4 Reasons People Think You Are Intimidating When You're Not

People are often intimidating without realizing it, but sometimes it's just us.

Posted Nov 12, 2018

     "We have a political culture of intimidation, of favoring, of patronage, and of fear, and that is no way for a community to be governed." —Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Intimidation is a hidden undercurrent in many of our relationships, ranging from subtle and uncertain to clear and abusive. Talking about intimidation is difficult by definition, given the actual and perceived risks associated with saying something, and fixing it is challenging. This piece is a follow-up to one on how people can be intimidating without realizing it.

Ending intimidation

You may notice an immediate resistance to the idea that intimidation is everywhere; you may shrug and say, “So what?” Or you may think it is so obvious as to be trivial. The fact of the matter is that power plays a critical role in human relations, even though our relationships are grounded in love and mutuality, a desire for equality and fairness, and community and collaboration. How do we balance destructively aggressive and defensively hostile influences with healthy competition and cooperation?

Given the persistence of abuse and harassment across the spectrum of human relationships, from family, to friends, to professional relationships—indeed to one’s relationship with oneself—more than ever we face a growing need to question intimidation dynamics, closely examining the underlying conscious and unconscious motives in order to extricate ourselves from the shadowy history of chronic maltreatment of one another. Once we’ve begun to deal with intimidation, we’ll be able to move forward with constructive and possibly reparative conversations to establish better norms.

Being told we are intimidating—and more so becoming aware that we actually have been intimidating—can be a bitter pill to swallow. Yet it is essential to understand our own tendencies toward intimidation if we are to refine our relationships with one another, and with ourselves. This takes courage, humility, and self-compassion.

We’re often self-intimidating, using pressure and coercion to motivate ourselves. We can try to shame and threaten ourselves, for example, into doing things we think we should be doing, to be who we think we should be, but in doing so we run the risk of creating the need to fight back against our own self-bullying. We often don’t know any alternate ways to respond when we feel like we're failing at something we should be able to ace.

Kinga/Shutterstock
Source: Kinga/Shutterstock

Being labeled as intimidating can be confusing

What happens when someone tells us they find us intimidating? What leads another person to tell me I am intimidating? Is it deliberate, calculated, meant to disorient, or meant to help me out in some way—like, or what? Is it off-the-cuff, something in the spur of the moment, more likely to be solely the result of feeling intimidated in my presence? A blend of motives, possibly? It’s not easy to share with someone when you empathize with them that you find them intimidating, it’s hard to speak openly and honestly when we feel intimidated, and it feels risky to conversationally explore experiences of being intimidated and intimidating.

How do we talk about emotionally challenging issues with each other in the “here-and-now,” when we often have limited access to our own unconscious process? Many people tend to communicate defensively, especially when feeling nervous and threatened. When we are not tracking the influence of intimidation on how we relate, it is likely we will fall into maladaptive patterns. Specifically, intimidation often serves to maintain power dynamics, keeping people in their places in the pecking order and maintaining the structure of society itself, to a significant extent by suppressing dissent and marginalizing dissenters. People who are effective intimidators attempt to avoid justice (and sometimes they succeed); sometimes they act solo, and sometimes they band together to protect their own interests. Calling out intimidation in more specific ways can be hazardous to one’s career, reputation, and well-being.

Identifying true intimidation isn’t always straightforward

There are times, however, when we believe the other person is intimidating. More accurately, we feel intimidated, and we either have no idea at all that we feel this way, or we may have only an intellectual understanding, leaving our deeper, more influential feelings and attitudes hidden.

So, when someone finds us intimidating, they may do so because we are intimidating—whether we know it or not. Counterintuitively, others’ experiences of us as intimidating may say more about us than they do about them. Here are some factors that may be running in the background when we think others are intimidating:

1. A consequence of unconscious bias — Racial stereotypes, gender, institutionalized racism, sexism, antisemitism, and other forms of bias may motivate others to label a person as intimidating when they are not. For example, Bolino and Turnley conducted workplace research showing that women perceived as intimidating were both seen as less likable and less capable than men perceived as intimidating. Racism is notorious for the mislabeling of individuals as intimidating for malign purposes and out of distorted beliefs. Those in positions of power may feel insecure about their own value and feel intimidated by assertive employees from marginalized groups, holding stereotypes and feeling irrational fears. When the entire culture is suffused with bias, it is hard to say who is intimidating and who is intimidated—and what is really going on may be exactly the opposite of what we think is happening. When we are taught to see others as a threat, as inferior, as resentful, our unconscious bias can be so deeply conditioned into us that we are hard-pressed to catch even a glimpse of ourselves in the proverbial mirror.

2. The aftermath of using simplistic defenses — We can project our own intimidation onto others who are not actually intimidating. When we rely heavily on what psychoanalysts call “splitting,” we can see ourselves as all good and select others—often those who have disappointed us in some way—as all bad. When people lack the ability to self-reflect with nuance and have not recognized that there may be multiple facets of oneself operating together and sometimes at odds, seeing other people as intimidating is more likely to be a reflection of their own disavowed character traits.

3. The result of a history of being repeatedly intimidated — When we have been bullied, neglected, or otherwise victimized, there is a good chance that we will over-read threat in others as a self-protective measure. We trade off being more likely to detect predators for being more likely to think someone may be a threat when they are actually not. Aside from developmental factors, some people may be predisposed to misinterpret social cues as threats or anger when they actually represent a different emotion, such as nervousness or anxiety. This can work both ways, such as when someone who is shy or socially anxious is viewed as thinking they are “too good,” are seen as believing they are superior to others. We misinterpret others’ true intentions all the time, relying on the evolutionarily hard-won ability to make snap judgments to survive, leading to vicious cycles of misunderstanding and miscommunication as our distorted assumptions become a social reality in the absence of corrective measures. Developing a coherent and integrated sense of oneself and the ability to navigate complex social situations typically does not happen automatically, but is rather the result of developmental influences and ongoing work throughout the lifespan.

4. As a result of unconscious motivations — In my experience, most of the time people repeat maladaptive behaviors out of habit rather than repressed wishes, free from masochism or a need to defeat oneself. Especially as a psychoanalyst—in spite of an interpersonal-relational rather than classical style—I have seen that things often mean more than we know. The bias toward reading meaning into things is overall worth the effort (and the resistance to the effort), though it's relatively uncommon when we really do things "unconsciously on purpose." While unconscious influences often have functional roots in early life experience, serving purposes in the past which carry over senselessly into the present, it’s unusual to have fully directive, unconscious mental agents pulling our strings like a terrifyingly hidden puppet-master dwelling in some shadowy psychic space.

However, there are those times where we can be unconsciously motivated by self-protective factors and by hidden wishes and needs, such as desires to dominate others when we have been taught (often harshly) that aggression is “bad” and being nice is “good,” a need to seek punishment out of feelings of guilt or shame over perceived transgressions we blame ourselves for (often unjustly), or out of motivations to meet our own needs when we have learned to deprive ourselves (which may unintentionally come across as being “manipulative”). Frequently this is what people are up to when we “self-sabotage ourselves.”

Reverberating intimidation 

Telling the wrong person (unconsciously the right person) that they are intimidating may precipitate a sequence of events, leading to getting put on probation and eventually fired, or hurting the feelings of those closest to us and ending up lonely and isolated. In the case of work, maybe we really want to leave that job, but can’t quit, or are enacting a wish to have been provided with more discipline by absentee parents by ineffectively seeking that in a boss, who can’t be a healthy parental figure, and repeating the experience of being let down. With intimate relationships, it may be that we want to be close to others and enjoy fulfilling relationships, but unconsciously feel even more unworthy than we can acknowledge, possibly fearing and even failing at intimacy, more than we consciously want connection. When such powerful, unconscious forces are operating behind the scenes, we may experience others as intimidating, because to do so leads to a chain reaction, resulting in the conflicted, consciously unacceptable, yet desired outcome.

Intimidating plus intimidated equals intimidation

There are undoubtedly times when intimidation is clear-cut, and one person is intimidating to another person, who is accurately seeing their actions as intimidating. The effort to intimidate is unambiguous, and it may be impossible not to feel intimidated. Intimidation may provide sadistic pleasure or serve the function of inducing fear to throw the other person off their game, so when intimidated it makes sense to identify what is going on, manage strong emotional reactions, and approach dealing with the situation thoughtfully in order to secure a better outcome. If and when to out the other person as intimidating is a political choice, with unpredictable outcomes.

At other times, it isn’t clear to what extent one person may be unintentionally intimidating, making the attribution of blame harder to assign, and the other person may be responding to unrecognized inner psychological and emotional influences, leading them to see an unintimidating person as a bad actor. Under these conditions, a more accurate take on intimidation requires us to resist splitting and over-simplification in general. In taking on a multifaceted view of personality and motivation, we assume that the one person may be intimidating as well as non-threatening, with different sides that may not be integrated, rather than necessarily manipulative, immoral, or nefarious. Likewise, for the person on the receiving end of perceived intimidation, we would assume that they would both be genuinely intimidated, as well as moved by factors, such as those noted above, to see the other person as intimidating when they are not wholly intimidating.

Leveraging multiplicity

Sorting through a situation with perceived intimidation which may or may not be present requires that we think about relationships in a more complicated way. Each “part” of the person can connect with each “part” of the other person. The intimidating-intimidated pairing creates a victim-perpetrator dynamic which may be traumatizing. The intimidating-unintimidated pairing may allow clearer thinking due to lower levels of anxiety and threat. The unintimidating-intimidated pairing leads to a mismatch in perception, leading to a variety of possible misadventures ranging from confusion, to false accusation, to avoidable harm, to a chance for rectification and repair.

The unintimidating-unintimidated pairing seems unremarkable . . . until a third party sees intimidation that the two original people don’t see and takes action. Efforts to directly confront alleged intimidation can foment system-wide changes, may simply fade away, or may be actively suppressed—depending on whether there is anything to be concerned about, and how it is addressed, if at all. Being silent in the face of possible intimidation is de facto condoning it, risking complicity.