Some years ago, I happened to watch a reality television show. The show was about a group of strangers put on an island to “survive.” The premise being that after a series of competitions, there would be a last person standing kind of a deal. In the interim participants of this game would team up into various groups for competitions and they would often attempt to vote at least one person off the island after every competition. People voted off were often voted off due to performance issues.
What I found striking about this show was that the format seemed to mimic theories often put forward by evolutionary psychology regarding how our early ancestors behaved in the ancestral environment. For example, men are most often concerned with earning the respect of others, respect they often earned through efforts demonstrated in the hunter gatherer environment. Long story short, people who did not live up to the expectations of their tribe risked being kicked out of the group. In the ancestral environment, being on your own for an extended period, was essentially a death sentence. This is a popular theory as to why human being evolved to become social animals. In that we need each other to survive and thrive.
So, we could deduce, that fear comes from a concern about being abandoned. Not deemed valuable enough to contribute anything of meaning to the tribe, resulting in being ostracized. Then there is the other fear, that must do with a fear dying, but that deserves a post of its own.
A typical coping strategy, that clients I work with, who struggle with social anxiety employ, is avoidance. By avoiding social situations, they reduce the risk of experiencing rejection, for failing to meet various social expectations. The problem with this strategy is that they are already self-imposing what it is they fear the most, which is being ostracized.
The solution is to develop emotional resiliency through increased social interactions. While it is certain that you will experience rejection from increase social interactions, it is also true that you will experience more acceptance from others. Thereby it becomes an issue of tuning your attention into what you desire and modifying your behavior to experience more of what you want. Conversely when you are so focused on what you do not desire, and you resort towards avoidance strategies, your lack of experience only confirms your fears during the few times you interact. This is because your lack of experience leads you to become drawn to the same types of people who have habitually rejected you throughout your life.
Some years ago, while working for an agency, I found myself at odds with two therapists who were my coworkers. More specifically, they were at odds with me. They had learned about my verbal judo exercises and were offended about the scenarios I had practiced with clients where the clients would do their best to insult and upset me, while I got them to stop without retaliation.
They complained about me to our supervisor, alleging that my behavior was not professional. I defended my actions with solid arguments in addition to research to support my methods, and our supervisor gave me the green light. Shortly thereafter after one of the therapists who had complained about me, the most vocal of the two, experienced an incident in which he was verbally accosted and bullied by an aggressive client. I so happened to have witnessed the entire event in person. As the client laid into him, he became so flustered, he went speechless. I then decided to intervene and quickly deescalated the situation. I said nothing about the incident to him, and he never mentioned it on his end. However, by the time I had left the agency, he and I were on good terms.
The interesting thing about this guy is that among us, he was very vocal about demanding respect from the clients and would habitually communicate to us an air of importance about himself.
The point of this story is to elaborate a pattern with people who become easily upset and offended by the words of others. That pattern is this; they have no plans for a fight. No, I am not talking about a physical altercation (I do believe in self-defense), I am talking about practicing assertiveness to take care of oneself. People who place a lot of emphasis on how they should be treated, are mainly concerned with how they should be perceived by others because they have no intention, courage or comprehension of how to stand up for themselves when things get tough. When we focus on how others should treat us, we delude ourselves into creating messages that convince us that we have control over the words and actions of others. This takes away from the process of learning and preparing for how to effectively respond to the unwanted words and actions of others.
The process of getting offended and harping on how one should be respected by others is an act to ward of bullies. The problem is, it is an act that seldom works with bullies. A proper bully sees through the facade and goes into attack mode.
If you struggle with confidence, assertive, courage and other anxiety related issues, you can learn cognitive behavioral strategies to rewire your brain to become more comfortable and embracing of conflicts.
Settling for the role of a pretentious tough guy or girl only alienates good people from your life, leaving for mostly bullies in your life. Even if you take on the role of a bully, the people in your circle will consist mostly of bullies, and fair weathered friends.
We are the sum of our life experiences to date, and as we get older our experiences become redundant. Same you, perhaps different people, perhaps different places but the story remains the same. If you struggle to hold your ground when dealing with difficult or high conflict people, it’s because you were unintentionally conditioned to be someone who is easily pushed over.
How you address conflicts stems from your early life experiences, whether you were bullied by a parent, an older sibling, a classmate or classmates. If you were bullied during your formative years in the absence of intervention, forces around unintentionally shaped you to become docile towards conflicts.
This is difficult to see, because most conflicts we experience are usually us dealing with one particular person. So when revisiting the situation, we often fall for the fallacy of what one particular person did to us, rather than the role we played in inviting the person to bring suffering on ourselves.
There are a number of ways by which we adopt a timid mindset throughout our lives, and they are genetics, parenting and socio-economics.
Really this comes down to your personality. I have become a solid believer in the correlation between genetics and personality as a father of three children. After from the first day, the personality of this child starts to show and becomes more consistent after about a month. Now a personality by itself does not predispose you to being the target of bulling. However, your personality mixed with your interpretation of your experiences plays a huge role in how you address conflicts.
People with easy going personalities are more susceptible to being bullied, if they are raised by parents who bully them, or who assist in feeding them messages that they are not supposed to stand up for themselves.
Emotional and physical abuse coupled with neglect is a common reason people become timid during conflicts. The reason for this is because the child having no other options resorts to developing coping strategies for dealing with an abusive experience. The child becomes hypervigilant towards predicting the temperament of the abuser and often times the child ends up internalizing his experiences with the abuse and engaging in self-blaming. Children engage in solipsism when thinking about themselves in relation to the world around them. The child believes that he or she is the only true mind that exists and that the world evolves around him or her. This leads to children believing that they are responsible for everything that they experience and in error, blaming themselves for abuse inflicted upon them.
The neglectful parent is just as bad, in that he or she fails to advocate for his or her child when the situation calls for. It could be an incident with being bullied in school or being treated unfairly by another adult. The same phenomenon is observed when the child, adopts a passive persona and becomes increasingly conflict avoidant.
Socio-economic circumstances play a big role in certain types of children adopting an attitude of timidity, who grow up to be timid adults. Put simply, most people who are poor tend to feel inferior to people who are economically well off. A child who is raised by improvised parents, who have adopted a sense of low self-worth in relation to their wealthier peers, will likely adopt his or her parent’s attitudes. This plays out in quality of education received, certain circles the family can afford to be a part of and disputes regulated by the state institution. Even those raised at an economic disadvantage, who grow up to be wealthy, find themselves with strong lingering feelings of timidity when it comes to addressing conflicts with others. Particular others who they perceive as more well off and educated than they are.
In truth, learning to address conflicts with others is easier than most people realize. Perhaps the most difficult step is learning to become reactive to difficult feelings which arise when provoked or triggered. After that the next step is utilizing cognitive strategies to firmly convey your message of disagreement. Most people who struggle with issues of timidity, strongly believe that the difficult feelings they experience during times of conflicts with others are caused by those who seek conflict with them. In truth these feelings are simply natural and are experienced by everyone who experiences conflicts. The difference with people who are timid, is that they have been conditioned throughout their lives to become reactive and flee from these feelings.
Without proper treatment, people who never learn to be assertive during conflicts experience chronic relationship problems at work, with their spouses and with their children. They tend to develop a pessimistic attitude towards people and may struggle to connect with anyone.
With proper treatment, primarily through cognitive behavioral therapy, people in this position can discover just how competent they are at resolving recurring conflicts in their lives.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC