What is «to serve»? How is it related to trauma and the «fight or flight» response?

You’ve probably heard of fight-or-flight responses to distressing situations. You may also be familiar with the freezing tendency. But there is another defense or survival strategy that a person can have: the fawn.

When our brain perceives a threat in our environment, our sympathetic nervous system takes over and a person may experience any or a combination of the four F responses.

Enlaces Patrocinados:

What are the four F’s?

THE fawn the response usually occurs when a person is attacked in some way and tries to appease or appease their attacker to protect themselves.

A combat response is when someone reacts to a threat with aggression.

Flight it is when a person responds by fleeing by literally leaving the situation, or symbolically by distracting or avoiding a distressing situation.

A to freeze the response occurs when a person realizes (whether consciously or not) that they cannot resist the threat and detaches or becomes immobile. They may distance themselves and not pay attention, feel disconnected from their bodies, or have difficulty speaking after feeling threatened.



Read more: More than half of Australians will experience trauma, the majority before the age of 17. We have to talk about it


What does the fawn look like?

Previously known as appeasing or pleasing people, the term servility was coined by psychotherapist Pete Walker in his 2013 book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.

A fawn response might look like:

  • pleasing people (doing things for others to get their approval or to please others)
  • being overly dependent on others (difficulty making decisions without input from other people)
  • prioritize the needs of others and ignore your own
  • be overly agreeable
  • have trouble saying no
  • in severe cases, dissociation (disconnection from the mind and/or body).

While there isn’t much research yet into this response, the fawn response is seen most in people who experienced complex trauma in their childhood, even among children who grew up with emotionally or physically abusive caregivers.

Servility is also seen in people who are in situations of interpersonal violence (such as domestic violence, assault, or kidnapping), when the person needs to appease or soothe a perpetrator in order to survive.

Servility is also different from the other F responses, in that it appears to be a uniquely human response.

The woman with the tattoos crosses her arms
Servility is seen more in people who have had emotionally abusive caregivers.
Annie Spratt/Unsplash


Read more: Emotional abuse is a pattern of hurtful messages that build parenting skills that could help prevent it


Why do people flatter?

Research suggests that people flatter for two reasons:

  1. to protect themselves or others from physical or emotional harm (such as childhood trauma)
  2. create or enhance the emotional connection with the perpetrator of the harm (for example, a caregiver).

This type of response is adaptive to the time of the traumatic event(s): by placating an aggressor or perpetrator, it helps the person avoid harm.

However, if a person continues to use this type of response long-term, as an automatic response to everyday stressors (such as difficult interactions with your boss or neighbor), it can have negative consequences.

If a person continually tries to placate others, they may have trouble with boundaries, form a cohesive identity, and may not feel secure in relationships with others.



Read more: Trauma is trending, but we need to look beyond the buzzwords and address its ugly side


What can I do if I flatter?

Since servility is typically a response to interpersonal or complex trauma, using it in response to everyday stressors can indicate a need for healing.

If this is you and you have a history of complex trauma, seek psychological support from a professional trained in trauma-informed practice. Trauma-informed means that counseling is holistic, empowering, strengths-focused, collaborative, and reflective.

Evidence-based therapies that are helpful after trauma include:

Depending on where you live, free counseling services may be available for people who have experienced childhood abuse.

Establishing healthy boundaries is also a common goal when working with fawn response, which you can do on your own or in conjunction with a therapist.

If this article has raised any concerns for you, or you are concerned about someone you know, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.



Read more: What is EMDR therapy and how does it help people who have experienced trauma?


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