The dearest hope of many survivors is to fit in smoothly with society, to look and act “normal“. We want to interact with other people skillfully. We want to be liked. We want to be heard. We want to give and receive courtesy and consideration as part of a supportive community.
Narrow window of tolerance
An irritated nervous system makes it harder to interact with people in a kind way. It narrows our window of tolerance for stressful events. For example, when feeling calm and happy, you might shrug if someone accidentally stepped on your toe, whereas in a less settled state you might snarl, “Watch where you’re going!”
If the toe-stepper also had a difficult day, they might respond poorly to being snarled at, resulting in conflict that neither of you wanted.
Many abuse survivors have social anxiety. When the people around us have been a source of harm rather than comfort, we focus on learning how to avoid abuse rather than how to interact in positive ways. It makes sense to feel overwhelmed by people and the intricacies of dealing with them, both individually and in large groups.
In emergency mode, our brains continue to focus on danger rather than connection. Not only did survivors miss learning tools for skillful interaction in the past, but it is physiologically more difficult to read social signals and respond appropriately while terrified in the present.
Victim-blaming puts additional pressure on survivors to stay eternally on guard to avoid “causing” or “inviting” abuse. While clearer boundaries can discourage abusive or predatory behavior, we are not responsible for magically “preventing” abuse. It is the person committing abuse who is responsible for it.
At the same time, survivors are blamed for “pushing people away” and (for those seen as women) socially penalized for having clear boundaries and not being nice enough. The fine line between “not nice enough” and “too nice” can be impossible to find.
When to intervene
For all these reasons, survivors tend to be very aware of public rules and try hard to follow them. It can be both confusing and irritating when others casually break rules, especially when it involves harm to shared resources.
On the one hand, social rules say, “Mind your own business. Don’t interfere.” On the other hand, silence gives tacit approval to behavior we witness. We each have to decide when to resist by saying something, and when to let it go. We might have a strong sense of responsibility to make the world a better place by speaking up, and we might also have limits in our skills and inner resources.
Harassment, bullying, and abuse are even more difficult to address in the moment. Survivors might freeze or have other strong reactions that interfere with finding a skillful response. Looking toward the victim with compassion can make a difference in itself. This article discusses responding to obliviousness rather than overt violence.
Those of us with more privilege (white cis straight wealthy able-bodied etc.) tend to benefit from social rules as well as feeling entitled to enforce them on others. Less privileged people are more limited by social rules and punished more harshly for breaking them. For example, a Black person is more likely to be stopped and perhaps punished for walking through a restricted area, where a white person could slide by with a smile and a wave. We need to be careful not to reinforce privilege and oppression with our interventions.
Assume good intent
When we cut across a lawn where it says, “Do not walk on the grass,” we are doing it because we did not see the sign, or the path is blocked, or we really need the shortcut right now. When we see someone else cut across the same lawn, we tend to assume they do not care about the grass.
When we intervene, we can start by assuming that the person means well and is doing their best. They know more about their situation than we do, and they are doing what makes sense for them in the moment.
On a rainy morning walk, I was surprised to see a white couple throwing balls for their large dogs inside the tennis courts. I decided to intervene by saying, “The dog park is up the hill,” and pointing. They responded by saying, “It’s too muddy up there.” Astonished, I said, “It’s rude to run the dogs where they’ll damage the special surface on the courts.” They responded angrily, and did not change their behavior. I confirmed later that a sign at the entrance to the courts says, “No dogs.”
I started with the positive assumption that they mistook the fenced courts for the dog park. In this case it turned out they felt unhealthy entitlement to use the courts in a way that damages them for everyone else. I do not know if my intervention changed their behavior in the future, or whether phrasing it differently would have worked better. At least they know that someone sees them misusing the tennis courts.
Feelings and needs
In a private communication (quoted with permission), Robyn Posin suggests a long form intervention that includes feelings and needs: “Excuse me, I know this may feel intrusive and perhaps rude, but it really upsets me to see people (fill in the blank) because (fill in the blank). And, I try to speak up about things like this, just in case the person involved might simply not have considered the impact of (doing whatever it is) on the (whatever)…”
A shorter form imparts possibly missing information and gives people room to figure out what they need to do for themselves, as suggested in “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. “The dog park is up there.”
When a stranger approaches us about a rule we are breaking, we might feel startled and upset even if they do it kindly. We are likely to respond defensively in the moment even if we think it over later and decide they might be right.
We could assume they mean well and thank them for the information. If they have not given thought to privilege and oppression and it is one microaggression too many, we might react angrily, as described by Shay Stewart-Bouley on her blog Black Girl in Maine.
Interacting with strangers can be difficult at the best of times. When we want to intervene with a criticism or correction, we can pause to consider whether an intervention is needed and find kind phrasing for our reminder. As our nervous system heals over time, our window of tolerance widens for minor infractions, and we can intervene more calmly and skillfully for larger issues.
- “The virtues of anger” by Shay Stewart-Bouley on her blog Black Girl in Maine.
- “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen (PDF)“. An illustrated summary of the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The comics are from the book, and portray respectful communication skills with anyone, not just kids.
- Bystander Intervention Training from Hollaback! against harassment and abuse.