Doe is Dear

My Fawn Trauma Response & Humble Surrender to Safety

In my email the other day, I received this nugget of wisdom from Henri Nouwen:


“As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” ...My dark side says, “I am no good... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.”

Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” [1]


Can you relate to this?

These words are screaming at me right now…


“Cristina, you are Beloved!!!”

And yet, how easily I forget. My self-rejection has broken me over and over for years. For so many years I lied to myself. Each lie was another layer I created. Another mask I hid behind. I ‘believed [I] could handle [my] own affairs, even though [I was] making a mess of [my life].’ [2] After all these years of lying, how could I even trust myself?


The term Fawn came to mind when I read this and that is why I am so glad to be reminded of Whose I am and who I am. If you haven’t heard of Fawn before as a trauma response, let me try and explain. You’ve probably heard of two or three: “Fight, Flight & Freeze,” which are all normal, physiological responses that we were created to have in order to save us in times of trouble. My trauma comes from multiple childhood traumas, which are often referred to by professionals as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These led to a diagnosis of CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The lesser-known trauma response that can occur is Fawning. Here’s a more in-depth explanation:


“The fawn response points to people-pleasing… this response is developed in childhood to avoid mistreatment from adults… People who fawn tend to deny their preferences and boundaries to make other people happy. They unconsciously believe that the price for relational security is compliance. They think that if they make others happy, they will be in less danger… When our brains are still developing, we will do anything to avoid danger. The fawn response is to seek safety by merging with the perpetrator. So as children, we do what we are told, even if it isn’t what is right or good for us… Fawning is also sometimes associated with codependency. Both are emotional responses that are triggered by complex PTSD.” [3] People-pleasing gave me a false feeling of being trusted and loved and it also made me spiral deeper into someone I didn’t even recognize.


Thing is, I never moved into processing my trauma and healing my CPTSD until my late 30’s. So, my people-pleasing-knee-jerk reaction runs deep. In fact, after decades of feeling ‘that I am a nobody’ or that I had no worth, I only recently began to see that this feeling of worthlessness was merely one level of it. My reactions and my isolations often come from a much deeper place.


One of the weird things I’m learning about being a human…

we’re really more like an onion with all those layers. (Or even, a cucumber with anxiety!)





(***memes for your pleasure - not created by me)

Despite my ‘best efforts,' I started to recognize patterns re-emerging of Fawning: giving too much of myself, lowering my personal boundaries that I have been working on for years to create, patterns of seeking to feel loved instead of loving… as well as other responses listed here. Freeze responses were also coming to the surface, specifically dissociation and defensiveness.


I came to believe that because my main focus and purpose is to grow in my relationship with God, to truly grow in liking and loving myself, and then overflowing that love into my relationships with others… well, in all honestly, I hoped that this deeper unsettling feeling, that I knew was hiding under the layer of unworthiness, was something that would disappear if I kept doing the right things for the right reasons. And yet, this feeling of discomfort still lingered. And soon, like the Kool-Aid man breaking through the brick wall, it all came crumbling down.


I had to stop DO-ing and start BE-ing. And suddenly I found words for it.


I don’t feel safe.

My negative self-talk and harmful self-rejection led me to believe I was unworthy for so many years. Through God's Grace, I really feel that I am Beloved. It was no longer a matter of worthiness that was shaking my core.


It was this more basic, and yet terrifying feeling of not feeling safe.


But, I am an adult. Not that frightened child seeking love and security. Taking a step back, I could clearly see that my reactions were Fawning. I was acting as if I was that scared child seeking security, and ‘merging with people’ so that I could feel safe and loved. I wrestled with this for a while through prayer. Eventually, it became clear that I wasn’t fully surrendering. I was still trying to control… most things.


Control is a tool I learned early in life.

Drinking was a way of controlling the uncontrollable... or so I thought.


In reality, it was merely a temporary jump in the timeline, and I usually landed somewhere a little bit older, a bit more bruised, and a lot more… confused, shameful, dissatisfied, angry, and uncomfortable in my own skin. Safety was the last thing on my mind when I drank. In fact, I often put myself in more situations where I was anything but. In my careless, irrational thinking, I was at least in control for a little while. Those jumps in the timeline were my way of side-stepping the real issues. I wasn’t even thinking about healing because I was still missing some basic needs. I was lacking safety. Safety needs are the second tier in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, part of the “deficiency needs.” In short “deficiency needs arise due to deprivation and are said to motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the motivation to fulfill such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied.” [4]


The longer I numbed out the pain instead of fulfilling my needs, the more I made things worse.


After I received the words I had been missing, “I don’t feel safe,” I realized two other things were missing:


humility & willingness.

Did I really want to let go of control, surrender to God, and be willing to allow change? I thought about the words of Jesus from John 5,


“Do you want to get well?”


I mean, yeah of course I do… but also… creature comfort.


I knew what needed to be done. I had to get down on my knees once again and ask for Help. I needed the sweet Grace and metanoia I experienced at the beginning of my sobriety journey. That full ‘embrace [of] both a recognition of sin and sorrow for it and hearty amendment.’ [5] When it came to safety, I knew this ‘hearty amendment’ was something I was still trying to control; my actions were proving that I in fact did not want to get well. I wrestled even more with this in prayer. The thought of needing to feel safe, and yet having to let go of control… I mean, can you see why this was causing me anxiety? The more I came to pause and reflect in reality, not from the point of view of the unsafe child within me, through prayer, meditation, and journaling, I could clearly see that my actions were not following what I knew deep inside.


When my people-pleasing is acting up, it means something is causing me to feel unsafe.


And instead of trying to control my surroundings, I need to become humble and willing.

Not an easy thing to do for a person working through trauma healing.

I have heard it said that “God cares more about our purpose than our comfort.”


Richard Rohr puts it this way, “Most of us won’t move toward any new way of thinking or actual change until we’re forced to do so, which usually means some form of suffering or disturbance that upsets our habitual path.”[6]


Yay. More suffering. /sarcasm


So I turned to God and asked: "how can I literally, physically, emotionally, and viscerally remind myself that I am safe?"


How can I fulfill my/Your purpose?


It turns out, I’ve had the tools all along… but tools don't do much when they just sit in the darkness of a closed, dusty box. So I started trying some tools out and applying them to this situation. And I found it wasn't a straight line or just one tool.


Here's a combination of tools I continue to use today:

Prayer, AA meetings, Journaling, Spiritual Direction, EMDR, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,

and of course, probably my most favorite kind of therapy… tattoos.



I need a visual reminder that I Am Safe.

I need that Pause to clear my head and Breathe.

I need to hear those words from within:


“Cristina, you are Beloved.”


Multiple kinds of therapy + consistency = Humble Surrender*


Now, when I’m feeling Fawn-y, I can look at this reminder, remember the pause, remind myself of where my Strength comes from, and humbly be willing to surrender to this moment, to my God.

In this space, and only in this space, I am able to choose a healthy response instead of my default, knee-jerk reaction, because it truly is the ‘the core truth of my existence.’


In this space, I can give myself grace while I expectantly pray for Grace and Mercy and Peace to fall afresh on me.


In this space, I can humbly repent and want change instead of control.


In this space, I am willing to get on my knees in order to get well.


In this space, I am reminded that Safety is granted in surrender.


In this space, I can choose to reject self-rejection.


In this space, I know I am loved and worthy.


In this space, I am Safe.