I really wish that we were talking about Pascal, the chameleon from Rapunzel. He is one of my favorite Disney characters! Has anybody ever discovered a stuffed animal Pascal? I’ve looked high and low but cannot find one anywhere! So if you know where I can buy one, please let me know. Clearly it’s a very urgent matter!
But I digress. What I really want to talk about today are the human versions of chameleons – those whose thoughts, beliefs, and opinions can change depending on their environment. Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, first coined the term “fawning” as a trauma response. Fawning is essentially described as being a chronic people pleaser. Some trauma survivors will engage in fawning, or people pleasing, as a way to diffuse tension if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. But what I don’t think many people know is that fawning extends beyond saying “yes” to everything and everyone’s requests. People pleasers are also the kind of folks mentioned above – the ones who tend to have different beliefs or different personalities depending on who they are around.
For example, someone who is fawning could look like your friend that tells you all the time she is a Democrat, but in a room full of Republicans she will quickly turn into one of the most passionate Republicans the world has ever seen. Someone who is fawning might also look like that cousin of yours who complains constantly about how much she hates this one person in her friend group, but the second she hangs out with that person she acts like the two of them are best friends.
As a whole, the public generally doesn’t take kindly to people who behave like this. It creates a sense of mistrust and frustration among people when they see that somebody acts one way one minute, and is completely different the next minute.
Now I am not saying that every single person who engages in these types of behaviors is fawning, because that simply isn’t the case. But what I am trying to say is that sometimes people aren’t trying to copy others and sometimes people aren’t changing their beliefs and values out of a desperation to fit in. What this behavior actually could be is fawning, or in other words, a type of trauma response.
I myself can be like this when I feel threatened in some ways. Recently, I found myself in a situation that felt tense, uncomfortable, and downright awkward. The topic of conversation was very triggering to me, and I had many triggering events take place in the hours leading up to this conversation. Thus, I was already on edge. The people around me were in a heated discussion about something that I actually found offensive. On a good day, or even a so-so day, I might have chimed in and dared to have an opposing viewpoint. But on this day in particular, I was already having such a bad day, and between the topic of conversation and the harsh tone of everyone’s voices, I was triggered beyond belief. I did the only thing I could do to try to get the conversation to come to a close: I simply agreed with them. Yep, against everything I believe in, I became the person that I thought that they wanted me to be and I agreed with what they were saying, even though, if you were to ask me to speak on that same subject any other day of the week, I would have given you a completely different opinion.
I didn’t agree with them because I had an overwhelming desire to fit in, and I didn’t pacify them by siding with their beliefs because I wanted to make friends with them. It was more so that I felt emotionally unsafe, and feeling that way put me in such a high state of emotional distress that I said whatever I could to get myself away from the situation. Fawning, like fight or freeze or flight or any of the other trauma responses, is a survival tactic. I wasn’t able to fight or flee the situation, so I became a chameleon and I blended in with my surroundings in the best way that I knew how.
Millions of folks do this. I’ve watched it time and time again, and while a younger version of me might get annoyed and accuse that person of not being genuine, the person I am today realizes that so many people engage in fawning because they have found themselves in situations that trigger their previous traumas.
While I have come a very long way in my PTSD recovery, I was reminded by this event that there is more work to be done. Even though I am tempted to sit in a pit of shame and self-loathing, I’m refusing to do so because my brain did whatever it could to keep me safe in the moment, and that is no reason to feel ashamed. So here I sit, pouring vulnerability onto the page in the hopes that I can educate other people on this type of trauma response, as I think it is often misunderstood and creates a lot of tension in relationships.
To those of you who have never engaged in fawning and don’t quite get it, please be patient with us.
And to those of us who struggle with fawning, let us try to have more compassion for ourselves. We have brilliant minds, built for survival. And although fawning doesn’t always serve us well, it did keep us safe and alive for many years. We are all a work in progress, but please oh please, don’t forget to love yourself throughout the journey just as much as you’ll love yourself once you’ve arrived at your destination.