How We Intimidate Others Without Realizing It
Subtle intimidation flies below the radar, unconsciously shifting our choices.
Posted Oct 04, 2018 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
"The experienced mountain climber is not intimidated by a mountain — he is inspired by it. The persistent winner is not discouraged by a problem, he is challenged by it. Mountains are created to be conquered; adversities are designed to be defeated; problems are sent to be solved. It is better to master one mountain than a thousand foothills." —William Arthur Ward
Hearing others tell us that they find us intimidating when we don't experience ourselves that way is an unsettling, self-alienating experience. I know. I've been there.
Thinking about intimidation is hard enough, let alone talking about feelings of being intimidating and intimidated by one another, in pairs or even groups. Intimidation has public and private faces, mirroring the internal divisions that threat creates within our own minds. And some people are more easily intimidated, all other factors being equal.
Hear me roar
On one hand, there may be a rush of pleasure, a sense of power. And yet at the same time, there can be pangs of piercing regret and shame over losing control. We recognize that if others are scared of us — if others expect that we may unexpectedly hurt them, or pressure them in unwelcome and distressing ways — we leave ourselves in a very lonely place, regardless of whether they stick around or not. If they stick around, we may feel relief and guilt; if they leave, we may feel relief and grief.
Being of the animal kingdom, it's wired into us to use a variety of displays of power in order to ensure our safety and status in the pack and further our goals. Not everyone is an apex predator or an alpha dog. But we are all tuned into where we stand with one another, with scant exceptions. Would you rather be timid or intimidating?
For some people, there's no problem if they feel that they're intimidating. They may really want to be intimidating, a different beast entirely from those who are intimidating without meaning to or realizing it. When people are inadvertently intimidating and have ambivalent feelings about the feedback they get, it is a more interesting situation to think about than when people are singularly being bullies, because inadvertent intimidation, the subject of the rest of this piece, suggests an unrecognized division within oneself, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr./Ms Hyde doubling driven by mutual unrecognition. And gender plays into intimidation, of course. For example, research (Bolino and Turnley, 2003) found that managers rated female employees as less likable when the ladies were perceived as intimidating, but for the gentlemen, intimidation did not influence likeability. Not only that, but male employees who used intimidation were also deemed better performers, an effect not enjoyed by women.
Intimidated, intimidating, intimidation
To add complexity to the discussion, sometimes people, of course, are perceived as being intimidating, when in fact they really feel an entirely different way on the inside — vulnerable or scared in some way. When that happens, there is a big disconnect between the feedback we get from other people. The me I see through what others show me with their fearful words and behaviors is not the me I hold in my mind’s eye. We have trouble holding these two identities together, our psychological containment fails, and we rely on defensive behavior to maintain equilibrium if we are unable to make constructive use of such feedback (which is usually not given in an easy-to-take-in way, as the other person is speaking from a position of threat).
It's not unusual for this kind of disconnect to happen, and inadvertent intimidation comes up in several different ways, which are informative to spell out. If anyone has been in effective therapy for long enough or has the good fortune of being able to be self-reflective in constructive ways without therapy, we have a pretty good idea of the discrepancy between different versions of ourselves in the eyes of others and those versions of ourselves we can grasp internally. The more coherent our sense of self is, regardless of how multifaceted, the more in-line who we see ourselves to be is with how others appear to know us.
With this in mind, and with therapeutic whimsy as a form of whistling in the graveyard, let’s look at a few different ways that people may be unwittingly intimidating. From hiding oneself and creating a sense of apprehension in the other, to exercising a cold, penetrating intellect without seeming to understand how this may make others feel, to wielding status and power as a matter of habit, to avoiding competition and leading others to feel valueless, to being unaware of the impact of great beauty or charisma, to being vague and mystifying and creating confusion — and perhaps other ways I haven’t considered — we can seriously alienate others by intimidating them without even realizing it is happening, blindsided by the unintended consequences of our own actions.
Let me count the ways
1. We hide important parts of who we are from ourselves, but reveal them to others in our behavior without knowing it. When we hide who we really are, this can create the impression in others that we are invulnerable. This, in turn, can lead to a variety of different responses, including envy, admiration, and a sense of uncanny strangeness as something important but undefinable just seems off. We can shift suddenly from one version of ourselves to another without realizing we are doing it, pivoting in emotional response to different “self-states” as conditions around us demand. Rather than having an overarching sense of our own multiplicity, in each singular self-state, we experience our momentary point of view as enduring and miss the inconsistency that others detect, fear, and judge. People who do this may also come across as cryptic. They may believe they are being cryptic on purpose, but sometimes thinking something is on purpose is to cover over the fact that they can't help themselves from doing it, which in turn can be concealing the fact that they really are motivated to be cryptic, without clearly knowing their motivations.
2. We dissect others with the cold scalpel of raw intellect, feeling justified because we are right, or trying to help. People who are razor-sharp and calculating, surrounding others with apparent hyperawareness, can be intimidating without meaning to be, just as people who are very attractive can be. Trying to do the right thing or to help out is a powerful, easily defended rationalization. We are, in fact, subject to the power of our own intellect against ourselves, as others are. But for people who learned to prize intellect above compassion — where the quick comeback, even a sadistic retort, scores points, gives a rush of pleasure even while dismissing the validity of the injury to another — we deny how our words can really hurt. It’s not “just a joke,” but we tell ourselves it is. Competition and the need to win no matter what the stakes make it easy to hurl a clever quip, to lash out verbally, cornering and trapping, employing what classical psychoanalysts famously referred to as oral aggression. We don’t see that we are intimidating when we do this, because we don’t empathize with the injury we are causing. In the case of cutting humor, empathy ruins the joke. In the case of winning an argument at the expense of the relationship, empathy sours the tang of victory. This also applies to folks who are incredibly perceptive and observant. It's easy to feel like there is nowhere to hide.
3. We wield status and influence reflexively, unaware that other people are affected. There are some people who are leaders or are in other positions of power, who must have a peculiar, implicit sense of deprivation or neediness, often with a side of frank grandiosity, which leads them by vague interpersonal influences to be surrounded by people who will fall all over themselves in order to please them. Like vampires, they are terribly weak and vulnerable, yet powerful and alluring at the same time. So strong is the fear of disapproval from these people, so strong is the wish that some of that glamour will rub-off (it never does), that we feel intimidated, fearful we will be destroyed or discarded if we fail to do their bidding. When such a person is disappointed or frustrated, they become hostile. For those of us who become attached to people with this kind of hostile dependency, we can be in the state of continually feeling intimidated. This one often goes hand-in-hand with the other ways of being intimidating.
4. I am not competing with you — I only compete with myself. Often out of insecurity and unresolved emotional wounds, some people become emotionally stingy, without realizing it. They have great difficulty being generous with others and with themselves; this leads them to experience themselves as isolated from others. In a sense, they live in a barren inner world, and other people aren’t really real. In order to fend off the vast existential void of isolation, they created variations of themselves and measure themselves against these versions. They can’t compete with others, because there is no one there, and the most consistent narrative is self-competition. They don’t recognize that the standards they use to measure themselves are given by society in the first place. You can’t really only compete with yourself, so doing so requires significant self-deception. They may not feel it toward others, but others often experience them as not only aloof but arrogant. The feeling of superiority creates, in those who remain in relationships with self-competers, a feeling of ongoing intimidation due to the sense of being always at risk of abandonment, combined with the feeling of never being good enough. When these feelings of humiliation are shared with self-competers, they are quickly dismissed, justified by a facile moral argument, amplifying the distance between themselves and others.
5. We deny the impact of our appeal to others. Some people are born lucky — not that it doesn't take hard work, too — or are seemingly lucky because being very attractive, whether physically beautiful, intellectually gifted, famous, wealthy, sexy, talented, charismatic, or what have you, can indeed be a burden to those so touched. Imagine having to fend off zombie-legions of would-be fans, and people trying to use your value for their own gain. It is also not easy for those who are particularly comely to believe it or fully appreciate how other people around them respond. This kind of dubious-yet-authentic naïveté is disorienting. People are intimidated by aura, because we may feel or assume that we won't be good enough for the other person, because of pure animal magnetism, or awe. When attraction is so powerful, intimidation can be at the heart of the bond, the balance between attraction and repulsion setting the terms of the relationship. Sexuality causes biopsychological reactions which are beyond control, turning us into mere meat puppets — if only momentarily. That sounds intimidating even as I say it.
6. We come across as mystifying and mesmerizing. What happens when a charismatic figure does things which hit hard, but don’t make a lick of sense? Is there some wisdom we do not grasp, or are we just susceptible to BS (Pennycook et al., 2015)? This can be awe-inspiring and fearsome, drawing out our deepest insecurities with the promise of respite within the secure demesne of the other, and also a never-ending tension of unrequited desire for more, risking the ecstasy of forever frustrated gratification. The mind of this person is not only hidden, but the presentation of self is, itself, enigmatic, impenetrable, impregnable. We are but chaff in the wind faced with such transcendence. With high-enough doses of guru magic, it becomes hard to think, and we can lose sight of the path. This can happen in corporate settings, with would-be healers, con artists, and any number of other relationships. Interestingly, it is often family members who see right through the obfuscation, because they know who they really are. People who are intimidating in this way may or may not be fully aware of it. It’s hard to tell.
Although I don't think it is quite the same, hence no #7, we can feel something superficially akin to, yet I think fundamentally different from, intimidation when we meet people who have truly overcome great hardship to arrive at a better place. We can feel many feelings: admiration, awe, empathy, competitiveness, and so on. But there isn't usually a sense of feeling unsafe, as is more common with how we usually think of intimidation, and the sense of induced inner conflict isn't there. Quite the contrary, in fact (at least speaking for myself), we usually feel somehow safer in the presence of such people, even if we don't want to spend too much time with them for various reasons.
Don't tell anyone about this, or else
Intimidation can be hard to make sense of, because of the strongly evoked feelings and societal constraints we have to muddle through, although breakthroughs are happening every day. Is this person being intimidating on purpose? We have to decide how to attribute other people’s behavior to figure out who we are in relation to them. If intimidation is intentional, it’s out in the open, it’s on. Someone is trying to take advantage of us, and how we respond when we feel that way is a fascinating subject for another day perhaps.
When intimidation is implicit, whether fully unconscious or flickering at the edge of awareness, an itch we can’t scratch, intimidation is most powerful. Outside of awareness, intimidation exerts a near-hypnotic effect, pulling our strings from the bottom-up, neurobiologically speaking, as deep brain systems wired for survival sound an alarm we don’t know we are hearing. Unconscious fear shapes our perceptions and behaviors, and we take steps to ensure safety, which may have repercussions that we are not taking into consideration.
The social pressure to pretend intimidation isn’t happening leads to a bystander effect in which terrible things happen, as we are so sadly and painfully learning again and again. When we are able to symbolize intimidation, both in the moment personally and on more collective levels, we can change the course of history.