It turns out leading with nervous system regulation is especially difficult when you’re repatterning a fawn response and the person your body wants to fawn to is dysregulated.

Your body will have you convinced that the best thing to do is to match their energy and let them tell you from that place what they need to make things right. While well-intentioned, this is not always the most effective strategy, because you are relying on them to assume a position of leadership while they’re dysregulated.

It feels like the “safer” bet when we don’t want to rock the boat, but in many cases, it actually causes us to center our own feelings, because we take on the other person’s feelings of dysregulation as our own and then we expect them to solve them for both of us.

I think this happens a lot when dealing with people who are in grief, where we end up taking on the weight of the grieving person because of our own discomfort with grief and an inability to hold our center, and then we unintentionally make the person’s grief process about ourselves and our own confusion. A couple weeks ago a close friend’s parent died and my immediate reaction was to text him my condolences and ask “what can I do to help?” Before he could respond, I realized it was probably a better idea to figure out the answer to that question myself, so I thought about what I could do that might be helpful to a person in grief (thanks to Erin Merelli for her work on supporting people in grief that helped me reframe this). I decided I could easily batch cook a week’s worth of my favorite family recipe and bring it to his house, which would help them not have to cook for a while and would also be a heartfelt personal share of something I value from my own family. I contacted his wife and made arrangements – it turned out my friend was already on his way to be with his family, but she, a new mom to their 4mo twins, needed a week’s worth of food to get by parenting on her own for a week, and since taking care of her was basically the same as taking care of him under the circumstances I brought the meal batch over to her the next day. In order to actually be helpful, I had to make decisions from a place of my own agency.

When I arrived at their home, she said to me, “There’s so many people in circumstances like these who say ‘oh let me know if you need any help!’ But you know what? Just help. Don’t ask, just help.”

A fawn response will have us thinking that the only safe way to be is to follow the person we’re fawning to, and if they’re dysregulated, we’re actually only compounding the problem. It’s likely that what they need is not more people to delegate to, but rather someone who can clearly see what the next best step toward wellness is and help them take it.

It’s a fine line with boundaries to know what’s helpful to lead with and what’s overstepping, but if we have a relationship with someone and we’re grounded enough to be in our attunement, we should be able to tell if what we’re doing is helpful as soon as we start doing it. The closer the relationship, the more trust and safety we have between us, then the greater the risk we can take to take over and steer for them if they’re in a place of despair, helplessness, or grief-fueled resistance. But that’s also why a person in fawn can’t access that place – they aren’t regulated enough to lead.

This is another reason I’m discovering why leading with nervous system regulation is important, and why fawn response, while still the most adaptive and cooperative of the five F’s of stress responses, is still not as effective as simply being in our center.