Sometimes I have a hard time dealing with anger. This is true both when it arises in myself and when it arises in others. Things are definitely improving on this front, and I’ve even come to appreciate and respect anger. It has actually been a great teacher in many ways. Even so, when a colleague of mine got angry recently, the way I reacted was probably predictable based on my history. What was different, though, was my ability to witness myself as I moved through the experience.
As anger arose in my colleague, my first response was to desperately try to placate her in various ways. My boundaries fell away. It was suddenly all about an urgent need to ‘please’ her. When that didn’t work, I quickly cascaded down into other responses: first, an urge to run away, followed by a sense of helplessness, dread, and finally dissociation. As I watched myself move through the phases of response, I became consciously aware of the pattern on a much deeper level than ever before. For me, revelatory experiences such as these happen in a sort of rapid succession, like dominoes tumbling, where I suddenly see the pattern woven into the fabric of events throughout my life.
The situation had triggered in me a chain of automatic responses that had been wired into my autonomic nervous system (ANS) in childhood as an effective survival strategy. The ANS is the part of the nervous system that coordinates an awe-inspiring range of activities (breathing, digesting, oxygenating, metabolizing, immune system functioning, sensing, moving, etc.), all without our conscious mind needing to understand or control these processes. It is also the aspect of the nervous system that manages our automatic responses to threat. The Polyvagal Theory proposed by Stephen Porges suggests that there are three branches of the ANS, sometimes referred to as the “triune” nervous system:
1) The parasympathetic branch (most ancient)
2) The sympathetic branch (newer)
3) The social engagement branch (newest, most modern)
The theory says that the three branches respond to stressful situations hierarchically, in order of the evolutionary age of each branch. That is, the first response to stress will be from the newest branch, the social engagement system (social/relational tactics). If that response does not work, the next response will be from the sympathetic branch (fight or flight). And finally, if that fails, the final response will be from the parasympathetic branch (freeze/immobilization, dissociation, collapse). Intellectually understanding the hierarchical responses of the ANS is one thing; experiencing those responses in ourselves with some capacity to witness them as they are happening is quite another. The incident with my colleague has been a great teacher for me in this way.
As I’ve reflected on the experience, one aspect that sticks out for me is my immediate ‘please’ response to try to avoid aggravation of the situation. This is an often overlooked survival strategy we can learn to employ as children, especially in ongoing stressful situations. Roland Bal speaks brilliantly about this in his blog, “The Pitfalls of Empathy as a Please Response”:
The ‘please’ response is a prevalent one especially with complex trauma or CPTSD and is acted out as a result of high stress situations that have often been drawn out. Any survival response like fight, flight, freeze, or please/fawn, is to manage a state of danger or potential danger. The please response is the most thoughtful and complex response to deal with [danger] as it encompasses monitoring and feeling into other people’s states of mind (often the aggressor) to anticipate a situation and respond by adapting and pleasing to evade confrontation or before a situation becomes aggravated. … When you resort to a please response, you take on responsibilities which aren’t yours to bear.
Of course, in the situation with my colleague, I was in no real danger, but as a young child, my survival depended upon those around me being somewhat mentally and emotionally stable. When my colleague got angry, I unconsciously perceived a similar kind of threat as I had experienced in childhood and responded automatically with what had worked then. First, I attempted the ‘please/fawn’ strategy. Then, when that did not work, I had the urge to run away. When I quickly realized there was nowhere to go, I experienced helplessness, dread, and eventually some level of confusion and dissociation.
The stress response of the social engagement branch is not often talked about very clearly. More often, just as with the parasympathetic branch, the healthy functioning mode is emphasized. We are all probably familiar with the “rest and digest” mode of the parasympathetic branch. Indeed, often the goal of therapy is getting into this healthy functioning mode of parasympathetic. For those who are aware of the social engagement branch, the focus is usually on the relational field with the goal of establishing safety, connection, and support. When a safe and healthy relational field is established, the healthy mode of the social engagement system can engage, and when this happens, the stress responses of the other two branches are down-regulated. But what about the stress response of the social engagement system? What does that look like?
I have actually only heard a few examples related to this topic, such as our tendency to work together in groups in the case of an emergency, our natural impulse to comfort those who are distressed, or the mother’s instinct to gather the children together to protect them from danger. These kinds of responses are certainly wired in as part of a healthy social engagement system response to stress. But based on my recent experience and having pondered this topic for quite a while now, I think that as children we also ‘figure out’ and employ many other kinds of survival strategies at the social engagement level. If a strategy works, I think it gets reinforced as the “go to” first response of the social engagement system to similar types of threats. Importantly, many of these strategies are not necessarily healthy for us as adults. Case in point is my ‘please/fawn’ response in the situation with my colleague. This strategy worked well enough as a child, but in the situation with my colleague, it meant that I dropped my boundaries and took on more responsibility than was mine to bear.
These types of responses are very complex and nuanced strategies that we use to survive difficult and unique circumstances in childhood. The social engagement branch is the newest and most sophisticated branch of the autonomic nervous system, so it makes sense that its survival strategies would be highly nuanced, complex, and interlinked with our cognitive mind, ingrained belief systems, and other aspects of our neurology. Also, the fact that the ‘please/fawn’ strategy was my first response in the situation with my colleague suggests to me that it was a social engagement system stress response. That is, if the theory of hierarchical response of the ANS is valid, then it makes sense that my first response would be a social response (the ‘please/fawn’) before cascading down the chain into my flight response (sympathetic) and finally helplessness and dissociation (parasympathetic).
This could be a very rich topic to explore in more depth, as I’ve seen and experienced in myself numerous other examples of what could be considered the social engagement system’s stress response. When I feel threatened, my automatic reactions almost always begin with some sort of attempt to manipulate the situation at a social level. And I’ve also noticed there are ingrained belief systems that influence and maybe even drive these strategies.
Can you relate to this? What sorts of strategies do you employ at the social level when you feel stress or threat? Leave your comments in the section below.
Interesting discussion. I’ve heard of the “tend and befriend” response which I think is synonymous with what you are describing in the social engagement system stress response. I wonder about the extent to which oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone) affects our reactions and whether concepts like “trauma bonding” can be explained through this lens. The quote you shared highlighted something that I hadn’t considered, which is whether the placating is a more advanced, frontal lobe process of empathy, or a less nuanced conditioned series of responses most likely to defuse the situation.
Yes, interesting thoughts! “Tend and befriend” is a social engagement system response, and I think the trauma bonding is also, and not necessarily healthy in the long term. Oxytocin is the hormone of the healthy mode of social engagement system but interesting thoughts about how it could be involved in nuanced ways. Thanks for your comments!
Thanks so much for writing about this topic – there is precious little information available! I’ve also been mulling this over for years. I think because the trauma theories are proposed mostly by men, brilliant though some of them are, they overlook the importance of the tend and befriend/please response.
Thanks! How can we talk about it?
Just my thoughts. Wonder why no one explores which part of the brain is involved with social engagement and which part in the fawn response. Surely there must different processes involved. The fawn response is repressive while the social engagement is expressive. One is harmful to the other is beneficial to our minds and bodies. According to studies the cancer type of personality is a fawner.
Interesting thoughts, Cheryl. I would stay that while the fawn response doesn’t generally work as well for us as adults, it did work well as children in to help us manage and get through the situation we were in at the time. And actually it can still work in some ways for us. I find it’s helpful to bring appreciation rather than animosity to our survival (threat) responses, as they are actually quite intelligent, even if they are no longer appropriate in the current context. If met with appreciation and curiosity, they can begin to let go.
It’s a very interesting question about what parts of the brain are engaged when we are socially engaged vs. when we are in the “fawn” threat response. I’m curious too!
Thank you very much for your insightful article about the fawn response. I have a question for you. I follow your reasoning that the fawn response begins as a stressful/dysfunctional response from the ventral vagus nerve because fawn does try to relate to the person.
I have a nagging feeling that the sympathetic nervous system is also involved. Fawn is manipulative, so I understand why you say fawn originates in ventral vagal.
Do you have any comments that fawn also can have a sympathetic component?
Thank you again for your great article.
Hi Phil, this is such a thoughtful and insightful question! I’d love to hear more why you are thinking the sympathetic branch could be involved in the please/fawn response… I’m intrigued! I certainly could not claim to know “the truth” one way or the other, but I will say that the main aspect which makes me think it is a social nervous system response is that it is manipulative in quite a complex and “relational” way, meaning the person has to actually learn and adapt and “feel into” how the other is responding and acting in order to effectively “please” them. The sympathetic branch’s stress response seems a bit more straightforward to me, in that it preps the body for fight or flight and in so doing effectively shuts down relational skills and the pre-frontal cortex in the process. That’s my thinking anyway… again, I’d love to hear more from you and your thinking on this.
Thank you for your thoughtful and generous reply to my question. I fully agree with your answer of the fawn response being from ventral vagal. Previously I didn’t have an image of what dysfunction from ventral vagal would be. I had previously thought of ventral vagal as being only functional. The fawn response can easily be seen as maladaptive (if used in a way that keeps us small) relational action.
I can be projecting myself into my inquiry of whether the flight response is involved in fawn. My primary 4 F response is flight and I also am a fawn person too. Of course, freeze and fight can also come up. 😉
What an adventure to be human!
Thank you for helping me on my journey,
I’m following up on our exchange. I just read in wikipedia about ventral vagal. It said: “The polyvagal theory calls this [the ventral vagus nerve] the “smart vagus” because it associates it with the regulation of sympathetic “fight or flight” behaviors by way of social affiliative behaviors.”
This bit of information goes along with the inkling that I had about the sympathetic nerve having some part in the fawn response.
Thanks again for your time and help,
Hi Phil! Yes indeed, in my understanding, the social nervous system (ventral vagal complex), when engaged in its healthy response, does down-regulate the stress responses of both the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch of the ANS. This is why re-engaging the social nervous system in its healthy functioning (i.e., building the capacity for healthy relating) is so important in working with trauma responses.