Nature has endowed humanity with mechanisms to manage stress, fear, and severe trauma. We can survive childhood rejection by our parents, our peers, and ourselves.

There are two mannerisms that we inherited through evolution meant to keep us safe, but that might alter our lives negatively. The freeze/fawn responses are when we feel threatened and do one of two behaviors. We either freeze and cannot act against the threat, or we fawn try to please to avoid conflict.

We shall examine the freeze/fawn response and how it is related to rejection trauma.

Rejection Trauma and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Long-term rejection by family or peers in childhood can cause extreme feelings and trauma. The child may decide that they must be worthless or worse. Children need acceptance to mature correctly, so without their parents and peers showing them they are wanted and valuable, they shrivel and later grow to be traumatized adults.

One consequence of rejection trauma is the formation of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). CPTSD forms in response to chronic traumatization, such as constant rejection, over months or years. Other causes occur because of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, domestic violence, living in a war zone, and human trafficking.

It is unusual for an adult to form CPTSD but not impossible as when an adult is in the position where they are captive (such as a prisoner of war) or in domestic violence, it can form.

Rejection trauma is often found with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Both conditions are highly damaging to the social lies of those who experience them.

The Freeze Response

Like I said in the beginning, evolution has given us methods to escape or hide from predators. Freeze is one of four recognized responses you will have when faced with a physical or psychological threat. Included with freeze are the fight/flee/and fawn responses.

When we freeze, we cannot flee but are frozen in place. This leaves us vulnerable to a human predator as we become incapable of fighting off or escaping.

Children are completely at the mercy of the adults in their lives. People who have survived childhood trauma remember freezing to keep the abuse from being worse than it was going to be, anyway.

Freeze is accompanied by several biological responses, such as

  • A sense of dread
  • Feeling cold or numb
  • Pale skin
  • A loud, pounding heart or a decreased heart rate
  • Feeling trapped
  • Heaviness in the limbs
  • Restricted breathing or holding of the breath

When a child feels rejected by their parents and faces a world that is cruel and cold, they may exhibit these symptoms without knowing why. As adults, these responses are troublesome, leaving people confused and having problems with intimate relationships.

Those who exhibit the freeze response are also in the grip of CPTSD.

The Fawn Response

The other evolutionary gift humanity has been given is the fawn response, which is when people act to please their assailant to avoid any conflict. One might use the fawn response after unsuccessfully attempting fight/flight/and freeze and is typical among those who grew up in homes with rejection trauma.

For instance, if you grew up in a home with narcissistic parents where you were neglected and rejected all the time, our only hope for survival was to be agreeable and helpful.

The problem with fawning is that children grow up to become doormats or codependent adults and lose their own sense of identity in caring for another. These adults never allow themselves to think of themselves pursuing activities that please their partner for fear they will be rejected by them.

Fawning has warning signs you can watch out for identifying whether you are exhibiting this evolutionary behavior.

  • You cannot say no
  • Your values are fluid in intimate interactions
  • You have guilt and anger together
  • You blank out emotionally
  • Your emotions erupt unexpectedly and in unusual ways
  • You feel responsible for the reactions of others
  • You feel like no one knows or cares to know you

Fawning combined with CPTSD can leave an adult in the unenviable position of losing themselves in the responses of their partners and friends. No one can know you because you are too busy people-pleasing to allow them to. You may believe you are unlovable and for this reason, you fear rejection more than anything in the world.

Overcoming the Freeze/Fawn Response

Pete Walker in his piece, “The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex Trauma” states about the fawn response,

“Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.”

It isn’t difficult to see how those caught up in the fawn response become codependent with others and are open to victimization from abusive, narcissistic partners.

Also found in the piece is Walker’s description of the Freeze response:

“Many freeze types unconsciously believe that people and danger are synonymous and that safety lies in solitude. Outside of fantasy, many give up entirely on the possibility of love. The freeze response, also known as the camouflage response, often triggers the individual into hiding, isolating, and eschewing human contact as much as possible. This type can be so frozen in retreat mode and it seems as if their starter button is stuck in the “off,” position.”

Walker explains that out of the four types of trauma responses, the freeze type is the most difficult to treat. The four reasons are below.

  1. They are extremely reluctant to form a therapeutic relationship with their therapist because they relate positive relational experiences with rejection. Also, the people who overcome their reluctance to trust their therapist “spook” easily and end therapy.
  2. They are harder to educate about the causes of trauma because they are unconscious of their fear and their inner critic. They project the perfectionism of their inner critic onto others rather than themselves, then use this for justification of isolation.
  3. Freeze types are experience denial about the consequences of seeing their life through a narrow lens. The freeze response ends in the collapse response believed to be unconscious, as though they are about to die and self-medicate by releasing internal opioids. Freeze types are more likely to become addicted to substances to self-medicate.

While both freeze and fawn types appear tightly wound in their problems and buried under rejection trauma, they can and are treated successfully by mental health professionals. With treatments such as EMDR, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or old-fashioned talk therapy, many will find the help they need to escape what nature and nurture have trapped them into.

Ending Our Time Together

If you recognize yourself from the brief descriptions given in this piece of rejection trauma, or the freeze/fawn responses, it is critical that you seek help. If you find you are in an abusive relationship with someone, please consider leaving immediately. Your life is worth more than allowing someone else to hurt you.

You are valuable to the world and all who inhabit it because you are you. There will never be another you, and that makes you invaluable. Please, try to remember this as you fight to gain peace in your fight against childhood trauma.

“Have patience with all things, but first with yourself. Never confuse your mistakes with your value as a human being. You are a perfectly valuable, creative, worthwhile person, simply because you exist. And no amount of triumphs or tribulations can ever change that.”- Saint Francis de Sales

“Life isn’t as magical here, and you’re not the only one who feels like you don’t belong, or that it’s better somewhere else. But there ARE things worth living for. And the best part is you never know what’s going to happen next.” – O. R. Melling


Help to Find a Therapist



If you are a survivor or someone who loves a survivor and cannot find a therapist who treats complex post-traumatic stress disorder, please contact the CPTSD Foundation. We have a staff of volunteers who have been compiling a list of providers who treat CPTSD. They would be happy to give you more ideas about where to look and find a therapist to help you. Go to the contact us page and send us a note stating you need help, and our staff will respond quickly to your request. Go to


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