Recently a woman in leadership said to me, “I don’t understand it. She said I was intimidating. I so wanted to minister to the women in my church. But after teaching the Bible study for 2 years, they didn’t ask me to teach it the next year. I don’t know why. All I know is that one woman said I was intimidating.”
This got me to thinking. What is intimidation? Is it intentional? How do we become intimidated? Who needs to change? Who needs to move into this? The one who is feeling intimidated or the one who is the “intimidator?” How do you know if you are intimating people? Is it your responsibility to change or theirs?
I remember when I first began working at Western Seminary. Admittedly I felt intimidated! Now that I look back and ask “why?” I remember being on a huge learning curve—I acknowledged that at the time, and often in various settings. I was trying to learn the culture of WS. I was walking where no one had walked before. There was no one to “train me” in my new role—developing the Women’s Center for Ministry and a Pastoral Care to Women degree concentration from “scratch.” My colleagues all seemed to be well accomplished and established in their disciplines.
Fast forward to a few months ago. I was at gathering of women in leadership as a participant (not speaking or in any up front role). A good friend of mine greeted me and was eager to introduce her new co-worker to me. Ginger (not her real name) and I had a great conversation. I went away thinking, I really like her and I’m so glad my friend has such a great new co-worker and friend (she agreed of course)!
The next morning Ginger bumped into me and looked embarrassed as she said, “Hi Bev. I am so sorry. I didn’t realize you were an author. I didn’t know that yesterday. I’m glad to know that….” End of conversation. You could see the feelings of awkwardness flood her face as she quickly turned and walked on.
This totally caught me off guard! If I could rewind that encounter, I would love to ask, “What do you perceive as different since discovering this? Am I a different person this morning than I was yesterday?” I didn’t think so. What was going on inside of my new friend, Ginger?
I thought back to one of the men at Western who was most intimidating to me in those early months. He spoke with such authority. He was well established in his role. He had incredible insights and intelligence. Should he change so I can feel more comfortable? Should he dumb down his brilliance? Do I really want him to be more like me?
As I got to know him better, I discovered a beautiful thing about this man is the way he clearly cares about God, about people and about advancing God’s Kingdom. He has insights into the spirit world like few I’ve known. Because of who he is, he is able to express a high level of respect for those he encounters—including women. Including me.
What I also realized is that it is not him who needed to change, but rather me. I felt inadequate because I did not have the abilities he had. I realized the intimidation was a lack of acceptance of who God made me to be. Once we can acknowledge who we are and who we are not, we can rest in a place of comfortable humility that enjoys receiving from others who know more or have experienced more than we.
I began to appreciate his abilities, insights and even his mode of operandi. I began asking his opinion, his advice and even how he thought the Spirit of God was leading in a particular situation. Now this faculty member is a man my husband and I respect so highly, we often seek his counsel and wisdom. He is so gracious in extending it to us and many, many others.
The woman (Anne) who was told she was too intimidating was filled with angst and cried out to God continually, “Show me what’s wrong with me. How do I need to change? I just love these women and want to minister.” As the story unfolded, Anne said she asked the woman who said those words to her (Liz –not real names) to have lunch together. Anne thought if they got better acquainted and Anne could hear this woman’s story, etc., that might break down the barriers. Anne was eager to extend grace.
During the lunch Liz talked about herself the entire time. She didn’t ask Anne a single question or give room for Anne’s own story to emerge. Anne was OK with that, thinking perhaps a second lunch would make time for that. However, at the end of the lunch, Liz made it clear this was her last lunch with Anne.
It can be challenging to find a definition of intimidated that reflects the meaning of these incidents. Probably the closest is “Frightened or nervous because you are not confident in a situation” (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary).
Most sources move quickly to the verb intimidate and from there to synonyms such as “bullying, threats…” words of power and control. That definition does not reflect the intent of this blog. The conversation here is about situations where the person from which you may feel intimidated, really has no intent to exert power and control over you to instigate fear so you will comply. Certainly that exists (and we call it spiritual abuse) but that is a different conversation—one we will talk about in a future blog.
I find it interesting that antonyms for intimidate include “reassure, encourage, cheer, comfort and embolden.” Wouldn’t it be great if each of us focused more intently on these expressions—whether we are intimidated or intimidating?