as soon as you recognise that you’re falling into a people pleaser pattern, ask yourself:

Am I doing this because:

a.         I want them to like me, validate me, or to keep the peace – in other words, I’m expecting something in return or

b.         Because it’s the right thing to do, and it will potentially make me feel good.

If the answer is a. (which it often is), don’t do it. If it’s b. of course, do it but without any expectation of gaining anything in return.

Seeking Support

Surround yourself with supportive friends, family members, a therapist or coach like me who can provide validation, encouragement, and guidance as you work to break free from people-pleasing patterns.

Limiting time around negative people can help you move away from people-pleasing tendencies. Again, that’s where the boundary setting comes in. I know it can be difficult if those negative people are close family members or even work colleagues with whom you have no choice but to spend time.

However, you can learn to set boundaries with them.

The Wrap-Up

Overcoming the fawn response and the inevitable people-pleasing accompanying it is not an easy journey. Still, it is a necessary step towards reclaiming agency over your life and cultivating authentic, fulfilling relationships.

By prioritising self-awareness, self-compassion, and assertiveness, you can break free from the people-pleasing cycle and embrace your true self with confidence and authenticity.

Your worthiness is not determined by your ability to please others but by the inherent value of your unique, authentic self.

Remember, if you find yourself leaning towards people-pleasing, ask yourself whether you’re doing it so the other person will like you/think better of you or because you REALLY want to.

What Next?

In the extended video version, I discuss the fawn response and people-pleasing tendencies in more detail. I also include a six-step process with journal prompts to help you identify and overcome your people-pleasing tendencies. You can watch it here.

If you do head over to YouTube, please be sure to hit the ‘like’ and ‘subscribe’ buttons. It seems like such an insignificant thing to do, but it really does make a huge difference in helping me grow the channel.

As always, thanks for your continued support.

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