How can I hide my submissiveness so no one messes with me?
November 29, 2012 9:31 PM   Subscribe

How can I overcome submissive traits in a threatening situation? (Not talking oh no there's suddenly a fight... more like constant state of threat like walking down the street of Baghdad.) It has become important for me to "stand my ground," beat others at staring contests, be able to let it slide when others try to intimidate me. Problem is, I'm often the first to look away and easily anxious. By most counts I am very submissive. I have a "dominant personality" but as far as aggression and such I'm submissive naturally. I need to create a dominant front. But how???

I tried playing with my body language and facial expressions and I feel ridiculous. I think currently I have better luck with responding to attempts at intimidation with apathy. So rather than forcing a dominant presence I'm having a little luck with responding in a non-intimidated manner. I think it will work even better if I can create some of that initial presence. The stuff I'm finding on this topic is more about bedroom behavior so.... can you advise?
posted by hungry hippo to Human Relations (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You can only make friends with your fight or flight reaction, you can't control it.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:37 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think going to the root of it, figuring out why conflicts trigger your fight or flight reflex, and then how to deal with that, are going to be really helpful. Try therapy, a safe place to approach conflict avoidance, or anxiety, or whatever else is keeping you off equilibrium.
posted by zippy at 9:39 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is what empowerment-based self defense classes are for. (As opposed to the "beat up a guy dressed like the Michelin Man" school of self defense.) Look for NWMAF-accredited instructors and/or a "women-focused" environment, especially (but not only) if you are female. There are specific postural and behavioral things you can do that are effective, and getting to practice feeling threatened and responding appropriately in a safe environment is invaluable.

Feel free to memail me with your location and I'm happy to pass along a referral, if you're in the US.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:50 PM on November 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

Searching for materials about "assertiveness", "deference", and "aggression" may get you closer to what you want than "dominance" or "submission".
posted by gingerest at 9:57 PM on November 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am a very anxious person and I work in a rough area. My solution- acting. First, have good posture, second cultivate a blank stare. You need to avoid problems, don't look at anyone directly and don't engage but don't look like a victim either.
posted by bquarters at 3:00 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The stuff I'm finding on this topic is more about bedroom behavior

That's a big fat clue.

Dominance and submission are for playtime. Using those concepts to analyze interpersonal relationships out in the real world does you very little good.

It's not only possible but incredibly common for two people to express assertiveness without either one dominating or threatening the other. Trying to understand an interaction like that by using a dominance/submission model can only fail, because dominance on one person's part implies submission on the other's.

If you can swing your thinking around to use assertiveness and safety evaluation instead of dominance and submission, you'll be better off because you will no longer be reading other people's displays of assertiveness as attempts to dominate you.
posted by flabdablet at 4:29 AM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am the person you are trying to become - be careful what you wish for, these traits are not always a good thing.

My view: it comes biologically, genetically coded, and I can trace my own back to a distinct lack of fear. My father is the same way, as a point towards genetics. I'm not sure how successful one can be in attempting to cultivate these qualities.

Perhaps you might want to look into retraining your mind to reduce your natural fear impulse (anxiety is a first level manifestation). I mention these qualities are not necessarily something you should aspire for, because fear and acquiescing are gifts within a human being. If you remove them or don't have them, the effect is hard to isolate and will affect other aspects of your life, likely, in ways you will find as negative (how you interact with non-threatening people, ability to open up, reducing warmth, empathy, etc).
posted by Kruger5 at 5:32 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

fronts, faces only color your actions. your actions speak loudest.

if people are trying to bully you into doing work that you shouldn't are caving to their plans.... just don't do those things. There are plenty of big loud screamy people who I can make do what I want. I know cool apathetic people who do what I want. When they do what I want, that's me dominating them.

a shy meek pathetic little person who won't do what I want and will not bend to my will? That's a person I have no power over.

you are only being submissive when you submit. It really doesn't matter how you look or sound while you do it.
posted by French Fry at 7:17 AM on November 30, 2012

I see a difference between being confrontational (beating people at staring contests, etc) and being unwilling to take bullshit. There is a subtle difference.

I used to be the kind of kid who got into fights in the playground, usually pulling a bully off some other kid and going at them or letting them come at me. I said what I thought without mincing my words, regardless of how "intimidating" others tried to be. What it did was invite others to bully me, and I wound up ostracized, pushed out of my social circle at school.

As an adult, I worked for a while in a place that demanded absolute submissiveness. And by this I mean, take all sorts of shit from pretty much everyone around you, and smile in return and say "yes sir" or "yes ma'm". And somehow make things happen no matter how hard your life was made by your superiors. People I worked with were terrified if the bosses, and with good reason. Most people left rather than attempt a confrontation. True to form, I tried the confrontation route. It didn't go well.

I figure you want something in between. For me, the ideal is to know, deep down, where my boundaries are, and to assert those boundaries with clarity and dignity. If someone is being confrontational, you tell them you find them confrontational, and will come back to speak with them when they've calmed down. You don't stare into people's eyes, you look past them straight ahead and walk like you know exactly where you're going. If someone interrupts you, state calmly that you weren't finished speaking. That sort of thing.
posted by LN at 7:22 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

What are we talking about here? Walking down the street in the city? Walking down the street in a terrible neighborhood, in a terrible city (8 Mile, Detroit?)

I used to live in a dodgy but beautiful neighborhood in Oakland. I'm a girl and no one who looks at me thinks "hmmm, she looks scary, better steer clear." I do have confidence however, and a vibe that says, "I'm cool and I'm not afraid."

So as I'd walk the 2 or so blocks from my car to my building I'd occassionaly see a guy on the street, or a couple of guys on the corner and it would be fairly obvious that they were hanging around trying to do some 'business'. I'd nod at whomever and say, "s'up?" as I walked by (as demonstrated on a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory.) I'd get the same reaction and that was it.

I'd say 99.99% of people in the world would prefer not to become embroiled in a conflict. Not at work, not in their community, not anywhere.

Where are you that you're getting into staring contests, etc?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:48 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here to echo Ruthless Bunny: when walking in rougher areas as a physically slight person who is an obvious outsider (and attracts gendered attention in gendered clothing), it's not just the confidence and sense of purpose/briskness in body language that matters, but also the comfort in making brief eye contact and a nod of polite recognition. This says, "I acknowledge you, and I don't look away like a beta canine." Not to do so, depending on the culture of the neighborhood, can be perceived as worse than weak: rudeness and disrespect from an uninvited guest, or even/additionally racism, if you're from a different ethnic or cultural/economic group.
posted by availablelight at 9:12 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

No need to be act dominant. Be timid, apologetic and self-effacing if that makes you feel better when interacting with others, and then get on with doing whatever it is you want to do regardless. The only change here is that you're not letting them actually influence your actions and decisions. If you're challenged on it, smile, nod, apologize, acknowledge what they're saying... and get on with doing what you want to do regardless.

It lets the "big dogs" know there's not much to be gained from you through alpha-dog bullshit, without having to beat them at their own "tuff stuff" game.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:25 AM on November 30, 2012

I'm a bit confused by the Baghdad example, I guess. I think it would be helpful to us to know more specifics about the kind of environments and incidents you are encountering. Can you elaborate?

Trying to hold yourself to a rigid ideal of Nobody Messes With Me No Way No How Nuh-uh NEVER requires a level of hyper-vigilance that is exhausting and I think counter-productive to moving alertly and calmly through most situations.

Perhaps what you are after is a fuller dynamic range of responses to draw upon, on a case-by-case basis?

One suggestion to tame your fight/flight response, and perhaps shift your worldview to one where you feel less set-upon by the world: martial arts training. It can help rewire the fawn-like response (I know that one well), and also redraw your mental map of the world as being a threatening, adversarial place. (Plus, also, it's super interesting and fun.)
posted by nacho fries at 9:57 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't be more detailed without risking my anonymity.

It's kind of like if I were training as a lion tamer though. It isn't about being assertive. It's about projecting a certain level of "alpha" energy or else I could get hurt. And it's something I'll need to be able to do for large amounts of time at once.
posted by hungry hippo at 1:05 PM on November 30, 2012


The alpha trait most definitely cannot be learned. Even if you put on a show of "alpha" it will be recognized as fake by a true alpha in your audience, and that can lead to loss of command very permanently.

What are you looking for is attempt to change DNA level attributes - not so easy. I would focus instead on respect and command through other methods that don't rely heavily on inherent makeup.
posted by Kruger5 at 2:37 PM on November 30, 2012

If this is really the kind of situation you have to put yourself in, it seems to me that this is what training is for, whatever kind of training is relevant. Like gather as much information as you can and familiarize yourself with the environment and the variables as much as you can and practice whatever skills you need if called upon to use them, as much as you can. I would guess if someone makes his/her living as a lion tamer they train for that, instead of just walking in there and expecting that they way he/she carries him/herself would be enough.

That would probably cut way down on the anxiety. Like walking around a dangerous neighborhood where you're also lost and don't know what kind of trouble to expect, versus walking around a dangerous neighborhood that you know well and are quite sure of which way you're going and how to interact with anyone who might bother you. Also I would think trying to win a staring contest is not a good idea, there is a difference between looking confident and unafraid versus starting someone down in an aggressive way.
posted by citron at 3:37 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to be a little more specific... the lion tamer example.

If I don't project an energy of strength, dominance, and control there could be physical violence. Similar to how if a lion tamer slips up in "owning" the scenario the lion could charge and eat his face.

I am a small female person. I'm often underestimated but I'm not very intimidating outside of men approaching to ask me out. That's not at all the kind of initimidation I need to call up in this situation.

citron and Kruger5 have a decent grasp of what I'm getting at. Slap*Happy, French Fry, and flabdablet gave answers that would get me seriously hurt if I pursued it from that angle. We're not talking about your traditional civilized setting here.
posted by hungry hippo at 3:49 PM on November 30, 2012

OK, there are two things going on here, I think.

One, you need to minimize the chance of being challenged. This involves not looking like an easy target - part of which may be situational (I am assuming you are not just going jogging in dodgy neighborhoods but are actually a cop or a prison guard or something - there are no doubt things you need to know and do specific to your situation) and part of which are just basic primate signaling. The latter is what I was talking about in re: self-defense training. Some highlights:

- In casual encounters, look people in the eye - just a glance, don't stare - and then look away not down. This communicates "I see you; you are not a threat or a challenge." Staring is a challenge - looking down is displaying submissiveness to a potential threat.

- Do not smile or laugh. This is surprisingly hard - the nervous grin and/or giggle can be pretty hardwired, and is again a submission response to a perceived threat. (Not all smiles or laughs are submissive, of course, but in power-struggle type situation - whether it's your boss demanding a report ahead of schedule or a guy at a bus stop going all creepster - it's simplest to just not do it. Think about this next time you see a woman told randomly to "smile!")

- Stand tall, shoulders down and back. Make yourself bigger, not smaller.

- Your verbal responses may be totally situational, but this one is almost always helpful. Say "no." Don't clarify, apologize, or explain. "No, sorry," is socially fine most of the time but not in situations where there's a chance someone might jump on it as a weakness.

Seriously, there are good classes for this, and a lot of it is easier to learn when you can practice.

The other thing, it sounds like, is that you need a good plan for when violence does happen, and you need to be confident that it is a good plan that you can use. That's totally dependent on your situation and speculation is probably not helpful.

And kruger5's comment about "genetics" is... not validated by science, let us say. This is teachable, it is learnable, and people both teach and learn it every day.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:08 PM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Command discipline comes through serious test, i.e. repeated challenge to your authority - dominate - reestablish authority - repeat - - until the audience learns, respects, and ultimately submits to your leadership. Often, life and limb depend on the quickness of your ability to execute those steps.

This is why you are getting two sets of very different answers. Experience.

Is the rest of your audience majority female? What you're asking to learn is not as simple as a list of tactics. Alpha-level control is through a combination mental, instinctual (survival) physical, and proactive activity. Given the delicate circumstance, are you not being provided with required training? MeMail me of you need further.
posted by Kruger5 at 4:58 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your situation is unusual enough that there are no peer groups you can tap into -- no lion tamers' support groups, so to speak -- then you might be able to pull something useful from the experience of female corrections officers. Perhaps you could research their milieu, their survival techniques, their training methods?
posted by nacho fries at 5:14 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

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