We are vulnerable to powerful people who can make us feel that we are safer under their protection. Young athletes having sex with a coach or college students with professors shows the power of being singled out as promising and receiving special treatment or grades. Part of “grooming” is the lure of charm which may later be combined with threat and intimidation.
Younger women having sex with an older, more powerful male is a common experience in our culture. Henry Kissinger famously said “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”. Sex and power are both rewarded by the dopamine system in the brain. For the satisfaction of attachment needs in human beings, we need touch and we also require nourishing emotional connection. We need someone to see and appreciate us for who we really are, especially those of us who felt unsafe and unseen growing up. Having the attention of a powerful person is a heady feeling to which many of us are drawn. This mechanism can be at play in many areas. We bask in the glow of approval from our boss and don’t look closely at their ethics. We want our parents to be proud of us and go into a line of work that doesn’t interest us. We find ourselves in relationships where we don’t feel we can authentically show up as who we really are.
Fawning is a survival strategy that includes: sucking up or ingratiating ourselves; placating others to try to keep them calm; become overly helpful to appease someone who might otherwise threaten or hurt us; codependent; over-functioning; overly generous by using our time, affection or money in a way that is over-the-top, not reciprocated or not reasonable given the relationship; aligning ourselves with more powerful people
We can let go of shaming ourselves for these patterns at the same time as we work to see and stop them. We take a deep breath, stop ourselves from fawning, and see what happens next.
We feel humiliated when we fawn which makes it another high stakes area in which we are extremely vulnerable to shaming ourselves or being shamed by others. If you choose to do the inquiry, stay steady and grounded in your body and breath, and use the tools like Tapping and Focus Shifting to help you remain present and kind with yourself. If this inquiry generates strong shame or self-loathing, stop and get some support. It might not be the right time for you to work with this on your own.
I betrayed myself. I betrayed someone else.
This is something we have all done in small and possibly large ways. What does it feel like in your body as you hear those words? What memories come up? Stay present in your body and breath. You are here in this moment inquiring into the past.
What motivated you? Were you conscious of that at the time or were you acting unconsciously? Looking at the situation now from the perspective as an adult, what is your best guess as to why you acted in that way?
What was going on in your life then? What would motivate fawning and betraying yourself or someone else during that time of your life?
I submitted and fawned to protect myself. I felt it was my only option.
I fawned to get something I wanted. To be included. To feel valued.
I am embarrassed now that I “fell for that person’s manipulation”. I could have stopped it. I should have done something different.
I feel shame for what I did.
Shame can be appropriate concerning a behavior. Related words are guilt or responsible for. What is happening in your body right now? If you are collapsing into a shame posture, bring yourself out of it by lifting your gaze and opening your chest. Take a few deep breaths and stabilize before continuing. Shame is a powerful feeling that is meant to stop behavior that will result in being shunned. Shame is toxic when it feels like it is you, as a person, who is fundamentally wrong or shameful.
If someone you love was in a similar situation and behaved the same as you did, would you try to understand why they acted that way? Would you judge them as inherently bad and unworthy and write them off? This is what we are doing to ourselves when we internalize toxic shame. By working with this skillfully, we can stop shaming ourselves as a person. This allows us to feel regret and take responsibility for a behavior that was wrong or unskillful without feeling we are fundamentally broken or wrong.
Check in again with your body and breath. What is the energy in your body? What are your thoughts and are they critical and catastrophic or more reasonable?
Put your hand on your heart, feel the warmth of your hand, and say: I offer kindness to myself. I can afford to see clearly. I am strong enough to stop fawning. I accept myself and I am on my own side.
Pete Walker coined the term fawning as a fourth survival strategy, along with flight, fight and freeze. For more, please see his excellent book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.