Tag Archives: healing

Traumatic Response: Fawning

Sometimes I think I’ve been collecting puzzle pieces my whole life, never knowing they would all fit together someday to make a complete picture. Now, as I approach my 60s, I have enough pieces that I begin to see larger patterns I never knew were there.

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In a recent post I mentioned Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I’ve read it cover to cover twice, and I can’t possibly convey to you how it’s changed my life.

Walker explores, in depth, four human responses to trauma: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

Fawning is defined as exhibiting affection, attempting to please, or seeking favor or attention. It’s a behavior we often see in dogs, especially when they’ve just done something naughty. (No self-respecting cat would ever fawn!)

We develop trauma responses when we’ve experienced some kind of emotional or physical trauma, and many times we develop them so young we don’t even remember the trauma, thus spending our lives unaware of (or deliberately denying or avoiding if we do remember) the wounds that have locked us into ineffective and destructive behavior patterns.

The four trauma responses are not cut and dried. Most of us exhibit some facet of more than one or all of them when we’re faced with situations that trigger our fear. However, we usually favor one or two responses and unconsciously fall back on them when we feel threatened.

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Each of the four trauma responses involves a cluster of easily recognizable behaviors. Much of my writing, both in this blog and creatively, has been, at its root, about trauma response. I just never knew it until now.

My very first post was about pleasing people. Pleasing and appeasing people has long been a compulsive behavior I can’t control well and am not entirely conscious of. Pleasing and appeasing others is the trauma response called fawning.

With the help of Walker’s book and graphics on his website, I have been able to put several pieces of my problematic behavior together into fawning. I’m chagrined to find it in every aspect of my life.

This is life-changing work.

I will probably manage my trauma responses, including fawning, for the rest of my life, and that’s okay with me. Most internal work, I find, is a practice rather than a quick destination to complete health and blissful forever-after happiness.

Here are the ways fawning shows up in my life. Do any of these sound familiar?

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Apologizing all the time about everything. Apologizing to chairs for bumping into them. Apologizing to other drivers for using the road. Apologizing for making anybody wait for any reason. Apologizing to the cats when they get under my feet and trip me. Apologizing for needing any kind of service or assistance. Apologizing for being less than perfect. Apologizing for being alive, taking up space, having a thought or feeling, breathing the air or using a chair. Apologizing for not reading everyone else’s minds and anticipating their every move, feeling, desire, and need.

Obsequiousness (being obedient or attentive to an excessive degree). This is a tough one. I can’t really find the line between excessive and adequate, and I’m not sure I want to because adequate feels so inadequate. But then, I’ve always felt inadequate, even when (especially when?) being excessive.

I notice this mostly at work, where I’ve unconsciously made a mission out of greeting and bidding farewell to every patron, patient and staff member who enters or exits the pool facility.

On the one hand, we as a team work hard to make the pools a friendly, safe, and respectful environment, and that’s good. On the other hand, I know many of our patrons don’t need me to be so obsequious. Some people are engaging, friendly, and even demanding of our attention. Others, not so much.

As an experiment, I’ve been refraining from saying good-bye to every departing person. If we happen to make eye contact, or I’m helping them manage their mobility and the door or having another direct interaction, I wish them well and say good-bye. If I’m guarding the pool and they walk by without engaging me, I don’t speak. Our population includes many elderly people, some of whom are, not to put too fine a point on it, grouchy! I suspect they find obsequiousness a pain in the ass. (I find it so, even though I can’t help myself sometimes.) I’ve been letting them come and go in peace, too.

The sky hasn’t fallen. I doubt very much if any of my coworkers have noticed this small change in my behavior. I doubt if the people we serve have noticed it, either.

I notice two things. One is how anxious it makes me to stop being so obsequious. The other is how much less exhausting I find my hours at work.

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Servitude. This is a big one at work, too, but also at home. This also played out in my parenting in negative ways, I regret to say. Once again, I have a hard time finding the line between being of useful service in the world and edging into slavery or excessive servitude. I reason that with the world in such a mess, how can we hold anything back when it comes to being of service? Yet at a certain point we can lose ourselves entirely in service to others. My challenge is balancing service to myself and service to others, and I don’t know a woman who doesn’t or hasn’t at some point faced this challenge.

This issue is further complicated by the fact that people with Cluster B behavior demand and expect complete servitude and retaliate in various devastating ways if they don’t receive it. Also, women are burdened with a heavy cultural expectation to be of unending service to their families. Emotional labor is part of this service.

Trying too hard. Trying to be the best person I can be. Trying to protect people. Trying to communicate my love to people. Trying to make a positive contribution. Trying to never be a burden or an inconvenience. Trying to make sure nobody feels “stuck” with me. Trying to please. Trying to be perfect.

As I recently asked in a post, when have we tried hard enough?

As I identified in that very first post: fawning doesn’t work. We learn it when we are powerless and depend on the adults around us to care for us, but it’s not a life strategy. As adults, it doesn’t keep us safe or loved. It’s entirely disempowering. It strips away our dignity and sends a message to others that we don’t value ourselves. If we don’t value ourselves, why should anyone else value us?

Recognizing these various fawning behaviors and the underlying anxiety and fear triggering them has been a revelation to me. Challenging them by refraining or making different choices is an even greater revelation. Dredging automatic patterns from unconsciousness into consciousness is weary work and reveals how deeply-rooted my fawning behavior is. No wonder I find socialization so exhausting.

Now that I notice my own fawning, I’m sad to recognize it frequently in others. Fawning is a common human trauma response, especially for women.

Peter Walker is helping me disengage from fawning in such a way that my natural inclinations toward love and service, empathy, fairness, and listening are more effective and genuine and less exhausting and personally destructive. This is a win for everyone around me as well as myself.

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Past Happy

It’s interesting, the way I begin with a book report in this series of posts on happy, and wind up squarely in my own current experience.

For the first three posts on this subject, go here, here, and here. All posts are inspired by Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness.

Seligman suggests that enduring or baseline happiness (as opposed to momentary) has much to do with our thoughts and feelings about our past, present, and future. He spends some time going over research about what comes first, our thoughts or feelings, but I won’t go into that here. What I know is that thoughts are not feelings and feelings are not thoughts, and my understanding of the science is that they’re so intimately connected neurologically and chemically we’re not yet sure which comes first or exactly how they influence each other.

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As I age, I understand my past better and better. I like to think part of this is my own increasing wisdom and compassion. When we’re young, it’s easy to be judgmental, rigid, and unforgiving. It takes time and experience to gain perspective and accumulate our own history of injustices committed; not-so-great choices; and unthinking, unintended cruelties. If we are aging with grace and learning as we go, we also learn about patterns of behavior in ourselves and others. We figure out it was never all about us and the adults in our childish lives were not gods, but ordinary people.

The past is past, but our memories endure, and we’re all shaped in significant and sometimes painful ways by our childhoods. Some of us live in the past, repeating dysfunctional patterns and unable to move on. We believe our past experience determines our future experience. We know nothing will ever work out for us because we believe it never has. We’re hopelessly cursed, or doomed, or oppressed.

However, research clearly indicates that our past does not determine our future, and Seligman proposes that changing the way we think about our past can increase our present enduring state of happiness in powerful ways.

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This is not easy work. In my own experience it’s a practice rather than a destination. It requires courage, strength, and determination to excavate our past, along with a good dose of honesty. It stretches our compassion. We must put aside our tendency to play the victim and take on some responsibility. I did not embark on this sort of work in order to be happy. I did it out of a desire to understand myself, others, and my experience; I wanted to heal. I also wanted peace, which is a defined component of happiness.

Shaking off the belief that our past necessarily determines our future, along with developing gratitude and forgiveness, are key in changing the way we think about our past. Seligman doesn’t write about acceptance, but for me it’s an additional important piece.

Gratitude. Forgiveness. Acceptance.

Looking back through these lenses is challenging, to say the least. Some of us look back on long years of pain and some at a few significant events, but if we are unhappy about our past it feels impossible to approach it with gratitude, forgiveness or acceptance, let alone all three. And we don’t have to, if we don’t care about being happy or healing or moving on.

I do care about those things, and I can attest to the relief of thinking about the past with gratitude for teachers and lessons learned rather than bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, though challenging, softens my tendency to curl up into a hard shell and never come out again. At the end of the day, others don’t victimize us and life is not against us. Life happens to us, and to other people, and we all churn around together, bumping into one another, sometimes with a kiss and sometimes with a knife. Life is chaotic and messy.

For me, acceptance is closely linked with forgiveness. Things happen. We all make choices. Most of us are doing the best we can most of the time. To be human is to be imperfect. If we cannot accept ourselves and others for the complex, inconsistent, occasional hot messes that we are, we are choosing to be chronically unhappy and dissatisfied, not only with life in general, but with ourselves.

The hardest work of all, for me, has been applying gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance to myself. I suspect a lot of people can relate to this. Underneath my hurt and anger with others about parts of my history are rage and abuse towards myself. As I heal that, my grievances with others have fallen away.

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When I think about my past and learn how it influences my level of enduring happiness, I feel satisfied with how much work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. My goal at the time wasn’t happiness, exactly, but healing is healing, and I’m happier walking around with scars than I was with open wounds. I’m certainly much happier now than I’ve ever been before, which means I’m more peaceful, and peace was one of my goals.

The best part about working with our past is that we have all the power. We know where we’ve been and what our experience was. We can make choices about how we think about our history. We can refocus and reframe. We can consider our memories from the viewpoint of others who influenced us instead of just our own. We can forgive ourselves for what we did, what we said and who we were, and in doing so we can forgive others.

The past is over, but its influence is not gone. We can choose what that influence will be on our present and future. Will we let it drag us down and hold us back or make it part of the wind beneath our wings?

Past happy. My daily crime.

Freedom

Gratitude

This post has been simmering in the back of my mind for some while. I’ve taken my time approaching it because it seems to be something of a landmine for some people.

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In simplest terms, to be grateful is to be thankful.

It’s easy to be thankful for the things we enjoy and make us happy. Thankfulness can also be a matter of routine or ritual, as in the case of saying grace before meals, or a display of good manners, like thanking a service person.

Those are the smiling, kindly faces of gratitude.

But gratitude can also wear the aspect of a hag, and then we’re in darker, grittier territory.

Part of the experience of life and relationship includes pain and trauma, there’s no getting around it. We all have a haunted cellar in our soul in which we have suffered. Sadly, many people live in that cellar, picking their scabs, reopening their wounds, and competing with others to win the Most Victimized and Best Haunted Cellar awards.

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That’s a choice.

I’m not suggesting our feelings of disillusionment, pain, rage, fear, shame, betrayal and self-pity are wrong or inappropriate, nor am I victim blaming or shaming, taking some kind of high moral ground, or minimizing the tragic challenges and traumatic experiences we face in life.

Our inevitable wounds are not the point. The point is what we choose to do with them. Do we heal them or not?

It’s important to acknowledge that some people don’t want to heal. Some find the payoff for chronic bleeding too seductive to want to stop it. I don’t understand this, but I know it’s so, and I respect that choice.

We can be a motionless victim or we can practice gratitude and allow it to sweep us forward. We can’t do both.

If we do want to heal, we have to give up blame. This is a big thing to let go of, and some will choose not to. Again, that’s a choice I can understand and respect. It’s also a dead end. If we insist on holding tight to our blame, we’ve cut ourselves off from the possibility of full healing. As long as we blame others or ourselves, we’re refusing to acknowledge our own responsibility and power.

Blame and responsibility are not the same thing. When I say responsibility, I don’t mean we’re necessarily responsible for our trauma. I mean our responsibility for how we handle it, and our responsibility for our feelings. Taking responsibility for our lives is empowering. Blame leads us into an endless loop of victimhood and/or self-hatred.

We can use addiction, compulsion, and other self-destructive behaviors to numb, distract, or forget our wounds, but none of those coping mechanisms help us reclaim our power.

Healing takes time and patience. Sometimes it takes years, or even decades. There is no shortcut around our feelings. We often need support. Healing can be a messy, exhausting, ugly, extremely vulnerable business.

Healing, like relationship, is a crucible, a dark womb in which we transform our wounds into scars. Gratitude is one of the agents of that transformation, but it can’t show up until we’ve begun to actively work through our feelings.

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Gratitude and forgiveness are often hand in hand. Note I did not say forgetfulness, but forgiveness. Scars are permanent reminders of our journey, but they need not be a matter of shame. We can choose to view them as medals of honor. We can choose to relate to others out of the empowerment and wisdom our scars represent rather than the wounds that caused them.

In every experience there is something to learn. We learn about ourselves. We learn about others. We learn about the way the world works. We learn about power. Learning makes us bigger, stronger, wiser, more effective, and more powerful in our lives. If what we learned is bitterness, we’re still blaming. We haven’t taken enough time, or found the right support, or finished the journey from wound to scar. Bitterness does not grow gratitude. It’s not empowering. It makes us small and shrivels our hearts.

We can’t control what other people do, but we can choose to see those who hurt us as teachers, learn the lesson, graduate, and be grateful. We can look back on the most uncomfortable experiences in our lives as the most meaningful and growthful.

Our culture encourages us to be dissatisfied with our lives as they are. We’re trained from childhood in longing and envy rather than in gratitude. The truth is that if we can’t be thankful for what we have right now, this minute, we won’t be thankful for more money, a different body, a different job or house or car.

Thankfulness is acceptance of whatever our circumstances are in the now, even if they’re difficult and we need to change them. Especially if they’re difficult and we need to change them. If our lives aren’t working and we know it, we can be grateful for accepting what is (we’re miserable) and take advantage of the opportunity to learn to manage our power in such a way that we can make positive change. Misery is highly motivating.

So often we have an ideal in our heads, or a set of expectations, that keeps us reaching for more, or different. The practice of gratitude requires us to settle down and take a good long look at what we have, what we are, and where we are. What is there to learn? What can we be grateful for? Expectations are devoid of gratitude, because they don’t reflect reality.

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Gratitude takes strength and courage, especially during dark times of pain, fear, and despair. It’s also one of the most powerful choices we can make. It leads us into the light. It comforts our raw feelings. It keeps us focused on joy, and the simple gifts in each day.

In seeking gratitude, we go deeper than we’ve gone before, far beyond the fact of our wounding. We reclaim our power, not over what happens to us, but how we use such events and circumstances to water and feed our best selves. To feel gratitude is to come fully into peaceful alignment with our lives, whatever they have been, whatever they are now, whatever they might be.

Thank you.

My daily crime.

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