Owning my truth

by Marius Bakke — Sat 12 November 2022

(This is yet another mental health post; if you are here for Guix please stay tuned, there will be technical content again soon.)

At school we learn about the "fight, flight or freeze" states of the nervous system. Most, if not all, vertebrates exhibit one of these responses when facing a threat.

Social animals such as humans have another little-known threat response called "fawning". It is a kind of "people pleasing" state: suppressing ones own needs to serve others.

Fawning can be commonly found in abuse victims. If you have an abusive partner, it makes sense to tune in to that other persons preferences and act out whatever you think causes the least amount of harm. It is a rather brilliant strategy.

Yesterday I wrote about calming my deceitful "inner child". Making peace with that part of me has allowed me to uncover some of the underlying fawning dynamics that caused me to start lying and manipulating at a young age.

At that point I was already a world-class people pleaser, but it was not enough to prevent my caretaker from making me feel miserable. In retrospect I realize nothing could ever be good enough: he was just a very angry person. But the innocent young mind kept developing new strategies to try to make him happy.

In late teens I realized manipulating other people was obviously not a good way to behave and managed to largely overcome that habit by actively training myself to say "the truth" no matter what. It took several years: in the beginning it was strange to "observe" myself lying to others about even trivial things. I knew it was wrong yet kept doing it anyway!

("the truth" was mainly just stating facts: I did not learn to speak my truth)

I did not recognize my people pleasing behavior until earlier this year. Even after becoming aware I did not know how to stop it. I would again "observe" myself bending over backwards to make people around me "happy", even at great cost to my own needs and integrity.

Brains are remarkably good at automating tasks. While fawning is a sort of nervous system response to a threatening social situation, it quickly becomes an automatic habit when you live with abusive partners over time. Like most habits, the best way to change it is by replacing the routine with something else.

With fawning, the "cue" is any situation where you have to make decisions that affect both yourself and others. The "routine" is to consider what is best for your abusive partner -- or for chronic fawners such as myself -- what is best for anyone except myself. The "reward" is not getting abused.

The key to overcome fawning then is to recognize own needs and bring them in the cognitive loop. Consider what feels good (or bad) instead of just habitually do or say what you think the other person wants to hear / minimize conflict.

This is a completely new territory for me and feels both scary and exciting. For the first time in over 30 years I feel that my voice has autonomy. That my opinion matters. Which is an absolute requirement to plan a future, or even just to validate own feelings.

It might still take a while for me to naturally assert my needs and desires in conversation. But now that I'm aware of the habit and recognize the trigger and routine, and most importantly know a "healthy" routine to replace the fawn response with, I expect rapid improvement in this area.

Just thinking this way is a huge shift in perspective. Getting my needs met is no longer about "how do I convince this person to do what I want" (which is a side effect of fawning, still only considering the other persons feelings), but becomes "how can I express myself in a way that reflects what I want and need".

If you have read this far, I'm sorry. It's all pretty mundane. There is a paradigm shift in my thinking process and journaling helps me validate it.

I hope to provide more interesting and fun content soon!