How can I become more assertive and avoid being an easy target?
October 8, 2013 6:37 PM   Subscribe

I feel that I am generally somebody who ends up being taken advantage of. What can I change about myself to avoid this?

When/if I come across somebody who already has bullying, manipulative, predatory tendencies or has the intention of using somebody, I tend to become their target. I don't know if it is a combination of my stature, ethnicity, introverted and non-confrontational personality, my tendency to be accommodating, or perhaps my general openness about myself and my weaknesses/strengths, but somehow I end up being taken advantage of, or people treat me worse because they know I'm not the kind of person who would fight back or vehemently stand up for herself. (My post history may provide an idea of the kind of person I am and the situations I have dealt with.)

There is a difference between somebody who is an automatic target of bullying (which, I am not), somebody who is generally disliked/unpopular (I also know this is not the case for me), and my situation. To be clear, I am personable, humble, hardworking, considerate, reasonable, and have lots of longstanding, deep and meaningful relationships; my peers respect me and like me. I just can't put my finger on what it is that makes others sense that I am somebody who could be manipulated or walked over. What is it, and how can I work to change this?
posted by gemutlichkeit to Human Relations (7 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't think that they can sense it. I think these sorts of people are always testing others and testing situations, looking for cracks, seeing what they can get away with. I think that they often start small. If a person reacts to their small test in a way that shows them they are not going to get away with anything, then they try someone else instead.

Then there are also people who are very aggressive from the start (say, if you got in a fender bender with them, and they came out of the car and started shouting at you). I think they have just found, in general, that doing so will be intimidating to more people than not. In other words I think they're calculating based on how people have reacted to the behavior in their lives up to that point, rather than calculating based entirely on what they think of you as an individual. Yes, it may be a factor, in that I think most people would be less intimidated to scream at a young, small woman after a traffic accident, than they would to scream at a large, muscular man covered in tattoos and scars.

But I think it's unlikely that there is anything about you, as an individual, that is sending out a beacon to these people that they pick up with ESP.

The good thing about it when they start small is that it might be easier for you to shut down an act of aggression that is smaller and more tentative, rather than one that is really overt.
posted by cairdeas at 6:48 PM on October 8, 2013 [21 favorites]

Are you specifically referring to the sexual abuse from your past posts?

If so, please let me reassure you that you did nothing wrong. There's nothing about you that screams, "manipulate me." Do not look within yourself to correct someone else's reprehensible behavior. You don't have to change anything.
posted by snarfles at 6:56 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would consider body posture. If somebody is displaying a particular "bullying" body posture, try to match it. So if they are sticking their chest out, then you do the same. See if that works.
posted by icanbreathe at 7:01 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think this used to be me. I'm reminded of that Eleanor Roosevelt quote, basically that no one has control over you but what you give them. In my case I think overly emotional/social people (e.g. those with "large" personalities etc) would easily sway me into their emotional state and then suddenly I'd have to play by their rules, so to speak. So if they were excited, I would get swept up in that emotion and be excited too. If they were frustrated, I would be right in there wanting to fix the situation. I had no identity separate from whatever emotion they were currently expressing. How exhausting!

So I'm not sure how much it was that I was targeted vs. me giving my own power away, but I definitely got pulled in by these types of people. For me at the root was discomfort with my own personal power, discomfort at asserting my true and honest individuality, and I suppose underneath that was fear of not being connected to people. I didn't want to be a separate individual! It went away when I grew to honor my own person, and when I stopped seeing these emotional people as powerful just because their manner of self-expression was so encompassing. I just saw them as people. In fact, in some ways I saw them as fairly weak because they needed to control/influence through emotionality and charisma instead of share power like a comfortable adult. I'm thinking specifically of this one guy at work who was a total bully but with whom I still have to work. These days I am very clear about where I end and where he begins, and I allow him very little influence over and above his alotted amount of decision-making and influence based on his position. I guess that's what they mean by clear boundaries.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:01 PM on October 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

I just can't put my finger on what it is that makes others sense that I am somebody who could be manipulated or walked over. What is it, and how can I work to change this?

It's not about you, it's about them. People who are serial manipulators and people who walk all over other people use the spaghetti method; that is, they do it to everyone until one sticks. The question is, what is it about you that allows it to stick? The answer is within you. Your previous questions have mostly elicited a "try out therapy!" response, which is a great suggestion and something specific you can explore with a therapist. A specific thing like this tends to have a great ROI in therapy! In the meantime, do you know anyone around you who is assertive, above it all, or generally has what you want in the areas of confidence and resiliency? You can try asking them what has made them so confident/resilient. Many people who have these qualities are flattered that you've noticed. You can say something like, "It seems like you really have it together. What's your secret?" or, "It seems like everything always just rolls off your back. How do you keep a great attitude when things get thrown at you?"
posted by juniperesque at 8:55 PM on October 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: cairdeas has it. I'll add that I once heard an interview with a pimp who actually spelled out the subtle tests they would use to see if a woman was impressionable. He would meet a woman in a club and be talking her, and then tell her to buy him a drink, just to see if she'd resist.

I think the way to respond is to assert yourself in small ways to nip problems in the bud and to get some practice to build on for bigger issues.

I used to feel put upon by people frequently, and traced a lot of it to my tendency to justify not speaking up by telling myself, "it's not a big deal." So I started reframing this as, "if it's not a big deal for me to roll over on this, then it's not a big deal to stand up for myself. And if it IS a big deal for me to disagree, then it's better to get that out in the open and deal with it."

So I started saying no to people. Sometimes people would push back, but I found that confrontations would pretty much follow the same trajectory: they ask you to do something, you say no, they accuse you of being unreasonable, or maybe just become belligerent or difficult or appealing to your insecurity about being liked by everyone, hoping that it will make you go away, and you recognize that as a sign that they are getting desperate and they are hoping that they can intimidate you or misdirect you to cover up for their shortsightedness or incompetence.

If you can point to a specific social or professional norm that they are violating, the problem will usually sort itself out to your advantage if you stand firm because eventually it will come to the attention of someone whose job it is to enforce these things if the other person presses the issue. Or maybe you can take control of the situation and put the other person in the position of having to take things up the ladder to get what they want.

A lot of the time, though, people don't push back.

I read Crucial Confrontations; In Sheep's Clothing; and The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. All awesome books.
posted by alphanerd at 9:04 PM on October 8, 2013 [28 favorites]

Some of this may be ask vs. guess culture. For instance, I am very ask, whereas my hubby is very guess. If I need help with something I will not hesitate to ask, with the expectation that a person will not hesitate to say no if it is a hardship. My hubby will usually say yes to a request, to me or others, regardless of whether it is a hardship, and without mentioning that it is. Before we were aware of this dynamic, it often led to him feeling taken advantage of and maybe even manipulated sometimes.

So it might be worth taking a look at it from angle, and examining whether you need some practice at learning to say "no". (I did not read your history, but learning to say no refers more to like work tasks or friends that take advantage, it most certainly does not refer to anyone who has taken advantage of you sexually - that is never your fault).
posted by vignettist at 9:07 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

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