Deconstructing Intimidation

18 July 2011, by A. Cedilla

  • A good opportunity comes up through word-of-mouth, but then you take a pass. “I don’t have the time, and I have all I can handle as it is.” And you don’t mention how a similar opening just slipped through your finger because you’re still smarting about that one instead of the one that just landed in front of you.
  • A friend mentions a new venture in the works that might just be perfect for someone with your qualifications, and you regretfully say, “I’ll have to take a rain-check, I’m fully booked, thanks.” Only you’re not, not really. You’re just not ready yet.

Intimidation works one of two ways, and both are a matter of perspective: Either you see what you’re facing as something too big for you to deal with, OR you believe you are not up to the task of dealing with it. E.g, it’s too much, or you’re not enough. Sometimes you can feel it’s both.

Whatever side of this divide you stand, you look at it from a distorted perspective. You’re too small, the task is too big, it’s too much, you’re not enough….and when the inevitable anxiety digs in, you feel so strongly about it that your mind comes up with all sorts of explanations to support your feelings.

What are you telling yourself about this situation?

  • Is it true? Based on what, precisely? Your previous experience? Did someone tell you about their bad experience? Is this a new environment for you? I’m sure you can come up with more sources of background information on your own.
  • If it is, how factual is it? Facts, not second-hand stories, not fleeting impressions, help you make a truly informed decision.
  • If it isn’t, what’s it covering up for? Do you feel unprepared, or blindsided? Were you embarrassed at being the sudden center of attention, a Johny-on-the-spot? Maybe you didn’t want to offend your hosts/friends/new people-slash-strangers, so you just smiled noncommittally and shut down. Maybe you tried it once, but someone said you sucked and that stuck with you all these years. Ask yourself why you’re flinching, and don’t give up until you find the reason that kicks you in the head.

Realizing that you feel intimidated isn’t always that clear-cut. You just have a bad feeling: your shoulders are high and tight, there’s an uneasy, crawly roiling in the pit of your stomach, and you have to consciously remember to relax your tight jaw. You just have a bad feeling, and when you can’t articulate why, your mind scrambles to come up with an explanation.

  • “It’ll take too long, I don’t have the time,” OR “It can wait.”
  • “I have too much on my plate.” OR “I can’t, I’ve got more important things to do, really…”
  • “I need more information before I do anything,” OR “I need more experience before I try anything like that.”
  • “I’m too young,” OR “I’m too old.”
  • “I can’t do that. No, really, I can’t.”
  • “That’s not really my thing.”

What do you do?
Putting things into proper perspective requires a few things. Getting some distance, either time-wise or location-wise, is good. This is where “sleeping on it,’ or “taking a short walk to cool off” comes in.

In the heat of the initial reaction, all you have are emotions, and your conscious mind scrambles to verify and validate your feelings. Later on, those emotional explanations can get in the way of an informed decision, and you stay with the first negative impression.

Time-wise – “Well, for how long?” you ask. It depends. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” really is for things that blow over in a day, but sometimes the small stuff, aka “the fine print” deserves more study.

It’s up to you. Are you letting nerves or past history decide, or will you give the issue the weight it deserves and yourself the self-respect you’ve earned?
Labor and resource-wise – Who else can give you a handle on the situation? Who else can you go to and trust will share their experience without trying to wrestle you over to their side? Anyone willing to be a mentor? You have to do the work, it’s true, but to have knowledgeable and trustworthy experts willing to guide you is priceless.
Activity-wise – What do you have to make happen, and how will you put the dominoes in place?


Reframing is also a helpful habit to practice. Instead of thinking that you can’t deal, flip it around and make it about the issue, instead of just your inconvenience, or the expected hardship. If it’s a worthy goal and you really want it, you pay your dues, and learn about yourself in the process.

  • I don’t know enough : Well, now is a good a time as any to start learning, don’t you think? And now is all we really have.
  • I’ve never done it before : Now you can, and later on say you did.
  • It’s too expensive : Well, you have a point. Start small, ask those in the know if they can show you the ropes. You don’t have to jump in the deep end of the pool when you barely know how to swim (metaphorically speaking). Small, steady steps can get you there.

3 popular ways you shoot yourself in the foot:

  • Procrastinate. : Stop telling yourself worrying does anything constructive other than circling in place. Move. Take action. See what happens next.
  • Try halfheartedly, or not try at all.
  • Go in with guns blazing — Running with this metaphor, you then spend all your ammo and walk away accomplishing nothing you really wanted to happen

Everything you do teaches you something. You learn that scrap-booking isn’t really your thing (it’s your best friend’s, but that OK, you love her anyway and you can still bond about DC comics), and RubyOnRails still is. After a few weeks of exercise, you learn that you’re stronger than you thought, and it wasn’t your office chair that was screwing up your back — well, not entirely — but you spending too much time parked in it.

You find that what you believed was impossible for someone: _ with your background, _of your age, _ of your qualifications, _etc. (check any that apply) is possible. And a new world opens up.

A warning, though: Know your demons.

Where do you stay stuck the most — planning, procrastination or execution?

Don’t hide now, things you refuse to look at are like Legos scattered in the dark, guaranteed to trip you up, tick you off and pain you as you move forward. Know where your weak spots are and shore them up. Put proximity alarms to alert you.

When you’re aware of how you sabotage yourself the most, why it happens and where you get stuck the most often, you can adjust your approach. Forewarned is forearmed.


Human beings are incurably curious. We don’t like to be left hanging, and if the answers aren’t immediately available, we go on and make up ones of our own. In children, this is called “making up stories.” In adults, this is called “experience.” At the extremes, this can manifest in two ways:

  • Addiction to the highlight reel – “Oh, I’ll feel awesome when this gets done,” and you play it over in your head, while in real-time you’re parking your ass in neutral, not actually DOING anything.
  • Playing the nightmare scenes – “Oh, I’ll NEVER get this done. It’s impossible.” So you don’t put real effort and succumb half-way. What you see is what you’re willing to accept. If you see something as not possible for you…it isn’t. And that? All of that is in your head.

Storytelling makes mountains out of molehills. To put things in proper perspective, you have to know when you’re seeing things clearly, or if you’re telling yourself stories about the thing in question. If it’s important enough to you, take it one bite at a time.

Take daily action — small, sustainable, consistent action, this cannot be emphasized enough. Nibble at the edge, make a hole, make steady inroads into the pile, and soon enough, you reduce the mountain to a molehill in your rear-view mirror.

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