Why do so many of us feel intimidated by others? Why do we say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’?

It often occurs because loved ones – a spouse, parent, or an in-law have domineering personalities. These are people to whom we are closely bound and so the stakes run high when expressing an opinion or preference with a risk of ‘loss’ being very high. This behaviour and devaluing of self then gets extended to other less fundamentally important relationships and we get accustomed to not speaking up and being assertive.

One of the common phrases used by my patients is ‘ So and so makes me feel’ to which I will respond ‘But the fact is no-one else can make you feel anything’, that is to say ‘You get to choose how you feel.’ We do get so caught up in particular patterns of thinking. By helping people to see this for themselves, they can and do make remarkable headway in improving their self-confidence and sense of self.

Self-assertive techniques can definitely be taught and a useful starting point is googling ‘The Bill of Assertive Rights’. We all deserve respect and these ’rules’ are useful as a reference. There is something very British, particularly in women about being ‘self-deprecating’ – it is almost seen as a virtue – and a fear of being ‘brash’. What I am trying to get across is that there is a balance to be struck between the two and it is ‘self-assertiveness’ that falls in the middle.

Many people who have a hard time being assertive have not had the opportunity to reflect on what they do think, feel, need and want and the uncertainty and lack of conviction makes it very difficult for them to express themselves assertively.

There are some useful simple questions that you can ask yourself: How am I feeling right now?

Are there any bodily symptoms that I need to be aware of?

What really matters most to me in my life?

What have honestly been the best days of my life so far? What do these experiences have in common?

If you were taught to seek approval and please others in childhood it is sensible to build up your confidence step by step starting with the least challenging people first – for example someone getting an order wrong in a cafe (rather than your boss)

When interacting with someone else remember that you are not ‘less than them’. We are ‘all worth one point’ and we all have a voice.

Practice thinking of prominent people differently. Imagination is very powerful so use it and visualise yourself being that person’s mother or father when they were a child, or being their boss as an adult, or seeing them sitting on the loo. Experiment and see which scenario works for you best in changing your pattern of thoughts and feelings.

Before interacting with someone who has previously intimidated you practice imagining them in nappies, or wearing a silly hat. The great thing about visualisation is that you require no obvious tools and no-one knows you are doing it!

Focusing on the other person’s emotional state can be extremely useful too. It is very likely that they are intimidating because they are deeply unhappy in some way – try and understand this and feel compassionate toward them – it really helps by understanding that their behaviour is nothing to do with you. Looking for alternative explanations for someone’s behaviour helps us to understand what Epictetus the Greek Philosopher said centuries ago ‘It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters’ . We can shift our perceptions and our emotional reactions and this change brings a greater sense of control to our lives and we find that no-one has the power to intimidate us any longer.


  1. Seb Gates says

    Great article, I found this very helpful. Thanks Kate

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