After you assess your situation and identify unacceptable behavior, the next thing to do is to identify the allies around you that will support you. You don’t need to build a formal group or have meetings or anything, just be specific about the people around you whose opinions you trust and provide you support. Even if your list only includes your cat, put her on there. An ally is someone you can tell about your experience and get realistic feedback and perspective from or someone who supports you no matter what. It’s not necessarily someone who agrees with you (although it can be), but it is someone whose opinion you respect and someone who will give their opinion with respect to you. It is okay for your support group to include people who also are just going to agree with you no matter what. The purpose of this group isn’t to question your perspective (although that could be a helpful side effect), it is to remind yourself that there are people who respect you.
When you are identifying your support group, you don’t need to tell them your story, although you can. The first step, though, is just figuring out where you are and who supports you.
If you can’t think of anyone else to put on your list, that is not a crisis, and it happens quite often. It is just information for you to know. Go ahead and put me on your list because I absolutely support you. And then be curious about whether it could be possible in the future to find one other person who supports you. I’ll give you the answer: it is completely possible.
Identifying allies and building support can be crucial to overcoming harassment. In my experience with sexual harassment early in my career, as I talked about earlier, I was working in a professional setting, and my colleague, who was in a higher position than me, would give me back rubs, lean his body against me, and comment on my clothing and appearance. He told me I was more important than his wife, although he and I were only vaguely acquainted and had only talked in a professional setting, and he brought up not knowing how I tasted. It was super gross. I reported the harassment to four different people before someone finally made him apologize to me and stop. As I reported, though, I built allies. Almost every person I told agreed with me that the harassment needed to stop and collaborated with me about how to make that happen. When I mentioned it to someone who made it clear she did not understand, I stopped discussing it with her.
Sometimes you have to let people go when they are not going to support you in moving forward and overcoming harassment. This does not mean silencing yourself. It just means that the purpose of talking about the harassment is not to make sure everyone likes you or to create a group of hall monitors who can tell you what you are doing wrong. The purpose is to find the group that wants to walk with you in what you are experiencing. You are not alone, and you don’t have to figure this out on your own.
Whether or not you choose to report the harassment, it is important to realize there are people on your side. This lets you build safety. We often put off building our own safety because we think we can’t feel safe until the harassment stops. This is not true and it actually clouds our judgment and makes us less safe. It puts power over our safety in our harasser’s hands. Building your own safety-and- support system gives you the power back and it reminds you that you never need to tolerate behavior that you don’t want. There are people on your side.
It is also important because harassment can be physically dangerous. Even when harassment starts out in a mild way – someone you work with pays a little too much attention to your clothes, for example – it can escalate. In Why Does He Do That, Lundy Bancroft, a counselor who worked with men who were convicted of abuse against women, describes the psychology of sexist behavior in men. He makes this brilliant analogy that basically goes like this:
A young man is told by his family he will inherit property when he comes of age. Finally, he comes of age and goes to his property to claim it. When he gets there, people tell him it is a public park. He argues with them, and they show him the city’s deed to the park. He goes back to his family, who confirm that it is actually his. This argument with the townspeople goes on for quite some time, but ultimately, he moves into the park, and he tells the town he will designate a small portion as a park. That doesn’t work for the townspeople, who know the whole thing is actually a park. The man starts threatening the townspeople and buys guns to shoot them if they enter the park because it’s the only recourse he has left to defend what’s his.
I love that analogy so much. Many men are raised, whether overtly or subtly, that women’s bodies and lives belong to them. This raising happens in the commercials on TV, in school when boys’ answers are praised and girls’ answers are criticized, and when boys are allowed to walk outside at night while girls are confined to their homes. There are so many ways we train boys with this message. That in no way justifies abusive behavior. But, raising boys with that sense of entitlement can be physically dangerous.
Building a team of allies who support you creates safety against that entitlement. The people you designate as allies are like the town reaching out to neighboring towns for support to get the entitled man off of the property. I’m kind of sorry for the way referring to your space as literal property crosses over to the outdated idea of women as property or objects. But, I hope you can see here that your space, and your right to your own bodily and emotional integrity, are your property. You are not the property, but just because you are human, you are the town that owns the property. You deserve your own space, and no one is entitled to control you. Surround yourself with people who understand that and support you.
When we start developing a support team of allies, often what we want to do is start looking to them for all of our answers about what we should do and whether we’re right about our harassment. When we start to look to other people for what we should do, we lose our path. You are the leader of your own life. Come back to yourself and your own intuition if you get off track and start to look to everyone else’s opinion. You are the leader of your own life. You have the best knowledge and insight into what is going on in your life.
Women are often made fun of for their “women’s intuition” while men are trusted for their “gut instinct.” In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker describes that, when he is performing a threat assessment, the dangerous person almost always turns out to be the person that the woman describes saying, “It couldn’t be this person, but there was this weird thing....” Research shows that the only reliable way to know if a woman is in physical danger from a harassment threat is whether she thinks she is.
The majority of thoughts we have happen in the unconscious level. Our brains developed so that their primary task is saving our lives, and that task lives on the unconscious level. This unconscious thinking is usually what we refer to as intuition or gut instinct. Interestingly, there is a network of neurons, or brain cells, in our digestive system, which is sometimes called the “little brain.” So when we identify our motivation as coming from our gut, it is often literally true.
When you have an intuitive sense of danger, often what is happening is that your brain is processing the danger on an unconscious level, and if you consciously look back later, you can piece out what exactly signaled you. Trust your intuition. It will save your life.
What messes us up is that when we experience consistent harassment, we go into a state of constant fear that dulls our intuition. Constant fear is not intuition. Our intuition about danger is the unconscious, animal part of our brain that senses a predator. Constant fear comes from the stories we tell ourselves about what we deserve and who we are.
Considering your own personal reality usually brings on a lot of confusion and helplessness. “Who do I listen to? Everyone has different opinions.” “What will people think of me?” “I can’t do anything to stop this.” “What did I do to cause this?” “This is too embarrassing to talk about.” Our brains spin out, keeping us stuck in fear.
In every situation, there is drama and there is math. Now, if you’re like me, you love drama and hate math, so the instruction to “do the math” might sound terrible.
But, indulging in drama like the thoughts above keeps you stuck in fear. Your primitive, unconscious brain wants you to be stuck in fear because it is designed to conserve energy. If you are stuck in fear, hiding in a cave, you will not get eaten by a tiger. Your automatic brain can’t tell the difference from harassment and a hungry tiger. It is supposed to keep you alive by triggering your nervous system to fight or flee when you run into danger. When we experience trauma consistently enough, our bodies start to freeze in reaction to it, not knowing whether to fight or flee. Nothing has gone wrong with you or with your body’s response if you are feeling fear all the time and if you feel stuck in a thinking spiral of self-criticism and despair. Your brain is creating drama because it believes that will keep you safe like it kept your ancestors safe.
The good news is that your conscious brain can train your unconscious to do something different and more helpful. You do not need to feel fear all the time, and it is probably not actually protecting you from anything. The best way to make this shift is by doing the math – literally and figuratively. Literally, science shows that when you count backwards (even just from the number 5 – “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, liftoff”) it wakes up your frontal lobe and you are better able to make decisions. (Mel Robbins, a former attorney, bases her practice on this simple technique, which she calls the “5 Second Rule.”) If your brain is tangling you up into drama, simply counting backwards, or calculating your income for the year, or doing any math can take you out of your primitive brain’s crisis.
Figuratively, doing the math just means getting back in touch with anything that feels neutral. You will make your best decisions if you can find something that is neutral about your situation. If you are making decisions from a place of crisis, you will reject about 90% of your viable options and you will be moving toward more crisis.
This is because our brains also do not process negative statements. As lawyers, we get a lot of training and admonishment about this for dealing with juries. So, if I’m presenting a case to a jury, and I say to them, “Don’t hold it against my client that she quit her job,” the jurors’ brains will edit out the word “don’t” and hear, “Hold it against my client.”
All of our brains work like that, and so if you are spending most of your day thinking, “I don’t want to make a mistake,” your brain will be focused on mistakes. If you are thinking, “I don’t want him to touch me,” your brain will be focused on him touching you. In that scenario, you are at least devoting a lot of your energy to your harasser if not moving yourself toward situations that let you debate that thought.
We debate or negotiate a thought when we go back and forth between two extremes like, “I don’t want him to touch me” and “Stop thinking about it, he’s not going to touch you.” What I mean is that if you are thinking about puppies, and negotiating whether you want or don’t want a puppy, you might google puppies on the internet or go visit your friend who got a puppy. If you are thinking about harassment, you are not thinking about puppies at the same time. We have around 60,000 thoughts a day, but research on multitasking has shown that our brains can only hold one concept at a time. The more consumed we get with thinking about harassment, the less space we have for anything else.
Now, I want you to hear me clearly on this because it is really easy to misunderstand at this point, and I’m going to repeat this all the time to make sure you hear me. You are not responsible for your harasser’s behavior. There is nothing you could think or say that would make you responsible for another person’s behavior. I take that back – maybe if you were holding him at gunpoint, you would have some responsibility. I’m going to assume that you are not currently holding your harasser at gunpoint, forcing him to harass you. But, if you are doing that, I kind of want to say congratulations because that sounds both hard and weird. It also sounds like a waste of time, though, so you should stop and get on with your day.
Anyway, that does not mean you are powerless. You do not have power over your harasser’s behavior, but you do have power over what you are thinking, how you are feeling, and what you do. There are thousands of responses we can have to harassment, and there are even thousands of reasonable responses we can have to harassment. You have control over your response.
This is a selection from Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. For a free copy of the book, visit www.CareerDefense101.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).