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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Fight, flight, freeze, FAWN...mastering assertiveness [Wise Wednesdays]

There are 4 main survival strategies. Most people are aware of ‘fight or flight’. Some people know ‘freeze’. Few are aware of ‘fawn’.

Fawning is less well recognised as a survival mechanism because it serves a significant social function and is reinforced by society.

Fawning is essentially the people-pleasing reflex. Even though I’m generally outspoken, I still notice myself doing it to avoid conflict.

If you lean towards people-pleasing, 2 things in particular might make you feel guilty:

  1. saying ‘no’

  2. prioritising your self-care

  3. relaxing and doing nothing without having to explain why

These come up in coaching all the time, most recently in the first session of Presence Power Possibility last week and in a workshop for a community of women enterpreneurs called AllBright.

So I want to offer some distinctions and principles of communication that have helped my clients drop people-pleasing and create powerful conversations that enhanced collaboration, reduced conflict and led to rapid resolutions in tricky situations.

Assertiveness isn’t enough

If you tend towards people pleasing (and by definition, avoiding conflict and expressing your opinion), you may have been encouraged to be more ‘assertive’.

Classically, assertiveness is about things like being: Confident, Clear and Controlled.

But we all know ‘confidence’ is elusive and being ‘controlled’ is very hard when you feel tense or emotional.

Luckily, confidence and control are not requirements but a result of small acts of courage.

And courage comes from understanding followed by action.

Social talk versus Truth talk

Social talk lubricates the wheels of connection. It’s chit-chat and the opposite of confrontation.

If you’re a people pleaser, you may have a tendency to stick to social talk, never really getting to the core of what you want to say.

Perhaps you drop hints about what you want or hope that the other person will just guess what you need then resent them if they don’t.

Truth talk is when we need to get down to business: the tricky business of being a human with needs, aspirations, and fears; and somehow navigating the social space to live and work together without killing each other!

It’s scary. And it’s not taught well. But it can be done.

Self-acceptance first

Expressing what you really want to say (without pleasing or attacking) requires being present to your needs, fears and aspirations and accepting them yourself first.

It can be VERY uncomfortable to recognise them, let alone express them because we’ve often been taught it’s not OK to have needs.

Once you’re OK with what you want, it’s easier to tell others. You don’t have to be 100%, just OK enough.

It’s not what you say but how

In some sense, your specific needs, wants and fears are not the issue at all. They’re yours and it’s your right to have them. You didn’t ask for them to be there!

Communication is more about the energy you’re coming from as much as the words.

Here are 5 questions from Buddhist psychology to ask yourself to help you decide how to say what you want, plus an example below:

Is what I want to say true? (do I really agree or do I have another view?)

Is it beneficial?

Is it timely?

Is it compassionate (to others AND yourself)

Is it conducive to harmony in the long term (remember that when you ignore your intuition, it’s a seed for problems later)

If you tend towards pleasing, saying ‘no’ more often is going to tick all of these boxes and you can go ahead! See below.

An example:

Legend in the making: In a recent workshop, I asked everyone to think of something they needed to say ‘no’ to and something it was time to say ‘yes’ to. Dr D said she couldn’t think of anything to say ‘yes’ to because she said ‘yes’ to everything! Knowing her, it seemed that her saying a firm ‘no’ to some of the excessive demands she was facing from people would be positive for her as well as those around her. Why? Because:

Saying ‘no’ right now expresses her truth – she doesn’t have limitless energy and needs space and time for herself

Prioritising would help her perform better on key tasks and ensure the rest is delegated, outsourced, automated or dropped as appropriate

Saying ‘no’ expresses a sense of compassion for her humanity

She’s stepping into more leadership and needs to develop new work patterns for it to be sustainable

Preventing burnout is essential otherwise the organisation would lose one of their top talents and patients would be affected

This stuff isn’t always easy. But it’s practice.

The festive season used to be a bit of a time for old patterns to resurface as we get triggered at work and family gatherings.

With this year’s lower intensity version due to social distancing and the Zoom format of gatherings, there’s a fantastic opportunity to take a step back and notice where pleasing comes up and why.

And remember: truth and love are not mutually exclusive. They often go together in fact, and being true to you is an act of love.

I appreciated this quote from Rising Woman this week: Be OK with being misunderstood. You are not here to convince other people to see you differently. Stay true to your heart, be kind, be loving, protect your energy. You don’t have to pour yourself out to be a good person’.

Have a great week,


P.s. Presence Power Possibility 3-month group coaching programme is sold out. Thank you if you recommended it. More offers to come in 2021!

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