The offender never pardons.
George Herbert (17c Welsh poet)
In the complex world we live in, it is not always clear when protection is really needed, and it is sometimes misused (to justify aggression) or abandoned (to avoid appearing aggressive). So, we will first consider that and then address social resilience, responses to adverse behaviour, and assertiveness.
When protection is needed
Unfortunately, not all people always have good motives; they sometimes act out of malice, spite, envy, desire to manipulate, etc. It is easier to become a victim if this is not recognised. Giving in to abuse is not a sign of love. Always blaming oneself and finding excuses for others is as unhealthy as always blaming others and finding excuses for oneself. To be a good person, you don’t need to tolerate abuse or be submissive. A good person is good towards oneself too, which includes being able to protect oneself; without that, love and benevolence can be taken advantage of. It is also worth remembering that tolerating malevolence may encourage such behaviour not only towards ourselves but towards others too – which, in effect, makes it grow and spread. Some people don’t even have bad intentions but opportunistically go as far as one allows them, so it is important to be able to set limits. On the other hand, overprotection can shut you down and limit your experience.
Furthermore, protecting your weaknesses or character flaws can inhibit your growth (e.g. defending yourself from constructive criticism may stop you from improving). We need to protect our freedom, integrity and dignity, but we do not need to protect our egos, mistakes and flaws. This is why it is important to know when protection is needed and what you are protecting. To check if you really need protection, you can, for example, ask yourself, ‘What I am trying to protect here? Am I really being attacked? Is this person being deliberately malicious?’ Very often, the latter turns out not to be the case, but let’s see what we can do if it is.
The following may help you develop social resilience or ‘thick skin’ that we may sometimes need:
- Prepare for the fact that some people may want to hurt you. Don’t give them that satisfaction. Barring physical violence, they cannot get to you unless you let them. If necessary, you can create a mental shield for that purpose (e.g. a protective image, such as armour, that you can use when you need it).
- Don’t take it personally: there could be many reasons for hostile reactions, ranging from discomfort (e.g. stress, anxiety, pain, low blood sugar) to the perpetrator’s own emotional baggage or character flaws (e.g. mistaking aggressiveness for strength or being prejudiced). So do what professionals such as doctors and policemen do in such situations – depersonalise it.
- Step back, distance yourself from the situation (imagine that you are looking at it through reversed binoculars).
- Rise above the situation and refuse to play the games of those who try to assert their authority over you. If you are above such a dynamic, those who look down at you will miss the target.
- Connect with people who will support you.
- Refocus: ask yourself, ‘is this worth spending my time and energy on?’ and focus on what really matters to you.
Responses to adverse behaviour Hostility and other forms of adverse behaviour can be:
- Avoided – a good idea if there are no further implications (e.g. you will never see that person again).
- Ignored – usually a wise response to a provocation.
- Diffused – through acknowledging the feelings of the other person or humour – always worth a try.
- Managed – if the above fail, you may need, for example, to get support (remember that asking for help to protect yourself or others is not cowardly; picking on those who are weaker is).
- Confronted – this may be necessary if a relationship is likely to continue or may have lasting consequences. Such a response requires assertiveness, to which we will now turn.
Situations that have an adverse effect on what is of fundamental value to us, existence and agency, may require assertiveness:
- Aggressive behaviour (a threat to our existence)
- Being deliberately humiliated (a threat to our psychological existence)
- Controlling behaviour (a threat to our physical agency)
- Being undermined or ignored (a threat to our mental agency)
There are three steps of assertiveness: deal with feelings and emotional reactions first, prepare, and only then act.
- Feelings: adverse behaviour can trigger various feelings:
- Feeling hurt: you may need to nurse yourself, close down, and go into your own depths where you can find self-respect. Reducing the importance of the event may also help.
- Fear: it doesn’t help (unless you have to run away). This simple trick can reduce the intimidating effect of somebody’s behaviour: visualise the person in a mundane or humorous situation: playing with kids, sitting on the toilet with his pants down, belly-dancing or diminishing in size.
- Despondency, dejection: accept what you cannot change and prepare to change what you can.
- Prepare: when you have optimal control over your emotions, you can take the following steps to prepare yourself to act assertively:
- Examine what you want to protect and whether or not the protection is really needed (see above)
- Consider possible motives of the other party (e.g. ‘was her act intentional?’). Playing ‘devil’s advocate’ can be useful here – it is always better to challenge our assumptions before others do.
- Be clear with your preferred outcome (e.g. being treated with respect) and then experiment with how to get there:
Assertiveness rehearsal: you can practise expressing yourself assertively on your own until you are satisfied that you can do it with a sufficient level of calm and confidence. Don’t just repeat what you would like to say in your head – you need to hear your own voice (recording yourself can be useful too). Make sure that your questions (e.g. ‘Why did you interrupt me?’) do not sound like accusatory statements as it betrays losing your calm, and that your statements (e.g. ‘I feel ignored’) do not sound like questions as it betrays a lack of confidence.
3. Act: when you act, it is essential to maintain calm and confidence (that should be attained by carrying out the first and second steps, respectively):
- Calm: getting angry may feel justified and may even have a short-term effect, but it can easily make things worse and lead to regrets later on. An angry response only gives ammunition to the other side! Difficult people are encouraged when they notice that one is taken in by their behaviour and overreacts. Genuine calm leaves an authoritative impression and is more effective than agitation. To maintain calm, focus on what you want to achieve rather than on putting others right.
- Confidence is maintained by being clear and straightforward. Assertiveness is not about arguing or persuading but about clarifying where our boundaries are. This sometimes requires hearing the other person out and explaining; sometimes, just a few words (e.g. “no” or “I don’t like that”) should be enough.
If you don’t have time to deal with your emotions and prepare and must act straight away, you can do the following:
- Temporarily block your emotional reactions and keep calm.
- Say or do only what you are confident is right and you are sure you will not regret it later.
You have acted assertively if you don’t have residual negative feelings afterwards.