When Tend & Befriend Go Too Far: What You Can Do About It In Two Simple Steps

By Krista Resnick- Master Life Coach.

“Fawn is the process of abandoning self for the purpose of attending to the needs of others.” – Dr. Arielle Schwartz 

Fawning is taking care of others by suppressing our own emotions, needs, or identity and was first named as a survival response based on the research of Pete Walker.  

Some people also refer to this as ‘tend and befriend.’  In my opinion, tend and befriend is a normal response for many of us, especially those of us who have more dominant female sex hormones.  When we move into a state of caring and tending to others’ needs we actually increase social bonds and all of us want to connect, we want to belong.  When we increase social bonds, we release oxytocin which helps mediate stress hormones and helps us feel safe.  So to an extent, tend and befriend is a  natural survival response.

A question I am often asked is when does it become a trauma response and when does it stay just a normal survival response? What is the tipping point in making it more of a response to trauma versus a social behavior that is just natural and inspired by our biology?

The answer is when the tend and befriend becomes dominant in terms of a survival response and it inhabits the process of individuation.  Tend and befriend becomes an issue when it stops us from claiming our true Self, when it stops us from connecting with our soul, our life purpose and it crowds out a sense of who we really are in the world.  Martha Beck, author of The Way of Integrity, talks about the word integrity (from integer) meaning “wholeness.” Living in integrity means expressing and doing what’s true for you in all situationsAnd when we cross the line of tending and befriending we aren’t really being honest and doing/speaking  what’s true for us.

Female conditioning in particular has been that our worth and value has come from tending and befriending.  We collapse our ‘enoughness’ with how  much we are meeting and tending to other’s needs and desires.  It’s exhausting and a recipe for disaster.  Fawning and overfunctioning as I sometimes like to call it, caused me to live in a frenetic, anxious state for decades.  I had no idea how to feel peace or calm.  I didn’t have a strong backbone because I didn’t really have a strong sense of who I was.  Breaking away from the crowd was a miserable feeling to me, so I went along to get along.  I often found myself attending things I didn’t want to be at, not sharing my opinion for fear that someone would be upset, and suppressing my own feelings and needs to make sure others were happy.  But after doing this for decades, it got heavy.  I was tired of not sharing my opinion, my needs, my feelings.  I was tired of feeling on edge all of the time.  I was exhausted from ‘walking on eggshell living.’   

So the question you might be thinking after reading thus far is how do we find other ways to feel strong and safe in the world that doesn’t require us to hide or negate who we are and allows us to ‘break away from the pack?’   How do we engage in a way that isn’t based on self sacrifice, but still keeps us connected?  Because in order to live a life that is joyful and thriving, belonging and connection is what is ultimately important for the survival of our soul.

One of the ways that we can begin to identify our fawn response and recognize if we are submitting and playing small is through our posture.  Following are two simple practices that you can easily implement that brings awareness to this question.  

1).  Check in with your posture

 Notice how you are sitting as you even read this article.  If I had to guess, I bet you would be hunched over, nose close to the screen, legs crossed, shrinking yourself into a small little position.  Begin to notice these couple of things as you are moving through the day and your world

-Do you tend to shrink yourself, rounding your spine and hunching your shoulders?

-Are you leaning into other people’s spaces?

-Do you often have to break eye contact for long periods of time?

-Is there tension or gripping that you carry somewhere in your body? (a few places to pay attention to are the shoulders, upper back, neck, jaw)

What we practice we become good at,  and many of us have YEARS of being good at these shapes and patterns in our body.  When we shrink ourselves, we send a message to our brain that we are not safe in that moment.  This is spectacular information if we are being chased by a saber tooth tiger like our ancestors billions of years ago, however I highly doubt this is the case in today’s world.  The saber tooth tiger looks more like the condescending boss, the snarky text, the screaming 4 year old, the eye rolling mother in law.  In those moments, you actually are safe but your nervous system is having a response telling you that you are not.  In those moments, we feel threatened, unsafe and we abandon ourselves for the sake of fitting in.  We turn our back unconsciously on our own integrity by fawning and appeasing.  

So how do we build up our dignity muscles?  How do we begin to stand in integrity?  I’m going to share with you the most simple and potent way that I personally began to course correct.  I believe that simple doesn’t necessarily equate to easy, so while what I am sharing with you seems so easy, the invitation here is to actually begin to practice and feel through this.  

First I had to begin to notice and build awareness of these little niceties that I was carrying out in my body.  This took time and practice.  Go easy, be patient and show yourself compassion while you are noticing.  

Nothing changes in the energy of judgment, only compassion.  

2).  The Dignity Pose

So now that we are aware of our fawning through the body, it can be helpful to see that we actually  have a structure to help hold us up.  You don’t need new muscles, you just need to bring what you have online.  So this next practice helps us to feel what’s already there. 

Welcome Mountain pose, tadasana or what I refer to as The Dignity Pose.

Picture a mountain, majestically rising out of the earth and reaching towards the sky.  What sorts of words or qualities does that image evoke?  You might say, grounded, strong, sturdy with a solid foundation.  This is exactly the intended effect of practicing the dignity pose.  Don’t let the simplicity of the posture fool you as it carries more power than you may think.  

When you stand tall with your feet grounded to the earth, top of your head reaching up to the sky, chest and shoulders back and open, it brings a sense of power.  You are landing on the ground beneath you, allowing it to support you while also being connected to the sky above you.  Spending a few moments in the dignity pose can build your confidence, cultivate present moment awareness, and help you to connect with you. 

Here are some steps to help you come into The Dignity Pose working from the ground up.  

  1.  Come to stand either at the top of your yoga mat or on the grass/ground with your feet hip distance apart, toes pointing forward.
  2. Feel your feet grounded into the floor and lift through the inner arches of both feet.  Keep your weight evenly distributed between both sides of your body. 
  3. Pull up slightly on your knee caps to engage the thigh muscles.  Avoid locking your knees.
  4. Pull your navel in and up and draw your lower ribs together to engage your deep abdominal muscles.  
  5. Bring your pelvis into a neutral position.  (this was one I had to work on for a bit, I always overcompensated by arching my lower back.  To feel this alignment, tilt your tailbone up, slightly arching your lower back, then tuck your tailbone under; now, split the difference.  Your sitting bones should be pointing toward the floor and you will feel a slight curve in your low back).
  6. Bring your arms to your sides with your palms facing forward.  Really take a moment and feel your collarbones spreading wide across your chest.
  7. Pay attention to your shoulders, allowing them to release from your ears and wide across your upper back, pulling your shoulder blades down and apart.  
  8. Elongate your neck by reaching the crown of the head up towards the sky, spine long, really slow down and feel into this and how you just grew a few centimeters taller!
  9. Stand in this dignity pose for however long you wish, allowing your breath to land on your mind, in your body.  Feel the breath expanding through your body, your rib cage and remind yourself for a few breaths that you are loved, worthy and valuable beyond measure.

Allow yourself to ground into the earth and feel your shoulders spreading across your back.  Be with this pose for as long as you wish, reminding yourself that it is ok to take up space.  

This pose in particular I come back to over and over.  A fawn response can lead us to disconnect from our own emotions, sensations, and needs. Therefore, I find the dignity pose important to practice because it helps me to listen to my body and get steady in my body as a way to come back home to myself. 

Krista Resnick is a Master LifeCoach who helps women break free from the toxic patterns of people pleasing, self neglect & overwhelm. Download her free Boundaries from the Inside out Workbook to start embodying your boundaries today: https://kristaresnick.lpages.co/boundaries-from-the-inside-out/

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