Beginning this month I switch things a bit, taking a look at some common life problems from a Rapid Resolution Therapy perspective. The topic this month is Intimidation, a theme that seems to show up in a lot of people’s lives.
We know in these times of economic challenge, some may be in jobs that are not to their liking. Others may have returned home or to a relationship of situational dependency. In both situations, leaving may have a steep downside, and may be perceived as not an option. Intimidation seems to take root in these soils, causing great anxiety and pain. As one person put it, “I seem to just freeze when he (she) acts that way. I should know better and usually hate myself afterwards, but at the time, I just take it. It’s like I can’t think of anything else to do.”
This deer-in-the-headlights effect is commonplace around an intimidator and should not be taken as a sign of personal weakness. We’ve all heard of the fight/flight response, but freezing around a predator is also one of nature’s built-in options that takes place in the oldest part of the brain. When a cat catches a mouse, and its brain understands that both running and fighting are no longer possible, the mouse goes totally limp, its mind and body cooperating to feign death. The almost instant down-regulation of the nervous system and mental numbing is meant to keep us and all other animals still until the predator loses interest and danger passes, or at least keep us anesthetized if we are going to be eaten alive.
People often try to reason with an intimidator or express their hurt, hoping to wake up empathy and understanding. They may persist despite evidence to the contrary, especially if caught up in their own expectation that people should always be reasonable, responsible, and kind. The problem with this approach, I believe, lies in not recognizing that the intimidator’s prefrontal cortex is off-line. This is the part of the brain in charge of self-awareness, empathy and good judgment, where normally a person could look at the whole picture, and back-off for the good of all concerned.
But intimidators are dealing mainly from the older brain, where perceived powerlessness and threat to survival register and have to be acted upon. That part of the brain doesn’t have what Dan Siegel has called mindsight, the ability to read the inner world of someone else, and may not compute the valuable social information coming in from others. For intimidators, the threat is immediate and must be acted upon. Displays of anger, aggression, and control become appealing because they work–temporarily. They intimidate others in order to go one-up, to climb up and out of the victim position, which is where they see themselves. They learn powerlessness and emotional pain don’t have to be felt; they can be short-circuited and transferred to another. But this loops back on them. Control and aggression carry within them the seeds of heightened insecurity. Fear, rigidity and loss of mindsight amount to a massive inability to adapt, which sets intimidators up for even more vulnerability in each new situation.
From the view of this as a relational system, this is a powerful cue that pulls for a symmetrical (complimentary) response from others. They simultaneously hate and are drawn to the vulnerability which they create in others or others carry for them. And vulnerability seems to activate them when they come across it in others. They don’t see the outstretched olive branch their victim may be holding. They see a red flag, a reminder they could be weakened and hurt again.
So here’s a story that might help. Long ago in old Mexico, on a remote hacienda, young Pedro was watching his father and the other men handle the cattle at branding time. Pedro wanted to take part, and be more like the men. His father said, “Pedro, my son, to be a man you must first deal with El Malo, the bull.” El Malo stood about ten hands high at the shoulder, was solid muscle, and known for his nasty and unpredictable temperament. More than one of the ranch hands had a long scar along the ribcage from getting careless around El Malo’s great horns. His father continued. “My son, you must go into the corral and face El Malo. And you must find a way to get him into the barn. Then you can take part in the branding.”
The boy was very scared, and didn’t know how he was going to do it, but he climbed into the corral. The bull was at the other end nosing in the dirt, his huge withers and flank shining in the sun. Pedro advanced slowly, one tentative step at a time, until he was within arm’s reach of the bull’s nose. He was still very frightened, but he observed: the bull, looking back at him, had a mixture of emotion in his eyes. There was anger, but there was also fear, sadness, and confusion. Mostly confusion. Pedro leaned way forward and dared to touch the great muzzle and for just an instant, the bull let him. But then becoming wary again, El Malo snorted and backed up, waving his horns. Even more of that confused look was in his eyes. Suddenly, Pedro turned around and with his back to the bull, walked even steps across the corral back to the barn door, counting to himself as he went. When he got to the barn, he made sure to lean his back right against it so his hands found the crossbar that locked the doors. Then he started yelling and dancing, shouting “Toro, Toro”, making quite a fuss. The bull hooved the ground one, twice, and then charged. Pedro watched him come, counting the bull’s strides and at just the right moment, lifted the crossbar, spun out of the way, opening the barn door, as El Malo’s massive head and trunk whisked by. His momentum carried him all the way into the barn, with his backside facing out, whereupon Pedro quickly shoved the doors closed and dropped the crossbar. The men cheered and clapped his father on the back, as his father smiled broadly and nodded at his son. Pedro had figured out how to get El Malo the bull into the barn.
(Disclaimer: The reader should not to take this as literal, specific advice. It would, for instance, be a very bad idea to purposefully incite a more powerful person who is in a position to harm you. The point of the story is get us to realize we may have more of our brain on-line, as it were, than an intimidator usually does, and hence, more creativity ready at our disposal)
Mark A. Chidley, LMHC, Certified Rapid Resolution Therapist, CAP, a fully licensed mental health counselor and certified addictions professional, offers counseling services at his office Kelly San Carlos Executive Center in Fort Myers, Florida.He has been in private practice since 1997. He holds certifications in Rapid Trauma Resolution (2010), Imago Relationship therapy (2001), and now specializes in the treatment of couples as well as individual trauma recovery and anxiety issues. He brings rich experience from a combined 26 years of hospital work and mental health counseling.