Did You Know that Hypercompliance is a Trauma Symptom?

Unprocessed trauma keeps our nervous systems searching for resolution around the clock, whether we realize it or not.

Sometimes, the symptoms aren’t noticeable, or don’t seem to merit further investigation. But when they are noticeable, it’s often because we’re overperforming.

We’re trying to complete the traumatic event by reconciling what happened with our sense of self.

Put another way, we’re living out the fantasy of what our lives would be like if that thing hadn’t happened to us.

This manifests in all sorts of ways – hypervigilance (if we’d been paying better attention to our surroundings, we’d never have gotten into trouble), hypercontrol (if we manage every aspect of our circumstances, we’ll be able to manipulate them to make sure we’re not hurt in the same way), disconnection (if we don’t know how hurt we really are, then we don’t have to confront and heal from that pain)…

The list is exhaustive. 

Mostly, our reactions can be seen as extrapolations of the four nervous system responses to crises: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

Hypercompliance has elements of both freeze and fawn

It’s characterized by either no internal examination of your preferences and feelings, or an internal examination that results in your deciding not to empower your own feelings. 

It comes in many forms, but its purpose is always the same: to maintain the status quo. Often, this is a trauma response baked into our beings from learning hard lessons about what can happen if you center yourself.

Let’s talk about how hypercompliance materializes.

Building a New Neural Pathway

After a traumatic event, there are any number of neurological events that can happen. 

We could get stuck treading and retreading the pathway of the memory – trying to punish ourselves, solve the mystery of why it happened to us, extract data in order to build more careful plans in the future, etc.

Sometimes, we avoid the pathway altogether. We associate the memory with a feeling, a nervous system event like a sinking sensation or a stomach flip, which reminds us on a primal level that this territory should be avoided. 

Don’t think about this. It will cause you pain. 

Instead, we build pathways around the original memory teaching us how to thoughtlessly navigate situations that would otherwise cause us great distress.

To avoid retriggering and retraumatizing ourselves every time an experience shares the contours of the trauma we’ve been through, our brain creates a protocol.

Especially in cases like recurring childhood abuse, narcissistic abuse, or domestic partnership abuse – where trauma is repeated, sustained, and hinges heavily on victim-blaming – hypercompliance is common.

How do you know if that’s you?

The Face of Hypercompliance 

In essence, this looks like playing along.

You may not even realize you’re doing it, depending on how long you’ve been practicing.

In order to tell if you’re being hypercompliant, think about compliance as avoidance instead.

Do you avoid sharing your real opinions because…

  • You’re afraid that you’ll upset someone?
  • You’re afraid that someone will resent your choice?
  • You’re afraid that you’ll make an easy situation messy?
  • You’re afraid that you’ll get into “trouble” somehow for forcing someone to add a layer of consideration for you?
  • You’re afraid that you’ll be punished later, even if your assertion is taken well now?

That list is hardly the end of the possibilities, but they are some of the more common fears hypercompliant people experience underneath all of the careful planning.

Hypercompliance can look like immediately acquiescing to a request without thinking. It can also look like closing doors on related requests all by yourself, because you assume they fall under the same umbrella as what you already agreed not to do.

It can look like anticipating needs based on previous instances of disrespect, harsh tones of voice, or berating. 

It can look like extreme anxiety if your behavior doesn’t match what you’ve decided you need to do to avoid angering the people around you.

It can look like never having an opinion on what to eat, what to watch, where to go, what to wear, who to invite, or what to buy because you know you won’t suffer without being gratified, but aren’t sure how well the egos of others will take it.

It can look like disassociating from the moments of your life that you didn’t choose for yourself.

It can look like over pleasing, even fawning, on authority figures to situate yourself squarely in their good graces.

It’s valuable to watch yourself from a bird’s eye, if you can. The most powerful tool we have against trauma is awareness. 

All of these trauma responses live their best lives when we aren’t paying attention to them. 

Shine a light on it – force it not to comply.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.