One of the most interesting aspects of Pete Walker’s work, which I have been delving into this past year, is his trauma typology. He identifies four defense mechanisms which people use to cope with trauma: fight, flight, freeze/dissociate, and fawn.
There is a great description of each type on Pete Walker’s website here. There is one- the fawn type- which seems to have a lot of overlap with the HSP trait. As Pete Walker observes:
“Some become almost psychic in their ability to read their parents moods and expectations. This then helped them to figure out the best response to neutralize parental danger.”
The fawn type learns to stay safe not by fighting, running, or staying still, but by merging and camouflaging the self. Fawn types are “people pleasures”, and the journey to healing for these people is a return to oneself. It is being able to be ourselves around others, which means being able to know how WE feel and what WE want when with people, and being able to disagree.
“I know the difference,
Between myself and my reflection.
I just can’t help but wonder,
Which of us do you love.”
Evanescence, ‘Breathe No More’
I want to talk a little bit about my experience as a fawn type. It started with this sense that I was “acting” my way through my encounters with people and that seeing people was “work”. It was no longer something I looked forward to or enjoyed, but rather something to put on the “to do” list and tick off. It was a strain. Friends wanted to see me far more than I wanted to see them because they got a lot more pleasure out of the relationship. For me, being a fawn feels like being a rotten, hollow tree, or a living corpse. There is no flesh; you cannot feel any deep emotion, only this ever-present tension which you try desperately to disguise. You have put all your own genuine emotions aside for what you think others expect of you so you’re not rejected; there’s no “you” in the relationship to reject anyway. Often there is no emotion behind my hugs and I only do it because other people want it. Often I appear attentive and interested, when really I don’t give a shit. Often I don’t know what I feel until I’m on my own and I finally get a chance to breathe. The sad irony of being a fawn is that you make other people feel so comfortable, while you yourself are tortured by anxiety.
You are so lonely even in other people’s presence. You want so badly to connect, but then when you’re with people you want so badly to go home. You realise you’re all alone and nobody really knows you, even people who have been your friends for years. Your relationships feel so unfulfilling and you wonder what is missing. The answer is: YOU!
For the first time the other night I managed to assert myself with a friend of six years about the way he was touching me. I wrote him a text at night when my defenses were down and I was truly in touch with how I felt. Fortunately he is a safe person to be assertive with, and did not respond with anger or rejection. It is people like him who will help to re-program the unconscious belief I have that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all my needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.
To break free from this soul sucking defense style, Pete Walker writes that we must stay present to the fear that triggers the self-abandonment. When the fear/panic comes up, we may then practice some of the flashback management steps he lists on his site here.
I think it’s also important to break down any misbeliefs we have around matching our feelings with others. I found this paragraph in Pete Walker’s book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving” helped me a lot in realising I’m not necessarily helping somebody by being so “empathetic”:
“… what I am recommending here is resisting the pressure to pretend you are always feeling the same as someone else. You do not have to laugh when something is not funny. When a friend is feeling bad, you do not have to act like you feel bad. When you are feeling bad, you do not have to act like you feel happy.
Thankfully, I learnt a great deal about this from being a therapist. When my client is depressed, it does not help him if I adjust my mood and act depressed.”