Healthy Mind

If You Find Yourself Over-Explaining Trauma, It Might Be a Sign of ‘Fawning’—Here’s What That Means

Photo: Stocksy / Sergey Filimonov
Are you a people-pleaser? Or do you have a close relationship with someone who is? More specifically, do you feel the need to over-explain yourself in an attempt to make others feel more comfortable? While it’s a great quality to want to show up for the people you love and be empathetic to their needs, setting aside all of your own hopes, wants, needs, and worries in an attempt to satisfy someone else’s is never a good thing. In fact, it’s a trauma response known as fawning.

At its core, Caroline Fenkel, LCSW, chief clinical officer at Charlie Health, says that fawning (aka over-explaining yourself) is an attempt to avoid conflict. “Fawning is a way that survivors of abuse have trained themselves (consciously or not) to circumvent abuse or trauma by trying to ‘out-nice’ or overly please their abuser,” she explains. “Long-term, fawning can show up in all relationships, not just abusive or traumatizing ones. This can lead to harmful patterns of codependency and other interpersonal relationship issues.”

Curious to learn more? Ahead, uncover everything there is to know about over-explaining trauma patterns.

Fawning, Explained

The term fawning, which refers to over-explaining trauma, was first coined by Pete Walker, MFT. “Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of  others,” he wrote in The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD. “They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences, and boundaries.”

In short, psychotherapist and Stryke Club co-founder Nicole Brooks, says that as a result of PTSD, some people revert into extreme forms of people pleasing in which they over-explain themselves in an attempt to diffuse conflict and reestablish a sense of safety.

“This makes sense if you experienced situations in which you felt threatened and unsafe,” says Brooks. “The brain goes into the fight or flight response initially, which means your amygdala (which is responsible for processing fear) hijacks your prefrontal  cortex (which is the part of the brain that allows you to think rationally). You react  quickly and want to either run away or freeze like a deer caught in headlights.” Fawning comes into play after experiencing this fight or flight response one too many times.

“You might develop a protection or defense mechanism to ensure you are not in that frightening situation again,” Brooks says. “Fawning is the defense mechanism that allows you to people please and assuage those around you to avoid any confrontation.” However, in the process of over-explaining yourself, you’re inadvertently opening yourself up to more trauma that could surface down the road.

The Logic of Fawning

Remember: Over-explaining is a trauma response designed to avoid conflict. “The logic behind fawning is that if a person does anything and everything they can to please the person who is trying to hurt them, that person might not follow through with the abusive behavior,” says Fenkel. “Our primal trauma responses are fight, flight, and freeze, and fawning is a way to circumnavigate the need to do any of those altogether. These trauma responses are immensely taxing on our nervous systems, so the body attempts to protect itself by fawning. It's like putting on a mask and hoping the abuser doesn't recognize you behind it.”

The Reasons for Over-Explaining Trauma

According to neuroscientist and inventor of BrainTap Patrick Porter, PhD, the need to over explain yourself typically stems of childhood trauma. “If the person felt they were abandoned in some way, they learn to please others so others won’t leave them,” he says. “Sometimes they’ve been so polarized by the fight, flight, and freeze responses that over-explaining behaviors develop unconsciously during childhood.”

Additionally, Dr. Porter points out that fawning behaviors can develop as a result of being told to hide your emotions as a child. After hiding emotions for so long, they can become tricky to process. “If a person has a difficult time identifying their feelings or they’re not in touch with their feelings because they’ve been taught to depersonalize emotions, eventually they can develop fawning or over-explaining behaviors,” Dr. Porter says. “If the person feels like they were brought up in a home where they were not allowed to be a leader and they never took that leadership role, they identify in a way that they become a follower and pleaser.”

Another reason someone might develop a tendency for fawning is due to feeling unheard—as a child or an adult. “When we didn't feel heard or were made to feel at fault, intentionally or unintentionally as a child, a desire to not feel at fault developed and can manifest into people-pleasing as an adult,” explains sex, relationships, and mental health therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT. “Additionally, someone who has experienced gaslighting at any age can develop a habit of over-explaining so that the person you're talking to can't distort your words. Plus, depending on the type of trauma experienced, sometimes we over-explain to avoid disappointing someone by giving them your reasoning.”

How To Stop Over-Explaining Trauma

Since over-explaining can lead to abandoning yourself in favor of pleasing someone else, it’s important to find ways to overcome the fawning phenomenon.

When working to surpass the need to over-explain yourself, Dr. Porter and Fenkel agree that slowing down is key. “Slow down before you launch into an over-explanation,” Fenkel says. “Try to pay attention and recognize how you're feeling—Anxious? Afraid? Stressed? Be patient with the process and trust that your feelings are just information, not facts. Just because you are feeling afraid to be direct or set a boundary, for example, does not mean you're in imminent danger. That's your trauma response talking. Assess the situation, take a deep breath, and try to resist the urge to over-explain or compromise on your boundaries.”

If you find this particularly challenging, Dr. Porter adds that adopting a regular mindfulness practice can help. “Most people have a problem with past, present, and future information at the subconscious level because that level of the mind doesn’t discern time in the same way,” he says. “Basically our subconscious stores all experiences together like beads on a string. So, if you pull on one bead, you get all the choices.” If you can slow down your thoughts, however, he says that you’ll have a better chance of monitoring your responses. “This is where mindfulness and BrainTap come in,” he adds. “They help you train the brain to slow down and sort out what is actually happening in any given situation, replay those choices in your mind in a way that is useful and positive, and, with practice, you can disassociate from fawning and respond with natural and normal responses.”

And if that doesn’t work, seeking professional help most certainly can.

At the end of the day, many things can contribute to a person over-explaining as a result of trauma. That said, Dr. Porter says that the biggest reason by far is that someone has child abuse trauma.

“It could be verbal, physical, or environmental, and it causes trauma that produces the fawning response,” he says. “In my experience, the biggest reason people have become over-explainers is they were trained by their parents or loved ones that love was conditional and they had to work for it as a child. There were always conditions to love. This leads someone to be an over-explainer and produces trauma at the mental level.”

It also leads people to feel like they don’t belong, which is yet another reason why someone might over-explain themselves. “In many ways, over-explaining indicates that someone doesn't feel as if they deserve to take up space in their conversations or relationships,” says Fenkel. “Over-explaining yourself can also mean that you're afraid of any conflict or negative reaction to what you're trying to talk about or ask.”

The good news is that therapy can help. Since fawning is often the result of some sort of trauma—whether in childhood or adulthood—speaking with a licensed therapist can help to make sense of the trauma and eventually mitigate the PTSD that triggers the over-explaining trauma response.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with a counselor online.

If you or someone you know are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence and are in need of support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224.

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