Author of The Blackout Book and the online course Bloom Where You’re Planted
Although things are beginning to change, it wasn’t so long ago that girls were raised to always be polite, accommodating, and “nice” to others. After all, nobody wanted to be considered rude or a “b*tch” so we were conditioned to be pleasant even if our warning bells were going off.
This did us an enormous disservice. After spending your entire life trying to be courteous, it can be incredibly difficult to deal with people in a more assertive manner. And to make matters worse, our upbringings set us up to have a lack of trust in our own judgment. How can we tell if that person is really following us or if it’s just a coincidence?
All of this can combine to put women at a distinct disadvantage when trying to figure out how to respond to a potential threat.
In a social media group I belong to, a reader asked about how she could have dealt with someone who came on her property rather aggressively. I replied to her question and some of the ladies in the group wanted to see an article on this topic.
Where I got my information
I have spent the past couple of years attending every course I can and voraciously reading about violence. The teachings of Rory Miller and Dr. Tammy McCracken have been especially influential. You can find Rory’s books here and his Patreon account here. You can find Tammy’s website here and her Patreon account here.
In this article, I’m going to talk about boundary setting – this is something I learned in a de-escalation class that I took from Tammy. (If you ever get a chance to learn from her in person, DO IT. It’s worth every penny and more.) Any inaccuracies in explaining this are completely my own and don’t reflect Tammy’s excellent instruction.
I’m not an expert on violence by any stretch of the imagination. In this article, I’m just passing on something I’ve learned and used more than once successfully. There are many other methods of de-escalation and this is by no means suitable for every possibility. You have to use your judgment when you’re in the situation. I just want to offer one simple possibility for judging whether or not someone is a threat and keeping yourself safer.
While I’m writing this article from a woman-to-woman point of view, this can be used by anyone who feels vulnerable or unsafe when dealing with someone who is potentially aggressive and would likely be a stronger opponent. Use language that feels right to you and think through scenarios in your head. Consider what you would say in a tense situation and practice it ahead of time until it feels natural.
When a boundary is also a test
You can use boundaries to establish whether or not someone is a threat, how serious the threat is, and you can be ready to deal with it should the person escalate things further.
When you are approached by someone and you feel that itchy little warning feeling in the back of your mind, what do you do? It’s honestly difficult to know HOW to handle it and each situation is different. It’s pretty easy to second-guess your intuition because we all want to feel safe and like the person with whom we’re interacting is an okay fellow. We also don’t want to be seen as rude. This can be a fatal mistake. A person who is a predator will know that you aren’t sure and that you want to be polite. They’ll use these inclinations against you.
One thing that Tammy teaches is using boundary setting as a test.
If you are in a situation in which you are approached by a person who is making you feel unease, you need to set a boundary. Not only does this put you in a more assertive position and mindset, but it helps you to test the intent of the person. Keep your goal in mind – the goal should be to remove yourself from an uncomfortable situation.
Here’s an example. The person who asked the question was in her own yard taking out the garbage when a stranger stormed up, ranting about how the woman’s tenant had been driving.
In this case, she could say something like, “I understand that’s very upsetting. But you are making me really uncomfortable coming onto my property and shouting at me. I want you to take a step back.”
Look at that statement. It’s not rude. It’s not inflammatory. She is acknowledging his frustration. It points out two facts: she is uncomfortable and he is shouting. It also gives the person a clear action he can take if he so desires so that they can reach a better understanding. Make whatever you choose to say a statement, not a question. You are telling him. You are not asking him.
The test is, how does the guy react to this?
- If he’s a nice guy who is just angry, he’s going to feel bad that he scared her or made her uncomfortable and the situation will often de-escalate rapidly from there. He will likely apologize, step back, put his hands up in a pacifying gesture. Decent men don’t want to run around making women afraid of them.
- If he’s too mad to be rational, he might say something like, “I don’t give a f*** how you feel. I’m furious!” This is when she should begin treating him like a potential threat because angry people often do stupid things. However, she hasn’t confirmed he is a threat. He’s just increased her level of suspicion. At this point, I would have my hand on my gun, but probably not have my gun out. I would be putting enough distance between him and me that I could draw and have the space to shoot. I’d be putting those trash cans in between us as a barrier. If I could go inside my house and lock the door, I’d do that immediately. If I couldn’t, then I’d continue trying to de-escalate the situation verbally.
- If he is actually a threat, it’s a whole different ballgame. He may actually seem satisfied when he hears you are uncomfortable and may double down on his efforts to intimidate you. A predator may also be ingratiating and try to charm you while still pressing his advantage. “Oh, don’t be worried about ME,” he might say as he takes another step forward. This should fully establish to you beyond a doubt that he is a threat and you need to be prepared to defend yourself. At this point, I’d take a step back and I would draw my firearm. Depending on the laws of the state that I was in, I might not point it AT him – I might point it at the ground but I’d have it in both hands, ready to raise it up to the appropriate level on his next move. You want to get out of this situation immediately, whether that means locking yourself in your car, getting to a more public place, or going inside your home and locking the door. If you are in a situation in which you aren’t armed, then you may want to draw attention to yourself by yelling for help (or shouting “fire!”), honking your car horn, or sounding a personal alarm.
There could be more to the dialogue. Maija Soderholm, the author of The Hustler: Sword Play and the Art of Tactical Thinking and The Liar The Cheat and The Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play, pointed out, “The second thing you might hear might be rude and insulting, even if the threat is minimal. The potential threat may not like being ‘wrong’ in their approach and it may come to “WTF are you talking about?! You think I”M a threat?!! You people are always like that.” Or something. I would definitely be making space and getting into a better defensive position, but a second response to this remark might also be worth having in one’s pocket. “Sorry man, that’s just the way it is. No offense, but you gotta back off.”
Do you see how that works? With one simple request, you are able to potentially calm the situation down at best and identify a true threat at worst. If you’ve identified that he is indeed a threat, you can take definitive action with more confidence than if you are still stuck in the loop of questioning your own judgment.
What boundaries can you set?
I’ve used this basic scenario in numerous interactions in which I felt I needed to test whether a person was actually a threat or if I was reading it wrong. Nine times out of ten, they back off immediately because they didn’t realize how they were coming across. The tenth time, I’ve been able to be more certain in my actions because I have tested the person and proven to myself that I’m not “blowing things out of proportion” – that is something we women do a lot in dealing with potentially violent situations.
Some other boundaries you might set in statement form could be:
- Move away from my car.
- You need to leave my property (or business).
- Take two steps back – you’re in my personal space.
- Let go of my hand.
- I’m not going to talk with you here.
The first few times you do it may be difficult, especially if you were brought up to be polite and ladylike. But after you’ve used this tool successfully, it becomes much easier.
I used this tool just the other night when I was walking my dog after dark in the condo complex where I’m staying. I was walking our normal nightly route in a very safe area when a man came out of another condo and rushed up to us shouting, “DOG!!!” My dog was just as unimpressed as I was and started barking at the guy.
I said to him, “I need you to take a couple of steps back. You’re crowding my dog and making me uncomfortable.”
He wasn’t nice about it. He was clearly inebriated. He called me a couple of names. BUT…he backed off. So the boundary setting worked exactly as it should. He gave me space and I left and nothing bad happened.
Your goal in uncomfortable situations
I’ve written this a million times because Selco and Toby have drilled it into my head two million times. Your goal in dangerous situations is “don’t be there.”
So if you are in a scenario like the one described above, you want to get out of your driveway into the safety of your home. I had a situation when my daughter and I lived on a remote farm and our goal was also to get inside the house when three guys showed up and made us uncomfortable. (You can read about what happened here.) When I encountered someone aggressive in a park, I wanted to get away from that person to the safety of a group.
Your goal should be to leave the situation. All of your actions should propel you toward that goal. And another thing to remember, to paraphrase Rory Miller, “Don’t run away from danger. Run toward safety.” Don’t put yourself in an even worse position by running down a dark alley or into a bad neighborhood. Instead, identify something that is more likely to be safe – a crowded restaurant, a police car at a stoplight, or a group of people. Obviously, there may not be a convenient crowd nearby – predators tend to avoid those – but keep this principle in mind.
About using a firearm as a deterrent
A lot of people talk about using guns as deterrents. In part, this is absolutely true. A firearm is a deterrent to some predators who would otherwise take action to harm you. In the situation at my farm that I mentioned above, the sight of my gun caused three guys to decide that a woman and a teenage girl were not the easy targets they had thought we’d be.
BUT…and this is important…
If you have no intention of using your gun, you’re probably not going to deter anyone.
Don’t pull your firearm if you have not mentally gone through the concept of using it. You cannot hesitate if the time comes when you have to use it. If instead of backing off, the threat makes a run at you to try and disarm you, you must use that weapon. You can’t struggle with your morality at the same time you are fighting for your life.
You have to be certain in your mind that you can pull the trigger because if you are not certain, a true predator can read that in your eyes.
Boundaries are not “rude.”
We have it ingrained into us from the time that we’re very young that we need to be polite and not make other people feel bad. This causes a lot of people to feel that boundaries are “rude.” They’re not and if someone takes boundaries as rudeness, I would suggest that they are the person who needs to work on their manners.
While this may have been true when we were children, we don’t have to pass it down to our own kids. It’s SO incredibly important to teach children that they can have boundaries too. And yet, in our society, how often do you see families forcing a child to hug Uncle Buck even though they haven’t seen him since they were in diapers? Or to let Great Aunt Gert give them a kiss? We’re literally setting our kids up to be victims by forcing them to disregard their personal warning bells.
Don’t let your programming of courtesy-at-all-costs override your instincts. Your instincts are there for a reason. They are our own personal alarm systems that tell us when something isn’t quite right. Often, you can pick up things instinctively before the scenario has even developed into something potentially dangerous. (A great book to read on the importance of trusting your instincts is Gavin de Becker’s classic, The Gift of Fear.)
When in doubt, always trust your gut. Don’t be afraid to be impolite if you feel threatened. Worst case, you made a scene and you feel kind of silly. In a different scenario, even if you never know it, your willingness to be assertive may one day save your life by dissuading a would-be attacker who is considering you as a potential target.
Have you ever been in a situation like this?
Have you ever faced a situation in which you were unsure about how to respond? Has a person made you uncomfortable but you brushed off your feelings to be polite? Do you have any other ways you test the intentions of those who have you on edge? Let’s discuss it in the comments.