Remain Strong Against People Who Intimidate

People who intimidate at all scales causes much suffering. What can we do?

Posted Sep 10, 2019

Will Porada/Unsplash
Source: Will Porada/Unsplash

Do you see an intimidator?

The Practice:

Remain strong against people who intimidate.


Humans are profoundly social. We spend most of our lives working, eating, sleeping, and playing in groups ranging from two people up to nations and humanity as a whole.

Woven through the tapestry of our relationships are several major threads. One of these is power. The only question is, do we use it for good or ill?

Like a hammer, power itself is neutral. It can be used for beneficial purposes, such as parents protecting their children or leaders promoting the rule of law. It can also be used for harmful purposes, such as parents hitting children or political leaders praising violence against their critics.

The abuse of power can be called many things, including intimidation, fraud, discrimination, and tyranny. I’ll use a term that’s down-to-earth and gets at our nature as social primates: intimidation.

Intimidators are unfortunately common. Throughout history and right now today, from homes and schoolyards to boardrooms and presidential palaces, they create a vast amount of human suffering. What can we do?


In this short space, I’ll offer some summary suggestions. You can help them be concrete by applying them to intimidators you’ve experienced or observed.

Recognize People Who Intimidate

Intimidators are:

  • Dominating – Have to be the “alpha”; fear of looking “one-down”; must find targets who seem weaker; no compassion
  • Defensive – Never wrong; fault and scorn others; avoid personal responsibility
  • Deceptive – Manipulate grievances to gain support; blame scapegoats; cheat; hide truth since power is based on lies

Recognize Enablers
Some people and organizations make use of intimidators, like profiting from a crime someone else commits. They might pretend all is normal, or say it’s more important to pay attention to something else, or claim falsely that “both sides do it.” From playgrounds to parliaments, people with an authoritarian personality style have an affinity for intimidating leaders and form the core of their supporters. 

Protect Yourself
Sometimes you are stuck with an intimidator, at least for a while. Be careful. Weigh your options and do what’s best for you.

Have Compassion
Deep down, the mind of an intimidator is like a hell realm of fended-off feelings of weakness and shame always threatening to invade. Lots of suffering there. Compassion for an intimidator is not approval. It is calming and strengthening, and establishes inner freedom: “You may have my family, company, or country . . . but you will never have my mind.”

And of course, the targets of intimidators deserve our care. Even if you can do nothing to help them, your compassion is still authentic; it matters to you, and it may matter to others in ways you’ll never know.

Name It
Tell the truth to yourself. Tell it to others.

And if appropriate, speak the truth to the intimidator and their enablers. This could be a version of that truth: “You are an intimidator. You cheated and lied to get your power. You act tough but you’re actually weak and frightened. You might be able to harm me and others, but I am not afraid of you. I see what you are.”

Intimidators may acquire institutional authority but never moral legitimacy. They know their power is on thin ice. The more uneasy they feel, the more they make up grievances, wave the flag, and posture on the stage.

Name the lying, the cheating, the weakness. Name the fakery, name the illegitimacy.

Stand with Others
Intimidators target lone individuals and minority groups to display dominance and create fear. So gather allies who will stand with you if you’re being intimidated. Also, ask others to stand up to intimidators; sitting on the sidelines just perpetuates intimidation.

And together, stand with and for those others who are intimidated. It may make no material difference. But it always makes a moral and psychological difference to those who stand up – and to those they stand for.

Punish Intimidators
I mean “punish” in the sense of justice, not vengeance. The act of intimidating itself is rewarding to an intimidator, even if there’s no concrete benefit. It’s like pulling a pleasurable lever on a slot machine that sometimes delivers a jackpot: if you’re an intimidator, why not keep pulling? So there must be a cost. Enablers also need to pay a price; otherwise, why stop?

Since intimidating is common, people have developed a variety of ways to punish it. Depending on the situation, you could:

  • With moral confidence name the intimidating for what it is
  • Dispute false claims of legitimacy
  • Laugh at intimidators (who are usually thin-skinned)
  • Confront lies, including denial of harms they’re doing
  • Build up sources of power to challenge the intimidator
  • Confront enablers; they’re complicit in intimidation
  • Engage the legal system
  • Remove intimidators from positions of power

Intimidators do sometimes stop intimidating, occasionally with an admirable change of heart. When appropriate, we can offer ways for a former intimidator to rejoin the group.

See the Big Picture
Intimidating is enabled and fostered by underlying conditions. For example, the political system might have become unfairly tilted in the intimidator’s favor; tilt it back. Intimidators draw power from the grievances of others – address those grievances and reduce the intimidator’s power.

Intimidators try to dominate our attention much like they try to dominate everything else. But there is a larger world beyond their control. It contains so many things that are working, enjoyable, beautiful, and virtuous. Disengage as much as possible from ruminating on helpless outrage, fantasies of payback, and fault-finding others “who aren’t doing enough.” Bad enough that the intimidator is out there in the world. Try not to let the intimidator invade your own mind.

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