One abuser… one crosser of boundaries… at a time… and the collective freeze response
I have been part of an international business network for 3½ years now. We meet once a week, have breakfast and help each other do business, network, collaborate and find new opportunities. It is a good network group, with good people, all of them, almost…
A year ago – I held a short presentation on how to be trauma sensitive in the business world. I gave a couple of tips on how you can think when you meet new people. How you can show respect for diversity and boundaries. For some it was a bit of an eye opener. They never thought about if there are people uncomfortable with hugging as a way of greeting each other, or other kinds of touching. They never thought about letting people choose how close they want to be to you, and other people, or where they want to position themselves in the room, if and what they would like to eat and so on. Most people assume most people are like themselves. In my country we nowadays hug strangers, squeeze ourselves into tiny meeting rooms and sit shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers, we all drink coffee and eat buns… like we are all alike…
In that presentation that day I told them I spoke out of my own experiences, as having been traumatized, I struggle with some of this. I do not wish to hug strangers, or even acquaintances, I want to chose where to be in a room and with whom, I want to decide how close I am to people and I don’t appreciate being touched without consent, and I am picky with what I eat and drink.
After the presentation people asked kind questions. It was the first time I really stood up for my experiences and for myself in front of the whole group. 20 minutes later, we did a check-in – and everyone, one by one told what they had been working on that week, that related to the network group. Then one man, who is not part of the group, but works for the office of this network organization starts to mock me. He said he felt traumatized, that he had a rough and traumatic week, that people around him had been hard towards him and traumatized him. He kept on repeating who traumatized he was and how traumatic everything had been to him, at the same time as he laughed and just spoke nonsense. I felt confused. Why would he do that? I looked around me – and I saw in the faces of a few that they where very uncomfortable with what he was doing. Most just did not understand what he was talking about, as he went on for a good couple of minutes, turning what I had spoken about into a joke, while looking very steadily at me.
When the meeting was over, we mingled a bit. I was over by the breakfast table talking to one of my colleagues in the network group, a big and tall guy. Then this mocking man came over to us, grabbed me sideways by my shoulders and held me in an iron grip, a kind of half hug, which I could not get out of. He said: I touch whomever I want whenever I want, this is how I assess and get to know people. He laughed saying it, squeezed harder, took hold of my other arm as well and held it very tightly, squeezed it repeatedly and hard. Since he was very near my face, and I could not really turn my head away, he was looking straight at me, I felt he seized me up. I went numb. I could not say anything. The big guy I was chatting with opened his eyes wide, stared at this mocking man – and stammered – but…. You can’t do that… she just said so in her presentation… I can’t remember what the mocking man answered, word for word. But the content was that I was oversensitive, that he is a charming man that reads people very well by touching them, that you need to assert power over people, this is how you become a good business man and that no one ever could dictate how he does business. He eventually let go of me – and nonchalantly wandered off. And the guy opposite me continued to stare at me in a baffled way. I don’t remember more. I went home. I thought about it. Then I texted the team leaders of our group and told them that this is not an acceptable behavior. The heard me out and promised to discuss it and address it with him. A couple of days later I got a very lame excuse on text, from the mocking man. He called it a joke. I am convinced I triggered something in him, and this is how he reacted to take back some power he felt I was trying to take away from him. I told my group that I never want to see this man ever again, and that I want to know in beforehand, each time he is to show up to these meetings so I then can choose to stay at home.
This has not worked. And I have found myself in meetings with him after this. Not many times, but enough for me to get the message that he is more important than I am. I try to ignore him. He continues to be the type of man he is. I do get to hear from other women in our group that they too find him to be a “sleazeball”. I struggle with feeling safe in the room. And I feel unheard.
I also was told that the team leader had called the man that I was chatting with – to hear his story of what happened. He also later told me that he froze too. He got so surprised he could not think of what to do or say. And that he felt stupid for not having intervened. It was not his fault. We were both taken by surprise.
This was a year ago. I agreed to let it be, he did sort of apologize. But when I think about it. He never owned his “mistake”. And I no longer feel as an equal member of the team. This is the language of power. And I so recognize it from hundreds (yes) of situations I have been in.
For me – it is time to stand up for myself. Like in the story I told about how I was met at a standard examination at a bigger university hospital. Authenticity – Being Trauma Informing.... I need to find my way of asserting boundaries and not accept this kind of behavior.
So I am telling this story for two reasons, both of them for my own sake. This was on him; this was he not acting appropriately and not understanding that he had crossed a boundary of decency. And he not being able to own up to that and apologize properly. In his behavior I can see that he still has no idea of what he is doing, how respectless he is. The second reason? This is part of me saving myself. By – incident by incident, person by person, chapter by chapter – tell my side of the story. Stand up for me. What I see, hear, think, feel and experience. To tell what I need, and what I had needed in the situations. I know I am not alone. I know many people have been in similar situations. And what did I need when I was in it, or after it had happened? A man doing something like that – do not change overnight. So he could probably not act any differently than what he did afterwards. But I wished I had had the courage to stay with it – address it with the whole group, instead of withdrawing. And I had wished the ones in the group that I did tell – had brought it up – had stood by my side publicly. Had dared to talk about this openly. Had told me that this is not okay. That this showing off of power – is not okay, so everybody could hear it. Then all the blame had ended up on him, and none on me. That would have been a “corrective experience”. Instead it added onto my view as the world being an unsafe and dangerous place. That this kind of behavior is not (maybe?) okay, but nothing is really to be done about it, and that it is not to be spoken about, in other ways than “behind the scene”, in small groups, not out in the big room, not openly.
My wish to stand up for myself and be trauma-informing also got itself a dent. Maybe I needed that? Maybe I was too naïve?
Well. I am back now. I will tell my side of the story. In all my stories. One by one – to save myself. Because silence, secrecy, shame, hiding and running – is toxic for me.
The Collective Freeze Response
I shared this article with my business network group. The feedback I got was that many felt upset when it happened, but nobody knew what to do, how to react, and therefor did not do or react outwardly. A couple of people called the team leader. He then had a conversation with the mocking man – which resulted in the lame excuse I got on text. In the excuse in the text – he refers to it as “thoughtlessness”. The team leader who called him (who were not present at the actual meeting) could not tell if he did not understand what he did, did not want to understand, or had acted this way with intent.
I am very sure it is the last. In my opinion he was very aware of what he was doing. He looked at me both times, it felt like a very deliberate act of putting me back into my place. Others in the room say they saw the same. He seemed to enjoy his display and DID explain to me what he was doing when he came up to me at the breakfast table. He literally told me I could not tell him what he could or could not do. And to emphasize that – he held me, firmly, did not let go (if he is as good as he says on reading body language – we would be able to tell that I was fearful – which in my opinion – was just what he intended me to be). He looked me straight in the eyes when he told me what he did, except from a couple of times when he looked straight at the big guy who stood opposite of me, as if to tell him that he was powerless too.
It seems as if this episode did affect a lot of people in the room, but nobody knew how to act in the situation, and nobody knew what to do with it afterwards. The excuse I got from the mocking man felt very mechanical – and did not show me at all that he had regretted what he had done. He gave it, as then it was up to me what to do with it? He said the words, but I could not detect any sign of regret behind them.
In hindsight. I had needed to hear the others’ reactions. I had needed that someone had brought this up openly in the room. But it seemed like everyone was hit by some collective freeze response? To act in these situations demands courage and presence. There is always the risk that if you dare to see what happened you will stand alone when you react to it.
Even if it can seem as a very little and insignificant episode, it had an impact on me. And now, 1 year later, I can see that this impact was not small. I lost the motivation to go our meetings, to contribute. I lost my interest in what most of the people were doing there. I felt unsafe going there, unseen and un-important. I disconnected myself – but kept on showing up, but less frequently, doing the same down prioritizing of the group I had felt them (un-intentionally) do of me, and for months, I actually asked my intern to come with me to the meetings.
But – I have not voiced this before. And this IS my responsibility. I am a grown-up and I would like to take the responsibility for my own well-being. I could not do that in the situation, but I want to learn from it – so I know what I can do the next time I feel over-powered by someone that is not behaving in a respectful way.
I am glad I am stirring in this old pot (maybe my network group are not as happy about it as I am – but I need to do this). I have gotten great support from my group now. It feels good. But I would like us as a network group to take it one step further. We need to discuss it – to form ethics about situations like this, to be prepared to stand up for each other and support each other. And maybe, just maybe, I will notify his “employers”. Not as a revenge. But clearly, this discussion needs to take place on a higher level in their (our) organization as well. This is, I think, how we can change attitudes, one small step at a time, by acting on “thoughtless” behaviors, by saying out loud and clear: This is not okay! Behaviors like this should carry consequences – so he can be put in a real opportunity to chose to change how he behaves or continue to believe that he is always free to do what he wants to people. If he chooses the latter, I will not ever want to be near him again, and I do not think I would like to stay in an organization that thinks that this kind of behavior is something to endorse.
But learning about how the rest of the group feel into a freeze too - I can now see why it is so hard for people to act in abusive situations. These kinds of people know they will (almost always) walk away from these situations. He knew he could behave AS IF everything was as it should be, and I was the one that was the problem (or with a problem). It confuses people. It SEEMS as if everything is as it should be, but they feel a bit upset, but then, what do one do with that? Explain it away? Disregard that feeling? Nobody wants to stand out and be the one that creates problems and makes situations hard to deal with. Nobody wants to be the “teller”...
But we have to. What if I had been a child? We can not look the other way and not act when people mis-use power. So that is why I keep on talking about this. Talking about it, acting on it - is how we all can save ourselves from feeling powerless.
Text and picture are copyright protected © Katarina Lundgren 2019
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